On October 22, Ekho Moskvy radio station in Moscow reported that in an act of desperation a local political activist in the Ural Mountains region, Vladimir Chukavin, managed to have a thoroughfare renamed “Putin Straße.” The new name is now written on street signs in Germanic Latin script above its former name, still shown in the original Cyrillic.
The renaming of this stretch of road was reportedly an effort to embarrass the region’s administrative apparatus into doing something about its abysmal condition. Given the near-deity status Putin is now accorded, Chukavin and his associates reasoned, no street named for Russia’s one-time KGB Lt. Col. turned president-for-life could be allowed to remain riddled with potholes.
Anyone who has driven in regions outside of either Moscow or St. Petersburg can tell you that roads rendered almost impassable due to potholes are anything but a rarity in Putin’s Russia. But what makes Putin Straße stick out is its location: running from a cemetery (which is why the original name of the street was Heaven’s Road) to a railroad crossing outside the city of Nizhni-Tagil.
Nizhni-Tagil is home to none other than one of the most famous defense enterprises in all of Russia, the UralVagonZavod (UVZ) battle tank design and production centre. The firm’s latest product, the T-14 Armata tank, was (despite one of them breaking down during a dress-rehearsal) the centrepiece of the lavish May 9 70th Anniversary Victory Day parade in Moscow. It is billed as one of the key, new-age weapon systems in a massive military modernization. The plan, at a cost of hundreds of billions, aims to increase by the year 2020 the number of weapon systems in Moscow’s arsenal that could be categorized as “modern” in their design from the 10 percent today to 70 percent.
The broken-down Putin Straße just outside the city side-by-side with the Armata is symbolic of Putin's spending priorities. They amount to a “let them eat cake” policy that ignores the collapsing and decaying infrastructure, a constant drop in the availability and quality of medical services—the list of societal ills is endless—in favor of endless defense spending on projects that are not really “modern” and in many cases have little or no merit.
On October 2 the Russian government, in all of its generosity, announced a decision to raise pensions for its elderly by 4 percent. Russian officials who were interviewed under conditions of anonymity told news outlets that this averages out to a whopping 320 rubles ($5.14) per senior citizen—and even this miserly increase in Russia’s inflation-wracked economy will not take effect until February of next year.
In recent op-ed piece, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre explained the Kremlin’s cold-blooded calculations. “What are pensioners worth to a country that has prioritized its defense and security interests above all else? They are an undeniable drain on the federal budget: Almost everyone expects that there will be one pensioner per one working person by 2030, an unsustainable ratio that will bring about the rapid collapse of the pension system.”
But this coming demographic and budgetary apocalypse is being ignored and, as Kolesnikov continues “it is clear that fighter jets are beating out pensions in the competition for state funding. Such are the government’s and elite’s priorities, which the Russian population has thoroughly supported, betraying their own best interests in exchange for the sense of national pride that Russia's interventions in Crimea, the Donbass, and Syria have given them.”
Aside from the billions being thrown into defense spending, Putin’s forays into Russia’s self-declared Sudetenlands—Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Transnistra, South Ossetia and Abkhazia—that it has invaded and occupied are another black hole that money will be thrown into year after year. These so-called “statelets” now cost the Kremlin an estimated $5 blllion per year in upkeep.
“The former, Ukrainian economy of the Crimea is all gone,” says a Ukrainian colleague who still lives there part-time. “What’s worse is that there is little interest in restoring any of the pre-occupation economic activity. The entire peninsula is instead now one big military base—all financially propped up by Moscow.”