Krakow Film Festival 2024

Russia’s race to the bottom

RUSSIA / In this book, Alexander Etkind states that Russia is the least equal, the most militarised, and the most carbonised of all the world's major countries.

Russia Against Modernity
Author: Alexander Etkind
Publisher: Polity Press, USA

In this book, the war in Ukraine is in the past: A peace conference is held, modelled on the Paris Agreement of 1918-19: «From Ukraine to Mongolia, the neighbours of the new countries mediated in the negotiations. Experienced federations such as the EU and the USA contributed. The new countries remembered their long period of subservience to the Federation [Russia] with disdain. Above all, they were grateful to the country that had triumphed over the Federation in the war.»

In his book Russia Against Modernity, Alexander Etkind – a historian and cultural researcher from St Petersburg – moves elegantly out of the present. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the ‘Federation’, has suffered a self-inflicted fate: disintegration. With the regenerative powers of a phoenix, states covering one-sixth of the earth’s total surface area have reborn themselves. It is a scenario that Etkind substantiates with historically based analysis – and a God-given optimism.

At the centre is Putin’s parasitic corruption embedded in this kleptocratic regime. Post-Soviet Russia measures the world’s fastest rise in inequality. After the anti-Putin protests of 2011/12, it increased further.

An abyss had opened up for the man at the top. Modernisation would involve an active civil society, freedom of speech, demands for better healthcare, more opportunities for ordinary citizens and attacks on the state kleptocracy. So, what was Putin’s countermeasure? A step backwards: a traditional Russia with obedient babushkas, old-fashioned grandmothers who took care of child-rearing, a refuge in traditional religious morality, xenophobia and strict gender conformity. Like a clique of wandering fossils wading through fossil energy. Etkind asks rhetorically: «When was the last time someone bought a computer chip made in Russia?»

The two types of modernity

Etkind presents two models: palaeomodernity (typical of the Soviet Union), which defines progress where nature is maximised. The more resources that are used and the more energy consumed, the higher the civilisation rating. Modernity thus represents the opposite relationship between progress and nature. In Gaia modernity, the growth concept of palaeomodernity becomes a fetish that must be abolished. The Gaia model celebrates racial, sexual and intellectual diversity. It abhors monopolies and oligarchs. Gaia modernity is «an evolving utopia. We live with its birth pangs as our history accelerates.»

The Gaia model celebrates racial, sexual and intellectual diversity.

Climate and fossil fuels

According to Etkind, growing climate awareness and social inequality are the biggest threats to Putin’s «oil-fuelled” (mis)government. The average income in Russia in 2021 was ranked 46th globally – lower than in Lebanon or Bulgaria. Since oil extraction does not require much labour, the wealth does not accrue to the people. The state uses or saves the profits for itself. «The Russian state confronts modernity by drilling for oil and gas, occupying foreign states, accumulating gold, financing far-right movements around the world and destroying Ukraine.» The goal is to restore palaeo-modernity on the Soviet pattern, with ‘oil, steel and smoke’, with majestic military power and the forced obedience of the people, including Putin-signed murder and persecution.

Much effort is being put into trying to demonstrate that climate change is a scientific conspiracy. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol – the first international agreement with concrete figures and deadlines for industrialised countries’ climate emissions – was a ‘death treaty’ whose main goal was to stifle economic growth, according to Putin’s economic advisor in 2000-2005. But with growing global ecological awareness and a corresponding willingness to make decisions, it turned out that the sellers of carbon suffered more than the buyers. At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, President Medvedev promised to increase Russian energy efficiency by 40 percent. The promise was never realised. And since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has become a pariah state that has lost many of its old trading partners in Europe. A state that has no alternative sources of income to fall back on. Moreover, as oil and gas are phased out and replaced by renewable energy, fossil energy is an industry with an expiry date, regardless of trading partners.

fossil energy is an industry with an expiry date, regardless of trading partners.

Russia’s lost prospects

Totalitarian regimes crush the free flow of information. In November 2021, a survey showed that 61 percent of Russians believed that COVID-19 was a biological weapon. The Freedom of Expression Index had long been a sad chapter, and in 2022, Russia was ranked 158th, tied with Afghanistan. As well as the fourth biggest polluter in the world. Under Putin’s rule, Etkind states, Russia is the least equal, the most militarised, and the most carbonised of all the world’s major countries.

Russia’s dependence on oil and gas also has a knock-on effect on the country itself. In 2019, the European Parliament passed a law requiring ownership of pipelines entering European territory to be separated from ownership of the gas supply. The state-owned Russian oil company Gazprom sabotaged the regulations. Etkind: «It was the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war that broke Russia’s fossil fuel backbone.» Gazprom invested $320 billion in new drills and pipes, mainly unused.

Another factor that has accelerated Russia’s lost prospects is mass emigration. Five million people left the country during the first twenty years of Putin’s regime. 300,000 followed the outbreak of war in 2022, and around 200,000 left in response to the partial mobilisation in September of that year. Many of these emigrants were skilled IT experts, journalists and engineers. Putin’s administration is unlikely to mind losing its young and educated citizens, as they represent the feared protest generation. Putin’s war is thus also a war between generations, between the young who hope for a brighter future and the old who have never freed themselves from their past-orientated pipe dreams.

On the same day that Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, he gave a televised speech – a long explanation of why the «military operation» was a necessary defence against the West’s alleged aggression. The topics were World War II, NATO expansion and «the reorientation of the world.» With this, Putin effectively declared war on the US and its allies. Ukraine’s existence was not mentioned. Not in the speech nor in any of Putin’s other scenarios.

In Alexander Etkind’s future scenario, however, it is Russia that has disintegrated in its current form after Ukraine’s victory.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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