Is corruption in Russia's DNA?

It is difficult to think back to a time when corruption was not endemic in Russia. It is now crippling the country, yet it is still low on the list of immediate concerns for most ordinary Russians. Why is there so little will to fight it, asks Pyotr Filippov?

Pyotr Filippov
16 November 2011

Missed opportunities

In the autumn of 1991, after seven decades of totalitarianism, a ‘window of opportunity’ opened up for Russia: it could have become a democratic state with the rule of law and a competitive market economy. But these opportunities were not fully exploited.

Reformers were in the minority in Yeltsin’s entourage. They were mainly concerned with reforming the economy, ignoring administrative reform, taming the bureaucrats or creating incentives and controls for the civil service. The reason is obvious: when the people had had enough of reforms and deprivation, the government bureaucracy was Yeltsin’s only support.

Ten years after mass privatisation was completed, an extremely corrupt political and system was firmly entrenched: crony capitalism. It was established if not exactly at the request, then certainly with the unspoken consent, of the Russian people. Why?

Boris Yeltsin encountered furious resistance from parliament to his market reforms, so he called a referendum to introduce a new constitution, which placed the president above all the branches of power and gave him almost unlimited powers.

This made the fate of the country dependent on Yeltsin’s choice of a successor and on whether he chose to think along democratic or military-administrative lines, whether he developed his ideological links with the democratically-minded intelligentsia, or the party nomenklatura, and the special services. Yeltsin chose former KGB colonel Putin.

Soviet five rouble coin

Russia's corruption levels place it among some of the world's
most backward countries. Without a bribe, you can't get a
place at a good university or an operation in a state hospital.
(Photo of a Soviet five-rouble coin: Flickr / Jimmy Jack Cane)

The government was failing in its basic duties (fighting crime) and helpless when faced with bankrupt companies, so the private sector arrogated these functions to itself. It decided it would like to replace the government in forming economic policy too.  In essence the main issue was: who’s in charge in Russia? Could the executive take important decisions without consulting the oil lobby? The outcome is well known: the oligarchs were driven out of the country, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were arrested, oil and other sectors were re-nationalised and oil production figures fell.

The return to the old ways of bureaucratic management was of most benefit to the military and the security forces (siloviki). They had been edged out under Yeltsin and regarded entrepreneurs as ‘upstarts whose income was out of all proportion to their status’. When they got back into power under Putin, they were thirsting for revenge. Crony capitalism, rooted in corruption, best suited their interests, so there was never any question of monitoring the sources of civil servants’ wealth.

To maintain their hold on power, preserve political passivity and keep the people down, the ruling elite makes skilful use of government-controlled media, primarily the country-wide state TV channels. The theory that whoever controls TV controls the country is very true of Russia today. Analytical programmes and serious political discussions have disappeared from the TV screens, to be replaced by arguments with Stalinists (who almost always manage to gain the sympathy of the audience).

Russia’s crony capitalism

Russia's corruption levels put it among the most backward countries. The 2009 World Bank rule of law statistics gave Russia 23.6 points out of a possible 100.

No businessman would risk going to the market without having acquired the protection of the powers that be, whether he is opening a shop in a small town or building a large company.

No businessman would risk going to the market without having acquired the protection of the powers that be, whether he is opening a shop in a small town or building a large company. Government contracts go to officials' 'own' companies, competitors are taken out and a monopoly situation guaranteed.

The supremacy of the law remains an empty letter. Much more important than the demands of the law are loyalty to the clan and its accepted commitments, and the value of relationships with friends or clients. People have recourse to the law only when they need help dealing with the Public Prosecutor or a kangaroo court, to punish a renegade or get rid of a competing clan.

Russian traffic policeman

Most Russians regard the law enforcement agencies as extortioners in uniform and traffic police are the most notorious practitioners: reports cite individual officers' corrupt income at up to $1000 a day.
(Photo: Flickr / Pirate Parrot)

No Russian remains unaffected by corruption on an everyday level. Without a bribe you can't get your child into nursery, have an operation in a state hospital or get into one of the prestigious higher education institutions. But the icing on the cake is the traffic police. According to information published by New Times (2009), one day's corrupt income for a traffic policeman is $1000 (of which half goes to his superiors). Everyone regards the law enforcement agencies, chiefly the police, as  extortioners in uniform and it is generally recognised that a policeman's official salary is only part of his income. Medvedev's police reform, carried out by the police establishment itself, has failed. The overwhelming majority of Russians have no more faith in the police than they did in the past.

Inequality before the law

Sociological research has shown that corruption is only ninth on the list of problems worrying Russians.

A young Muscovite summed it up quite accurately: 'Siphoning off government budget money is bad, but almost anyone in their place would do them same. I would, if I had the chance. Why should I be the exception?'

Unsurprisingly, 60% of students who responded to the question whether they would choose to be an academic, engineer, businessman or civil servant, chose the last.

'Siphoning off government budget money is bad, but almost anyone in their place would do them same. I would, if I had the chance.'

For a Russian soldier or security man in a business, the boss's commands are more important than the law. Russians generally acknowledge the situation in which they have to live and regard it as inevitable.

Everyone knows that the courts are dependent on the executive, which is why no one respects them. The overwhelming majority of Russian judges come from the Prosecutor's office or the police, or are former court secretaries, who have learnt how to behave 'correctly' in their relations with civil servants, especially those in uniform.  Russian judges still feel they are part of the punitive machinery of government, and courts mainly convict. The figures for the first six months of 2010 show that only 1% of cases ended in acquittal, whereas in pre-revolutionary Russia it was 25-30% and in Europe today the figure is 15-20%.

Russian infantilism and love of the 'strong leader'

Another important factor contributing to the orgy of corruption is civic infantilism, the reliance on a 'strong leader' – the tsar, the president – who will punish offenders and ensure a good life for all. Most Russians share in the 'macho' cult and regard strength, rather than a knowledge of economics or the law or an ability to defend the public interest, as the pre-requisite for a place in the social hierarchy. You have to be able to smash your opponents, even if you break the law to do so.

The military-administrative way of thinking rejects any 'nice little liberal ideas', such as political or economic competition, a system of checks and balances, class actions against government institutions and much else.  How can the people be the source of power? Do the soldiers command the army, not the generals?


Russia's wayward evolution of social development: centuries of serfdom, followed by the trauma of communism, have left today's decendents lacking the will to oppose the status quo.
(Images: 'The Peasant', left, by Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky; photo of Putin: Demotix / Anton Belitsky)

Or – why have private property and ruinous competition?  Progress can be guaranteed by state enterprises and smart leaders.  Remember the Soviet space achievements!

So most people in Russia are untroubled by the castration of the system of checks and balances, which gives the bureaucracy a monopoly of power and makes it unaccountable to the people. 'The Duma is no place for discussion!', as the speaker of the lower house Boris Gryzlov so clearly formulated the relationship between the elite and democracy.  The Duma obediently rubber-stamps the government's draft laws without asking any difficult questions about budget expenditure or interfering in government policy. The ruling elite's ideal Russian parliament!

This is how most Russians imagine it should be. The voters on the whole are not upset by fraud at elections: they are ready to elect the candidate recommended by the executive, or to vote a popular singer or sportsman into the Duma.

Why does the idea of forming a party to offer real opposition to the bureaucracy find no support in the masses.

It's all to do with evolution. The leader of the monkeys was always the dominant male and teenage gang leaders are similarly the strongest of the pack. The military-administrative vertical is part of our DNA, but democratic values, power sharing and a law-based society are concepts we have to learn. As civilisation developed, other qualities became more important than brute force to determine who takes what place in the social hierarchy.

Centuries of serfdom, 70 years of totalitarianism, the annihilation of millions of people with initiative, enterprise and an ability to think for themselves have left their mark. The value systems and social development of most Russians place them somewhere on a level with medieval feudal society. The country has many talented academics and writers, but the general mass of people are politically passive, ground down, socially impotent and unable to defend their rights or interests.

With the exception of Pskov and Novgorod the Great, there has never been autonomy in Russia, as there was in the cities of medieval Europe. There is no tradition of controlling expenditure for the needs of all, nor any experience of the democratic approach to paying taxes. Taxes are regarded as a tribute, rather than a pooling of resources for the common good. If a peasant has paid the prince tribute, can he ask him to account for how he spent it?

Attitudes to Putin can be strikingly illogical. A citizen will angrily curse a civil servant for stealing tax payers' money, but when it comes to the responsibilities of the prime minister in charge of a corrupt administrative vertical, he is stumped and immediately changes his tune: 'What's Putin got to do with it?  He's not to blame.'

It is the impotence of the man in the street and his conviction that he has no control over anything that moves him to give a civil servant a bribe instead of demanding that his legal rights be defended in court. And this attitude is affected by economic considerations too.  The infringement of someone's rights by a civil servant or unscrupulous businessmen may result in a loss of a few hundred roubles, but lawyers' fees for actions in Moscow or St Petersburg are calculated in tens of thousands of roubles, so individual court cases become economically unviable.  Russian law makes no provision for class actions, because that would conflict with the interests of the ruling bureaucracy. In the end it's more effective to give an official a bribe.

Conditions for reform

Oil prices are bound to fall, which means that Russia can expect social disturbances. The ruling duumvirate, faced by mass thefts of budget funds, the ineffectual administrative vertical, capital flight from Russia and a shortage of high-tech investments, can change nothing: the super elite will not permit it. Putin and Medvedev are themselves hostages to the system they have nurtured and the people have accepted. Only an economic crisis of some magnitude will be able to force the elite to divest itself of the burden of power.

Political will is key to reform. In Georgia, the most corrupt state in Soviet times, 83% of people now trust the police as a result of sweeping reforms brought in by President Saakashvili, yet it was a top-down initiative, rather than public demand, that brought them about.

Crony capitalism's permanent crisis may force the elite to agree to fair elections, a new leader may come to power with a mandate from the people to europeanise Russia (like the Brazilian president Luis da Silva). Some part of society would have to support this modernisation; there would have to be a general amnesty of unlawfully acquired funds; and the revolutionary smashing of the corrupt link between power and property should not touch the institution of private property itself.

How quickly will changes take place in people's mentality, values and attitudes? Decades? The next generation? Might globalisation and intensive cultural exchanges shorten these periods?

It took Muscovites six months to stop giving traffic the priority and to avail themselves of pedestrians' rights, as happens in Europe. This change happened spontaneously and not under pressure from the traffic police.

In Soviet times Georgia was the most corrupt republic. The reforms of President Saakashvili were not undertaken by public demand, but they have completely changed the atmosphere in the country over recent years. It's a different society today. Significantly, 83% of Georgians trust the police.

A government that has decided to modernise society will always have to take account of the values of the masses. But they have effective ways of influencing those values. Daily showings on TV of traffic policemen being arrested for taking bribes from drivers, or drivers offering bribes, will force people to think twice about how they should behave.

Bribes are a hidden way of breaking the law and only 1 in 10,000 of these crimes come to light. Corruption can only be resisted with the help of active citizens, because keeping a secret from a lot of people is very difficult. Citizens have to be given a 'legal weapon' – the right guaranteed by the law to defend the public interest in court. Getting people with a vested interest to resist corruption could be a great deal more effective than police measures or the Directorate of Public Prosecutions.

There are ways of reining in corruption, but there has to be the political will to do it.

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