The Magazine

Putin’s Palace

The pillars of Russian society—the schools and the military—are crumbling.

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Putin’s Palace

What do you mean, the “rest” of your uniform?


One of the few people in Russia still speaking out against Vladimir Putin’s regime is Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former long-serving deputy in the Duma, the national parliament. These days he hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio and is also a columnist.

In recent columns, Ryzhkov lays bare not just the intellectual bankruptcy of the Russian state but also its determination to see that its poisonous legacy is passed on to future generations via “reforms” of Russia’s educational system developed by the Education and Science Ministry.

Beginning next year, schoolchildren in Russia will have four required subjects as part of their curriculum. Only two of those, Ryzhkov points out, are coherently defined: physical education and general safety. The other two are a curiously ambiguous program called the “individual project” and a contemporary history course, “Russia in the World.”

“Russia in the World” is meant to enhance “patriotic education.” It will teach schoolchildren about Russia’s “true great status and role in the world,” along with the nefarious nature of the enemies encircling the country. This brainwashing in the name of historical perspective is said to have been developed at the personal request of Putin.

Overall, the reforms will gut what is left of the education system’s pedagogical standards, which—even during the Soviet period—were one of the few real strengths of Russia’s moribund and hopelessly corrupt bureaucratic society. These reforms also occur at a time when Russian president Dmitri Medvedev—the Boy Wonder of the Batman and Robin duo he and Putin comprise—is set to reduce the state’s spending on education from 1.1 to 0.5 percent of GDP by the year 2013.

It is hard to see where these cuts can come from. Russian teachers’ salaries are already five to ten times lower than their counterparts’ in economically developed countries and are even measurably less than teaching salaries in China. These miserly amounts of money left in the education budget should be, as Ryzhkov writes, “just enough to teach young people the most important skills of how to identify the country’s enemies and love Putin’s autocracy.”

But if Russian schools are preparing to manufacture legions of graduates who will be the next generation of cannon fodder for the armed forces, there is no commensurate emphasis on supplying them with anything resembling modern military hardware.

A recently published WikiLeaks cable signed by U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder revealed that NATO officers who observed the two major 2009 Russian military exercises came back less than impressed. According to the cable (and as many former Russian military personnel and other specialists have attested), the exercises “demonstrated that Russia has limited capability for joint operations with air forces, continues to rely on aging and obsolete equipment, lacks all-weather capability and strategic transportation means, .  .  . has an officer corps lacking flexibility, and has a manpower shortage.”

The alarming corollary to the erosion of Russia’s conventional military capability was also quite clear: an increasing willingness to use short-range, tactical nuclear weapons regardless of how small the conflict in question might be. The point at which the Russian military hits the “nuclear tripwire” in battle would be the moment when its creaking supply lines and logistics system can no longer support sustained combat operations. If present trends continue, you might be able to measure that period with an egg timer.

Recently, the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta ran an extensive analysis of the problems that hinder the development of modern weaponry in Russia. The author, Valeriy Subbotin, is a State Prize laureate and doctor of technical sciences who also happens to be a lieutenant general in the Russian armed forces reserves.

His lengthy article runs through a number of barriers to innovation in the defense sector, not the least of which is a penchant for bureaucratic infighting and turf battles that are far more contentious than any equivalent in the West. This is chiefly because loss of control over a defense enterprise or one of the industrial ministries means more than just a blow to one’s ego, as it does in the United States.

There is no system of golden parachutes, so no longer being the head of the Russian Federal Industry Agency (or whichever government entity is running the defense sector this week) equates to a massive loss in (corruptly acquired) personal income. This has the effect of creating jealously guarded personal fiefdoms with none of the synergies that could be created by effectively combining efforts of the defense enterprises.

Moscow might be able to afford to support its defense sector if the country did not have the export profile of a Third World state. The Russian economy is marked by a near-total dependence on gas and oil export revenues. Twenty years after the fall of communism, as Subbotin notes, Russia still has not figured out how to create an economy that emphasizes the export of manufactured goods (as does China’s), which would bring a stability unattainable in a country whose future is instead a massive bet on the fortunes of world energy markets.

Despite all this, one category of state spending is still given over to wretched excess. Investigative reporters in Russia have amassed suggestive evidence that a $1 billion palace constructed as part of a 180-acre resort complex in the Krasnodar region is a residence built for Prime Minister Putin. The project might have gone unnoticed if photos of the palace had not been published on the website. Activists and a reporter from Sobesednik magazine who attempted to visit the site to take additional photos recently found themselves detained by officers of the Federal Guard Service.

It is quite clear that Putin found the exposure embarrassing even by his own “let them eat cake” standards. This is evidenced by the shell-game of companies involved in the construction, designed to obfuscate who its true owners are, and the not terribly credible denials from the chief of the Office of Presidential Affairs that this palace “has nothing to do with our office or the head of government.”

The only problem is that the same chief, Vladimir Kozhin, had his deputy authorize the construction, Kozhin himself signed the official documents, and a contract obtained by another Moscow paper, Novaya Gazeta, lists Kozhin’s office as one of the parties involved in the project.

So education is being cut to the bone and corrupted, the defense and high technology sectors are starved for investment, and Russian soldiers and airmen are driving and flying antiquated equipment. Russian airbases are famous for not having enough aviation fuel to allow pilots to fly the bare minimum of hours per month needed to maintain proficiency. Yet the Russian prime minister will soon have a Black Sea resort that makes Buckingham Palace look like a Burger King.

No wonder students need a new “Russia in the World” curriculum. It will take no small amount of “patriotic education” to paper over such a grossly unjustifiable misalignment of priorities.

Reuben F. Johnson writes frequently on Russian politics.

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