The Second Boot Effect

There is a classic joke in which an old man is woken up every night by two dull thuds on the wall. This is the sound of his neighbour, a worker on the late shift, throwing off his boots after returning home. One day, coming upon his neighbour in the corridor, the old man tells him of his nightly ordeal.

When the worker returns home next evening, he throws one of his boots at the wall out of habit, and only then remembers his earlier conversation. Carefully taking off his second boot, he puts it under his bed, and then goes to sleep. Two hours later he is woken up by a desperate cry from the next room: “When are you finally going to throw the other boot?”

Hearing the speeches of Kremlin bureaucrats, reading interviews with them, and watching their television appearances, I am somehow continually reminded of that old man. For some time it has seemed as though the Russian authorities at all levels have been waiting tensely for the second boot to hit the wall.

The first thud came last summer, when oil prices started dropping. Suddenly, the change in the economic conjuncture seemed to show up all the problems which for a year and a half no-one had even been trying to solve. Against the background of the global slump, it had become more and more difficult to maintain economic growth in one country taken individually, especially if this country was Russia.

The commentators in the business press immediately reassured us that there was nothing to get alarmed about, that a fall in world oil prices to US$18-19 a barrel was acceptable to Russia, and that anyway, it was needed to stimulate the world economy. Especially since oil prices had risen a little on the first signs of an upturn in the US.

On the question of oil, Moscow once again showed itself to be Washington’s most faithful strategic ally. It preferred conflict with the countries of OPEC to negotiated efforts to keep prices at levels acceptable to producers. The US needed cheap oil to soften the crisis. And it got it – at the expense of Russian taxpayers, among others.

The problem of oil prices would not be so serious if the Russian economy itself were in a healthy state. Needless to say, this is not the case. Social problems and structural disproportions have mounted year by year. For Russian society, petrodollars have acted as a sort of painkiller. They do not solve a single problem, but they relieve the symptoms. Objectively, meanwhile, the situation has not improved during three years of economic growth. In terms of investment, it has even deteriorated.

World prices for Russian metals and other raw materials fell more or less at the same time as those for oil. Then the statistics started playing tricks. In January there was no economic growth whatever. The experts explained that the lack of growth in January was not a catastrophe, and that in any case, everything depended on how you calculated it; compared with the same month in the previous year, for example, there was still a small increase.

To lift our spirits, the statistical authorities set about recalculating the results for 2000. After some simple arithmetical operations, the figures for the year before last improved by a factor of almost two, but it was quite unclear what we were supposed to do with these figures now.

Against the background of these newly discovered successes from the past, the present situation looks wretched. We can, of course, anticipate that in a few more months the results for 2001 will be recalculated in analogous fashion, and that the pattern will be repeated right up until the present. The trouble is that important numbers of people rate the country’s economic successes not on the basis of statistical calculations, but according to the state of their wallets.

Ordinary people detected the changed circumstances not in terms of the figures put out by the government, but as higher prices. Inflation had clearly got out of control. Then the experts again explained to us that in themselves, the new prices were nothing to be scared of. Once again this was correct, as in the case of the oil prices, the figures for the growth of production, and so forth. No problem “in itself” threatens anything especially. But when you take them all together….

All this was merely the first boot. Putin summoned his ministers and hauled them over the coals, while the ministers argued among themselves. Programs were amended, then reviewed, and after all that, fine-tuned and again coordinated. There was a good deal of resentment, but no more.

The trouble was that Russian bureaucrats, as a rule, are economically literate. Whatever they might have said in public, they understood perfectly that their present difficulties were only the beginning. The first warning signs. Before long, new problems would be appearing constantly. But where? When?

On top of all that, the economy was by no means the only depressing thing around. In Chechnya it had finally become clear that the war was unwinnable, but the Kremlin was refusing even to contemplate negotiations.

Anyone who thinks that the blowing up of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 was needed to start the seond Chechnya war is profoundly mistaken; the explosions were needed to ensure that the war could not be stopped later on.

The attitude to the war has now changed, and everyone from Boris Berezovsky to the newspaper Zavtra speaks openly of the link between the explosions and the state security services, but there is no longer any going back. Like a chronic illness, the war constantly makes its presence felt.

Moreover, it flares up afresh every spring. The number of fighters undergoes massive swings. The Russian army has simply never learnt to combat such elemental phenomena. Every winter, however, when the level of activity by the fighters declines, the higher military command organises a campaign of senseless “cleansings”, that is, it does everything necessary to ensure that there is no fall-off in the number of Chechens ready to take up arms in the spring.

Putin’s two years in power have done nothing to increase the number of his supporters, while the number of confused and doubtful citizens has multiplied exceedingly. The alarm felt by Moscow intellectuals at the prospect of a new dictatorship was not altogether justified; for about a year, the regime got by with only a single television channel.

But where are the massive numbers of people supporting the leader, people who can say with conviction that life has become better and more joyous? There are, of course, people for whom it has become better and more joyous, but there are not enough jobs in the Kremlin administration for everyone.

The disappointment with the president is strongest among the people who conceived a particular love for him. And who among us was most passionately in love with Putin two years ago? Retired Soviet military officers and unemployed state security agents.

I have no ardent sympathy for most of these individuals, but all the same, it was not a good idea to deceive them. Among this section of the public there are more than a few people with vengeful dispositions and a readiness to bear grudges.

And then there is Berezovsky. I cannot fathom why it was necessary to chase this oligarch all the way to London. During the early months of the Putin era Berezovsky had no ideological reasons, much less “class” ones, for wanting a fight with the Kremlin. But the old security-force pettiness and vengefulness, together with the provincial inexperience of the St Petersburg team, had their effect.

Putin’s team could not help waging internecine warfare, and creating an enemy for themselves in what was virtually an empty space. Now the war is serious, a war to the death. Neither Berezovsky nor the Kremlin will stop at anything.

The constant thought that there is bad news in the offing spoils people’s moods more than the news itself. But on the other hand, what is there to be afraid of?

Well, prices will rise again. Production will start declining. With medicines more expensive, old people will be unable to afford them. Zinc coffins will continue to stream out of Chechnya. Another half-dozen helicopters will fall out of the sky. Berezovsky will sling mud. Discontent will increase.

Well, so what? What effect will this have on the authorities? Berezovsky is a long way off. The West has always been eager to swap human rights for access to the resources of Central Asia. The opposition has long since been tamed. The liberals are demoralised, and the left almost non-existent. The governors lack the resolve to do anything serious. The electoral commissions are in the regime’s pocket. The military officers will declaim indignantly, in discussions in one another’s kitchens. The labour movement has not yet become an important social force.

Nevertheless, the bosses cannot free themselves of an obscure feeling of unease. Perhaps they are getting alarmed over nothing. It may be, however, that there is something else, which these calculations have missed.

In Moscow and St Petersburg, ten years of neo-liberalism have created a new middle class, a class that was promised it would become the basis for democracy and the guarantee of stability.

The promise went unfulfilled for a simple reason: by definition, a society such as this cannot be either democratic or stable. The expectation of economic progress has turned out to be just as insubstantial as the expectation of freedom. Nevertheless, the middle class has become a reality.

Concentrated in Russia’s two capitals, it has acted throughout the past decade as a prop for the new order. Now it is confused and disillusioned. The social base of the Russian regime is quickly narrowing.

Quite possibly, the revolt by the disillusioned middle class which now threatens the Russian elite is no more serious a threat than all the others. At any rate, if it is taken “on its own”. The trouble is that nothing happens to us “on its own”.

Russian neo-liberalism overcame the passive resistance of society in the early 1990s. It survived revolts by workers in 1998. It rebuilt its positions following default and the collapse of the ruble. But for this social system, a growing revolt by the middle layers is something quite new, and for which it is quite unprepared.

However strong the political system constructed in Russia in recent years might be, it is hard to believe that the regime can rest exclusively on bureaucrats and oligarchs. At any rate, we will soon be able to put this to the test. All we need do is wait for the second boot to hit the wall.

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