“As an answer to Western sanctions, we will bomb Voronezh“. This sentence, if stated by a Russian politician, would sound weird and grotesque. As a matter of fact, Voronezh is an historical centre of Western Russia: why would Putin start bombing his own citizens as an answer to foreign threats? However, this meme went viral a several years ago in Russian social networks and was analyzed this year by Russian journal The New Times.
This phenomenon, also known as Voronezh syndrome, makes no logical sense if not related to the everyday reality of Russian society. The meaning of this syndrome can be stated in plain terms: as an answer to Western threats or sanctions against Russian political and economic elite, the ruling class chose during the last years to adopt measures that harm its citizens, and the weakest among them in particular. In order to better understand the dynamics and consequences of this phenomenon, it will be useful to remember three recent cases happened in Russia which embody, each in its own way, a particular aspect of this syndrom.
Standoff on adoptions
The first time this expression appeared was during the diplomatic standoff between United States and Russia over the Magnitsky Act, a set of sanctions adopted in 2012 by the American governement against Russian officials held responsible for the conviction and the death of the lawyer Sergey Magnitsky. Russia’s answer to this measure was a highly controversial federal law which, in order to protect fundamental rights of Russian citizens, banned the adoption of Russian children by American citizens.
The law was allegedly inspired by the death of Dima Yakovlev, a toddler from the Pskov region adopted in 2008 by Harrison family from Virginia and tragically deceased a few months after the adoption because of a fatal mistake of his adoptive father. The case spurred indignation in Russian society because of alleged frauds in the adoption procedure and of the absolution of the father, who had forgotten the child in a closed car for 9 hours. United Russia proposed to name the law after Dima, whereas MP Vyacheslav Nikonov stated that the law should be devoted “to the memory of all Russian adopted children dead in the United States”.
The first noticeable element of this case was that Russia answered to sanctions against its politicians with sanctions against American adoptive families. However, this circumstance had huge consequences also on Russian orphans. On one side, the steep decrease in foreign family adoptions was not counterbalanced by an equal increase of national adoptions. On the other, orphans suffering from physical and behavioural conditions (heart diseases, Down syndrome…), who are normally picked by Western families and discarded by Russian ones, have seen their hopes crushed: they will in fact face tremendous troubles in getting a family and the treatments they need in order to integrate with the outside world and conduct a normal life, which are not always available in Russia.
But the defense of Russian orphans from abuses abroad has recently taken also a more traditionalist tint. As a matter of fact, in Summer 2013 the Duma approved a new law on adoptions which makes adoption of Russian children in countries where omosexual marriage is legal de facto impossible. This was done solely in order to protect Russian children from pedophilia and similar abuses, and, although juxtaposing omosexuality and pedophilia may sound outrageous in Western countries, this overlap is hardly rare in Russia, even at a public level.
Bombing independent research
The second case taken into consideration relates to the law on foreign agents, adopted in 2012 in order to control the activism in Russia of organizations funded by foreign donations and involved in political activity. This measure has had a strong impact on the activity of NGO in Russia (they were substantially forced to shut down) and it represented the answer of the Kremlin to the danger of foreign inflitrations aimed at destabilizing the internal political environment, which has been a constant Russian fear since the coloured revolutions in the post-Soviet area.
However, last Spring the country was shocked by the decision of the Ministry of Justice to add to the list of foreign agents the Dinasty foundation, founded in 2002 by Dmitri Zimin and active in the popularization of natural sciences and in providing grants for research. Troubles came to visit the foundation for two trivial reasons: its financial involvement in Liberal Mission, a forum organizing roundtables with economists, sociologists and liberal.ì-thinking analysts, and the source of its funds, largely provided by Zimin through its foreign bank accounts. From a purely juridical viewpoint, the already vague law on foreign agents was undoubtedly overstretched in this case, due to the political discretion enjoyed by the Ministry of Justice.
Dinasty’s founder, while admitting his shock, stated that this situation forced him to stop financing the organization, thus forcing it to shut down and freezing the 8,6$ million available for research financing this year. The outlook on scientific research in Russia thus looks even bleaker, given the constant lack of funds and of transparency in its management. Dinasty was not the only private grant-povider in Russia, but also, as many researchers and scholars stated, the only organization able or willing to organize transparent competition for grants. This huge loss took researchers to organize a public demonstration on the 6th of June in Moscow, with 2,500 people present.
Restrictive pluralism in regional elections
The last case mentioned in this list is the one of Russia’s regional elections, held this Sunday 13th September in many subjects of the Russian Federation for the election of regional Duma and presidents. During this Summer the new opposition party, the Democratic Coalition (Demokoalitsya), underwent a kafkaesque experience in the attempt to take part in the elections of four regions (Magadan, Novosibirsk, Kaluga and Kostroma). Open primaries were held, since the coalition unites a variety of subjects from the Russian opposition, and signatures were collected. As a result, the opposition had its application rejected in Novosibirsk and Magadan and it even refused to apply to the electoral committee in Kaluga since many signatures had been falsified as a result of the action of saboteurs.
The only positive result, after intimidations, hostility from officials and hunger strikes, was in Kostroma, where the opposition was allowed to elections after an early reject. However, it seems by far too little an outcome, since the real goal of the new coalition was to push for change in financially-troubled regional subjects and to obtain credibility to be spent in the 2016 Duma elections. Instead, electors are left with largely predictable elections without real competition.
This list of events doesn’t wish to be exhaustive nor to generalize the meaning of single and complex events. This article is just meant to translate in the present of Russian politics a phenomenon historically entrenched in the country’s history: the clash between state interests and individual ones. Culturally grounded on the core notion that a strong state is necessary for the survival and the well-being of the community, the Russian state evolved throughout history with diverse but constant features of power concentration (autocracy, single party, super-presidentialism…) and, also due to its geographic position, has always given priority to territorial security against the social and economic development of the country.
This situation of latent contrast between state security and social development has been even more acute in Russia because of the country’s tendency toward political stability, that is insufficient replacement rate in power structures, which is bound to widen the gap between society and the ruling class in the long term. This gap has been historically bridged through radical breaks in the political regime, which often caused or exacerbated social instability and economic crises.
It is hard to say whether Putin’s regime will have to face such a bleak outcome. However, the Kremlin must certainly avoid any step which could further widen the gap with the civil society, which seems already wide with the areas of the population hit by abovementioned measures and could turn even worse as a consequence of monetary and economic crises. If the gap becomes too wide, parts of the civil society could start believing that the only way to oppose the current regime is a violent one, with possible disruptive consequences on the state’s integrity. With decreasing state legitimacy and power, this time it could be Voronezh that turns its cannons against the Kremlin.