Cathy Young on Putin's Russia
By David Henderson
In the November issue of Reason, Russian emigre Cathy Young writes a long, nuanced analysis of Putin’s Russia. The whole thing is worth reading. It’s titled “Dissent and Disarray in Putin’s Russia.” Underneath the title is the brief summary: “The authoritarian’s hold on power may be shakier than it looks.” Young does a good job of showing the ways in which dissent is repressed and the ways in which it’s not. I can’t do justice to those nuances in a short space. That’s why I recommend reading it for yourself.
Young is, as far as I can tell from this and other of her writing I’ve read over the years, a libertarian. Why do I mention that? Because there are some strange parts of the article. They wouldn’t be strange if this were written by someone with no identifiable ideology. But they are strange when one considers that the author is pro-liberty. I’ll point out the main two.
First, in one of her opening paragraphs, in which she compares life in Russia today with life in Russia under Leonid Brezhnev, she writes:
Now, as then, large segments of the population enjoy mostly oil-enabled material comfort relative to previous generations (even if the 1970s version of comfort, in which a color television was the height of luxury, bananas were a rare delicacy, and a trip to Crimea was a dream vacation, looks like squalor in the 2010s). Now, as then, there is a relatively mild authoritarian regime with occasional spikes of repression (even if the level of freedom in modern-day Russia, where dissidents can sell books and virtually all content is accessible on the internet, would have been unthinkable in Brezhnev’s USSR). Now, as then, there was a stagnant stability and a cynical national mood, with no visible alternatives to the existing system.
In other words, things are much better now for the average Russian. But she hides this contrast with her “Now, as then” formulation. Dissidents can now sell books and “virtually all content is accessible on the internet.” She admits that that was unthinkable during Brezhnev’s time. That’s huge.
But notice something else. By her “Now, as then” formulation, she builds her own Procrustean bed in which she can’t fit one of the biggest, if not the biggest, freedoms that Russians have now and didn’t have then. It’s one that I would think someone who left Russia in 1980 would notice. That freedom is the freedom to leave. One of the best indicators of a repressive government is its use of force to make people stay. Think, for example, of the East German government’s obscene Berlin Wall. Yet, Young says not a word about this freedom.
Second, she has a lengthy discussion of Vladimir Putin’s moves to raise “the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women over the next 15 years.” In context, it’s clear that she doesn’t mean the retirement age. She means the age at which Russians get their version of our Social Security benefits. Young, like many good journalists, does not comment on the wisdom or desirability of that proposal. But then she drops a bombshell and doesn’t even seem to realize it’s a bombshell. She writes:
One of the biggest protests against the pension reform law so far, a July 29 rally in Moscow that reportedly drew nearly 6,000 people, was organized by the Libertarian Party
Say what? One of the few pro-freedom measures Putin is pushing is to reduce the size of the welfare state by delaying the granting of government pensions. And what does the Libertarian Party of Russia do? Advocate that this part of the welfare state remain intact. Surely, in a libertarian magazine such as Reason and in an article by someone who presumably left Russia at least in part for the greater freedom she would have in the United States, that fact is worth commenting on. The sentence I quoted was the most depressing sentence I’ve read all week. And that’s in a week when I’ve read a lot about Kavanaugh and Ford.
One additional point. Young writes about the medical system:
The state of the health care system remains deplorable, with chronic shortages of painkillers and other medicine. Horror stories of understaffed hospitals with crumbling walls and ceilings, dirty bedsheets, overflowing toilets, and rude or drunk personnel appear with depressing regularity and often go viral on the internet.
Unfortunately, she never tells us about the structure of the health care system. She seems to take it for granted that we know. Is it government run as in Britain? Is it single payer as in Canada? Is it a mix of private and government, as in most places. The reader will walk away from this article not knowing.
It’s a pity. The article is quite good in laying out the details of repression—and absence of repression—of freedom of speech and dissent. But it has the major pitfalls that I’ve laid out above.