Vladimir Putin’s Legacy

In his appearance at the Russian Cultural Center in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, the 86-year-old bard from St Petersburg Alexander Gorodnitsky objected to being introduced by the event organizer as “legendary.” Not appropriate, said he: I am still alive!

However, operating in a parallel domain, today’s political commentators do not wait for politicians and statesmen to shuffle off this mortal coil before starting the debate on their legacy. One does not even have to leave office for the starting shot to be fired.

Thus, lame duck Chancellor Angela Merkel is being subjected daily to this kind of critical analysis.  From my perspective, there is not much to argue over:  her policy of corrosive austerity in the face of one of the EU’s most severe economic and political tests following the crash of 2008 has yielded a legacy of several hundred billion euros in infrastructure underfunding in her own country alone, with Germany now possessing some of the worst highways and worst telecoms infrastructure in the EU.

In its latest print edition, Foreign Affairs magazine devoted space to evaluating the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama.  They need not have bothered:  what little Obama may have added to the evolution of policy has been utterly shredded during the two years in office of his successor, Donald Trump.

As one of the most prominent and talked about statesmen on the European  and global stage in the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been the subject of speculation over his legacy, though almost always the discussion is framed in strictly ideological terms:  over the alleged gutting of Russian democracy which he received from the hands of the country’s founder, Boris Yeltsin, and its replacement by an authoritarian mode of governance that draws upon nationalism, upon populism, in a word on the worst instincts of his electorate.

It is not my intention to get into an ideological spat with the vast majority of pundits and area specialists who stand behind the generalizations I just set out.  I believe they are dead wrong on two counts. First, the Russia of Boris Yeltsin was democratic only in the eyes of his American and European backers, who found the chaotic and desperately weak Russia of Yeltsin’s watch congenial to their plans of definitively sidelining Russia and allocating it to a minor place in European politics.  In reality, Boris Yeltsin was not only the President who used military force against his Parliament in 1993 before rewriting the Constitution to give the executive power vast authority, he was also the President re-elected to office in 1996 with the help of oligarchs’ money obtained in exchange for the sell-off of the national jewels of hydrocarbons and other raw materials production for a song and with the help of massive electoral fraud. Moreover, after his re-election he ruled largely by decree and with utter scorn for the oppositional Duma.

The second fundamental error is the prevailing blindness to the positive achievements in governance during the Putin years, which have in many dimensions seen the flowering of civil society, the growing professionalism of the legislature, the dedication of monuments to the victims of the Stalin years and other signs holding the promise of a slow but steady evolution in a democratic polity that respects human rights, has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in general among major countries, with virtually no political prisoners to speak of.

But, let us put that dispute over Putin’s possible political legacy as democrat or demagogue aside and look at the legacy that is almost beyond challenge by his detractors: the vast and multifarious investments in the nation’s infrastructures contributing to the efficiency of the economy and to the enrichment of Russia’s cultural and spiritual life, infrastructures that will outlast Vladimir Putin’s time in office by many decades.

This is all the more relevant as a discussion point today, 23 December, when the railway bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting mainland Russia with the Crimea was officially opened to traffic. This railway bridge runs parallel to a four lane highway bridge that was commissioned in May 2018.  Construction on both began in 2016 and they have been completed within or ahead of the planned timelines.  At 19 kilometers, they are the longest bridges in Russia and, arguably, in Europe. They represent a magnificent engineering feat given the physical challenges of the site. They were designed and built entirely by Russian teams.

The four lanes of the roadway have carried as many as 35,000 vehicles a day since entering service.  The new railroad bridge is expected to carry around 14 million passengers in 2020 and also will carry around 13 million tons of freight. Regular passenger service between St Petersburg and Sevastopol, and Moscow and Sevastopol was opened today and will be intensified in coming weeks as more trains are put on line.

Remarkable as today’s event was, it was just one in a series of major engineering projects of national importance completed under the direction of the Kremlin during this past year. In the past six weeks alone there were two other projects brought on line that are well worthy of mention.

On 2 December, we witnessed the commissioning of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline which runs several thousand kilometers from the gas fields of Yakutia in Siberia to Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Oblast, where it crosses over and connects with the Chinese gas grid. Implementation of this project began in 2014 following conclusion of a gas contract between Moscow and Beijing foreseeing sales of $400 billion in natural gas during a 30 year period.  When it is operating at full capacity in 2025, the pipeline will carry 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China per annum.   Construction of this pipeline was a formidable task given the adverse climatic conditions and vast unpopulated territories though which it passes.  En route, the pipeline will also serve what will be one of Russia’s largest natural gas processing complexes now under construction, breaking the raw material into high value fractions for sale domestically and for export. An extension of the pipeline will take it to the Russian Pacific coast at Vladivostok for possible processing as LNG. And in the Russian regions though which it passes, it will bring ‘gasification’ to serve residential and industrial needs.

Together with the pipelines in the West of Russia, the Nord Stream-1 and Turk Stream, which itself is about to start up in January 2020, the Power of Siberia pipeline gives the Kremlin the option of directing its exports in the future East and/or West according to most favorable commercial and political conditions. This flexibility is further enhanced by the parallel development of LNG capabilities by the private gas producer Novatek and its various partners in Europe and China based on fields in the Yamal peninsula of the Russian North.  Though Yamal is not directly controlled by the Kremlin in the way that Gazprom projects are, its development is facilitated by legislation governing export rights and conditions. Construction of a second LNG installation on Yamal is now pending. The feasibility of commercialization for deliveries heading east to Asian markets is supported by the world’s largest and most modern fleet of conventional and nuclear ice breakers, the most massive and powerful of which is presently entering sea trials. These ships are entirely designed and constructed in Russia’s state-owned naval yards.

And if we go back just a bit further to 27 November, the big news was the opening of the ultra-modern high speed toll road connecting Moscow and St Petersburg, the M-11. This road is one of the most significant Public Private Partnership ventures to be launched in the country. Partnership with the French-based international concern VINCI Concessions has ensured that best practices have been applied to safety, durability, driver comfort and the other leading parameters. To put the significance of this new road to motorists in terms that car enthusiasts of North America can appreciate, the new road makes it possible to travel a distance comparable to the Northeast Corridor of Boston – Washington, D.C. in approximately 5 and a half hours!

The M-11 runs parallel to the old national highway M-10, with numerous interchanges allowing drivers to economize as they may wish to do by switching to the free highway where and when conditions are good or to make use of the many established gas stations, restaurants and rest areas along the old road.  The provision of such amenities on the new road  is the responsibility of the four regions (oblasts) through which it passes and will understandably take some time to fill in

The opening of this super highway has been criticized by some detractors of the Putin government for covering up the woeful state of the nation’s roads in general, especially at the local level.  Indeed, until recently there was a lot of grousing among the broad population, and it was largely justified.  I recall seeing a slogan pasted on the back window of one car out in the countryside: “I pay my taxes. Where are the roads?” That rhymes nicely in Russian: “Я плачу налоги. Где дороги?”  And most Russians have been quick to recall the witty description of travel in Russia by the novelist Gogol in the first third of the 19th century:  “Russia has no roads. It has only directions.”

However, with the launch of Vladimir Putin’s “national projects” in May 2018 following his reelection, the government has finally tackled this massive problem with appropriate money and federal guidance.  While the end results of the latest efforts to give Russia local and regional roads worthy of the name are by their nature not so easy to prove and photograph as a super highway like the M11, there are signs of real traction. The problem, it seems, is not insoluble.

The Kommersant newspaper is not known for tossing bouquets to those in power. Cutting sarcasm is its more customary journalistic style.  However, in its 19 November 2019 edition, the newspaper issued a 4 page supplement “Review. The Roads of Russia”, the first page of which carries the dramatic headline “The potholes are fading away into the past” summarizing the achievements of the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads” in 2019.

I quote from the lead paragraph:
“In Russia a record amount of work is being done and financed within the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads,” which has as its objective to increase the share of the regional road network meeting standards to 50%, and highways within urban areas to 85% by the end of 2024. This year they succeeded in establishing order at a significant number of sites: residents already can see the changes with the naked eye. A number of problems were revealed which must be solved in the immediate future, among them a shortage of regional managers and experience in precise planning.”

Now I will downshift from this kind of global generalization of the journalists to anecdotal evidence from my own experience.  At about the time the Kommersant article appeared, I made an end of season visit to our dacha in the countryside 80 km south of Petersburg.  The old federal Kiev Highway taking us to within 20 km of our destination was and remains in a good state of repair and it is gradually being replaced by a modern six lane road with median strip and with illumination that now reaches out to perhaps 40 km south of the city.  However, the local roads have been of variable quality, with the stretch from the village of Siversk, designated an “urban” settlement, to our hamlet of Orlino having fallen into lamentable disrepair over the past four years, with more temporary patches than original asphalt.  Over these 12 kilometers, which local buses also must traverse, incurring heavy maintenance costs, it was customary to see drivers regularly cross over into the lane of opposing traffic to avoid the larger and more menacing potholes.

However, on this November 2019 end of season visit, we were stunned to find that the whole road had been resurfaced in what they call “capital repair.” This was proof positive that the National Project is being realized and bringing benefits to where people live. Too early to see if this will be a “legacy” but it is a good start.

On a separate note, when speaking of infrastructure investments during the Putin years, one must consider also the renovated or new airports and train stations, as well as the new sports stadiums across many cities of Russia linked to the hosting of the FIFA World Cup this past year which is said to have cost $12 billion.  Then there are the massive investments in Sochi and the nearby Krasnaya Polyana winter sports complex dating from the Winter Olympics of 2016.  Many critics and naysayers at the time predicted that the 50 billion spent on these infrastructures would be just white elephant non-recoverable outlays. However, today’s reality is that Sochi has become the international year-round resort of the Russian Federation, enjoying very high patronage and offering world class facilities to all visitors.

Finally, without detailing the phenomenon which is to be seen all across Russia, the Putin years have given to the population new or reconstructed world class facilities for theater, symphony, opera, dance and the fine arts.  In St Petersburg alone, the complex of three performance venues of the Mariinsky Theater can be held up as fair competition to New York’s Lincoln Center or London’s Barbican Centre.

All of this is what I consider the most lasting and invaluable legacy that Mr Putin will leave to his nation upon his retirement. Kudos!

Postscript, 29 December 2019:

The build-out of Russia’s cultural infrastructure did not start yesterday.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Valery Gergiev for the Lunch with the FT series dated late June 2000, just before the opening of a 5-week cycle of performances of the Mariinsky (Kirov) at Covent Garden:

… his plans for St Petersburg that are clearly his dearest ambitions. If completed – and it sounds as though they will need several hundred million pounds of investment – they will make the Kirov and its home, the Mariinsky Theatre, the centre of one of the largest cultural projects in Europe. Not only will there be a full restoration of the Mariinsky but also a series of related projects, including a new school for singers and instrumentalists, housing for the precious Kirov archives, new spaces for rehearsals and concerts, and facilities for the growing number of foreign visitors, drawn by the city’s musical life.

“…’I have seen what Lincoln Centre did to regenerate that part of the Upper West Side of New York. We can do this, too, in St Petersburg.’ The idea has already won the backing of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a St Petersburger who has no doubt noticed Gergiev’s value both as a cultural icon and as a foreign-currency earner.

“’He even telephoned me, in the middle of the war in Chechnya, you know, for a long conversation about the Kirov. Putin knows the city and what it needs.’”
That was completed, of course, A project of similar ambition is now on its way to completion for the Eifman ballet company – school and performing stage – also in Petersburg.  I could name a dozen or more other cities around Russia where opera and dance complexes have been renovated or built from scratch in the past decade.  These tend to be in towns that otherwise are now economically flourishing either from hydrocarbons or from agricultural production. I know the places because among my friends is the chief stage director of the Mariinsky who puts on shows at these new venues.
Then, as I say, there are the new or improved art museums, concert halls and drama theaters.  The artistic results are variable, which is understandable given that so much depends on the talents of the local management teams.  But there are no white elephants.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs,” published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]