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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Life in Russia

I think you must be even more fascinated by the Russian federation than I am. It's all so ceaselessly bizarre. Whenever my flight from Moscow used to take off I would breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing I had escaped the madhouse. It's much more mad than here.

I remember once trying to take a taxi from Pulkovo Airport and I was told there was a government car. So I got in the government car and they told me there was an explosive device in the city centre so the route would take longer. And I was thinking 'oh no, here we go' and then we suddenly arrived at the destination - which was a Russian government building - about five minutes later. So none of it made any sense. Then Ogress and I had to get changed under a photo of Vladimir Putin in the directors office (we just turned away from one another) and then I was given an express tour of the Ministry of Civil Emergencies museum or something during which the General doing the tour kept offering to sell me things I obviously didn't want to buy, like giant valves for hoses, for cash. I obviously wasn't going to buy one of those so the whole conversation was extremely painful. I promised him I would come back and buy a giant valve and he wanted to know how many. And so on and so forth.

And then it turned out I was giving a lecture on international relations to an entire amphitheatre of people in Russian military uniform. And on and on and on it went. These things always do in Russia. That's why youre so glad to get on the plane that actually takes off!

I never really worked out how anyone actually gets anything done in Russia, because it's just full of this stuff rather than anyone doing any real work.

I think the answer is that apart from drafting enormously complicated fraudulent documents, they don't actually do any work. That's probably the problem. They love cryptic meetings at unusual hours - e.g. a dinner meeting at 3am - but nothing ever seems to come of all these weird meetings at which only weird things are discussed. The whole country sounds like intelligence agents talking to each other nonstop. It's all completely impenetrable what is going on.

After a while you start to get it, and then you wish that you hadn't! Because the favourite thing Russians like to talk about is disguised references to killing people. They really are the strangest bunch. Even Electrica, who was Ukrainian, was obsessed with the risks of being shot while walking down to the local market. Should she cover her face to minimise the risk of sniper fire, etcetera. I refused to indulge these conversations. They were quite funny at first but you soon realised you had exhausted all the opportunities to discuss your own peremptory death and then they got repetitive.

Except when her Grandma decided to announce to us all over dinner that she had been electrocuted with torture in the 1940's. Stunning us all. She had never mentioned it to anyone and suddenly she is telling us all about it over dinner. I liked her. She was a good old school conspiratorial communist. Everything she said had a whiff of the impenetrably conspiratorial about it. The mail was late that day and there could be all sorts of conspiratorial reasons for that which had to be discussed. The possibility that the mailman had just drunk too much vodka and woken up late was excluded from these strange discussions.

I don't know how anyone operated a society like this. I really don't.

Electrica is also the only person who has ever seriously said to me that I shouldn't read the newspaper because I don't know what I will find in it. Well of course I don't. That's precisely why I'm reading the bloody thing. I suppose it comes down to this underlying idea that the purpose of news is not to inform but to intimidate. Hence all these weird news articles I am now bombarded with. I deliberately ignore them all with the result that I actually don't know what's going on in the world anymore! Once you start thinking this way about news, you realise it indeed doesn't tell you anything you want to know and it can only tell you bad things and therefore it is better you don't look at it. And suddenly the whole point of view becomes bizarrely rational: don't read the news because it might contain hidden death threats against you. Once you get to this stage, you're certifiable.

Once you are really dug in, you can start to understand how the Russians could have started a war it was always pretty obvious wouldn't have a good outcome for them. Mysterious instructions get mysteriously conveyed to mystified people. And it all just gets out of control. Nobody knows what's really going on anymore. There will be a few firings, rotations and executions. But nothing will really change as the machine just keeps clunking from one mystery to the next. And nobody challenges it because nobody wants to ask questions in case the newspaper contains a death threat against them. So you can't break through to any level of reality once you are thinking like this.

This is what makes wars involving Russia so infuriatingly difficult to stop. Because everyone is thinking in these strange ways unconnected to reality, conventional incentives cease to apply because nobody is thinking about what is really going on. You know that in Stalingrad they spent four months fighting over a single building? This obviously can't be rational. If it is so strategically important (which it wasn't) just blow it up rather than lose 10,000's of lives fighting over it. It can't be that important. But the Russians just seem to lose grip on reality at these times.

Riehle's book on Russian intelligence exposes this with the absurd over-intricacy of the Russian intelligence architecture. there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of these institutions and it is hard to say what any of them do. But in one sense he has misunderstood the problem. Asking what a government agency does is a sensible question in the western world. But it is not a sensible question in Russia. It is obvious what they all do: cause confusion and steal money. So even if these strange institutions are all ostensibly staffed (and that is something that it is very difficult to establish), it doesn't mean that any of them are doing what they are 'supposed' to do. What they are all doing is stealing money and fighting with each other and perpetuating a generalised sense of chaos. They are all ceaselessly floating variables. They might be doing one thing one day, and something totally different the next day. They all blend into one another. They might all be the same people. People may have been appointed to run them without even knowing. It is possible in Russia to be fired without anyone telling you. You just keep going into the office each day and nobody tells you that you were fired three weeks ago.

Of course this way of living makes Russians very short termist, because the only certainty in life is what is happening to you right now, at this instant. Tomorrow it might all be different and you may or may not know that anything has changed. So you live for the moment - excessive consumerism etc - because tomorrow it might all turn out not to be there and instead the FSB are at your doorstep and that is the end for you. It also explains why Russians horde so much cash. Because they know that if they can get on an aeroplane, cash is actually real abroad. In Russia your bank statement can say anything. It doesn't matter. It might turn out that you have more money than that (see how I understood the BIA credit card scheme - a bank card that doesn't charge you - Russia is full of things like this). Or you may turn out to have zero because the President of Russia just nationalised all your assets while you were asleep. He doesn't even have to sign something. Someone just makes a sinister phone call and that's it: all your bank balances are mysteriously zero. And so it goes on.

Society can't properly operate like this. There is nothing to hold it together. Nothing is predictable in such a system. It encourages massive theft, because as soon as you find anything that might have temporal persistence you steal it. Obviously. You don't know where your next meal is coming from if any morning you can wake up and something inexplicably weird has happened to your situation. So you steal anything that might have permanent value.

What a ghastly way of running a society.

One of the things I very much like in Russia is legislative drafting. It is preposterously obscure, usually very long, and the art seems to be to make it impossible to understand what is going on. So it has the opposite purpose to western legislation, which is to clarify legal rights and obligations. In Russia the purpose of legislation is to make everything as obscure and incomprehensible as possible. Once this fundamental fact is understood, you stop reading Russian legislation because there is no point reading something the purpose of which is to confuse.

So the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation - a truly weird institution I keep meaning to write about (where does it get its cases from? As far as I can tell, in all its cases both plaintiff and defendant are the same single person: Vladimir Putin.) So Vladimir Putin litigates with himself, wins, and then comes to a press conference with the judges commending them all for their excellent work. The problem with this entire structure, of course, is why anybody does any of these things. It doesn't seem necessary. Vladimir Putin doesn't need to litigate with himself and the Court doesn't need to rule on the issue. I think it's all about creating faux legitimacy when what is actually going on is some version of chaos.

Now it will not surprise you to learn that all the Judges of this Court are appointed by Vladimir Putin. But the legislation goes to absurd lengths to obscure this fact. Different bodies appoint different judges, and so on and so forth ad nauseam, but when you stop to analyse any one of them it all comes back to the same thing: Vladimir Putin. Everyone understands what is going on here. But the purpose of the legislation is to make everything look obscure and pseudo-legitimate when in fact it is all completely illegitimate. That's how I view all these Russian intelligence agencies. They are written into legislation precisely to obscure the real situation, which is actually very simple - Vladimir Putin can execute anyone he wants. If you accept this, then Russia's moritorium on the death penalty makes more sense. You don't need the death penalty in a country in which Vladimir Putin can just order your summary execution. There won't be a trial. You will simply disappear, and usually in stages. Firstly you will be certified sick and out of the office by a reputable doctor. Then you will join the board of directors of a state company and your photo will be on the website together with email address and telephone number. Then it will be reported in the newspaper that you have moved to a rural suburb or village (this is a particularly bad sign: if you read this about yourself then you need to leave the country immediately). The problem with all these things is that all along you may have been dead. They are all very bad signs and they tend to indicate that you are deceased.

Welcome to Russia. It's a beautiful country but a bit chilly.




Think about it


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