Ask any person on the street what words immediately come to mind when they hear “Russia”, and chances are “corruption” will be among them. Western conventional wisdom says the country is deeply – some might say hopelessly – corrupt. Followers of the region may recall the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer or Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, in neither of which Russia fares well. Talking heads on television dissuade us from cooperating with Russia because, among other reasons, “their government is corrupt” (the implication is that Western liberal democracies and their allies are not). And just you try making it through a 21st-century spy novel set in Russia without reading how corrupt (read: evil) Russia is…
Yes, we in the West love to talk about Russia’s corruption problem. But what of the people who live under this system every day? What have they to say about present reality; how it came about, why it’s so persistent, and how (or whether) it can be changed for the better? We’ve heard Navalny’s opinion on the matter many times over. Luckily, Anglophone readers have another option: Empire of Corruption: The Russian National Pastime by journalist and television host (and professional troll?) Vladimir Soloviev.
The picture Soloviev paints in Empire is of a system that’s – to the causal Western observer – by and large, kind of s**t. There is massive fraud in declarations of government spending. Officials confuse their own interests with state interests, and earn incomes so large that they lose all comprehension of what money is. Wives and children run organizations in sectors of the economy regulated by their husbands and fathers, and nobody bats an eye (Loc 302). Almost every minister has affiliated companies or friends in the relevant branches of industry and awards them exclusive contracts. The courts have become personal business projects and the Duma an office for handling paperwork. People would rather become bureaucrats than businessmen because of the high salary and low accountability (Loc 453). And to get public office, you need to pay – and pay well.
Students bribe teachers to pass subjects and buy diplomas. Drivers with purchased licenses drive improperly on costly but shoddily-constructed roads, contributing to an annual traffic accident death toll of 30, 000 (Loc 1882). People must bribe doctors to receive good treatment. In the beginning of the book, Soloviev sketches a “what if?” scenario of Russia without corruption – surprisingly, nothing gets done.
How did corruption become so widespread and persistent? According to Soloviev, the answer lies in holdovers from the tsarist feudal system and Soviet social order.
Feudalism put everyone from top to bottom in a position of dependence and subservience. Everything you owned – including your life – belonged to the emperor. But that didn’t stop some individuals from lining their pockets during their tenure in public office, no matter how brief:
The salary which you get from public service comes from the exchequer, which it is your job to fill. So in the grand scheme of things you are not actually thieving, you are just keeping a small percentage on commission for yourself. The key point is that state office is handed out for “feeding” – and then you are free to do what you want. The feudal system of feeding under which the subordinate population was obliged to provide the Prince’s locally appointed governor with a comfortable standard of living […] was by no means a Russian invention, but it took very firm root in Russia and is exceptionally tenacious. (Loc 153)
Soloviev also points a finger at the Soviet social system. During times of scarcity, one and the same ruble could have different purchasing power for different categories of citizen. Each position in the hierarchy had its perks. So despite a qualification-based pay scale (and the official absence of large differences in wage levels), there was a huge difference in the real value of wages (Loc 394). While this may not have been corruption per se, it was a social order which was certainly far from fair. It was impossible for people to be fully equal before the law, and one’s standard of living depended not so much on financial means as one’s position in the hierarchy.
When the country shifted from socialism to a modern market economy in the 90s, the old pay scale remained, but the state could no longer provide welfare services and salaries to everyone. There simply wasn’t enough money. Nobody could live on the salaries paid under that scale, but luckily for officials, the system of “feeding” survived. The economy might’ve tanked, but at least Deputy Minister X could still get his special suits and watches.
While Empire is good at diagnosing the corruption problem and tracing its possible origins, it is decidedly less confident in proposing solutions. During the Soviet era, the demand for change was met by a massive system of training schools built under the Party that supplied the government with professionals (Loc 1152). There was also a functioning ideology that supported the training of a new guard. Now, says Soloviev, neither of those things exists anymore. Importing anticorruption laws from abroad is out of the question – their implementation is stymied by problems specific to the Russian people. Instead, Soloviev proposes protection for private property, court reform, transparent election funding, raising general material standards, and officials setting a positive example to society by refusing bribes. He also recommends bringing in people who are educated, capable specialists rather than friends of the boss (Loc 1019). In his own words, a strong government isn’t afraid of trusting professionals, while a weak one tries to establish if its own officials are loyal to it, sincerely believing that theft isn’t a problem if we “keep it in the family”. However, attracting professionals requires a career structure open to everyone in the country and a system for professional promotion. For the most part, Soloviev is silent on how to establish that social elevator.
Soloviev is ultimately pessimistic about Russia’s potential to shake off corruption – society doesn’t see corruption as some terrible evil; it’s the Russian reality. Even if one were to increase officials’ and law enforcement’s pay, the law likely wouldn’t start working, for Russians don’t respect the law and have a complex relationship with corruption. They deplore corruption, but perceive it to be happening somewhere else, with other people. And it’s only deplorable when someone takes more money than they’re entitled to. Likewise, corruption isn’t just a way of distributing wealth, but a system for building relations with one another. Doing away with the corrupt system is remotely possible, but it won’t be quick or easy – fighting against one’s nature never is. So says the author.
Looking past the weighty subject, Empire was a fun, accessible read. If it’s true that Soloviev is a “professional troll”, then I can see how he earned the title: a surprising amount of wit, sarcasm, and snark graces these pages. Soloviev leaves no official unscathed…well, except for Putin.
Putin’s loyalty to his friends and his sincere desire to make people work effectively often lead to unwanted outcomes, because unfortunately Putin’s friends often do him no favors at all. (Loc 489)
As for the argument, it’s formed mainly through description and anecdotes. Soloviev references history (the USSR in the 20s, 70s, and 80s) and corruption under the modern-day Medvedev administration*. He also provides much-needed comparative context by examining Russian anticorruption efforts alongside efforts in Libya and Italy. Things do get more disjointed at the end, and there’s a closing screed against the so-called Russian “slave mentality”. I didn’t buy Empire’s argument wholesale, but because I have no firsthand experience or reference material on the subject, I’ll have to take Soloviev’s word for it. He makes a few outlandish claims, but I am more inclined to believe him than I would a Western pundit, since they tend to position corruption as a uniquely Russian phenomenon** and seem more interested in scoring political points than suggesting remedy.
Kudos to the translator for conveying everything smoothly and keeping Soloviev’s humor intact. But this ebook could’ve used another round of editing, as there are some rather obvious errors (“Accusing my friend of being a terrible gangsters!” [Loc 1688]).
Empire of Corruption is a broad if uneven examination of the “Russian national sport” (Soloviev’s words here, not mine!). I’d recommend it to those curious about the corruption issue – it may not have all the answers, but you’ll at least have more information than before. Just keep in mind that this is merely one view of the Russian experience and you’ll be set.
*Modern at the time of publication in Russian.
**Some aspects of the Russian experience are unique, but on the whole corruption is not a problem endemic to one country.
★ ★ ★