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19 February 2016

The Culture of Destruction

The mayor of Moscow’s demolition of ‘unauthorized constructions’ fits neatly with the norms at the heart of Putin’s political culture

The night of February 8, on which more than 50 outlets situated next to subway station entrances were torn down in Moscow, has been dubbed ‘the night of the long bucket teeth’ by residents of the capital. Apart from the kiosks which were completely demolished, dozens more were damaged by the construction equipment used. All were victims on mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s list of ‘unauthorized constructions’.

Demolition was carried out in different parts of Moscow simultaneously. In some cases, people barely had time to evacuate the outlets. In many cases, the goods of innocent tenants were left buried in the rubble. The images showing the devastation via the Internet immediately triggered a multitude of questions from both the public and journalists.

The latter managed to discover that only three out of all of the demolished/damaged buildings were indeed lacking the status of legal property. A court ruling confirming the legality of the rest of the structures had already been issued. Court orders indicate that municipal authorities had known about the now torn down outlets for a long time but had taken no action aimed at removing them. In some of the lawsuits, entrepreneurs pointed to the expiry of the statute of limitations of the claims of the Moscow authorities.

In accordance with current Russian legislation, only construction previously deemed ‘unauthorized’ by a court through administrative decisions could be subject to demolition. One cannot speak of the legality of demolitions without a prior court decision. However, by giving the go-ahead to illegal demolition, Sobyanin did nothing extraordinary. He operates within a political culture which has been instilled in Russia for the last 15, or even 20 years. The history of mass demolition of real estate in Moscow, like the history of Kadyrov’s threats against the opposition are slightly more visual manifestations of this culture.

Political culture is something which is not registered anywhere. Theoretically, in fact, it should be a consequence of the fundamental law which is at the core of state development – the Constitution. But in reality, in Russia, the Constitution is one thing and the culture that currently allows for such deeds in the Russian state  – is an entirely different thing. 

What fundamental value system is behind this policy and this system of governance? What tendencies are creatively developed by Sobyanin and Kadyrov?

The primary and most troubling thing at the heart of the Russian system of governance is legal nihilism. The fact that ‘papers of ownership’ serve only as a cover-up and not as documents whose status is guaranteed by the entire system of state power is not Sobyanin’s brainchild. This was the idea behind the large-scale construction works carried out in Sochi prior to the Olympics. The same idea was the basis for the war with Georgia and led to the annexation of Crimea. The very essence of this idea is reflected perfectly in the proverb ‘It is forbidden, but if you really want it badly, then it is permitted’. ‘You want it badly’ is usually backed up by overtly transcendent arguments about patriotism, Korsun or historical truth. This time abstract ‘beauty’ has become an excuse for illegal actions. ‘It is ugly’ - the decision was made. Hence, all the state-registered documents are not worth the paper they are printed on.

However, conflicting stories also unravel in Moscow on a regular basis, stories in which ‘high transcendence’ outweighs aesthetic unattractiveness. It is high time to recall the story of the erection of the monument to Saint Vladimir, capable of spoiling the historical appearance of one of the city’s most beautiful, UNESCO-listed squares near the Kremlin.

The legal nihilism of Putin’s state has become its birth trauma. After all, Putin was appointed successor against the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, contrary to the democratic principles laid down within it. Thus, the decree ‘On Entrusting the Duties of the President of Russia to the Chairman of the Government Vladimir Putin’ announced by Yeltsin on December 31, 1999, can also be referred to as ‘a piece of paper’ in keeping with Sobyanin.

The second characteristic feature of Russian policy is the destruction of the notion of public reputation, emphasized by the sleight of hand when organizing elections at all levels. The reputation of a politician is not important for its own sake, but as a tool for supporting political culture and political accountability at the required level. No one cares about political reputation in a state where elections are not a tool that power elites are oriented towards in their political struggle. It is quite a different matter to have the ability to be loyal and to be a team player within a narrow circle. For voters, and even for the rest of the world, communication at the level ‘it sank’ – uttered by Vladimir Putin at the onset of his political career - is quite acceptable (‘It sank’ was the phrase Putin used in response to a question posed by Larry King on the Kursk submarine tragedy – Ed.). And this is precisely why Sobyanin does not care about appearances in the eyes of Muscovites when he arranges actions of this kind.

The third fundamental managerial direction at the core of Putin’s policy is abhorrence of diversity and passion for consolidation. Back in the early 2000s, this idea resulted in the creation of federal districts and the institution of presidential political representation. The idea has lost its original lustre over the years since it came across a simple existential law: life does not hold much truck with sameness. This is the law of nature: growth requires variability. Passion for consolidation and sameness is most vividly reflected in the field of education. Despite variability, the autonomy of schools and democratic rules of governance laid down in the ‘Law on education’, contradictory managerial decisions have been taken in this area in recent years. School consolidation is carried out and school uniforms, abolished in the 1990s, are re-introduced in Moscow and other regions. A universal history textbook is being developed. Educational management authorities actively interfere in the internal affairs of schools and kindergartens. And adults enjoy watching TV which cannot boast of presenting a variety of views following the crackdown on NTV in 2001. The demolition of small shops is beneficial to large retail chains first and foremost, since they, in fact, monopolize trade in Moscow, generating larger profits and kickbacks.

There is yet another motive behind the wish to consolidate and simplify – the desire to find simple solutions. It is too difficult for the Russian authorities to negotiate with different elites using different approaches, to identify common goals and make compromises with society, to devise strategies and simulate risks. It is much easier to hit one on the head, to imprison the next one and to just give a pointer to the third one – and there is no one left to negotiate. Putin’s May decrees are a case in point. Irresponsible managerial decisions in the social sphere are much more expensive than the illiterate management in business simply because they result in unpredictable and postponed results. And so Sobyanin finds it troublesome and not very profitable to come to terms with small business. Large monopolists – this is a different story. Besides, it is much easier to tear down everything during one night than try and sort out each case individually.

Yet another generic feature of the Putin’s system of power is the desire to ignore the political subjectivity of all except for those at the apex of the elite. That is why, in order to be heard by the authorities at any level, one must either shout very loud, gather together people who can shout even louder or find someone representing the elite who will speak on his behalf.

The destruction of political subjectivity of a citizen ultimately brings about the nullification of diversity (he who is non-existent cannot be diverse) and the possibility of destroying the institution of reputation (there can be no reputation if there are no political subjects).

All in all, we can see that Sobyanin’s actions neatly fit these basic trends: legal nihilism, lack of respect for public reputation, commitment to consolidation and simple solutions, and the denial of citizens’ political subjectivity. This is why the demolition of kiosks, carried out at night, does not seem like something extraordinary despite its vivid form. Due to its apparent extravagance, this action only served to highlight the peculiarities of Russian policy of the last 15 years which are not very clear to politicians raised in Western political culture and guided by completely different ideas of the norm.

It is precisely this norm which is the measure for the political system. When we are told about monstrous corruption in a particular country, it is necessary to understand to what extent this corruption is perceived as a norm by society in this country or whether condemnation of the illegal gain is the norm. Norms at the core of Putin’s state inevitably lead to special operations aimed at the destruction of the notion of private ownership, public threats of a certain pro-government politician against the opposition and thousands of other heinous and anti-constitutional (albeit not so vivid) deeds which mar every information day in Russia.

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