St. Petersburg to Moscow, and Back

When the Kremlin announced a ban this month on food imports from the United States and the European Union, Russian social networks exploded with jokes about the empty store shelves in the Soviet Union. But the shelves won’t be empty; they’ll simply be stocked with mostly basic and bland items, a reflection of government policies that are pulling the country back to the past and highlighting its inner tensions.

Western sanctions and Russian countersanctions have laid bare the interdependent connections between President Vladimir Putin, his oligarch courtiers and his supporters among the broader population. He will use his control over oligarch wealth to alleviate the difficulties sanctions will bring to his followers, while his critics and those Russians who are not part of his base will likely face tough times.

If the economic standoff is protracted, the country’s power structure will gradually revert to the rigid social order and top-down redistribution system that characterized both Soviet Russia and the old Russia prior to the reign of Peter the Great. For centuries the Muscovite court ruled by patronage. The grand prince, or later, the czar, would give his boyars regular handouts of food and clothes. His ministers were entitled to food and services from the people, and were allowed a share of the court fees and taxes that they were responsible to collect.

During the St. Petersburg period (from the reign of Peter the Great, who founded the northern capital in 1703, to Nicholas II, who abdicated in 1917), Russia gradually rid itself of those archaic practices, developing a modern state, private property, independent courts, and even popular representation.

The Bolsheviks, who in 1918 decided to move the capital back to Moscow, also took a step back toward the Muscovite state of the 16th and 17th centuries. Most of Russia’s modern institutions, including markets and private property, were abolished, and Soviet leaders found themselves in a situation where they had to feed and rule, just like the czars. In strict hierarchical fashion, Communist Party bosses, celebrated actors, prominent artists, engineers and scientists would get their food in special distribution centers. Top officials lived in palazzos while the rank and file had to wait for years to get access to cramped spaces in prefabricated apartment blocs.

Most of this Soviet-era redistribution system collapsed in the early 1990s. No one needed food rationing or coupons for home appliances anymore — markets could take care of that. But some resources are always scarce — especially political power and access to the profits from oil and gas exports. The Kremlin has reconsolidated its hold on these important sectors, as well as some others, including the media, academia and the arts. Every Kremlin courtier now operates under an unseen license, one that allows its holder to live off the assets under his or her control, on condition of loyalty to the regime and paid-on-demand contributions to government projects. No one can really own a large company, especially one that deals in oil and gas: Every “owner” is no more than the titular holder of a license that may expire at any moment.

But these practices do not cover the entire economic landscape — just the most lucrative areas. That’s why independence from the Kremlin has been possible. The main achievement of the post-Soviet period has been the emergence of professional groups and individuals who don’t need to line up at the Kremlin dinner table. They have been learning to build, produce, sell, write and do other things that allow them to support themselves. Owning the results of one’s labor has generally been accepted in today’s Russia. But to Mr. Putin, such independent people are the contemporary version of that Russian cultural icon, the “superfluous man.” Yet it is these “superfluous” people who are Russia’s best hope.

They are an amorphous, hard-to-define bunch, often in disagreement with one another. They have no one to protect them, hence their intrinsic support for a rule-based state that protects civil and property rights.

Western sanctions have managed to scare off investors and bring the economy to a standstill. The ban on food imports is already starting to drive up prices. Tax hikes proposed by the Kremlin to balance the budget will push economic activity into the shadows. All the Kremlin talk about creating opportunities for local agricultural production and food-processing is empty rhetoric; no one is going to start long-term projects amid such deep uncertainty.

The Kremlin servitors, the main target of the Western sanctions, are the least vulnerable to external shocks exactly because of their proximity to the sources of Moscow’s wealth. The most vulnerable are those who have never been invited to dine at the Kremlin table.

In the face of Western sanctions, hobbled as the ruble loses value against the dollar and the euro, Mr. Putin can only respond by taking aim at that part of society he considers the least valuable: modernized urban dwellers, the “superfluous” people. There is going to be less freedom, less trade, less independence, and more regulation, more redistribution and more feeding off the institutions of the state.

No one knows how long the sanctions will last, but even if the oligarchs eventually persuade Mr. Putin to stop his disruptive policies, the modernized part of the population will be hit very hard. If they are unable to overcome the difficulties imposed from above, the country will sink even further into the mire of economic and political antiquity.

But Russia has a long history of sustaining a culture of intellectual freedom under oppressive governments. It’s in the genes.

Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.

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