Review: Empire of Corruption: The Russian National Pastime

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.

2 comments

  1. In the great and timeless book of Mario Puzo “The Godfather” there is one memorable episode.

    “There was Anthony Stracci, who controlled the New Jersey area and the shipping on the West Side docks of Manhattan. He ran the gambling in Jersey and was very strong with the Democratic political machine. He had a fleet of freight hauling trucks that made him a fortune primarily because his trucks could travel with a heavy overload and not be stopped and fined by highway weight inspectors. These trucks helped ruin the highways and then his roadbuilding firm, with lucrative state contracts, repaired the damage wrought. It was the kind of operation that would warm any man’s heart, business of itself creating more business. Stracci, too, was old-fashioned and never dealt in prostitution, but because his business was on the waterfront it was impossible for him not to be involved in the drug-smuggling traffic. Of the five New York Families opposing the Corleones his was the least powerful but the most well disposed.”

    And then there is a memetic case of the Big Dig in Boston. I’ve been watching closely for the drama unfolding for some time and it was… inspiring! No, seriously – I felt inspired. THAT’S how you do corruption! Our Russian corruptsionery have to study, study and study again to reach such stellar performance!

    But let’s not turn this into one big “WhataboutismFest2017”. When I saw that Soloviev’s book review is in your “Coming Soon” category, I got ready to provide some exposition and commentary on things that he might have omitted. Looks like I don’t need that. Yes, Soloviev is a troll, a fat one (which has nothing to do with his weigh and everything to do with the content of fat (rus. “жЫр”) in his arguments), he is a journalist, a pundit, a TV and Radio host… but he is not a historian. You absolutely correctly note, that he based his book on the anecdotal evidence and as such we can’t really use his work in any really academic way. It’s same thing as when some demschizoid members of the non-systemic opposition try to use as their argument taking Anna Akhmatova’s words about 1930s that “half of the country was in prison, with another half being their prison guards” verbatim. There is data, statistics and evidence that could measure both of such claims. Instead of relying on cheap hype (as it is often the case with the members of artistic intelligentcia and journos) and appealing to emotions, it’s always better to have cool head and describe things as they are.

    But there is one thing not so apparent from your review. Maybe it is addressed within the book, I don’t know. The issue of the ever so popular meme “Putin made Russia corrupt”. It presumes that somehow before 2000 A.D. the level of corruption in Russia was either nonexistent or much, much lower than it is today and that Putin is personally responsible for that. So all that happened in the Rough 90s – the proverbial plundering of the country in the course of wholesale selling of the state enterprises for pennies, total lack of transparency, blatant cases of “untouchable” oligarchs owning deputies and ministers, “semibankirschina”, 1996 presidential elections (with their infamous “Xerox box” full of dollars), the instances of Russian officers of all ranks selling weapons to the Chechen militants they were supposed to be fighting and, to top it all, the embezzlement of the IMF credits received after 1998 financial crisis – that NEVER HAPPENED, according to them.

    Again, I don’t know, maybe Soloviev addresses it in his book. But the roots of the modern Russian corruption lay firmly in the 90s. Yes, it’s often said as a witticism of sorts, that “In the West money bring power, in Russia – power brings money”. You can even recall Pushkin’s verses, that encapsulated it 2 centuries (in 1814) ago:

    «Всё моё», — сказало злато;
    «Всё моё», — сказал булат.
    «Всё куплю», — сказало злато;
    «Всё возьму», — сказал булат.

    But, actually, it’s not his original work – it’s just a translation of the popular French verse («Tout est à moi, car je l’achète…»)), which, ones again, demonstrates that Russia attitude to the issue is hardly “unique” or “non-European”.

    I guess it’s just incomprehensible for the Westerners to understand what it meant for the vast majority of Russian to survive (not live – survive) through the “Blessed Democratic 90s”. Imagine – you are a traffic cop. You haven’t been paid for sever months. When they do pay you, it’s either not in the full volume or they pay you in “natural products” – it could be anything from canned fish, bags of flour or something as exotic as the produce of your local ball bearings factories (all real examples). You have a family – spouse, children and elderly parents (who also are seldom paid their pension if paid at all). You are not the only one – you entire precinct, and other cops throughout the country have to live through that. You don’t have right ancestry, so the emigration is out of option. You do not have the guts or the will to join the organized crime and shoot the people while they try to shoot you. There is no guarantee that should you start your own business trying to sell on the local market the aforementioned flour, canned fish and buckets of ball bearings, then you won’t be accosted by fine gentlemen going by the monikers “Kolyan the Ragged” and “Vityok the Rusted Nail”, working for “Igor the Brick Top”, who’d suggest (at first – politely) that you have to share.

    This kind of situation does not dissipate overnight – it goes on, and on, and on for years, and because the unplundered resources become scarce the fight for them becomes more vicious. You have to survive somehow. You have to feed the family. You have to remain yourself. So, it’s hardly surprising, that one day, while issuing a speedy ticket to some driver, you’d say sacramental words: “Would you like to pay a fine or… we can come to an arrangement?”. Thus, unintentionally, the system of “кормление” made a comeback nearly 300 years after its abolition. Note – the original “кормление” was a deliberate step by then Russian state, due to impossibility to actually pay salaries to everyone, in the similar vein how the feudal system was adopted to support the service elite (the nobility). What happened in the modern Russian history was a tremendous step back which was not sanctioned by the state.

    Deep down there is no regret among the Russians. If you are a doctor and receive from the grateful patients gifts, like a box of good candies or a bottle of good Armenian cognac, does it make you a “corruptisoner”? Typical Westerner will undoubtedly say – “yes”, typical Russian will answer “no”. Do you know what salaries Russian provincial doctors receive? If the amount is the measure of their motivational incentive then, naturally, they are not motivated at all – or they are motivated to do everything strictly by the book. Naturally, there is a mutual desire to speed up the process. Nothing drastic, like I said – just a bottle of cognac. That’s the rules of the game that everyone accepts. After all, when you have an option between doing something faster or slower, between buying same things cheaper or not, what would you choose? For most people (at least in Russia and the former SU) there is no dilemma at all.

    I laugh when I see hordes of lemmings and Net-hamsters shrieking about corruption in Russia and demanding the downfall of the “corrupt regime”. Only completely retarded contingent of some teenager oriented VK-publics and such pay any attention to Navalny’s “movies”. None of them really wants to fight corruption. No one. What they really want is a piece of the pie and a place at a trough. Because the corruption is one of those eternal questions (like ecology) you can always find some incident to make a fuzz over it. When looking on these children of the so-called “urbanites”, I ask myself – how did their family end up so well off and what they do to maintain it? They are, probably, study in prestige schools – gee, I wonder, how did they end up enrolled there and not in some ordinary school? If they are students in this or that institution of the higher education, how did they manage to get there? How much do their parents pay to their Dean for making sure, that their own flesh and blood won’t be expelled for systematically missing classes and failing the exams (which is inevitable for any would be “revolutionary”). And when their kids do end up arrested – surely their parents do everything in their power to ensure their speedy release and the expunction of all mentions of their children criminal misconduct from the official papers. Finally, for the male contingent of the “anti-corruption protesters” – do they plan to fulfill their civic duty and serve the country in the Army? Or did their parents took care of this as well and now all of them (by pure coincidence!) are physically unfit human wrecks… according to the paid for conclusions of the medical commission?

    There is no fast solution to the issued of rampant corruption. It’s a war of attrition that is fought away from the eyes of the publics. Protests and demands to topple governments do not work to address the issue (see the Ukraine). Only systematic work, criminal cases and, above all, the principle of equality before the law of EVERYONE (with no untouchables be they ministers or “talented” thespians) maintained continuously year after year could improve the situation. Not slogans, chanting or MSM articles. Oh, and the improvement of the living standards, of course – stick must always come prepackaged with a carrot.

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