Vladimir Shlapentokh

25 января, 2013

Kinship as an antidote to the moral vacuum in Russia

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 4:31 пп


Kinship as an antidote to the moral vacuum in Russia: the moment of truth with the law against the American adoption of sick children

Vladimir Shlapentokh

The Russian reaction to the Magnitsky Act—a challenge to the fundamental morals accepted by the world

 Whenever the Kremlin starts a new anti-American campaign, slogans about Russian moral superiority over Americans take a place of honor. Russia, once again, proclaims itself the country of lofty moral ideals, while America is depicted as a society obsessed with money obtained by any means possible. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of the most important Russian guns in the fight to claim special Russian spirituality. In the 1970s, strongly encouraged by the Kremlin, Russian nationalists used the passage from The Brothers Karamazov in their anti-Western escapades suggesting that the people’s happiness is incompatible with the “torture [of] just one tiny creature, [one child]” and that it is impossible to “to raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears,” the idea being incompatible with American pragmatism and callousness.     

          With Putin’s arrival to power, the phrase “the tears of an innocent child” became a fixture in Russian anti-Western propaganda but we can confidently predict that it will now disappear until the leadership in the Kremlin changes. Indeed, Putin’s law forbidding the adoption of Russian children by Americans produced shock and ire, even among many pro-Putin journalists and politicians  

 Both Moskovskii Komsomolets, a Russian publication loyal to the regime, and Komsomolskaya Pravda, which consistently supports Putin,  published one article after another about the happy life of Russian children in American families, as if mocking the Kremlin. Alexei Venediktov, editor of the popular radio show Ekho Moskvy, contended that “the law is morally and ethically abominable [and] cannibalistic”.  Even a few of the members of the political elite, who are customarily obedient to the master of the Kremlin—like former deputy premier minister Alexei Kudrin expressed their indignation.

During a press conference on December 19, 2012, in an unprecedented action, Russian journalists, quite frankly, bombarded the self-confident president with questions about the adoptions of Russian children. None of the journalists hid their abhorrence of the law.

One article of the new law is particularly evocative of Dostoyevsky’s tears of the child. It means that the active adoption process of 46 children ended abruptly; children who had expected to go to the USA within weeks. (Moscow later softened its position and allowed the adoptions of children who already had official permission to leave the country to go through). Putin’s demagogic, and essentially dishonest, arguments in the favor of “the cannibalistic law” could only serve to convince the intellectual community that, in Putin, Russia has a leader who is impervious to the most basic moral values shared by Western civilization, and who will always use sophistry to justify any immoral act. Indeed, Putin has followed the Cold-War-era tactic, wherein Soviet officials deflected criticism over rights violations by citing seemingly comparable cases in Western countries.


Children in Stalin’s Gulag

When responding to questions with the suggestion that “others” behave even worse than the current masters of the Kremlin, Putin could, of course, have mentioned Soviet history. The law passed in 1935 stated that children 12 years and older could be executed if they committed an anti-Soviet act. At the same time, children of “enemies of the people,” aged 12 and up, could be interned in Gulag camps along with their parents, or sent to “special orphanages,” or deported to remote regions with their families. Those who were “free” were stigmatized by the system and often ostracized by the people. (I know the fate of these children from my own experiences in the late 1930s, having been the friend of two 11-year-old boys, Askold Kantorov and Vsevolod Laskin, whose fathers were executed as enemies of the people, and who suffered greatly until Stalin’s death). However, even with his commendations of Stalin as a great manager, Putin dared not remind the Russian public in 2012 of this heinous episode of Soviet history simply for the opportunity to show how he is much less cruel than the Soviet leaders of the past.

Stalin and Putin’s propaganda about their concern for children

Nevertheless, Putin has used the same cynical propaganda as Stalin. The Soviet propaganda described sending children and their parents to the Gulag as a sign that the Soviet system and its leader were the children’s best friend. Twisting his intentions to take away the orphans’ and, in particular, sick children’s chance for a better future, Putin declared that he would radically improve the lives of 654,000 orphans almost immediately. It is well known that orphanages in Russia are a real-life hell for these children. Nobody in Russia believes in Putin’s promises of reform.

 It was extremely characteristic that 420 (of 448) members of the State Duma voted for the “cannibalistic law,” showing the public their total lack of concern over any moral evaluation of their actions. In an article, Sergey Markov, a leading member of The United Russia, and one of the most ardent conveyers of the Kremlin’s mind, wrote 5 arguments for why Russia’s reaction to the Magnitsky Act was effective—never once mentioning what the Russian children who had the chance to be adopted in the USA will lose because of the Russian policy of revenge.  He and another consistent defender of any action by the Kremlin, Andrei Isayev, tried to use the debates on the adoption law as a terrain for a vitriolic accusation of the opposition—which organized “The march against scoundrels”—as people who are deeply anti-patriotic, and who want to sell Russian children to America.

A famous journalist, Alexander Minkin, proposed including all 420 members of the State Duma who voted for the law in the list of people who should not be greeted during encounters in public places. The fact that polls show that 56 percent of Russians support the rude anti-adoption law made no impression on the Russian public. In the last several years, Russians have stopped trusting their own polls—even Putin has mentioned his distrust of polls—since there is a widespread belief that the Russian respondents are insincere, and that there are flaws in the methodology of the Russian opinion firms that, in some cases, serve the Kremlin, who finances the polls. (Even the head of the best public opinion firm, the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, has expressed some doubts about the value of his own data on the adoption law, in view of the impact the official TV channels have on the Russian mind.)  However, even more impressive than the mistrusted poll’s results was the march of tens of thousands of Russians in Moscow on January 12, 2013, protesting against Putin’s law.   

The moment of truth –Putin and his elite are morally and ideologically “naked”

The “cannibalistic law,” forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans, was a moment of truth. It made it clear that those who rule Russia today are deprived of those traditional moral values that offer empathy for children and sick people. The case of the adoption law revealed, with no less potency, the indifference of Putin’s regime to the national interests of the country. It seemed that the Kremlin easily took this new step in the deterioration of Russian relations with the Western world. The case showed that the security of the country is not a priority for Putin’s Moscow. Instead, it appears that the fears his political elite had about access to their Western wealth are Putin’s most pressing problem.

Putin’s society does not a have a public ideology that people can use to evaluate the behavior of others, or to predict their behavior. It is remarkable that during his four-hour-long press conference on December 12, 2012, Putin never once mentioned anything related to ideology. The role of public ideology was very different in the USSR. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideology that comprised the interests of the state and its leading values were present not only in the minds of the Soviet apparatchiks, the KGB and the army officers, but also in the minds of ordinary people. Nothing like this has been observed in contemporary Russian society. The active role of the Orthodox Church in society could not mitigate the moral vacuum, as many sources have witnessed. (Only 3% trusted the Russian patriarch Cyrill in December 2012, compared with 65% who trusted Putin, even though the church held third place in trust among the various social institutions). During his press conference in December, Putin himself recognized that “Russian society suffers from a lack of moral cohesiveness,” and that the Russians are harsh to each other. But how can Russian society function without a public ideology and public morals?


Human interaction needs common moral rules

Russia’s law about the adoption of children brought back the issues of a lack of ideology on a full scale. We assert that Russian society has found a solution to this problem by accepting kinship as its main basis for morale.

  Indeed, any lasting human interaction supposes the existence of some common moral ground that makes it possible to assume the reaction of partners to the action of the individual. No one office or military unit can function if those who work and live together do not have common values, since they are unable to predict each other’s reactions to their deeds. One of the most important conditions for fruitful interactions among people is the belief that your partner—of any type—is not lying to you. In fact, only those groups whose members do not systematically lie to each other can be attractive to their members and contribute to creating order in society. Meanwhile, as prominent journalist Yulia Kalinina wrote, “lying and deception have become a norm of Russian life.” 

Kinship — an alternative to other systems of order

With the absence of elementary common moral values in the minds of the Russian political and economic elites, at least in comparison with the  Soviet society—a fact which is admitted by most researchers 11—Russia’s dominant class and society as a whole address the rules of kinship values as an alternative to other types of order. People in this relationship usually lie to each other much less frequently than to outsiders. This network of relatives and friends who are mutually loyal is the single moral material available for a society that has a weak or even absent state (“failed state”). What is more, when kinship is powerful, it introduces some order into the selection of cadres for bureaucracy and business. It creates some order for the process—you do not pick a person from off the street in order to make him minister—but it almost completely eliminates merit as the basis for the selection of officials, scholars, journalists, or even actors.

Various definitions of kinship embrace the close ties in society between those related by blood, and those who become relatives through marriage.At the same time, close friends gained through the mechanism of “befriending” can also be incorporated into the kinship. It was the Roman emperors from the Nerval-Antonine dynasty who are considered the first to have introduced the practice of expanding kinship through befriending, and adopting as a son, those whom they wanted to be their heirs (1st-2nd centuries AD). Biblical traditions and Russian folklore suggest that the brotherhood between friends can serve as a measure of close ties between people without blood ties. The network of kinship in different societies varies, depending on the relative role of pure relatives—by blood or marriage—and friends who can be somewhat equated to relatives by marriage.  

While kinship is often associated with a primitive culture in the public mind, tribal society’s views on kinship, particularly its “blood” component, are still an important part of even the most advanced societies, such as America. Putting aside the role of kinship in biological and social evolution, several contemporary authors still affirm that loyalty to the family—“moral gravity” (the concern for others)—means an individual tends to help members of the kinship, the family, first. Family members usually have more moral gravity; what Robert Nozick calls “ethical pull.” This kinship is respected in all monotheistic religions and in virtually all societies. It is not all that amazing that the role of family-run business is so important in the United States.

While kinship is a universal institution, its role in the contemporary world as the basis of order tends to diminish. The progress of democracy and capitalism weakens its importance, without destroying it, even in the Muslim world. Through a twist of history, however, this type of institution found a place for rejuvenation and for taking a crucial role in post-Soviet Russian society. Weber had supposed that by the end of the 19th century, modernization and rationalization would be hallmarks of future society, making impersonality, among other things, necessary. In the middle of the 1950s, Parsons followed Weber, insisting upon the retreat of traditionalism before universalism and modernization. The opposite of modernization happened in Russia after 1991.

The transition of totalitarian Russia toward a society based on kinship

The adoption law brought forth a formidable argument that contemporary Russia could function as a relatively orderly society only because when it moved from the moral and legal structure of the totalitarian state, it moved to a system based on kinship, rather than to a democratic, legal, Weberian order. The system of kinship in post-Soviet Russia made interactions between people possible when concerns for society on the whole were minimalized and the atomization of society and mistrust of social institutions came to the fore. Questions in mass surveys about responsibility for society are highly loaded, particularly in Russia due to its thousand-year cult of patriotism. Nevertheless, in August 2012, forty-five percent (and among young people, sixty-one percent) declared that they “do not feel responsibility for what is going on in the country”. Russians have very little trust in social institutions. In November 2012, the questions revealed the low level of trust Russians have for those bodies they turn to for help: no more than one-fifth of Russians trusted the police, courts, or local authorities. However, even more important is that Russians do not trust each other (if they are not part of their kinship): in August 2012, only 16 percent said that “they trust the majority of the people.” The level of trust drastically rises when people were asked about their trust for “people who surround them”—from 16 to 55 percent.

 Of no less significance, however, is the data indicating that, in their everyday lives, Russians help their relatives first (56 percent), then their friends (45 percent), then neighbors (30 percent), and only then would they help unknown people (16 percent), colleagues (14 percent), members of the religious community (2 percent), and members of the internet community (2 percent). .It is highly remarkable that young people (up to age 30) prefer to turn to relatives and friends even more than the older generations who were raised in the Soviet times (64 and 60 percent, versus 43 and 20 percent, respectively). No less important is the fact that Russians’ “voluntary activity” took place mostly in their residences. In 2012, 33 percent participated in refurbishing the multi-story buildings in which they lived, whereas only 4 percent took part in some social campaign like the collection of money. 

Putin’s state is not a mafia organization

Some authors are inclined to describe contemporary Russia as a model of the mafia. However, while the mafia model shares several common features with kinship, first and foremost giving so much attention to trust—Don Corleone and Tony Soprano made their families the core of their teams—its focus is on violence, which is not the main objective in traditional kinship relations. With its emphasis on trust, mafias are often ethnically centered because the members of an ethnic minority surrounded by other ethnic groups trust each other more than the people outside their ethnic group.

Two types of kinship

The role of kinship in Russia is very different as an instrument of the dominant class and for ordinary people. For the dominant class in Russia, kinship is primarily the instrument for obtaining positions in the bureaucracy and access to the budget. In this and in similar societies, kinship is an engine which generates corruption in all sectors of society. 

          For ordinary Russians, kinship means something entirely different. It is indeed social capital for them, as well as an important means to overcome the hostility of the bureaucracy and, at the same time, a way to use relatives and friends to skirt the law. This kinship network countervails a world where nobody can be trusted.

Both types of kinship, but particularly the first one, bode ill for the democratic future of Russia. In one case, kinship undermines economic and political competition in Russia; in another case, kinship encourages lawlessness in society. It also creates obstacles for social and economic progress. This role of kinship—the network of relatives and friends—actually played an important role in Soviet times (the famous Soviet “blat”).

          Of course, it is unreasonable to overestimate the ability of kinship to sustain solidarity in society. Since each clan in Russia is based on kinship, when there are conflicts between kinships, this institution can only make the war between clans even more fierce and implacable, like the struggle between different clans in post-Soviet Russia inside the so-called power ministries.

A good example is the fight that raged in the 1990s-2000s between different clans of the chekists, particularly between those who worked directly in the FSB and those who worked in the Federal Drug Control Agency and Customs Service; this fight took place with the participation of hundreds of officers.  In fact, the struggle around the company Three Whales was a fight between two clans—one headed by the deputy head of the Customs Service, Boris Gutin, and the other by the head of the FSB’s economic department, Yuri Zaostrovtsev. Several institutions—the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Federal Drug Control Service—and their representatives joined in this struggle, siding with one of the two clans.

          Kinship does not guarantee the absence of mutual animosity between members of the same kinship groups. Many Russians explained the utter hostility by Putin and many people of the ruling elite toward Ksenia Sobchak, a daughter of a past patron of Putin who has turned into an oppositional figure, or to Gennadii Gudkov, a former KGB colonel who joined the opposition, as their being “traitors” to their clans.   

The history of kinship in post-Soviet Russia

     As a rule, the kinship system is a product of spontaneous development. Neither famous anthropologists nor historians writing about kinship discuss the time of the birth of kinship in one society or another. Vasily Klyuchevsky, a famous Russian historian, described kinship in the Middle Ages in Russia in detail, yet did not tell us exactly when it was born.     

After the revolution, kinship in the dominant class was mostly eradicated in all Slavic regions, and only continued in regions with Muslim populations, though without playing a leading role in the political fabric of society. It is true that the Soviet leaders built up a nomenclature system that included all the apparatchiks of high and middle ranks. However, its similarity with kinship was rather deceptive. To be accepted in the nomenclature, the candidate had to not only be loyal to the leader, but also had to be an ideological believer; a requirement that is absent for membership in the post-Soviet kinship. In addition, the influence of kinship on one’s admission to the Communist party and the nomenclature was insignificant.

At the same time, kinship, as mentioned above, played quite an important role for ordinary people in Soviet times. In some ways, kinship—the network of relatives and friends—was often more important than big money in satisfying the material needs of the population.

Kinship, privatization and the befriending of oligarchs

   Following the collapse of the Communist system and the catastrophic weakening of the state machine, it was almost natural for kinship in its broadest sense to become one of the main instruments to overcome chaos for Russian society. When the state’s property was up for grabs, it appeared almost natural for the officials who had a voice in the selection of owners to choose not only themselves but their relatives—children, spouses, and more distant relatives, as well as close friends—all those whom they could personally trust. It was Yeltsin who initiated this process when he openly made members of his family the owners of big assets of state property, practically turning his family into an official institution, thereby making the term “the family” key in the post-Soviet Russian political lexicon. Besides his “family,” Yeltsin found major material for the building of a kinship system among his former colleagues in the party and state apparatus. As shown in several studies, the relative role of “alien” elements was not very high. Moreover, the new personalities in the ruling elites, like Boris Berezovsky, almost immediately became the personal friends of Yeltsin and members of his family. To use the language of Facebook, the family almost immediately “friended” the leading oligarchs and elevated them to the ranks of relatives. Later, Putin “friended” Abramovich, Deripaska, Potanin, Vexeleberg and a few other oligarchs.  As a matter of fact, befriending was a leading instrument in the expansion of the role of kinship in the privatization process in the 1990s.  

Putin’s stage in the development of kinship: the role of the KGB; befriending as the major way of expanding kinship 

Putin contributed enormously to the expansion of kinship. Unlike Yeltsin, with his focus on the traditional source of kinship—the family—Putin saw the transformation of his former colleagues and friends, through the mechanism of befriending them, as a major source for the expansion his own system of kinship.

Paradoxical or not, Putin was the officer of an organization that nurtured the mutual loyalty of its fellows to each other, and considered the betrayal of a comrade as the highest moral crime. By refilling innumerable positions in government and business with former KGB agents, Putin could only augment the role of kinship as the bulwark of his society. According to Ol’ga Kryshtanovskaia, the leading Russian expert on elites, one quarter of the members of the ruling elite had previously worked for the KGB/FSB or the Main Intelligence Directorate of the army (the GRU). The second step in Putin’s expansion of kinship was inviting his former colleagues from the Leningrad period of his life into the system—people he studied with while at university and worked with in Sobchak’s administration. The people with whom Putin created the suspicious cooperative “The Lake” in the 1990s were the third source of the cadre for his kinship.

Almost every high official, particularly at the regional level, followed Yeltsin’s and Putin’s examples. As soon as a governor got his position, he almost immediately created his own kinship system. Consider, for instance, what happened during this decade. In the Omsk region, Governor Leonid Polezhaev’s “clan” was comprised of all his relatives, a typical phenomenon in most Russian regions, including small administrative units such as small cities and villages. In 2011, one of his sons, Konstantin, then a hospital director, was caught buying medical equipment fraudulently but did not suffer any consequences for his actions. In the same year, the governor’s daughter-in-law, Natelle, privatized a hospital and health resorts for herself, violating various laws. Another of the governor’s sons, Alexei, became a billionaire, using his father’s connections in the oil and gas business. Alexei’s wealth was equal to the two-year budget for the entire Omsk region. What is more, this businessman founded a company in Cyprus, which controls the water supply in Omsk. The company regularly raised the tariff for water in the region, which was prohibited by national law. This same son bought real estate in Florida too, a fact which was hidden from the Omsk citizens. Polezhaev also protected his more distant relatives, such as his niece and several of his spouse’s remote relatives. Some of them were members of the Omsk legislature and the owners of companies located in Omsk; these individuals are/were greatly exploiting their connections with the governor. The governor did not forget his friends either. As the local media found out, his old friend, Valerii Kokorin, embezzled budget money the governor had given to him to build a club for business people.


What Russians think about kinship

 Even without using this term, most Russians, in fact, strongly believe in the dominance of relationships based on kinship in political and economic life in their society. There is a great deal of evidence, direct and indirect, revealing the deep-rooted belief of Russians in the dominance of kinship as the main regulator of social relations in the country.

In November 2012, almost half of Russians (42 percent) were confident that “the current leadership relies only on the people devoted to them, ignoring their crimes.” Only 3 percent of Russians believed, in November 2012, that the selection of the cadres was “effective.” 

With belief in kinship as the main institution in the country, Russians do not take the promises of the Kremlin that it will effectively fight corruption seriously. The number of Russians who considered the anticorruption campaign launched by the Kremlin at the end of 2012 as only for show is 6 times higher than those who felt that way in November 2012.  Corruption is indestructible in the Russian mind because relatives and friends who have power would never punish each other.  

It is for exactly this reason that Russians were amazed by the demotion of Anatolii Serdiukov, Defense Minister, and clearly a member of Putin’s kinship group. This event was identified as the most spectacular of the last four months of 2012; much more important to them than Putin’s message to the parliament. In the same spirit, the Russians accepted Putin’s decision to allow officials retire after 70. For them, it was an action that supported Putin’s clan first.


Kinship combined with corruption is deeply spread and embraced in almost the entire dominant class, including the “creative class,” who are the most educated people in the country, as well as throughout the rest of Russian society. While corruption does not directly create kinship—many corrupt interactions are performed by people who barely know each other—kinship in the dominant class in Russian society almost automatically leads to corruption and nepotism. Indeed, kinship provides partners with ‘trust,’ the most important condition for making illegal deals. 

The kinship that prospers in Russia almost makes a Russian evolution toward democracy and a real market economy impossible. Kinship is a tremendous obstacle for progress in science and education. Ultimately, the dominance of kinship leads to the de-professionalization of society and, no less important, to the atomization and the near disappearance of common social values. Ironically, strong kinship is a real obstacle for the creation of an efficient national ideology, which demands sacrifice from those who espouse it. The hysterical calls from the new Euroasian ideology  from “Izborsk Club” (December 2012) are ridiculous. Uniting the best-known pro-Putin ideologues and headed by Alexander Dugin, this group demanded the immediate restoration of the Soviet Union, and the alliance of the Orthodox Church, and Stalinists.  

The movement toward the Weberian ideal as a political and social factor took several centuries in Europe, exemplifying the gradual process of the weakening of kinship. In contemporary history, the kinship system was only swept away in two cases—during the October Revolution in Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China. The success of the Cultural Revolution was especially remarkable because it happened in a society with a cult of Confucius’ philosophy. Russia is hardly facing a new revolution and has no chance of diminishing the future role of kinship, with all its implications. Kinship is a formidable obstacle to Russia’s progress in almost all spheres of social life. 


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