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The emperor has no clothes: Russia’s real place in the world (economy and society)

Dmitriy Markov is an activist and photographer, documenting Russian poverty and rural life. In 2021, he was arrested in Moscow and snapped a photo in the police waiting room. It soon became a meme and a metaphor for Putin’s Russia: emptiness, faceless police brutality, and worship of the ‘dear leader’.

There’s nothing more foolish than screaming about the greatness of your empire while having no clothes on your back.

Listening to the talking heads in Moscow, one might think they still rule one of the world’s geopolitical powerhouses. They threaten with nuclear weapons and make pompous demands. But glancing at Russia’s own statistics, you’ll see a horrifying and absurd failure of society and government. You’ll find that 35 million Russians have no indoor plumbing… a quarter of the population are satisfied with an outhouse. In a country that has earned 90.8 trillion roubles from 2006 to 2021 selling gas and oil, people still live in medieval conditions. The real place of Russia has never been among the world’s successful countries. The Kremlin has turned the country into an outhouse of its own.

The Russian empire colonized the frozen Eastern tundra to conquer its native people. The USSR settled it with criminals and political dissidents for forced labor to gather oil, gold and diamonds. Modern Russia simply left these cities to rot, filled with a lost, angry, and impoverished population. Out of time and civilization. Russian ‘greatness’ in action. Photo: Dmitriy Markov in Khilok, Zabaykalskiy Kray

The only real modern contribution of Russia to the world economy is gas and oil. Raw resources comprise 60% of its exports and 40% of its state budget. John McCain was essentially correct when he said: “Russia is now a gas station masquerading as a country”. Other states with a similar oil-driven background (like the United Arab Emirates) are trying to diversify their economy by investing in technology and tourism. But Russia is still determined to remain a gas pump in a world that’s moving towards renewable energy.

Science and technology in Russia

Russia’s elites pretend as if they can compete with the Western world. But the GDP of Russia is less than that of California. Or Texas. Or New York. The market capitalization of Apple is larger than Russia’s manufacturing results for an entire year. Over 30 years after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia has achieved nearly nothing in the area of technological innovation. The much-discussed “Russian national smartphone” sold a grand total of 370… no, not thousand or million. 370 individual phones. Other smart gadgets and “breakthroughs” were used as government PR projects, yet all were later exposed as shams with Chinese parts and Western software.

The project of the ‘Sovereign Internet’, initially presented by the Russian government as its own “national counterpart to the West’s propagandist web” mostly turned out to be a hoax as well. The country had no technology to back it up and the law passed by the parliament simply forced internet providers to spy on its own citizens, supply information to the FSB, and ban access to free media. Still using Western tech.

The ‘sovereign internet’ instantly became a meme. Jokes appeared about how the technology would be powered by medieval Orthodox Christianity, Stalinism, and paranoia about the West. The picture includes inscriptions “Lord save us”, “Obama sucks” and a depiction of Stalin as an Orthodox saint.

Science, the driver of technological innovation, is in a woeful state as well. You’ll hear many claims that Russian researchers are 7th in the world by the number of published scientific papers. But as always, there’s a catch. Turns out, there’s a perverse incentive: scientists are simply paid based on the number of publications. This turned out to be an unwise decision, as it merely led to a huge wave of plagiarism. Russia’s own investigation uncovered plagiarized research in 541 scientific journals. The Global Innovation Index ranks Russia in 45th place, below Malaysia, Bulgaria and Cyprus.

The aerospace industry used to be a point of Soviet pride. Yet even this area has fallen to Russian government corruption and has turned into a sad mockery of its former self. While Putin keeps pumping up crowds with tales of Gagarin, the truth is — he’s simply parasitizing the past. In the present, modern Russian rockets crash or fail due to poor hardware and the incompetence of engineers (in one case — the speed sensors were installed upside down, in another — the lift-off happened before the engines were fully ready). Astronauts are sent into space in old soviet ‘Soyuz’ ships, built in 1967. They’re four years older than Elon Musk. Not his SpaceX rockets, the man himself. In place of technological advancement and competent repairs, Russia opts to use Orthodox priests to bless its rockets “for safety”.

Russian priest conducting a blessing ritual at Baikonur airfield before the infamous Soyuz rocket crash in 2018. Photo: NASA

Russian healthcare

In the realm of more recent developments, many myths circulated around the Russian Covid vaccine — Sputnik. Russian propaganda put in a lot of effort presenting it as a huge technological victory, supposedly “the first medical solution of its kind to be registered in the world”… which was achieved by testing it on a grand total of 76 people. To quote the British Medical Journal:

Doubts were seeded when President Putin surprised the world by announcing Russian approval for emergency use of Sputnik V as early as August 2020, before phase I or II data had been published and before the phase III trial had begun.

The early approval, and Russia’s bombast around the vaccine, provoked scepticism among scientists. In September, an open letter co-signed by 30 scientists worldwide criticised inconsistencies in the phase I and II study paper “.

Field hospital in the Russian Far East during a COVID inspection. In 2020, protests erupted among gold miners and oil rig workers. They complained the government was ignoring large-scale outbreaks, people were dying, packed together in temporary housing. Workers demanded treatment and evacuation. The government offered only token help and ignored the demands. People in other cities largely remained indifferent. Photo: Russian State Emergency Service

Russia counteracted criticism of Sputnik with a smear campaign against other vaccines. Even Putin’s spokesperson Peskov called AstraZeneca a “vaccine for monkeys” and claimed Sputnik was far superior to its foreign counterparts. Anyone versed in the history of the USSR will instantly recall Soviet leaders pompously claiming the superiority of USSR technologies while their citizens had no access to hygienic products: the first toilet paper factory was built in 1969 and was never able to supply anyone but the elites; women’s hygiene products in the Soviet Union were nonexistent up to its very fall, instead replaced by clean rags torn from second-hand clothes.

From the 17th century to modern times, Russia could never offer its citizens dignity or prosperity. In many countries, people complain about their healthcare systems. But in Russia, it basically doesn’t exist. In fact, going to a hospital in some regions may be less safe than staying at home. Russia’s current health budget is only 5.3% of its GDP, which is less than that of Guatemala or Madagascar. In 2018, Belarus opposition blogger Maxim Mirovich compiled eye-witness reports of the state of Russian hospitals. Most photos were made pre-2014 when oil and gas revenues earned Russia billions and no sanctions were in place.

The Russian government provides no healthcare and no technology. Instead, it raises its citizens on the mythology of abstract “greatness” and war. The truly depressing part is that this does not spark widespread protest. This is exemplified by the experience of regular Russians. A young man from the Stavropol region says: “My grandmother taught her children some basic rules: the boss is always right; don’t stick your nose into other peoples’ business; find a job that lets you sit on your ass in peace — that’s the main one; and the tsar is good. That’s the way my mom was raised.”

Protest of nurses in Kemerovo as the government demoted them to janitors in the national program of “healthcare optimization”. The protest gained no large-scale support and was ignored both by other citizens and the government. Photo: Andrey Kononov

Eternal social and economic crisis

The examples above offer a “taste” of true Russia. It talks about great achievements, yet always neglects to mention important disclaimers. Russia boasts about the largest number of Olympic medals, but it’s also #1 on the list of medals disqualified due to doping. Before the war, Russia’s economy was slowly growing while the income of its citizens was dropping: it went down by 10% in 2020 compared to 2013. Russia has the third-largest railway in the world, yet by quality and number of roads, it’s 154th out of 182 countries: outside of large cities, there’s almost no asphalt anywhere at all. Dirt and gravel all the way.

The city of Vytegra is not that far from the border with small yet prosperous Estonia and Finland. Yet one could think it’s somewhere in Siberia, thousands of miles from civilization. Wooden houses rot and old ships rust. One comment under Markov’s photo on Instagram reads: “It’s a horrifying city and the trip through it was even more horrifying. Passing through, I saw a woman washing her clothes in the river and told my friends: it seems the year 2018 doesn’t apply to a place outside of time.”

All this is made possible due to the staggering levels of corruption, abuse of human rights, and violation of freedom of speech. These are the three areas where Putin’s Russia truly leads by example. Free media? Russia is the 155th worst country among 180 in oppressing journalists. Corruption? 138th worst, just above Myanmar and below Mali. Probably the most striking is the Freedom Index, which gives out points from 0 to 4 in several categories: Russia has zero for free elections, zero for freedom of NGOs, and zero for protection against police brutality. The Russian government uses its wars and myths about “historical greatness” to distract its population from societal crises. Which have persisted for hundreds of years historically and for 30 years since the fall of the USSR.

This is not a photo of war. This is Kungur city, Russia, in 2017. During Soviet times the 18th-century women’s monastery was turned into a colony for hardened criminals, a prison full of killers right next to the main street of the town. In 2015, the colony was moved but the impoverished ruined territory remained. It looks worse than the city, but not by much. Photo: Dmitriy Markov

Based on government statistics (likely — understated) 63.5% of Russians earn enough money only for food, clothes, and the very basic daily necessities. The Central Bank data shows that 75% of citizens have zero savings. The issue of Russian poverty has become a sad joke. Even local TV anchors can’t hold back hysterical laughter when reading the teleprompter about “increases” to government pensions in the amount of 138 roubles (currently — 2 US dollars). Ex-president Medvedev’s visit to Crimean pensioners famously ended in a meme. His phrase “There’s no money, but you hang in there.” was widely circulated as a symbol of Russian state failure to support its military conquest. You couldn’t wish for a better illustration of the “prosperity” Russia brought to annexed Crimea.

Business and education fare no better. More than half of Russian entrepreneurs state that it was easier to conduct business in the 1990s when they feared bandits than now when they fear government corruption. Russia’s best university is ranked 202nd in global education rankings.

Men jump the fence to the city railway in the suburbs of Moscow to avoid paying for the commute. Photo: Dmitriy Markov

Main export and social strategy: war

For the last 30 years, Russia’s military was its main point of national pride. This “achievement” worked as an excuse for its citizens and as a blackmail tool of foreign policy for its government. “We may be poor but at least our army can challenge NATO.” Never mind that the U.S. military budget is near twice the size of Russia’s entire national one. Facts don’t matter in the realm of fantasy.

The real state of the Russian army was demonstrated in its war in Ukraine. The logistics of the invaders were as competent as its aerospace industry. A country that survives on oil exports couldn’t supply fuel to its own military vehicles, they stalled with empty gas tanks and were easy pickings for the Ukrainian defenders. Russian tanks were equipped with nonsensical cages made from metal pipes that protect against exactly nothing, much less modern weapons.

Futuristic military tech, advertised by the Kremlin provided its own surprises: Russian drones use a regular Canon photo camera glued into their cheap plastic… and a regular bottle for their fuel port. A true technological marvel, worthy of the “2nd best army in the world”. Here’s a Ukrainian officer showcasing the construction of a captured Russian ‘Orlan’ drone.

Looking back in retrospect, it’s surprising we ever believed the Kremlin at all. How can a country with crashing spaceships and a lack of indoor plumbing manufacture high-tech weapons? This is exactly the reason many experts questioned the existence of the mythical “doomsday hypersonic rockets” in Russia’s arsenal. The few military innovations that were real could not be produced at scale. Putin talked with exaggerated pride about Russia’s modern Su57 fighter jets… yet only 2 of them were ever supplied to the airforce.

The truth is — Russia is mostly waging war with Soviet weapons. The USSR sacrificed the future, health, and dignity of its 300-million population to stockpile weapons that could last decades, but modern Russia is unable to maintain even those. The country’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov runs on mazut (outdated low-quality oil) and is barely afloat: it has endured electrical fires, bad airplane landings, a sunk drydock, and several breakdowns. It’s now followed by a repair ship wherever it goes. No joke (the carrier seems to be one, though).

Dmitriy Markov’s photos show the centuries-old heritage of the Russian empire that pushes its people into poverty and uses them over and over again to fuel its wars and corruption. The citizens live in perpetual Stockholm syndrome, supporting the regime. The photo above shows an aviation bomb scavenged by local residents in Buryatiya and installed as a ‘sculpture’ in their yard. Poverty and war – the perfect metaphor for the cycle of local existence.

As a result of nearly 400 years of autocratic culture, the Russian Federation and its people are suffering from cognitive dissonance, unable to accept that the project of “imperial greatness” has only led to building the Empire from Star Wars (as it always does). Russia is still living in the dreams of its Soviet past: the country’s biggest holiday is its Victory Day parade, celebrating the USSR victory over Germany in 1945 (conveniently omitting the contribution of the rest of the world).

Only in such an abnormal country, approaching the status of a failed state, can the population still harbor love for one of the most prominent dictators and mass murderers in history: Joseph Stalin. In 2019 he was more popular than Putin. Only there can priests bless nuclear missiles and tanks.

The emperor has no clothes. All he’s wearing is an AK-47 and a bloody grin. But most Russians pretend that everything is fine. The fantasy of “greatness” and conquest is more comforting. Why has Russia been waging wars non-stop since 1991? Why does the majority of the population at least passively condone and at most – actively endorse government-sponsored terrorism? Because there’s little else that Russia can offer itself or the world… at least in its current form as a military empire.

Written by Yaroslav Zubchenko, journalist for the Detector Media NGO & Ivan Shovkoplias, сommunications consultant, Ukrainian media volunteer