Russia’s Prisoner Dilemma
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Much has been said of the “legal nihilism” which consumes Russian society. Few, however, have realized that rather than some esoteric expression of the Russian soul, the orgy of corruption in the Third Rome is a logical reaction to the world its citizens have been forced to navigate.

In 2008, Russian presidential place holder Dmitry Medvedev argued that “if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.” 

Nearly eight years later, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika believes the battle against corruption, following a rocky road and more recent economic dips, is going swimmingly well. 

“Over the past two years, the Prosecutor-General’s Office has been keeping impartial crime statistics on whose basis I can confidently say that the fight against corruption in the country has been intensified substantially recently,” Russian News Agency TASS cites Chaika as saying.

Over the past nine months, officials had been implicated in corruption cases amounting to 30 billion rubles ($423 million). One-fifth of that sum has been reimbursed. While Chaika himself admits those figures could be higher, he also believes they should “command respect.”

In a country where corruption accounts for anywhere between 25 and 48 percent of an ever-contracting GDP, how much respect the authorities deserve on that account is debatable. But then, how does one stamp out corruption in a nation where graft is not a byproduct of the system, but rather the raison d’etre? 

‘Nothing to hide’ 

One constant in Russia is the inability to turn one’s head without seeing a headline where a case of nepotism at best or blatant corruption at worst is rearing its ugly head. 

An estimated $25-$30 billion siphoned off from “the most corrupt Olympics ever”. $1.8 billion disappears from Russia’s space program. Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, along with her spouse, have managed to amass a fortune of $2 billion. The list goes on and on. 

Making an apparent volte face in Putin’s 2013 anti-corruption drive, it was determined earlier this year that top managers of major state-owned companies would not, after all, have to declare their income. Rosneft vice president Mikhail Leontyev lauded the decision by saying (without a hint of irony) “we have nothing to hide.” Former Russian Railways head, Vladimir Yakunin, had even threatened to resign over the measure, though, it appears, charges of rampant graft and mismanagement pushed him out of office in August anyways. As Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg, the term ‘shubokhranilischche’ — a special facility to store fur coats — has become “a popular meme to describe Putin-era corruption” on account of Yakunin’s vociferous appetite. 

Then there was Yevgenia Vasilyeva, who was indicted in 2013 on 12 counts of fraud, money laundering and abuse of authority while serving as the deputy head of the defense ministry’s property relations department. Vasilyeva, who was also the mistress of former defense ministry head Anatoly Serdyukov (himself forced out of office over corruption charges), was surprisingly sentenced to five years behind bars. Unsurprisingly, Vasilyeva was almost immediately pardoned amid speculation she never actually stepped foot in a prison. 

Lawmaker Yaroslav Nilov of the faux nationalist Liberal Democratic Party warned that Vasilyeva’s early release would be “negatively accepted” by Russian society and “diminish the authority of Russia’s judicial system.”

Though truthfully speaking, that ship has long since sailed. Was anyone surprised when Vasilyeva’s successor, Alexander Gorshkolepov, was arrested for taking millions of rubles in bribes this past March? 

When the governor of Komi, Vyacheslav Gayzer, was arrested in September for allegedly running a criminal network in his republic, did not everyone secretly ask: Was he really different than any of the other governors? Is he really any different than Putin himself? 

One cannot even tune out the madness with sports, as Russia is currently facing a potential ban from the 2016 Olympics after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) determined the country’s “deeply-rooted culture of cheating” had resulted in an alleged state-sponsored doping program. The rot, it turns out, is everywhere.  

Vertical of thieves

In Russia’s current iteration as a crisis-stricken state, anti-corruption cases are more about cutting off access to an increasingly shrinking pie than stamping out graft. No one is going to war with corruption; rather, the referees of Putinism have now decided that under present conditions, too many men (and the odd woman) are on the field. One would actually have to cause personal offense to risk actual punishment (or prove themselves so dispensable, they can be strung out for public spectacle without creating waves among the other crooks and thieves.) 

Ordinary citizens have long known there was a protected class of citizens. They have also known government positions were the best means of acquiring wealth. When news of press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s $620,000 watch or 350,000 euro-per-week honeymoon aboard the Maltese Falcon surfaced, no one batted an eyelash. Same goes for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s alleged $18 million dollar mansion (or Yakunin and his shubokhranilischche for that matter.)

Putin, after all, has only seen his alleged fortune grow as high as $200 billion; his private residences acquired with state funds nearing two dozen. It is all the difference between what Karen Dawisha called “a democracy in the process of failing” versus an “authoritarian project in the process of succeeding.” You are not bending the spoon to see things as they are (or aren’t), you are bending yourself. 

The Putin mentality has permeated the entire system. Everyone wants to be the tsar of their own atomized world, be it 26 square meters or 26,000. But it all comes at a price. 

The many costs of corruption

From hospital care to traffic stops, driving tests to state university examinations, there are virtually no interactions with the state too small to not entail extortion or bribery.

Every law, superfluous or not, is an opportunity to make money; every position a potential sinecure. To sum up one old Russian joke, police collect their salaries with their sidearms. 

Russia currently ranks 136th out of 175 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Those who don’t at least get a participation ribbon in the country’s race to the bottom are few and far between. Sadly, this way of living ultimately imperils the Russian people themselves. 

Every hospital dollar stolen is a patient dead. Every infrastructure dollar stolen is another dark and run-down road. Every bribe at the border sees “white death” flood Russian streets. Every dollar from the defense budget a crashed jet, a collapsed barracks. Sometimes, a bribe at airport security can even mean getting bombs onto planes

The most straightforward and visceral example of this phenomenon was when Russian soldiers were actually selling separatists their own guns to kill them with during the First Chechen War.  

Though to be fair, that apotheosis of Russian corruption was before Putin’s time. It is, however, emblematic of a problem sovereign democracy was never intended to solve. 

There is nothing soulful about this

As Misha Freedman once wrote for the New York Times, “most Russians have grown so accustomed to a certain lawless way of life that they have come to view corruption as Russia’s own special way.”

And some have, in fact, tried to embrace it as such. Years ago, Yasha Levin excoriated film director Nikita Mikhalkov for turning his remake of “12 Angry Men” into a Paean extolling the virtues of Russian corruption over the naive Westerners’ rule of law. 

That lemons from lemonade perception of Russian reality has long been a staple of the self-proclaimed Russophile, who is both attempting to posit Russian cultural supremacy while also justifying traits that are anything less than superior. It is difficult to reconcile how Russians can both be inherently more cunning and intelligent than Westerners, while at the same time so inherently wild and irresponsible that they need a tyrant to hold the nation together. 

Tropes about the “Russian soul” have always been a mystical attempt to bridge that logical divide, even when far more reasonable explanations can be found in the mundane. So while the bad news might be that there is no Russian soul, the good news is neither corruption nor many of the other negative realities of Russian life are intrinsic to the Russian character. Rather, they are logical, if ultimately deleterious reactions, to real world circumstances. 

The prisoner’s dilemma

In their brilliant upbraiding of the counterculture, “The Rebel Sell”, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter go after the cynical view of human nature put forth in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Citing the English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes, they argue “in the absence of rules, the fact that we have a common interest in cooperating does not necessarily translate into an individual incentive to do so.”

Heath and Potter continue that through a lack of trust, we adopt aggressive stances and exploitative strategies, not because we are fundamentally aggressive or exploitative, but rather, to protect ourselves from the aggression and exploitation of others. 

In short, reason has lead us into collective action problems, and much of the evil that men do is a rational response to mistrust. Sometimes, reason can even lead the mark to sell the hitman his own gun. 

This phenomenon has been described as the prisoner‘s dilemma. And in a country which was once fractally differentiated between the “small zone” (the labor camp”) and the “big zone” (the country as a whole), prisoner’s dilemma seems like an apt description for the situation Russians have found themselves in time and time again. 

One barely exists in Russia without being on the wrong side of the law. The cost of doing business is compromising yourself. The filing cabinet is the guillotine; everyone has a piece of paper among endless stacks of paper that can be pulled out like an executioner’s order at any time. It’s a great mechanism of control. It’s also a wonderful way to create a paranoid, fractured society. 

But it is important to remember that Russians are not intrinsically broken; nor is their culture.Their systems, and institutions, however, are rotten to the core. Ironically, it is the Russophiles who, in their defense of Putin’s power vertical, are ultimately arguing otherwise. And if years of chronic misrule spark another revolution, the elite, just like their children, will find themselves westward bound. The true believers, meanwhile, will be razing the land in search of another scapegoat. 

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