The Sweet Smell of Russian Corruption

Owen Matthews has a great essay on Russian corruption and the murder of Sergei Magnitsky published in the The Spectator.  He makes some pretty powerful observations, bringing into focus just how tenuous the security is even for a so-called Kremlin business insider – with no rule of law, anybody can go down.

The nature of Russian governance has moved on somewhat since the 16th century. But one thing has remained the same: post-Soviet Russia is a profoundly feudal society. I don’t mean that as a generalised insult denoting ignorance and backwardness. I mean really feudal, in its most literal sense. Feudalism is the exchange of service for protection. In the absence of functional legal or law enforcement systems, people’s only real protection lies in a network of personal and professional relationships with powerful individuals. And so it is in Russia today — for every member of society with something, however small, to lose, from a market stall owner to the nation’s top oligarchs. Your freedom from arbitrary arrest, fraudulent expropriation and extortion by bureaucrats is only as good as your connections.

Dmitry Medvedev understands this problem all too well. He puts it indifferent terms, of course, railing against the ‘legal nihilism’ whichis rotting Russia from within. But we’re talking about the same thing.It’s precisely because Russia’s legal system is for sale to the highest(or most powerful) bidder, because bureaucrats are above the law andbecause policemen are not only corrupt but actively criminal thatRussians turn to older rhythms of social organisation — to personal,feudal relationships with individuals and institutions that can providesecurity. Russians buy the protection that the state cannot provide.

It’s hard to overstate how serious and corrosive a problem thislegal nihilism is — and how fundamentally it stops Russia from becominga normal, functional society and economy. One recent case shows justhow deep the rot goes — and how powerless, and ultimately unwilling,even Medvedev is really to change the system. (…)

Medvedev is not a fool; he knows the system from both sides, from hisdays as a corporate lawyer and major shareholder in a paper-pulpcompany in the 1990s. But his tragedy is to believe that the system canbe fixed on its own terms, and that he can change things for the betterfrom the inside. Lord knows, this energetic, fragrant little man iscertainly no Ivan the Terrible. But at some deep level he stillbelieves that it’s the Tsar, and by extension the state, which mustrule and which must solve Russia’s problems. But in reality it’s therotten state itself which is Russia’s biggest problem, corrupting andruining everything it touches. Medvedev doesn’t want to see that it’sonly outside forces — courts, media, opposition, an open society — thatcan stop the putrefaction which is not only dragging Russia back intoits own dark past, but also robbing it of its future.