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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building a Normal Nation

The footage from the sprawling Cherkizovsky Market that inundated Russian television after the authorities shut it down makes hair-raising viewing. But it is also part of a distressing story of how Russia is being savagely exploited. Millions of temporary migrants from China, Vietnam and the former Soviet republics are leading shadowy makeshift existence on its territory.

Of course, all wealthy countries attract guest workers, refugees and other transients. But Russia is probably the poorest country with such a huge influx of foreigners. This, coupled with widespread prejudice and police harassment, accounts for the absence of communities of assimilating newcomers who would regard Russia as their home rather than a place to make a few bucks and depart.

Stories about Cherkizovsky also feature its owner, Telman Ismailov, living it up among sickening nouveau-riche appurtenances in Turkey. But he is only the most conspicuous among carpetbagger oligarchs who seem to see Russia the same way Cherkizovsky peddlers do. This has nothing to do with ethnicity or place of birth, of course. Plenty of ethic Russian businessmen share this attitude, while some immigrants try to build viable businesses here against all odds.

Moreover, Russian government officials seem concerned only with stuffing their own pockets, even though corruption undermines the economy and destroys productive jobs. Their rhetoric may be nationalistic and even xenophobic, but their actions damage Russian national interests. They typically send their kids to study abroad and obtain foreign residency permits — just in case the joyride comes to an end.

The problem goes back to the Bolsheviks, who thought Russia would inspire a global revolution. The Soviet Union became the only country in the world to be called by a string of political terms, without a reference to an actual place. Even though it became a socialism-in-one-country project, Soviet leaders still saw it less as a nation and more as a target for social experimentation.

After the collapse of communism, early oligarchs displayed a Soviet-era attitude, milking their newly acquired properties and shifting assets abroad. But by the late 1990s they grew more confident. Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky became the first citizen-oligarch who tried to improve the country in which he genuinely intended to live and raise his children.

Most Russians still doubt his intentions and believe that his only goal was to make himself rich. Similarly, extensive philanthropy by billionaire George Soros is considered in Russia a ploy to promote his business interests. Unlike Americans, who respect their rich as captains of industry, Russians can’t conceive of a businessman as being anything but a thief and a carpetbagger.

Khodorkovsky’s arrest and the government seizure of Yukos brought back Soviet-era attitudes. Russian business leaders nod obsequiously whenever the Kremlin talks of social responsibility, but most couldn’t care less about Russia’s well-being and are ready to decamp at a moment’s notice.

But a change may now be brewing at the very top. The siloviki clans have been in power for a decade. At first they were busy grabbing assets, but now they have consolidated their position, and with the election of President Dmitry Medvedev they have established continuity. Once they start thinking of their future here, they can’t help wishing Russia to be a “normal” nation.

Medvedev’s recent statements, including his September article “Go Russia!” may be the first step toward such normalization.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.