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Stagnation and a “Brezhnevization” of the economy and politics would shatter Russia’s ambitions to develop as quickly as other BRIC countries – China, India and Brazil, experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the first pan-European think tank, predicted. At present, Russia is exhibiting four trends that have lead some to believe that under Vladimir Putin, the country is slowly sliding back into its Soviet form under the chairmanship of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.
“Russia no longer has the optimism of a rising power. The EU has spent the last four years wishfully thinking that Dmitry Medvedev would slowly transform Russia into a modern country. Now Putin is returning to the presidency. Few still have any illusions about resurgence, and many now fear ‘Brezhnevization.’ Regardless of Putin’s assertive rhetoric, Russia is now ‘post-BRIC.’ Although it is not in steep decline, it is stagnating, with widespread corruption, a dysfunctional government and growing dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. Without drastic improvements in the way it is governed, it clearly cannot keep pace with the dynamism and the growth prospects of the other BRICs,” the authors of the report wrote.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov tried to persuade the audience of the Dozhd Internet television channel that the time of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev’s rule (1964 to 1982) was a great time for the country. “A lot of people are talking about the ‘Brezhnevization’ of Putin. But these are people who don’t know anything about Brezhnev. Brezhnev is not a ‘minus’ in our country’s history. He was a huge ‘plus.’ He set up the basis for our economy and agriculture,” Peskov said.
Indeed, a new generation that doesn’t remember Brezhnev and knows little about him has grown up in modern Russia. These people can easily compare the remarkable achievements of Brezhnev’s epoch with the trends that will emerge when Vladimir Putin takes up the presidential post once again. These include “alcoholization,” enormous defense spending, controlled media and “dissident” kitchen talk.
The “alcoholization” of the Soviet Union’s population began during Leonid Brezhnev’s later years, in the 1970s. Annual alcohol consumption per capita in the country increased from 4.5 liters in 1965 to 10.5 liters in 1980 – two and half times more than the worldwide statistic. This data didn’t include the consumption of homemade alcohol, which contributed another four to five liters per capita. Official statistics show that there were more than 40 million alcoholics in the Soviet Union, meaning that one in every seven citizens was an addict. The mortality rate, especially among young men, for external reasons – murders, suicides, alcohol-related car accidents – started growing in 1965, and led to the so-called “Russian Cross:” a demographic trend when the number of deaths exceeds the number of births. Many works of art and culture produced during Brezhnev’s era, including Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs, Eldar Ryazanov’s films and Sergei Dovlatov’s books painted a picture of a country in a constant state of inebriation.
Alcohol consumption and the number of alcohol-related deaths decreased during Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, but the progress was temporary. Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, annual alcohol consumption in Russia rose to 18 liters per capita, and the population shrunk from 147 to 142 million people.
Critics often called the Soviet Union “the Republic of Upper Volta with rockets,” referring to the abundance of modern military equipment against the backdrop of ubiquitous poverty, a lack of goods and services and an uncomfortable daily life. Military spending in the Soviet Union consumed about a quarter of the country’s GDP at the expense of consumer goods and investment in civilian sectors toward the end of Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure. The Soviet armed forces were the largest in the world in terms of the number and types of weapons, the number of troops and the sheer size of the military-industrial complex. Schoolchildren were taught how to shoot and to put on gas masks. At the same time, jeans, bananas and chewing gum were attributes of Hollywood films and an unattainable dream for most average residents.
Modern Russia also plans to increase military spending. A survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that defense spending in Russia stood at $52.58 billion in 2010. Putin’s decision to increase military spending was one of reasons why former Russian Finance Minister and Vice Premier Alexei Kudrin, who disagreed with the proposal, was dismissed from his job in September of 2011.
Soviet television was one of the main instruments of political propaganda. It worked under tight control and censorship. The main evening news broadcast “Vremya” (“The Time”) only aired positive news – boring reports on the labor achievements of Soviet citizens. Any forms of criticism toward the Soviet government or the Communist Party were strictly prohibited. Moreover, many topics such as sex, nudity, religion, slang, drugs and others were taboo.
In modern Russia, state-controlled television channels are ever more reminiscent of Soviet TV. The main federal channels ignored the mass protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg that took place on December 17, when thousands of people took to the streets of both capitals to show that they disagree with the results of the recent parliamentary election. Previously, the main Russian television channels aired coverage of terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro and at Domodedovo airport much later than foreign television and information agencies.
Kitchen talk was an important part of the typical Soviet lifestyle, and the kitchen was often the only place where it was possible to speak openly. Lies and propaganda at work, on television and in newspapers, and jokes about Brezhnev, the Communist Party and communist idols at home: such an “alternative reality” kept many from going insane. Kitchen talk has now moved to the Internet. Blogs, forums and communities in social networks have turned into “virtual kitchens,” and ironically, the Internet may be what stops Russia from sliding back into the realm of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in the future.
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