In early October, the employees of Russia's largest ammonia manufacturer, TogliattiAzot, staged a demonstration against the members of Pussy Riot, whom everyone with a TV or an Internet connection has probably heard of by now. Just to remind those who haven't (but are somehow still reading this on the Internet): Pussy Riot is a performance art collective whose members danced around near the altar of Moscow's main cathedral to protest against Vladimir Putin, Russia's president. Two of them were sentenced to two years in prison for that stunt in August. A lot of people thought that sucks.
Okay, now back to the ammonia plant. You can see a video of their protest here. The folks are holding placards in defense of Putin, the Orthodox Church and everything else that's Holy, and when they were all done standing and chanting, they passed a "resolution" inviting Pussy Riot to come to the factory for "re-education" after their release from prison.
The resolution, which I thought was pretty hilarious, read in part: "The collective at TogliattiAzot is ready to accept the hooligans from Pussy Riot at our facility after they serve their terms so that these it-girls from the capital might be re-educated in a healthy working atmosphere and assisted in becoming full-fledged members of society and real mothers." I forgot to remind you: the two young women sent off to prison camps both have toddlers missing them in Moscow. Around 3,000 ammonia workers took part in the demonstration against them anyway, including its owner, Sergei Makhlai.
Makhlai is an interesting specimen, which is why I decided to post this in the first place. (Sorry, coming to the point a little slow.) He lived in the U.S. for a good chunk of his life, and holds an MBA from the University of North Carolina. So he does not fit into the stereotypical anti-Pussy Riot mold; i.e., he is not an icon-waving Orthodox loon with a scraggly beard of the type that appeared outside the Pussy Riot trial screaming for eternal damnation.
He's pretty much a regular guy, actually. Except he runs a Russian ammonia plant, and he thinks Pussy Riot got pretty much what they deserve, which I thought was weird. So in the interest of science and objective reportage, I figured it might be interesting to have him explain that side of the argument, seeing as how he was probably better able to articulate it than the above-mentioned zealots with crosses the size of cocker spaniels. So I sent him some questions. Here is what he wrote back.
Me: Can you explain what that demonstration at your factory was all about? Just curious. Did you stage the whole thing or did people actually want to protest against three young punk rockers from Moscow?
Makhlai: The reasons for why this happened are totally clear to me. There is an enormous rift between the way that Russia's socio-political situation is seen inside Moscow's Garden Ring and the way that it is perceived in towns and cities in the depths of Russia, like Togliatti. People who finally got some certainty about tomorrow during the Putin era are very suspicious of calls for "the Mother of God to chase Putin away." Having lived through the years of self-destruction, having suffered through that, people are very sensitive to the latest attempts to once again "capsize the boat." They are very afraid of that. Pussy Riot's decision to hold their performance in the country's main cathedral evoked no less irritation. The majority of Russians, regardless of how religious they are, see the church as a structure that holds the state together and sets its moral orders and traditions. The common workers of Togliatti see Pussy Riot as artsy Moscow do-nothings. All of these emotions were expressed at the demonstration.
Me: What about the calls for "re-education"? Sounds a bit like Mao's Cultural Revolution, don't you think?
Makhlai: Such comparisons are always artificial. You could just as readily call the London and Paris riots from two years ago Nazi pogroms. The issue is not in the form or the name [of the demonstration]. People came out and expressed their thoughts as best as they were able.
Me: Did the factory's leadership support them or were these folks just using their time off to "express their thoughts"?
Makhlai: I did indeed support our collective, because I share their position that Russia has wasted its values and traditions, and that these need to be re-established. The clip of the speeches from the demonstration have gotten 1.5 million views on YouTube. That already tells you something.
Me: Moving a bit beyond the Pussy Riot issue, I wanted to ask you, a more or less prominent businessman in Russia, about what that's like. How has it changed since Putin returned for a third term as president in May? Especially with the corruption and bureaucracy, how has the business climate changed?
Makhlai: Doing serious business has never been easy anywhere. Stability is the most important factor influencing the business climate. For Russia that is really the deciding factor. It seems to me that the newly re-elected president Putin has heard and accepted many important challenges for the country. He started active anti-corruption efforts, announced the launch of new large-scale infrastructure projects, the need for re-industrialization.
Corruption is a very old and very complex problem. There are no simple answers here. In the context of a market economy and democracy you cannot just put all the corrupt people "up against the wall." TogliattiAzot has on numerous occasions dealt with issues of bureaucracy and pressure from law enforcement, when attempts were made to illegally make our lives more difficult and even seize our company. As our example shows, if you believe that you are right and feel the support of your many thousands of employees, you can fight and defeat corruption. In my opinion, and the opinion of many of the businessmen I know, the consistent effort to push out corruption from various spheres of life in Russian society has become a strategic goal for Vladimir Putin.
Me: Dmitri Medvedev, the former president and current prime minister, made "modernization" a slogan of his presidency between 2008 and 2012, and that term got a lot of media attention. What did "modernization" mean for you on the ground? Did it come to anything in reality?
Makhlai: The media mainly pay attention to initiatives like the creation of the Skolkovo [tech hub outside Moscow] and so on. I can't talk about the effectiveness of such projects, because I don't have enough information. But at TogliattiAzot modernization is constantly going on. We don't need a state directive to implement new technologies and update our equipment. This is a necessary condition for competitiveness on the global market, where we are one of the biggest suppliers of liquid ammonia. I know a lot of major Russian industrial firms where the technological base today is perfectly comparable with global standards. However there are industries, particularly in machine building and electronics, where we need a leap forward.
Me: Two of the buzzwords in Kremlinology these days are the "vertical of power," which refers to Putin's enormous chain of command from the Kremlin all the way down to the provincial factory owner, and the idea of "manual control," which refers to the fact that difficult situations often require the President himself to intervene personally. In the case of worker strikes in the factory in Pikalyovo a couple of years ago, Putin famously flew down there and ordered the factory owner, Oleg Deripaska, to sign a deal. This creates the impression that Putin is a bit of a micromanager in the business world. From your experience, is this an exaggeration? What is Putin's actual role in defining the situation on the ground?
Makhlai: The historical role of a person at the helm of Russia is exceptionally great. Putin is no exception. He is the leader, and he sets the tone. In the course of 12 years, he has had the support of the majority of the population. That has to be acknowledged. The challenges he has faced are unprecedented, and that includes the economy and social development of this huge country, the need to preserve interethnic peace, and the need to define Russia's new role in international affairs.
You probably remember how at the very beginning of his work, in the early 2000s, Putin managed to stop the practically limitless influence of the so-called oligarchs in the affairs of the state. For a person who does not understand Russian realities, that may have looked like [he was] interfering in business. But in reality that averted catastrophe. To preserve the system that formed in the 1990s would have resulted in the collapse of the state.
Me: This perspective is really common among regular working class Russians, while the experts and politicians you might meet in Moscow, and especially abroad, more often say that the Khodorkovsky trial was a blatant attempt to seize the assets of Russia's largest oil company and jail its disloyal owner. So does the average man on the street (who usually gets his news from state-run television) have a better understanding of "Russian realities" than the journalists and observers who study these realities for a living? What is the reason for such a wide gap in their assessment of that case and of Russian politics in general?
Makhlai: I would make a distinction here based on the type of observer. Western business interests, which I'm quite familiar with, see in Russia a mass of opportunities and attempt to take advantage of them. Their assessments are absolutely pragmatic. They value stability and the fact that the country, in contrast to many others, is fairly consistent in overcoming economic problems. I value the businesslike attitude found in the West, the efficiency and precision of the laws. When I modernize my company, I always call on my employees to work based on the global experience of technology and management.
When it comes to a major segment of western political scientists and commentators, their assessments of Russian events have a lot of distortions and double standards. Just to take one example: a demonstration of 20,000 people without a single economic slogan in Moscow is presented as the collapse of the regime and the start of a revolution, while an aggressive demonstration of half a million people against lower wages, pensions and monstrous unemployment in Greece and Spain is a typical element of democracy.
I always get the feeling that the West is constantly hungry for upheaval in Russia which, in their opinion, will finally bring Russia into line with some kind of desirable and understandable "standard." This is an illusion. Russia is self-sufficient, and it cannot be made to reconstitute itself under some kind of "standard." You just have to let her develop in peace.