Sunday, July 27, 2008

Marvelling at Russian Wonders

Russia is a wondrous country. To this most Russians themselves as well as foreigners would agree. Still, as the new seven wonders of the world were chosen by an international vote in July last year, no Russian landmark found its way onto the top list. Appauled by this obvious feat of ignorance, Russian travel magazine Vsemirny Sledopyt arranged its own vote on the Seven Wonders of Russia, beginning in August last year. Still, as events has shown, it would not be Russia if the process since had not make one wonder.

That Vsemirny Sledopyt in a PR-coup used Russian indignation to boost sales of its magazine is perhaps no wonder, using each issue to present a new candidate for the top seven. However, closing in on the end of its year-long campaign it was to meet with unexpected competition to the Internet-voting initiative it had set up.

Thus, in February this year, a consortium of mighty media moguls opened up its own competition on the Seven Wonders of Russia. During spring, a number of qualifying heats were undertaken, to nominate 49 wonders representing the seven federal districts of the country. For the final vote, conveniently decided for the 12 June independence celebrations, the number of nominees were down to 14. In the end, 25 million votes were cast, outnumbering Vsemirny Slepotyt's vote by some 100 times.

So, which are the seven wonders of Russia? This is where it becomes interesting. On its part, Vsemirny Sledopyt's competition ended with the following results:
  1. The Kazan Kremlin together with its Qolsharif Mosque and the Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral, Kazan;
  2. Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery, Pechora;
  3. Palace Square and Winter Palace, St. Petersburg;
  4. Kizhi Museum Reserve, Karelia;
  5. Tobolsk Kremlin, Tobolsk;
  6. Vyborg Castle, Leningrad region;
  7. Novgorod Kremlin and St. Sophia Cathedral, Veliky Novgorod.

Turning to the bigger competition - the media managed independence day vote - results came out somewhat differently:

  1. Mount Elbrus, Kabardino-Balkaria;
  2. Geyser Valley, Kamchatka;
  3. Lake Baikal, Irkutsk region;
  4. Columns of Erosion, Komi Republic;
  5. Peterhof, St. Petersburg;
  6. Mamaev Kurgan and the Statue of the Motherland, Volgograd;
  7. St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow.

Whereas all the wonders on Vsemirny Sledopyt's list are historical architectural landmarks, the four at the top of the independence day vote are natural phenomena. So, is it a fact that most Russians prefer nature to history when it comes to the things they are most proud of their country for? That is undeniably the impression one gets if judging from the larger independence day vote. Instead of choosing man-made wonders representing how the Russian nation was forged, the overwhelming majority of the 25 million Russians in the vote - almost a fifth of the population - opted for politically and historically neutral natural phenomena.

Still, that is not necessarily a correct conclusion, as the results might as well reflect the process of picking out the candidate wonders. Initially basing it on geographical representation instead of e.g. population density, the list of candidates gets distorted from the outset. Population centres naturally have more landmarks than sparsely populated areas, so setting these on an equal footing may well eliminate otherwise competitive candidates. Take for instance all phenomena in proximity to St. Petersburg as an example. On Vsemirny Sledopyt's list, five out of seven wonders are within a day's trip of this city. Consequently, if departing from regional representation, all but one of them might have been eliminated almost from the outset in the larger independence day vote.

Turning to Vsemirny Sledopdyt's list of the seven wonders of Russia, there are also some interesting results. Heading the list is the Kazan cathedral in the capital of Tatarstan, which - despite the historical significance of its conquest by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 - remains a centre predominantly of Tatar and not Russian history and culture. Another example is Vyborg castle, constructed by the Swedes in the 13th century. Still, what is even more interesting is that the list misses any representative of Muscovy - the hub of Russian national history. Instead, it seems as if it is dominated by places representing the country's historical expansion or locations that once lay at the perimeters of the empire.

So, are there any conclusions to draw from the two competitions on the Seven Wonders of Russia? What both lists illustrate is perhaps why no Russian landmark ended up as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Far too many Russian wonders on the two toplists are next to unknown internationally. How many foreigners have heard of Kazan or Mount Elbrus in comparison to e.g. Indian Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, or the Colosseum in Rome? As for the results of the two Russian votes, they portray an image of Russia as unexpected for itself as for the world. Is this Russia as we see it - whether Russian or foreigner? Do they represent the nation, its history, culture, geography or identity - how and to what extent? Lacking proper answers to these questions, both lists of the Seven Wonders of Russia remain as wondrous as the wonders themselves.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Dividing the spoils of deceptive democracy

What makes a candidate stand for an election that he knows he cannot win, and in the process is destined to drift to the verge of bankruptcy? As inside information on the intense struggle leading up to the Duma elections last December is beginning to leak out, a clearer picture evolves of how political and economic power is divided in today's Russia.

2007 was truly an eventful year in Russia. Information on deals, negotiations, and intrigues in the ongoing process of how to divide power and resources in the country regularly floated to the surface. Most, however, remained unknown to the general public. It soon became clear that the decisive factor was not the 2008 presidential elections, but the parliamentary ones in December for the State Duma seats. Here, defending and conquering positions, not only in parliament but also in the incoming administration, was arguably a much more important process than the ongoing Chekist struggle.

One example may illustrate this. A candidate running for a loyalist opposition party in one of the larger contitiencies used an average of USD 1 million a week during the campaign, totalling USD 6 million in the end. However, this was merely the money the candidate in question took out of his own pocket, which also must be put in perspective of the additional money he received from other funders. What is significant is that the candidate was not even running for the power party - United Russia - and knew quite well he would never get elected.

So, what makes a person spend so much money on something he beforehand knows will not result in a parliamentary seat? The question here is clearly not to succeed but merely to be in the race. For the main reason for such a candidacy is what might be acchieved in the process of running and in its aftermath. On the one hand it is a question of defending existing political and business interests, on the other to try to conquer new ground on the expense of competing interests. Needless to say, the failed candidacy resulted in an offer of a high-ranking job in the incoming administration already on the day after the elections.

Furthermore, it has become apparent that the process exemplified above has come not only to involve Russia, but also neighbouring states. Last summer, a man who for weeks had been criss-crossing the border from a neighbouring state in the end attracted the attention of customs authorities. Intercepting him, customs found a case containing USD 100.000 in cash. Questioning him, it turned out that the money was intended as campaign funds for a candidate in the upcoming Russian elections. By funding his candidacy, business circles in the neighbouring country hoped that he might protect their economic interests in relation to Russia. Apparently, the detainee had been smuggling equivalent sums on a daily basis for several weeks.

That great sums of money were in sway last year is quite apparent. Less attention has been given to the results of the struggle for political and economic positions. Another interesting observation is that United Russia's full-out victory may not have resulted in their absolute domination of government. In today's Russia, also loyal opposition may be rewarded if the candidate in question is sufficiently successful in defending the political and economic interests of himself and his backers. Even if United Russia nominally has next to absolute power, it seems that the party has to employ some sort of "trickle-down" system, to better reflect the actual situation rather than the one produced by the elections. Popular power is not always real power, it seems.

What is worrisome is the effects this may have for the current Russian government. Both Medvedev and Putin have underlined the importance of building rule of law in Russia and fighting the omnipresent malaise of corruption. However, they are put to run a power apparatus where many people have spent a lot of money to get where they are. Drained of economic resources, these people have to compensate themselves somehow to cover losses incurred. The obvious answer is to seek refuge in corruption to get back the money they have lost. Therefore, all talk of fighting the malaise seems empty, when rationality and reality among government officials assumably would result in a drastic rise in corruption.

Still, this is how spoils are divided in a deceptive democracy, and perhaps one should not be totally moralistic when knowing that these are the realities any Russian leaders have to deal with. Even if finding Russian democracy a mere mockery of the term, one should perhaps take a closer look at such informal redistribution of power. Democracy it aint, but perhaps it is a step back from the total power of Putinism feared by the West.