A Cold Autumn in Russia: The Valdai Club 2011

A Cold Autumn in Russia: The Valdai Club 2011

Putin faces the herculean tasks of rooting out corruption and resetting ties with the West. Is he up to the challenge?

This year’s Valdai Club meeting took us first to the province of Kaluga just southwest of Moscow—part of the old core territories of Muscovy, before the colossal expansion of the state from the fifteenth century on. The area saw battles against the Crimean Tartars, who penetrated this far north on their raids; against the Poles and Swedes in the early seventeenth century; and against the Germans in World War II, when they occupied Kaluga from October to December 1941 before being driven back. Most famously, on October 24,, 1812, at Maloyaroslavets in the north of the province, the Russian army turned back Napoleon’s attempt to retreat from Moscow through Kaluga, forcing him to take the northern route, already plundered by the French. That helped doom the Grande Armee to starvation and annihilation.

Today, although the countryside in Kaluga often feels like the deepest of deep Russia, the province in fact depends heavily on the combination of proximity to the transport hub of Moscow and the relatively cheap prices—and therefore wages—of the Russian countryside. The province also has benefited enormously from a modern and efficient governor, Anatoly Artamonov—a former Soviet official, but a transformed one. In a specifically post-communist combination, Mr Artamonov holds both a German decoration for encouraging German investment in the province and a Russian religious one for restoring churches and shrines destroyed under communism.

Members of the Valdai were taken to some of the leading industrial developments in the province: the huge Volkswagen and Volvo plants on the outskirts of the town of Kaluga, and the small but high-value gene technology and other medicinal plants in the town of Obninsk. At one factory, the cleanliness and efficiency of the plant were striking—but so were problems. Despite laws intended to enforce the purchase of Russian products, almost 100 percent of the parts are still imported, making it an assembly plant rather than a source of new technology and innovation. Even so, quality failures in the assembly are high compared to the firm’s West European plants. And while the manager who guided our tour was full of praise for the Kaluga government, she was scathing about the Russian customs officials, whom she described as “sick children,” greedy and capricious.

One sign of Governor Artamonov’s modernity was the modesty of the dinner he put on for us, compared to the gargantuan, Gogolesque, quasi-medieval feasts laid on by governors of other provinces on other visits. This was all to the good, but the vodka was undrinkable—not because it was cheap, but because it was lukewarm. This vodka reminded me of a drink I once had with some Russian paratroopers and an ape in Sukhumi during the Abkhaz War in 1993. The paratroopers apologised for the vodka not being chilled, while the ape was far too drunk to say anything much.

Thanks to the hospitality and kindness of Andrei Zolotov of the magazine Russian Profile, a couple of colleagues and I then split off from the main party for a day and a night to explore the Kaluga countryside and the small town of Tarusa, with its ancient churches and picturesque views of the Oka River. We also traveled to the ancestral estate of the princes Osorgin, the maternal family of Serge Schmemann of the International Herald Tribune. Of the magnificent mansion and church there now remains only one ruined bell tower—a reminder, if one were needed, of the catastrophic damage done by communism throughout Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union.

As a result, we missed meetings with opposition leaders, intended as an introduction to next month’s parliamentary elections. Vladimir Zhrinosvky, leader of the right-wing populist Liberal Democratic Party, apparently gave an even coarser chauvinist rant than he gave at the Yaroslavl Conference I attended last year, and Gennady Zyuganov represented a principled and serious, but essentially unreformed and hopeless, communist position. But my colleagues were impressed by the program and the personal seriousness of Sergei Mironov, leader of the center-left Just Russia party, which is trying to become a modern social-democratic alternative to the ruling United Russia Party. As Vladimir Putin loyalists, they may be given a share of government at some stage.

Certainly by universal consent, Mironov was much more impressive than the leader of the United Russia faction in parliament and speaker of the state Duma, Boris Gryzlov, a man whose answers gave such a completely Soviet impression of official obfuscation that the entire Valdai group left the meeting growling in collective irritation. As readers of The National Interest will be aware, I have long downplayed the idea of serious public unrest being a threat to the Putin administration in the short term—but too many years of listening to Gryzlov might make a revolutionary of anyone. It was a good thing from Russia’s point of view that we had met Artamonov to remind us that there are also modern and dynamic members of the Russian establishment.

The key question for Russia is of course just how modern and dynamic Putin is, since he will almost certainly be Russia’s president again after the elections next year—and if he chooses to run for yet another term after that, he will be president for the next twelve years. To judge by our dinner with him, Putin remains in excellent physical and mental shape and looks a good ten years younger than his actual age of sixty. For more than three hours, starting at 9.30 PM, he answered unscripted questions, taking the very occasional bite of food or sip of water. He looks quite able to go on administering the ruling system that he created.

Whether he can fundamentally reform it is quite another matter. That is especially true of the the need to tackle corruption at the highest level, as this would require Putin to attack some of his closest associates and virtually tear to pieces Russia’s existing ruling elite. This is undoubtedly too much to ask of Putin, and it is probably too much to ask of any Russian ruler. Such a campaign would require either savagely authoritarian methods—which would require the support of the very security elites who are benefiting from corruption—or the emergence of a powerful mass movement from below to demand change; there is little evidence yet that Russian society is capable of such a movement, at least at present.

In all, this was my gloomiest Valdai experience—not just because of a feeling of stagnation in Russia but also because of a mood of gloom about our own systems among many Americans and Europeans. After all, if Russia does suffer a serious economic crisis and mass unrest in the short term, it will not be the fault of the Russian government but because a mixture of hubris, irresponsibility, political dishonesty, corruption and institutional failure in the EU has led to the collapse of the euro and triggered a worldwide economic depression.

This year, we had dinner with Putin at—of all places—a stable and riding school outside Moscow, with a luxury restaurant attached. President Medvedev’s family keeps six horses there, apparently gifts from foreign rulers (Russian rules governing the acceptance of such gifts by senior officials being, shall we say, somewhat relaxed). The horses are as beautiful as the female members of the Russian elite whom we saw riding them. Especially striking was an enormous white Andalusian stallion with an arched neck and flowing mane, resembling the Morgan horses of America.

In response to some polite but tough questioning about what more his administration had to offer Russia, Putin dwelt chiefly on the past, stressing how he had created stability and laid the basis for economic growth after the chaos of the 1990s. He repeated a number of familiar lines, including reference to the constitutions of Russian regions in the 1990s, mentioning everything under the sun but not that they were members of the Russian Federation. For his next administration, though he repeatedly said that it would be adaptable and responsive to new developments, he was extremely short on detail in almost every field.

Most importantly, Putin furiously attacked existing U.S. plans for missile defense. He described this as a continuation of Cold war attitudes and threatened yet again that Russia would—unwillingly—deploy more missiles if the United States were to pursue missile defense in ways that Russia considered threatening to its deterrent capability. This promises serious storms ahead in U.S.-Russian relations, especially if the Republicans win next year’s presidential elections.

Of course, cooperation between Russia and the West is going just fine in some areas. While waiting for Putin to arrive, I leafed through the pages of Salon Nedvizhimosti, an elite Russian property magazine directed at people like the riding-school’s patrons. It featured, amongst other things, properties in Britain, the cheapest at 4.6 million pounds and all of them in eye-wateringly bad taste. Given their respective moralities, it might indeed be said that the marriage of convenience between the Russian elites and the contemporary British elites is an entirely natural one. Whether it brings anything to the lower orders of their respective countries is another question.