In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate – in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.
Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.
And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.
The local administration and power brokers simply ignore him and carry on as before. That complaint was voiced by many of the young journalists at the conference, who see their revelations treated with the arrogant disdain of silence. They have no illusions about their situation. The majority work in the provinces, and try to practise journalism in cities where the power structure, official and corporate, would often unite to squash or punish journalism that was out of line. When critical or revelatory pieces are published, they have found – as has Edward Mochalov – that nothing changes.
This month’s scandal in Russia concerns Alexander Provotorov, head of the state telecommunications corporation Rostelekom. Provotorov is being investigated with others over his acts as a partner in Marshall Capital, a private equity firm, and the default of one of its subsidiaries on a $225 million loan.
Among citizens, corruption produces disgust, mirrored increasingly in popular newspapers like Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Moscow tabloid, as well as on websites read by the young. According to a poll by the non-governmental Russian research organisation, Levada Centre, the number of people who believe that bureaucrats work mainly for their own enrichment has grown from 3 per cent to almost 30 per cent in two decades. It has become a more settled conviction that the political/corporate classes have constructed an all-but-impregnable fortress of wealth and privilege, with high walls to keep the rabble out and behind which they have a high old time. Putin is not thought to be far from the trough. There are allegations that his personal pile is more than $30 billion. On allegations, the Kremlin responds with silence, or a curt denial.
Putin, in last week speech, pledged to fight corruption. Yet the “dissolving” of Russia will not come, as he claims, from the imperialist designs of a hypocritical West but from the challenges – in shrinking population, polluted cities, groaning infrastructure, gross inequalities … and vast corruption. To deal with those, he needs to be part of a global solution. For the moment, though, he isolates himself in the very problem he needs to fix.