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From: "Victor Kalashnikov" <machinegun@online.ru>
Subject: Mystical Roots of Putinism
Date: Sun, 11 May 2003

The Mystical Core of Russia: Tambov in facts and figures
Victor Kalashnikov
International observer, ‘Russian Courier’, Moscow

Political studies are often reproached for being too inaccurate, for relying too much on biased judgments and suggestions. Meanwhile, exact figures and clear formulas are seen as necessary requisites of any serious science like economics and statistics. Lately, several foreign analysts hired by Russian oil and gas companies, came up with very detailed calculations on how reshaping of energy sector (mainly through raising of domestic prices) would stimulate economy and life in Russia. Let me, too, share some data and facts from my recent trip to the Russian province.

In Tambov oblast, more than half of its 1.2 million people live and work in the countryside. However, they provide only 5% of the oblast’s budget revenue. Normal salary here, if only paid by the rotting kolkhozy, varies between 400 and 600 rubles ($15). People live predominantly from what they may grow on small spots around their houses which give impression of a mid-19th century existence. According to the governor Oleg Betin, the ‘natural economy’ has risen by 10 times in the recent 10 years. The positive side is that the bulk of the population remains virtually immune to outer plagues like inflation, bank crashes and so on.

Alcoholism and the overall misery have brought male life expectancy to 56 years. That pressure against the ‘head’ of the demographic pyramid goes along with incursions into its most vital middle: the Chechnya war alone has demanded 106 dead (several times more than the war in Afghanistan) so far. The number of the wounded and of those who died of wounds is unknown.

No wonder, people die two times more often than babies are born. So, depopulation goes ahead. According to local forecasts, it is easily possible that Tambov oblast will largely die out in two or three generation’s time. The horizon for longer-term reform projects is thus more or less outlined.

The problem, observers argue, has its deep roots. Tambov area, the ‘mystical core of Russia’, endowed with fascinating landscapes, fruitful soils, entrepreneurial and cultural talents, was the center of a big uprising in the 1920-s. Moscow sent over the famous Red army chief Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Just before, he had failed to pass through Poland to conquer Germany, so it was his lucky chance to save the career. The scenario ‘left any Chechnya war in shadow’, Oleg Betin said. Tukhachevsky and his troops introduced an elaborated system of genocide with mass-executions, hostage-taking and concentration camps. He also, in a pioneering way, used deadly gas against rebels and their families. No question, genetic and demographic consequences have been irreparable. Collectivization, tremendous losses of the WWII as well as post-Soviet shocks have finalized the humanitarian catastrophe.

Remarkably, some of the oblast’s bosses see parallels between conditions prior to that uprising and the current situation. Tambov is said to constitute the ‘buckle’ of the so-called ‘red belt’ in Central Russia. Protest potential is there, they said, but it surely would lead to no trouble: ‘people are too exhausted’. Moreover, there’s nothing resembling a political opposition or independent media to consolidate public discontent. There’s clear triumph of both ‘party of power’ and the ‘power vertical’ so that the much-praised stability of Putin’s regime is, in fact, guaranteed.

Tukhachevsky’s regional camp system has been developed and sophisticated during the decades with a distinctive criminal culture (traditions, songs, slang) grown up upon it. Best known are brands like: “It’s the Tambov wolf who is your comrade!” or “Who does anything bad to us, will not survive over the three days” etc.

By traveling across the oblast, I discovered dozens of $1-2 million looking villas. ‘And even much more, - I was told by my guides, - but don’t dig too dip into the issue’. Of course, I saw Gasprom and Yukos presence and activities at many places. But what was the source of their earnings with local industry just struggling for survival and purchasing power so low?

Tambov oblast lives to some 70% form federal subsidies. The administration, in joint efforts with Gasprom and Yukos management, arranges supply programs bound to secure heating, harvesting and so on. So, federal money plus gas and oil – for immensely subsidized prices! - flow in. The oblast administration together with Gasprom and Yukos partners are then left to distribute that wealth properly, what they do in the most professional way, of course. Building villas is probably one of various investment forms they practice.

In other words, taxes and exports duties Russian oil and gas companies pay to federal government, are partly compensated through mechanics like that in Tambov. I leave it to international analysts to scrutinize, what Russia and ordinary Russians would gain through rising of domestic energy prizes under current circumstances.

To reduce the problem to its heart: what may bring Russian bureaucrats to waste valuable resources for purposes they deem quite questionable - like supplying population and local economy? They may yet prosper from the familiar business of distribution without being overburdened with duties and responsibilities of the Soviet past. Why should they behave less pragmatic than they do today? Politically, they only have to stick together into still another ‘party’ ordered from Moscow and to show all loyalty to federal masters. As to the populace, it only has to be kept quiet and peaceful enough which appears to be quite an attainable goal.

Another bonanza located in Tambov oblast is Michurinsk railway station. It serves as transit knot for a quarter of a drags traffic going to Moscow and then further west.

Close to it, there’s a research institute for plant-breeding. On governor’s Betin initiative, Security Council in Moscow has approved in April a program to be run by that institute (papers available). Michurinsk will produce extremely good fruit sorts (mostly apples and pears) for entire Russia. This may help solve health and food problems in the country. As the first step Michurinsk city (including that rail-way station) will be converted into a ‘science city’ with relaxed tax and finance control.

I visited Michurinsk just a day ahead of two businessmen from Latin America, who came to arrange shipments of buses allegedly assembled in that city, into their part of the world. Governor Betin has issued his OK for the deal.

I also missed by several days a team from Moscow led by Yuri Luzhkov himself. They were desperate for the most progressive apple-trees growing know-how.

Federal funds, oil products, gas and drugs are usual fertile ground for organized crime. Tambov journalists told me that at least half of the oblast’s legislature is presented by gangster establishment. Still, they admitted, it’s practically impossible to divide between gangsters, bureaucrats and businessmen: ‘They all belong to our nomenclatura’.

An extraction from that Tambov ‘nomenclatura’ is certain Mr. K. who now commands substantial parts of St.- Pete economy and politics as head of powerful ‘Tambov’s group’. He must be well-known to western businessmen and diplomats as he sponsors both the St.-Pete’s jubilee and preparatory works for the upcoming G8 meeting.

Mr. K. has killed scores of people in Russia and elsewhere but was once severely wounded through a bomb blast as well. So, he went to Germany for a couple of years for treatment and rehabilitation. Germany looks to be quite open and hospitable to Russian gangsters and Chechen guerillas. I wish it were as much good to Russian journalists.

Support of German interests in Russia has become the privileged preoccupation of Mr. K. Here, too, he could rely on his protégé and closest associate, Vladimir Putin. Several projects they’ve launched together are still running successfully. A strong emphasis in recent years has been given to management of federal funds, infrastructure and renovation. Mr. Putin never misses opportunity to see his old friends when he gets to St.-Pete. In Tambov last April he also thanked local ‘nomenclatura’ for backing they give to his domestic and foreign policy.

This connection has a notable linguistic aspect. Specialists I met in Tambov, confirmed that version of Russian language Mr. Putin speaks, contains typical KGB-cliches mixed with Central-Russian and St.-Pete’s types of criminal slang (all those famous ‘spoiling in the loo’, ‘who does it bad to us…’ and so on). They also suggested that Mr. Putin’s vocabulary and way of expression might identify a particular criminal ‘rank’ which, they said, must be ‘pretty high’.

After another call ‘not to dig too much here’ I decided to move further East into the neighboring Saratov oblast. I arrived just in time to see celebrations marking destruction of 400 tons of CW at the Gornyi plant. The event, attended by diplomats from Finland, Netherlands and, of course, Germany, was arranged by another Mr. K, Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy. He failed to prevent the financial collapse of 1998, so, to save his career, he took over the international CW-destruction program which combines extensive funding with high technological risks. Mr. K and western diplomats spoke about a big success. However, the dissident-expert Lev Fedorov made it clear at Radio Free Europe that the project, actually, was a very dangerous fake. We shall see.

Back in Moscow I discovered in a big book-store at Tverskaya str. that a selection of different pictures of Vladimir Putin reached 30: Putin the navy commander, Putin talking, Putin thinking. And, of course, Putin is starring straight at you so that you may ‘look into his soul’ and make your own judgment.

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