The Exile #180, December 12, 2003
SPS and Yabloko have lost the Duma elections. A brief recount of my personal experiences with these two parties may help to understand why it was the case.
I was born in Moscow in 1958, immigrated to the US in 1979 and graduated from Columbia University in 1984. For the next five years I was working as a paralegal and a college instructor and also writing a book that would explain the Soviet political system and suggest ways to alter it. By 1989, when I started graduate school at Yale, I had 2000 pages of notes for the book.
In 1990, I gave a talk at the Moscow Conference on Economic Restructuring proposing to use vouchers to privatize the Soviet economy and to create a functioning stock market. I later learned that the voucher idea had been proposed by Vitaly Naishul years earlier, but the key is always the formula for voucher distribution and the method of getting from vouchers to the ownership of shares. Let me just say my proposal was very different from the one that was eventually implemented. After the conference, Professor Igor Nit, then a Yeltsin’s economic advisor, invited me to join his team. But the country that Yeltsin ran at the time was called Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, and I decided to go back to Yale. I came back in June 1992 and stayed.
My prospects looked good: a US citizen, a native Russian speaker, with a Master’s from Yale and eight years of research and study of the problem of Russian transition to democracy and market economy. I called Professor Nit and soon started working as Expert with the Russian Ministry of Economics, preparing privatization laws. My salary at the Ministry was $26 per month, but I did not see it as relevant: the USAID and the Russian Privatization Center (”RPC”) were already there, and I thought that a living wage would be there for me.
But then the strange things began: I was working on the same floor of the State Property Committee (”GKI”) with a lot of young Americans, and they all belonged to Harvard Institute for International Development (”HIID”) and were very well looked after. (By the way, how is the $120M lawsuit that the US government brought against the HIID, alleging fraud and insider trading?) I approached HIID employees several times, but I was not hired. One said that my Russian was too good, another said I should go to Boston to get hired from there (I did not have money for a ticket). Getting an appointment with USAID or RPC proved impossible, and even though I did meet with future founders of Brunswick and wrote one televised speech for Chubais, I could not get myself hired. For me, the doors were closed, and that was upsetting since one US economic advisor I met in the lobby of the GKI, where we both worked for very, very different salaries, did not know what beznal was. I explained that to her, and she earned my monthly salary in these fifteen minutes.
Overall, I would say that in 1992 America’s idea of what it would take to transform Russia into a democracy and market economy could only be described as pathetic. Unfortunately, Sovietology is not like putting a Space Shuttle into orbit: Sovietology’s mistakes remain unseen. Thus, Sovietology had for decades been a feeding trough for people who never had to produce any tangible results, so that they spent their time making sure new grants were coming.
Even though Americans did not hire me, I was quite busy nonetheless. In 1993, a Russian PR agency I was a partner in got a contract to run the first Duma elections for Russia’s Democratic Choice (”RDC”), Yegor Gaidar’s party. The idea was to come up with commercials that would suit a person with an IQ of 60. I found the idea so appalling I left the agency as soon as I heard about it. The agency went on to produce a memorable Big Dog commercial: in a huge apartment with shiny parquet floors there was this huge St. Bernard and a happy kid dressed in very expensive western clothes. The subtle message was that the wealth was good. Indeed, it was: I saw that dog and I know it ate enough red meat to feed a Russian village. The dog was rented for a day for a bottle of booze, and Gaidar lost the elections.
As I said, by the time they were shooting the Big Dog commercial, I was no longer with the agency. That meant that I forfeited quite a bit of money, as RDC’s pay was very good. But I thought I’d recoup the loss since I went to Yabloko, had an interview with Yavlinsky, and was hired as the entire party’s Chief Election Strategist. What a coup! I was very happy.
But Yavlinsky also said, “Matthew, we probably cannot afford you: we are a poor party, but as an American specialist, your salary maybe too high.” I responded that I would work for a salary Yavlinsky pays to his Russian advisors, and agreed to his offer of $300 per month.
The next two months before the elections I worked virtually around the clock. Soon we had a Media Plan for the entire country, prepared, calculated, submitted to Yavlinsky, and approved by him. It is a huge piece of work in a country where the phones do not work and the secretaries do not take messages or transfer calls. Just try arranging for an ad in a Chelyabinsk paper if you are in Moscow. There seemingly was one fax in all of Chelyabinsk at the time.
The Media Plan was, if I recall correctly, about 40 million rubles (roughly $1.2M), but it was a precise eight digit figure, let’s just say 40 809 765, i.e., a figure you could not easily commit to memory. The Media Plan, together with the calculation and the bill, was submitted to one of Yavlinsky’s top aides, Mr. A–, in a sealed manila envelope. Yavlinsky said, “Matthew, the elections are drawing near. I am signing the bill, but the transfer could take a week. Please go to the placement agency and tell them to start placing the ads. Tell them you saw me sign the bill, I guarantee the payment.”
I ran to the placement agency, but the owner of it flatly refused to place the ads. “First, I see the money-then I place the ads.” Was I angry! I was calling him the agent of the Communists, I told him he did not care about Russia’s future. As I knew that RDC was going to fail (the Big Dog ad was already running), I told him that Yavlinsky was the Truth itself, the only hope of Russia. I believed that with all my heart: Yavlinsky is a very charismatic and a very likable man, though he should have chosen a better facelift surgeon.
But the money did not come that day, the next day, or the day after that. As the elections were in two weeks, the wait and the uncertainty were like torture. Yavlinsky and A– pressured me to give my word that the money was coming any minute, and I did so, but the placement guy was adamant.
Then, I had a bright idea. I called to Yabloko’s accounting department and had them confirm to the placement guy that the money, in the amount of 40 809 765, the exact amount, went out. But the placement guy won’t budge. “First, I see the money-then I place the ads,” he said over and over again. And then I went and got the payment order: the amount was right, but the address was wrong as the money was intended to a different firm, one controlled by Mr. A–. Obviously, Mr. A– had opened my sealed bid, and instead submitted his own, for the exact same amount. Financially, Mr. A– caused me no harm: I did not have a financial interest in this contract, working my butt off happily for $300 a month. But Mr. A– did not have the time to create a new Media Plan, to arrange for placement of ads with papers from Novossibirsk or Voronezh. I ran to Yavlinsky. Yavlinsky sat me down, looked at me kindly, listened to me attentively, and told me about A–, “Forgive him: he is just an elderly Soviet man.” There were no Yabloko ads in the 1993 Duma elections. A– was still with Yavlinsky as late as 2001. I think that Yavlinsky and A– simply conspired to use me, an American, to try to get their ads for free. A million dollars was an enormous amount at the time, indeed, it was sufficient for Yabloko’s Russia-wide print media advertising campaign. But if the ads were placed and not paid for, my life, and that of the placement guy, would have been in grave danger.
But that was not all. On the eve of election we arranged for Yavlinsky to have an hourlong one-on-one interview with Mr. Konnonov, a Russian Larry King at the time. This was a genuine coup, which was extremely difficult to accomplish. So there was an agent and a $1000 agent’s fee involved. Yavlinsky knew of the fee and approved of it beforehand. The TV show was announced countrywide. But 45 minutes before the show was to start, there was a call from Yavlinsky telling Mr. Konnonov that he would not be coming. You see, Yavlinsky was “enraged” that an agent fee was supposed to be paid for his appearance: Mr. Konnonov should consider himself lucky to have him. This was done to cause the agent to scream that she forfeits her fee. Yavlinsky immediately arrived and did the show. After the show, I went to defend the agent. But instead of talking to Yavlinsky, I had a conversation with the gentleman who threatened my life and did not pay me my $300 for the second month. I came back to my family without a salary, and had to pawn my stuff just to buy food. As of late 2001, this, rather unpleasant, gentleman was still at Yavlinsky’s employ.
Why am I recounting something that happened ten and a half years ago? Because until yesterday, Grigory Yavlinsky was Russia’s hope for democracy and a compassionate, socially-oriented government. I did not want to say that he was a wrong bet until he stopped being a bet, and he did stop being a bet as of yesterday. I am glad. I am tired of his face.
After the elections were over, I got a lucky break: a six months contract with Deloitte & Touche’s/ USAID Enterprise Development Project. My task was to write a brochure that would help westerners understand Russia and Russian business environment. My salary was $1K per month, a bit low for an American with a Master’s Degree, considering that the head of the project was making $300K a year, knowing precisely zero about Russia, or anything else. I wrote the brochure, called Understanding Russia, and it was put on the shelf, unread and unnecessary. But then the Congress sent a delegation to investigate USAID’s financial irregularities. So my book was prepared for publication in 48 hours and spread on tables, wet with paint, for the Senators to see. My book was the one that convinced the Senators that USAID was doing great. America and Russia, I am dreadfully sorry. After the Senators left, all copies of my book were collected and shredded, because the book used the word “corruption” in relation to Yeltsin’s government. After my book was shredded, it became quite popular.
Why am I mentioning this today? Because the Duma elections results on December 7, 2003, an unfortunate day for America, did not come out of the blue: these results had their causes. Russia itself is one such cause, Gaidar and Chubais is the other, October 1993 is the third, but there are some other, less obvious causes, and here is one: America cannot place its bets on scoundrels and pretend that the people would not notice. Looking at Fidel Castro’s political longevity, I tend to make an assumption that his predecessor, Mr. Batista, was not all that good.
Dishonest politics have one serious drawback: in the long run, they are extremely counterproductive. And it is even more so if, in the short run, they appear to be a success.
Why is it so? I agree that common people almost never see through lies. But I think the reason is that when you lie you lose direction, lose your orientation in space. Take the SPS’ Chubais-Khakamada ticket. We all understand, and even Chubais understands, that he is the most hated man in Russia. And what is Khakamada’s claim to fame? That she is the only Japanese that speaks Russian without an accent, indeed maybe the only Russian citizen with Japanese ancestry? Or is it that she looks as if she just came out of New York night club, stylish and assertive in a very un-Russian way? This may be the clue, as Chubais and Khakamada essentially are punks. Here is what I mean: It is a bit like David Duke of the Clan and Jeffrey Dahmer the cannibal we running on the same ticket. David would say, “Jews are no good” and Jeffrey would say, “Yeah, I’ve tried one.” A good show, but not a winning ticket.
But let me continue. In May 2000, I printed 800 copies of my Russian book, How to Make Russia a Normal Country. 200 copies went on sale, and 600 copies were distributed to NGOs and democratic politicians. A Union of Right Forces Duma deputy, Margarita Barzhanova, asked me to bring eighty books to her Duma office, and I gladly did so. There was no thank-you note. Indeed, this is understandable: people just cannot believe that an American would undertake such a huge project as mine (http://matthew-maly.ru) without being funded. At any rate, almost none of those who received a free book contacted me afterwards.
Soros Foundation did the only review of my book I ever got. The review started by saying, “It’s long overdue to understand Russia with one’s mind.” The catch here is that, as everybody knows, this sentence is funny as it rhymes if one addresses it to “a motherfucker”. A review that started so sophomoric ended up stating that my book was “too simplistic”: after all, it was just a civic education textbook, lacking incomprehensible quotes from scientific sources. Well, we all have yesterday’s elections results.
My book has never been supported by any foundation, not by Soros, not by Ford, and certainly not by the Carnegie Endowment. And this is fine: it is just that nobody else, supported or unsupported, bothered to write a readable civic education textbook for people with Soviet background. It’s been ten years, ladies and gentlemen, and millions of dollars spent on democratization, some of it in a Moscow bar called NightFlight.
Whatever can be said about people of SPS and Yabloko, the people brought to power by Putin are much worse. Putin is about to build an authoritarian regime that will lead Russia nowhere and will necessarily turn Russia into an extremely destabilizing and dangerous presence. One does not need to have an equal firepower to be enormously inconvenient: I think Osama has provided an ample proof of that.
The December 7th State Duma election proves, yet again, that placing our bets with profoundly immoral, incompetent, and arrogant politicians whose only claim to fame was that they were for sale and we bought them does not work and does not serve western interests. Our goal should never have been to destroy, rob, and insult Russia so that we can spit in her face. Russia that is rotting represents a mortal danger to the world as a ready staging ground for organized crime, AIDS, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Until the people who used to live under a totalitarian regime live under genuine democracy and enjoy the fruits of market economy, the challenge of this totalitarian regime remains unanswered. Today, we are much further away from a Russian democracy than we were on August 21, 1991.