Moscow’s Bread and Circus

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Last night, Muscovites were doing the kinds of things that would normally land them in a police precinct house. They were drinking publicly, making loud noises, and leaning dangerously out of car windows.

But the police kept their distance, and everyone eventually went home. On Sunday, Russia defeated Spain, world champions in 2010, and — for the first time in the country’s modern history — went on to reach the quarterfinals of a FIFA World Cup. The play was not stellar, but it was disciplined enough to withstand Spain’s pressure. The Russian goalkeeper’s two saves during the penalty shootout will no doubt go down in history.

All thought of politics will be gone for a few days, or even weeks, but with the unpopular pension and tax reforms looming, it will creep back in soon enough.

On Sunday night, Russians were doing things others would normally do on a night like this — in Madrid or Paris, that is. But I can’t remember Muscovites having a moment of celebration quite like this. It was unusual in its spontaneity, not in scale. In fact, it was a little subdued, for lack of practice.

People seemed to have picked up their moves from watching television or from travels abroad. Everyone was learning on the go: this is how one sings in public, this is how one waves a flag.

“When people got tired of shouting, ‘Russia, Russia,’ they started singing. First, the anthem out of key, then ‘There Is Only a Moment,’ ‘Victory Day’ (Soviet songs),” Vasily Esmanov, media entrepreneur and founder of Look At Me publishers, wrote on his Facebook page. “We got out of the habit of coming together voluntarily and genuinely or, more to the point, we actually never had that habit. We don’t know how to celebrate. The ideas ran out in about 40 minutes.”

Moscow’s mass events have been either staged by the authorities or aimed at the authorities. People taking part in them have been either awkward or fearful of reprisals. And even during the protests of 2011 and early 2012, most of which were quite relaxed, the mood was political, not just celebratory.

Watching the crowd rave about their national team was unusual. For years, the Russian team would stumble from one embarrassment to the next. One has to go as far as the 1970 World Cup in Mexico to get to a moment when the Soviet players reached a quarterfinal. The USSR’s best result was fourth place in the 1966 championship. Modern Russia has never broken out of the tournament’s group stage, which precedes playoffs.

Of all those who took to the streets on Sunday, barely anyone could remember that distant history. For most people, yesterday’s win was a first. The team surprised both its fans and its detractors. It surprised President Vladimir Putin himself, who considers the 2018 World Cup a major political coup. Putin did not attend the game, apparently to spare the players the pressure and avoid having to watch his side lose.

On gambling sites, 80 percent of the bets were on Spain winning the game. Bookmakers won big-time because of Russia’s surprise victory, the Bell, an independent news resource reported. This means that many of those who celebrated were in fact betting against Russia's winning the game.

Despite the festive mood, political sobriety was not fully abandoned during the night of celebrations. “Now they can hike the value-added tax (VAT) even to 30% and the retirement age to 90 years old,” I overheard someone say in a Moscow bar yesterday.

Everyone laughed uneasily while falling back to Earth and realizing that the government was using the World Cup as a distraction. During the early stages of the championship, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, announced that his government would increase the VAT, and gradually, within 10 years, increase the eligibility age for pensions from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. The move is highly unpopular in Russia, a country where life expectancy, especially for men, is low.

According to the Russian Confederation of Labour (KTR), Russia’s regional statistics show the average life expectancy of men is less than 65 in more than 60 regions of Russia, which make up roughly two-thirds of the country. World Bank estimates also had Russian male life expectancy at 66, while the CIA’s World Factbook had it at 65. Women can expect to live to about 77.

The national average life expectancy is projected to grow to 76 by the time the retirement age will finally reach the new level. Many people in Russia — up to 40 percent of all those employed, by some estimates — work in the shadow economy, the part of the economy that escapes the state’s attention. They do not pay social taxes; they will be eligible only for a very low old-age pension and therefore, do not expect to rely on it. Russia has the world’s fourth-largest shadow economy, after Ukraine, Nigeria, and Azerbaijan.

For many Russians, then, the state pension will not mean much. People do not expect the government to take care of all their needs, the way it was in the Soviet Union. And yet, the state pension is an important symbol. It is one of those few real obligations that the Russian state has retained from the Soviet period. The myth (the reality was far from rosy) of the good life of a Soviet pensioner is strong in people’s imagination.

Increasing taxes, raising the retirement age, even starting another war because Russia is doing so well in soccer are the recurring jokes on Moscow’s streets. People compete in creativity in trying to imagine what else the government can do to them while everyone is distracted by the World Cup. One of the jokes is that Putin will now present Igor Akinfeev, who saved two penalties, with a village complete with peasants, just as a czar would do to reward a courtier. “If Russia gets to semifinals, they will reintroduce serfdom,” other people were saying.

These jokes are remarkable in their sober assessment of the kind of trade-off the Kremlin is offering to the Russian public: If we give you enough bread and circuses, don’t be surprised if further freedoms and rights are taken from you.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.
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