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Understanding "The Understanding"
Read this and everything you find puzzling about Russia will be crystal clear
When reading Western comments on the Prigozin putsch or the Girkin arrest, I noticed that hardly anyone in the West understands the key concept necessary to understand Russia. Ironically, it’s called “ponyatya”, which translates to “understanding”.
There’s a classic Russian proverb, “the circus is gone but the clowns are staying”. A tank stuck in a circus gate in Rostov during the failed Prigozhin putsch - by Reuters
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If you understand The Understanding, you know two things. First: Prigozin is an urka. Second: Putin is a vor v zakonye [edit: or pakhan? check the discussion for clarification!]
English, please? Yes sir!
Ponyatya is an umbrella
A typical Western European does not expect ever to go to prison or have a friend or relative behind bars. For your average Lars Nielsen or Jan Novak, prison culture is something they encounter only in crime fiction.
This is not the case for Ivan Ivanovich. There's a Russian proverb translating roughly to “everyone should be prepared for prison
No way of life, no social status can protect you. Rocket scientist? Party apparatchik? Doctor? Lawyer? They have a special place in Gulag with your name on it, comrade.
Being a member of the royal family was no protection during the tzarist years. Actually, it only made your more vulnerable to being imprisoned for such a crime as “offending a tzar’s daughter during a ball”. The Dekabrist revolt of 1825 alone created a lot of aristocratic convicts.
The main reason for this was that due to the imperialist expansion of 18. and 19. century Russia was in control of vast territories that were either unpopulated or inhabited by an indigenous population too rebellious and hostile that it “had” to be exterminated (such as Circassians). Either way, Russian settlers were urgently needed in the wastelands.
But since nobody really wanted to live in the harsh conditions of the new Russian territories, compulsory settlement was the only solution. The cruelty of the verdict varied, from merely getting forcibly settled in a colony - up to marching on foot in shackles to the site of your forced labor - “katorga”, where you were expected to die of malnutrition (provided you survived the murderous trip).
Thus, Russian judicial system never cared much about justice or law & order. The primary goal was to create involuntary settlers for colonies in Siberia, Kuban, Caucasus etc.
The Bolsheviks vastly expanded this system. Katorga was a child’s play compared to the genocidal cruelty of Gulag. It was disbanded after 1991, but the institution of a “penal colony” has survived until this very day.
There is one other country with comparably high levels of incarceration - and being world famous for its own prison and gangsta culture. Of course, I'm talking of the USA.
However, in order to imagine a comparable level of influence of gangsta culture, you'd have to move your fantasy well beyond Snoop Dogg bragging about his connection with the Crips. Imagine state-sponsored gangsta rap festivals. Imagine most of your writers mentioning this topic one way or another - from pulp fiction to Nobel laureates, all writers describing gangsta characters.
So imagine alternative America, where people successfully run for the office on a ticket “supported by San Quentin chapter of Aryan Brotherhood”. Imagine American writers such as Cormac McGangsta, James Fennimore Gangstooper and Edgar Allan Gangstoe. Imagine gangsta culture in the most important pieces of poetry and fiction in American classics, all the way to the poem “The Sot Weed Gangsta”.
State prosecutor in the city of Obninsk, proudly displaying his prison tatoos (via Kamil Galeev Twitter)
I'm not exaggerating. If you look for depictions of Russian prison culture, you have to begin with the timeless classic - “The House of the Dead” by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (unrelated to the game franchise by Sega, but equally frightening). But if you are serious with your research, you have to dig into Lermontov, Tolstoy, even Pushkin. For a casual reader, I recommend the historical pastiche crime novels by Boris Akunin.
Of course, if you really want to understand The Understanding, you need to check
I’ll give him that: Colin Farrell certainly did his homework and playing an urka in Peter Weir’s "The Way Back” (2010), he does his best to look like an urka, but… he still looks like Colin Farrell.
So, who is an urka? He is (no progressive pronouns here!) a ruthless criminal, ready to commit murder you even if it’s all about 50 cents. “Original Gangsta” could be a remote equivalent in English.
Urka follows only three commandments: never fear, never ask, never trust. It makes him different from an American gangster, who typically trusts his lawyer and the state regulations such as “attorney-client privilege”.
Obviously, in the entire Russian history there never was such a thing as “attorney-client privilege”. Actually, your defence lawyer is the last person you should trust - unlike you, he still has something to lose.
Of course, not every Russian is an urka - even not every Russian criminal is one! - but every Russian must ask himself this question: will I survive meeting one? A casual encounter in the street is always possible and always risky (eye contact is dangerous but actively avoiding eye contact is even worse). A non-casual encounter in prison is certain.
Therefore, every Russian must learn the rules of ponyatya. The only way to earn some kind of respect from an urka is to prove you kind-of follow his commandments in your own, mediocre way. For instance, that you respect suicidal bravery.
That’s why Russians have no compassion for those killed in exile, from Trotsky to Litvinenko. By trying to escape torture and death, they kind-of lost their human status (according to ponyatya).
Boris Yeltsin and his entourage, on top of a tank he (allegedly) disarmed with his bare hands during the Pugo-putsch of 19th August 1991. Photo by Reuters, via BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14589691
If you want to play any role in Russian politics, you need to display publicly your suicidal bravado. Yeltsin rose to power because he
If you watched HBO series “Chernobyl”, a number of notable characters display disregard for their own survival, doing things that no Westerner would have done (of course, no Westerner would ever approve this reactor design in the first place).
It’s not that every Russian ACCEPTS this system of values (in fact, Dostoyevsky devoted his work
Both in culture and in folklore you will find various versions of a story of a poor widow or an orphan, who was robbed of all her belongings. In desperation she went to the gang leader, “vor v zakonye” in order to complain, that according to the “law of thieves”, one is not supposed to steal from his own neighbours. “My apologies”, responds the leader and then, first thing in the morning, the orphan/widow finds all the stolen belongings returned to her doorstep, with a bottle of moonshine for moral damages.
Putin’s popularity is based on him presenting himself as an old school “vor v zakonye”. He frequently refers to prison slang in his speeches - this is usually mistranslated in the West, because stunned Western journalists, who know textbook Russian, are puzzled by such expressions as “to kill them in the toilet” (if urkas wanted someone to disappear without a trace, they drowned him in the latrine hole - the body would decompose before anyone finds it).
But as a “vor v zakonye”, Putin must follow ponyatya. He is not bound by constitution - he can change it on the spot. But he is bound by the law of thieves - this is why he can’t touch Prigozhin.
“Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is my ammunition?” - this weird video by Prigozhin raised many eyebrows, especially among the pro-Russian non-Russian crowd in the West. If he need ammunition, why doesn’t he ask? At this point, you already know (via Prigozhin’s Telegram channel)
The authority of “vor v zakonye” is strictly conditional: it lasts as long as the leader’s decision are beneficial for the whole gang. If his decisions hurt the gang members, his leadership will be questioned (usually in a bloody showdown - the Prigozhin putsch was the first attempt, I think more are likely to follow).
Before he is killed/disposed by rival gang members, “vor v zakonye” enjoys the peculiar power of controlling the “obschak”. I apologize for another untranslatable word - I guess the nearest equivalent in English will be “the stash”, however the Russian words is derived from the word “obshchyi”, meaning common / universal / general.
Obschak is like communism before communism - from each gang member according to his abilities, to each gang member according to his needs. In prison, obschak is the stash of money, cigarettes, moonshine, drugs, weapons and whatever make you survive. In Russian politics, it’s the control over natural resources, state companies, banking system - whatever make you rich.
Putin’s obschak is operating in plain sight. Some parts of it are even incorporated as legal enterprises.
One of them is Kooperativa Ozero (Lake Cooperative), formally a cooperative of fellow of dacha owners. Each participant can withdraw any amount of money from the cooperative account - this is a very convenient way to launder money. You cannot bribe Putin, but you can submit any payment to the cooperative.
In Russian political parlance, “Kooperative Ozero” is a metaphor for Putin’s inner circle. In the West people imagine this inner circle the Western style - as the close advisors, cabinet members, party leaders etc.
This is just wrong. People like Lavrov, Medvedev or Peskov are like a criminal who is hired by the gang, but not actually a gang member. Think of a getaway driver, who will get a flat fee for his role in a bank heist.
Our frequent contributor Formosa made an interesting mistake saying that “Putin surprised his inner circle by the invasion”. He did not. On the contrary, there is a common opinion that the whole idea came from his TRUE inner circle from the dacha cooperative, notably Yury Kovalchuk aka “Putin’s banker”.
This post is already too long, so I will end it by a recap of how to understand this war in the light of The Understanding. Until around 2010, Putin was a successful “vor v zakone”, trusted both by “widows and orphans” (who preferred his reign over the chaotic lawlessness of Yeltsin years), but above all, by the oligarchs / gang members, who enjoyed the vast possibilities he has created for them.
The first, rather lenient sanctions started under the Obama administrations - hurting some of the gang interests. They were somewhat compensated by the 2014 invasion, but it failed to achieve the original, grandiose plans of taking the whole Donbas and ending the Ukrainian democracy.
What’s worse, there were more sanctions. In order to give his oligarchs more opportunities, Putin started to engage in military interventions in Syria and Africa (that make no sense otherwise - what interests Russia as a country might have in Mali?).
Viktor Medvedchuk - a member of Putin’s inner circle, who was supposed to be the next president of Ukraine (should they take Kyiv in 3 days) - via Zelensky’s Telegram channel
But even that was not as profitable as expected. So he was persuaded into the ultimate heist: take Kyiv in 3 days and install a gang member Medvedchuk as a “president” of Ukraine. Should that succeed, the possibilities for looting and profiteering would be enormous. Ukraine might not be a very rich country, but there’s certainly more to steal there than in South Ossetia.
So what we are witnessing now in Russia, is a classic noir thriller scenario of a failed heist. The gang members are now debating what to do, and the rest, from the hired guns such as Peskov, down to widows and orphans (there’s more and more of them!), just wait for their verdict, trying not to get caught in the crossfire.
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