The Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Far East of Russia has been plagued by corruption and the theft of around 200 million dollars intended for its construction and development. It is intended that the Cosmodrome will become Russia’s principal launch pad for its space programme, so that the country does not have to rely on Baikonur in neighbouring Kazakhstan. But given that corruption is endemic in Putin’s system, should the Russian President really be surprised that even this project has been disrupted in this way?
|The taiga in the Amur Oblast in the Russian Far East has vast empty spaces which make it suitable for a cosmodrome which needs to be apart from towns
‘Don’t do as I do, do as I say!’ may be a common phrase that parents use to their children, but it doesn’t work when politicians say it to their people. (It doesn’t always work for parents, either, but that’s another matter.) And Vladimir Putin can hardly expect the Russian people to behave honestly and openly when he and his cabal who sit at the top of the pyramid that is Russian society set an example of massive theft and corruption.
The opposition politician, Alexey Navalny, has focussed particularly on corruption among the Russian elite in his fight for justice in his country. For example, his film, Он Вам не Димон (On Vam ne Dimon, He’s not Dimon to You)* shows, with documentary evidence, that the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, owns six palaces and two yachts. A chapter in the recently-published book, The Return of the Russian Leviathan, by Sergei Medvedev (no relation to Dmitry), entitled ‘An Ode to Shuvalov’s Dogs’ describes how Igor Shuvalov flies his pet dogs around the world in his private jet to take part in dog shows.**
When Russians see the people at the top indulging in such theft and corruption they believe it becomes the norm. On the eve of the election a few years ago for the Mayor of Moscow I asked one Muscovite how they were going to vote. ‘For the present incumbent, of course,’ came the reply. ‘If we get anyone new they’ll start stealing; the present incumbent has already stolen everything he could!’ And I know of one British businessman who was told that if he wanted to play a part in the preparations for the Football World Cup in Russia in 2018 he would first have to put some money into a private bank account.
It shouldn’t surprise the Russian elite, therefore, that one of the most expensive infrastructure projects of the Putin era, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, is also plagued by corruption and theft. The most expensive single project – the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 – cost around 50 billion dollars, making it the most expensive Olympic Games (Summer or Winter) ever. And yet when economists examined the figures closely they came to the conclusion that the construction of the Olympic sites and all of the infrastructure around them cannot have cost more than 25-30 billion dollars, suggesting that at least 20 billion ended up in pockets.
At a projected cost of some five billion dollars, the theft involved at Vostochny is in the millions, rather than the billions, but these are still huge sums. Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee puts the figure for theft at around 200 million dollars. The former Head of the construction firm for special projects in the Russian Far East (Dalspetsstroy), Yury Krizhman, has already been sentenced to eleven and a half years in prison for theft, and the Investigative Committee is looking into a further 12 criminal cases.
Corruption has plagued Russia for centuries. It is not the only country, of course, where this is an issue. But what is concerning is the way in which it has become so accepted. In the chapter on corruption in Russia: Collected Wisdom on this website, I quote Carl Joubert, who wrote in 1904, ‘From the Baltic to the Yenisei the whole country is corrupt…every man has his price, and is anxious to be offered it.’*** Eighty years later, when the world’s worst nuclear accident happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, it was discovered that one of the reasons the accident occurred was that there had been massive theft of building materials from the construction site when the plant was being built.
Inevitably, Russian humour has incorporated tales of theft and corruption in a tongue-in-cheek way. Hedrick Smith quoted a Russian joke which sums this up neatly in his 1990 book, The New Russians+:
A worker leaves his factory one afternoon with a wheelbarrow covered with a piece of cloth. The guard at the gate lifts the cloth, looks underneath it, and, finding the wheelbarrow empty, waves the worker on. The next day, the worker shows up again with a wheelbarrow covered with a cloth. Again the guard checks. Nothing underneath the cloth, so he lets the worker pass. A third day, it happens again – the wheelbarrow is still empty.
Finally, the guard bursts out, in utter frustration: “Look, comrade, you must be stealing something. What is it?”
“Wheelbarrows,” the worker replies.
Plus ça change.
NB: For more technical details of the Vostochny Cosmodrome, see The long road to Vostochny: Inside Russia’s newest launch facility, accessible at https://spacenews.com/the-long-road-to-vostochny-inside-russias-newest-launch-facility/ and Vostochny begins work on a second launch pad set to host Angara rockets, at https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2019/09/vostochny-work-second-launch-pad-angara/. For more on the corruption at the site, see Russia corruption: Putin's pet space project Vostochny tainted by massive theft, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-50462431
**The Return of the Russian Leviathan, by Sergei Medvedev (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2020), p.69
+See https://www.sdwriting.org/p/russia-collected-wisdom-bibliography.html for details of Smith's book. The chapter on Humour will be published in due course.