Olympic-Level Corruption in Putin's Russia

The one thing nobody can take away from Russia is its ability to surprise.  Every time you think you've seen it all from Russia, the country delivers something more -- often much more.  The only problem is, almost every single surprise is bad news.

Last week, there were two amazing, related stories out of the Putin dictatorship.

In the first one, the brilliant Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov, who specializes in watching the Russian secret police, broke the deeply disturbing news that Putin is planning a massive campaign of eavesdropping on all attendees during the Winter Olympics to be held next year in Sochi, Russia.

In the second, the Kremlin's own newswire service trumpeted the news that Edward Snowden had been given an award in Moscow by Sam Adams Associates, a motley crew of American haters who in 2010 gave their award to Julian Assange himself.

So get this: no sooner has Snowden arrived in Russia seeking sanctuary in protest of Barack Obama's alleged eavesdropping campaign on Americans than Russia is embarking on its own campaign, including the targeting of American athletes, coaches, and spectators, at possibly the least appropriate venue imaginable: the Olympics. 

As if to make its position on freedom of speech absolutely clear, the Putin regime also announced another giant leap toward state-controlled internet.  Already in full control of broadcast TV and mass-circulation print media, Putin is now eager to wipe out the last vestiges of freedom on the web.  He is pushing forward a plan to establish a state-controlled search engine -- one which can not only push Google and its Russian counterpart, Yandex, out of the picture, but also deliver lots of valuable data about internet activity directly to the Kremlin.

But what's most disappointing of all is that Russians are letting Putin get away with his neo-Soviet revival of the Cold War and totalitarian repression (including even the use of psychiatry as a weapon against dissent, just as was done in Soviet times) when, in so many ways, he is failing to serve their basic needs.

Two examples reported last week make this point emphatically.

First, London professor Alan Riley chronicled the imminent collapse of the Russian ExxonMobil, Gazprom.  Actually, to understand Gazprom's importance in Russia, you'd have to imagine ExxonMobil combined with General Motors and General Electric.  Riley points out that at the same time Gazprom faces a massive collapse in demand for its products, both because of American shale exploitation and the state-owned company's efforts to wield its supplies as a political weapon, it is also being barraged by legal action in Europe on grounds that it is a monopoly.  It is, in other words, on the verge of collapse.

And then Russian journalist Olga Usenko delivered a heartbreaking account of the brutal suffering that terminal patients in Russian hospitals must endure.  Putin is aggressively pushing forward terrifying plans to expand Russian military capacity, yet, just as in Soviet times, he does so with total disregard of the basic needs of his fellow citizens.

But Putin's mismanagement isn't limited to reckless military spending -- not by any means.  Last week we also learned that the Olympic stadium Putin is building in Sochi will cost more than twice what was budgeted, coming in at over a shocking one billion dollars.  The total outlay on the games will be well over fifty billion dollars, vastly more than any other staging in Olympics history.  The bald immorality of squandering such enormous sums while desperate Russians lie suffering in hospitals across the country can hardly be denied by any thinking person.

Last week, we also learned the jaw-dropping fact that 35% of all private wealth in Russia is controlled by just 110 people, making Russia the most economically unbalanced country on earth.  Putin came to office promising to liquidate Russia's corrupt class of oligarchs, but what he in fact did was liquidate only those who sought to challenge the Kremlin's authority.  The sun at the center of this universe of corruption; it's rumored that the kickbacks Putin receives make him one of the world's richest men.  He's known for taking watches worth tens of thousands of dollars off his wrist and handing them out to children during whistle stops.

The net result of all this is the worst of all possible worlds for the people of Russia.  They get all the worst aspects of dictatorship, but they get none of the benefits.  To see the brutal reality, consider this: Russia has twice as many policemen per capita as America does, and twice as many murders per capita.  Russia pays a financial and a political price for police omnipresence, yet it does not have safe streets.  This is the reality of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

That Putin can get away with all this even as his economy stands on the precipice of a double-dip recession is a testament to the extent to which the spirit of the people of Russia has been broken.  It really does seem that the entire country is suffering from the infamous "Stockholm Syndrome," whereby kidnap victims come to love their kidnappers.  There's no hint of any significant backlash against Putin, no matter how badly his policies come a cropper, and given the cowardly, craven attitude of the Western leaders Putin faces, it's easy to see why he's so often found smirking.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.