The 2nd-Largest Potemkin Village in History

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Yevgeny Gontmakher, who served in Boris Yeltsin's administration as deputy social protection minister, is one of Russia's most respected sociologists and economists. He published an article on Nov. 6 in Vedomosti that described what could happen to the Russian city of "N" during a financial and economic crisis. "N" represented a one-factory city that employed most of the local population, either directly or indirectly. There are hundreds of these small cities in Russia.

Novocherkassk, located in southern Russia near Rostov-on-Don, is a good example of one of these cities. It is best known for the labor unrest and protests in 1962 that led to a violent response from government troops. The problems started in the spring of that year, when production quotas were raised for factory workers but their salaries remained the same.

Then, on June 1, the central planners in Moscow announced a nationwide 30 percent increase in the price of meat and a 25 percent hike in the price of butter. The increases in food prices were the breaking point in an already tense situation. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in the city, and this led to a ruthless government crackdown to quell the unrest. Soviet troops and secret service agents killed dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of people.

Any official reference to the events in Novocherkassk was strictly taboo for the next 30 years because the "people's state," lauded by the Kremlin as fair, just and humane, was not supposed to have violent clashes with the people.

Gontmakher's article was titled "Novocherkassk-2009." That was the only direct allusion to the 1962 incident. The rest of the text was a purely academic treatment of the closing of a hypothetical major factory in 2009, when the current financial crisis is expected to reach its culmination. Gontmakher wrote about the likely consequences: widespread unemployment, plummeting consumer demand, street protests and the paralysis of municipal and regional governments unwilling to fire on unruly and angry crowds but who see no other recourse.

Can anyone guarantee that something like that won't happen in dozens of towns and cities across Russia? Does anyone believe that the regional and federal governments will be able to handle the economic, social and political crises effectively and peacefully? Just turn on your television and look at what is happening in Greece right now. Thinking about this makes most people shudder.

But instead of thinking about it seriously, the government's media watchdog, the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service sent a letter to Vedomosti's editor-in-chief warning the newspaper against violating the anti-terrorism law since Gontmakher's article, which appeared in the opinion section, "could be considered an attempt to incite extremist activities." The letter was signed by the agency's deputy head, Alexander Romanenkov.

Using this unique interpretation, the authorities could have also put "Little Red Riding Hood" on their blacklist of publications that "attempt to incite extremist activities." The government's absurd reaction to Gontmakher's article demonstrates exactly what the author warned about in his piece -- namely, the authorities' confusion and incompetence when they attempt to manage national crises. And we have yet to see the worse of it since the crisis is only just beginning in Russia.

According to Russian law, the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service has the power to ask a court to revoke a newspaper's license after issuing two warnings. No publication with the professional reputation that Vedomosti has earned has ever been shut down, and no prominent analyst such as Gontmakher has ever been the subject of censure. The government's warning was obviously an attempt to muzzle "inconvenient" views, but, as always, the resulting scandal only served to increase the popularity of the article, its author and the newspaper.

Once the authorities saw that the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service had grossly mishandled the situation, they quickly switched tactics. A little-known figure in the service, Mikhail Vorobyov, explained that the notification sent to Vedomosti was not an official warning but simply an admonition carrying no legal status. In other words, the newspaper's journalists were gently reminded by the strict schoolteacher that good little boys and girls only cross the street on a green light and there is no place for naughty, disobedient children in our progressive country.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bureaucracy, both under his leadership as president and prime minister, has reverted to old Soviet habits with amazing speed. It is battling the crisis far less fervently than it battles the media that reports on the crisis. After all, the authorities have told us ad nauseum that Russia has finally risen from its knees, and too much bad news in the media about the crisis destroys this rosy picture. Not long ago, Putin personally told his subordinates to use the word "crisis" only when speaking about the U.S. economy and not about the Russian one. This was apparently based on the tried-and-true Soviet logic: If you never mention the devil, he'll never appear.

According to this twisted logic, Gontmakher really is a dangerous extremist for the Kremlin. At the very least, he would be a slanderer -- in the same way that under Stalin's rule, anyone uttering a "slanderous" complaint about the lack of soap, salt or matches in stores could be sent to the gulag for 10 years.

Thanks to the Soviet Union's ruthless struggle to suppress all "extremist" voices -- including among leading experts and academicians like Gontmakher -- it thought it could maintain an image as a progressive state that achieved the highest level of social justice and well-being for its people. Since the "extremists" kept silent about the Novocherkassk executions and the countless other incidents of abuses of power, Soviet tyranny was able to survive for as long as it did.

One of Putin's biggest mistakes is his desire to revive the Soviet Union's former greatness. He emulates a country that was the largest "Potemkin village" in history. The incompetent way that Putin's government is handling the financial crisis is frightfully similar to the convulsions of the Kremlin leaders before and during the economic crises in the 1980s.

It seems that Gontmakher hit the nail on the head with his piece in Vedomosti. The only thing he missed is that his crisis scenario applies not only to the hundreds of small "N" cities in Russia but to the big "M" city as well.

Dmitry Oreshkin is a Moscow-based political analyst.