Noone documents the Kafka-esque world of contemporary Russian life better than Peter Pomerantsev - a television producer whose life has spanned Moscow and London and whose writing I first came across earlier this year in Eurozine. His position and linguistic abilities allow him to give detailed exposes of the make-believe world of politics, judiciary, business and bureaucracy and reveal the Hobbesian world that is now apparently Russia.
His current Diary piece in the London Review of Books reveals a frightening picture -
A year of national service is in theory mandatory for males between 18 and 27 (with some exceptions), but anyone who can avoids it. The most common way out is a medical certificate. Some people play mad and spend a month at a psychiatric clinic. Their mothers bring them in. ‘My son is psychologically disturbed,’ they say, even though they know the doctors know they are pretending. Several weeks in a loonie bin will set you back in the region of five to ten thousand dollars. You will never be called up again – the mad are not trusted with guns – but you will have a certificate of mental illness hanging over you for the rest of your career. Other medical solutions are more short-term: a week in hospital with an injured hand or back, but this will have to be repeated every year as April and October approach because this is when the drafts take place, leaving hospitals full of pimply youths simulating back trouble. The medical route takes months of preparation and research, finding the right doctor and settling on the appropriate ailment. The ailments that can exempt you change all the time. You turn up at the military centre with the little stamped registration that your mother has spent months organising and saving for, only to be told by the local recruitment commission that this year flat feet or short sight is no longer a legal excuse – which may be the truth and may be an attempt to extract another bribe.If you’re at university you can avoid military service (or take part in tame drills at the faculty instead): there is no greater incentive for young men to explore the world of higher education. And if you’re not good enough to make it to college? Then you must bribe your way into an institution: there are dozens of new universities which have opened to service draft-avoiders. For poorer people, it’s a matter of hide and seek. During the spring and autumn drafts soldiers will grab anyone off the street who looks the right age, demand to see their documents and their letters of exemption, and if they don’t have them, march them off to the local recruitment centre. So the young devote their energy to staying clear of metro stations, or hiding behind columns and darting past when they spot a cop flirting with girls or scrounging cigarettes off passers-by. You often see teenagers sprinting through the long, dark, marble corridors of the underground with figures in blue giving chase (they could of course be looking for drugs). When soldiers come by apartment blocks potential conscripts barricade themselves behind the door, holding their breath until the visitors go away. But by now they are in trouble: every time their documents are checked by the police, they tremble; every time they go into the underground, every time they cross a main road, or meet friends near a cinema, or even leave their little yard, they will be in a state of high anxiety. As a draft-dodger, you live semi-legally until you are 27.
This is the genius of sistema: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother and your family have become part of the network of bribery, fear, simulation and dissimulation. You have learned to become an actor playing different roles in relation to the state, the great intruder you wish to avoid or outwit or simply buy off. You are already semi-legal, a transgressor, but that’s fine for sistema: as long as you only simulate, you will never do anything real, you will always look for compromise and you will feel just the right amount of discomfort. You are now part of the system. If a year in the army is the overt process that binds young Russians to the nation, a far more powerful induction comes with the rituals of avoiding military service.
Another film he was working on was about a successful young businesswoman called Yana Yakovleva, who had founded a pharmaceuticals company that imported and sold industrial cleaning agents to factories and military bases.
One morning she woke up to find herself under arrest: the Federal Drugs Control Service had reclassified her cleaning agent, diethyl ether, as a narcotic. She was now a drug dealer behind bars, awaiting trial. She assumed it was a case of reiderstvo, the most common form of corporate takeover in Russia with hundreds of reported, and probably tens of thousands of unreported cases a year, earning an estimated four billion dollars in profit. Business rivals or bureaucrats – long since interchangeable – pay for the security services to have the head of a company arrested; while they are in prison their documents and registrations are seized, the company is re-registered under different owners, and by the time the original owners are released the company has been bought, sold and split up by new owners. The usual way out is a bribe and there is a whole industry of pay-offs. Good ‘lawyers’ are not the ones who can defend you in court – the verdicts are pre-determined – but those who have the right connections and know who to pay off in the judiciary and the relevant ministry. It’s a complex game: pay off the wrong person and you’ve just wasted your money. Soon enough an array of middlemen appear, trying to persuade you that they, and only they, know how to pay the right person off. Yakovleva knew her parents were looking for that person on the outside. They had found a ‘lawyer’ who said he could help: he suggested she admit to the charges and then he could get everything sorted. The bribe would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yakovleva smelled a rat. Her company had done nothing wrong, shouldn’t she stick to her story? And what exactly was she meant to own up to? That she’d traded what she traded? Face up to absurdity? If she started to negotiate, she told me, it would be like relinquishing a part of her sanity, letting the sistema dictate the terms – at which point everything starts to slip.A year ago today, I posted some detail on my working methods for a good project trying to build the capacity of local government in Kyrgyzstan. One of the things I enjoyed about my decade of working in Central Asia was the freedom I was given to develop activities which seemed to suit the particular circumstances of the place and time. In Bishkek I asked a simple question which seems all too rarely to be asked - what can a small temporary project do that is distinctive and will leave a useful legacy?
One of the reasons I now turn down all projects is that such creativity is now absolutely forbidden. The logframe rules all.