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Putin’s Kleptocracy and Family Values

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There will be some twists and turns here, so hold on. Earlier this month, the BBC highlighted what it called “YouTube sensation ‘I, Russian Occupier'” the hit propaganda film that “feels more like the opening sequence of a big budget Hollywood movie than a homemade political message.” So far, it’s racked up 5.6 million views and more than 31,000 comments. (“likes” are outpacing down votes by a 5-1 margin. The video also “attacks Western values, dropping in visual references to same-sex parenting, and rounds off by ‘sending’ the entire message to US President Barack Obama.”

The BBC identified the creator of the video as Evgeny Zhurov, a 29-year-old motion graphics designer from Russia, who claimed he was not paid for the work. “A full-scale information war is being waged against Russia. I’m just taking part in the war on Russia’s side,” Zhurov told the BBC. “My goal is high-quality pro-Russian propaganda.”

Or were the creators working for Russians at the highest level? The Age, an Australian newspaper, reports that the video was actually funded by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nick Miller, citing Russian website Medialeaks.ru and a broadcast report, identifies producers from a studio called My Duck’s Vision (MDV) who “confessed” it was their work. When pressed, the producer said: “It was an order from [the] Russian Orthodox Church. It was not our idea.” He added that, “it was an order we’ve been paid, but still for us it’s just a stupid script, we’ve made [it] for fun.”

On second thought, reporter Miller asks, is the video “just outrageous propaganda or does it conceal a subtle satire on Russian patriotism and Western gullibility?”

No comment in his story “Russian Church secretly funds cartoonish anti-Western propaganda video” from anyone speaking for the Church. Miller adds, as is routine in Western news reports, that “many senior figures in the Russian Orthodox Church are strong supporters of the Putin regime. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow once famously called Mr Putin’s long rule ‘a miracle of God.'” Before we jump to conclusions about the Russian Church reviving Stalinism, it should be noted that Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the church’s foreign relations office, has denounced Stalin in no uncertain terms:

“I think that Stalin was a spiritually-deformed monster, who created a horrific, inhuman system of ruling the country,” Archbishop Hilarion said. “He unleashed a genocide against the people of his own country and bears personal responsibility for the death of millions of innocent people. In this respect Stalin is completely comparable to Hitler.”

Then again, are Russian Church officials secretly spying for the West? Or are they working as double agents for the Kremlin? Yes, even weirder. The Telegraph reported in February that a “church PR man arrested on treason charges in Russia claims he was actually a security officer working undercover for Moscow.” But Eva Merkacheva, a member of Russia’s Public Chamber, an oversight body, told the Kommersant newspaper: “It’s a very mysterious story, in my view. According to [Mr Petrin’s] words, he is an FSB captain who secretly infiltrated the administration of the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

How to cut through the information wars? I’ve been recommending Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy — Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Dawisha, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, describes how Putin “has built a system built on massive predation on a level not seen in Russia since the tsars.” She shows how many of those who rose with Putin from regional political offices in St. Petersburg to now run the country “have become multimillionaires, and the oligarchs around them, according to Forbes Russia, have become billionaires.” Putin and his circle have, in effect, plundered Russia. And this is a nation which faces severe social problems. How’s this for family values? (Dawisha’s summary):

Transparency International estimates the annual cost of bribery to Russia at $300 billion, roughly equal to the entire gross domestic product of Denmark, or thirty-seven times higher than the $8 billion Russian expended in 2007 on “national priority projects” in health, education, and agriculture. Capital flight, which officially has totaled approximately $335 billion since 2005, or or about 5 percent of GDP, reaching over $50 billion in the first quarter of 2014 alone, has swollen Western bank coffers but made Russia the most unequal of all developed and emerging economies (BRIC) … in which 110 billionaires control 35 percent of the country’s wealth.

Poor workplace safety, mayhem on the roads, and high rates of of alcoholism and suicide make life especially hazardous for Russian men. The World Health Organization reports that the life expectancy of the average 15-year-old male is three years lower in Russia than in Haiti.

Dawisha describes how, at the moment of the “formidable and historic collapse” of the Soviet system, the control of a “vast mountain of foreign money fell to KGB agents who had access to foreign operations and accounts.” This money was available for “investments” by those who controlled the accounts. “Thus were born, it is estimated, most of Russian’s oligarchs and commercial banks,” she writes. Helping the oligarchs were KGB and Communist Party veterans including “the rather more junior official Vladimir Putin.”

Dawisha notes that the country is not only seeing a capital flight but a brain drain of its young and talented who are alienated from Putin’s system of control, not their country. “An increase in the sense of political hopelessness on the part of the vast majority occurred at the same time that Moscow vied with New York and London as the billionaire capital of the world,” she writes.

Perhaps the producers of “I, Russian Occupier,” whoever they are, or whatever their real intent was, could turn next to recovering the work of a real historian who demanded that the people in the country he loved “live not by lies.” In the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes how, immediately on the heels of the October 1917 revolution, Vladimir Lenin was plotting his campaign of terror and forced labor. The Russian Church was one of the first targets and an estimated 66 million, a figure Solzhenitsyn cites, would perish in the decades ahead. He writes:

And even while sitting among the fragrant hay mowings of Rasliv and listening to the buzzing bumblebees, Lenin could not help but ponder the future penal system. Even then he had worked things out and reassured us: “The suppression of the majority of exploiters by the majority of the hired slaves of yesterday is a matter so comparatively easy, simple and natural, that it is going to cost much less in blood … will be much cheaper for humanity” than the preceding suppression of the majority by the minority.

Lenin was tragically wrong about that. What is Russia’s future now? At the conclusion of her book, Dawisha says that the “only way for Russians to avoid state predation is to keep their heads down and believe in fate, or turn into cheerleaders of the system in order to gain insurance and a few crumbs from the table. Russians have a long history of great contributions to world culture, literature and arts. They deserve better.”

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John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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