What’s new in Russia?

One thing that Americans like to do is express outrage that leading Russian politicians and/or their friends are getting rich. How new is this? “Not very” is the answer from Peter the Great: His Life and World:

Bribery and embezzlement were traditional in Russian public life, and public service was routinely looked upon as a means of gaining private profit. This practice was so accepted that Russian officials were paid little or no salary; it was taken for granted that they would make their living by accepting bribes. In Peter’s time, only a handful of men in government were said to be honest and imbued with the idea of conscientious service to the state—Sheremetev, Repnin, Rumyantsov, Makarov, Osterman and Yaguzhinsky. The others were loyal to Peter personally, but regarded the state as a cow to be milked. As a result, the majority of administrators were motivated less by a sense of service to the state than by desire for private gain, mingled with the effort to escape detection and punishment. Thus, two powerful negative motives, greed and fear, became the predominant features of Peter’s bureaucrats.

Disappointment followed disappointment, not only at the highest levels. Once, Peter elevated an honest lawyer to a judgeship. In this new position, where his decision could become an object of bribery, the new judge became corrupt. When Peter found out, he not only absolved the judge, but doubled his salary to prevent further temptation. At the same time, however, the Tsar promised that if the judge ever again betrayed his trust, he would surely hang. The judge fervently promised that Peter’s faith was justified—and soon afterward accepted another bribe. Peter hanged him.

Peter, a man of simple tastes, was distressed and disgusted by the shameless rapacity of his lieutenants clutching at every opportunity to rob the state. On all sides, he saw bribery, embezzlement and extortion, and the Treasury’s money “flowing from everybody’s sleeves.” Once, after hearing a Senate report listing further corruption, he summoned Yaguzhinsky in a rage and ordered the immediate execution of any official who robbed the state of even enough to pay for a piece of rope. Yaguzhinsky, writing down Peter’s command, lifted his pen and asked, “Has Your Majesty reflected on the consequences of this decree?” “Go ahead and write,” said Peter furiously. “Does Your Majesty wish to live alone in the empire without any subjects?” persevered Yaguzhinsky. “For we all steal. Some take a little, some take a great deal, but all of us take something.” Peter laughed, shook his head sadly and went no further.


3 thoughts on “What’s new in Russia?

  1. The State is a gang of thieves writ large – the most immoral, grasping and unscrupulous individuals in any society.

    Murray Rothbard

  2. We recently move my russian mother-in-law into brand new apartment complex after helping her out a little with the purchase. My wife is convinced many of the new neighbors are corrupt bureaucrats making money from bribes. There are some people with new cars (even BMWs which is a real luxury in Russia). I am skeptical of this idea, because I don’t think a city of 300,000 has *that* many fat-cat bureaucrats that can fill a rather large and upscale neighborhood. But who knows, maybe she’s right.

    If you look at our own US/EU public servants, one could say they also steal – it’s just in a more sophisticated/indirect way. For example, one can work in public office for a short time and after leaving go to work for industry as a highly paid lobbyist to extract lucrative favors from the government or as the member of several company boardrooms with ‘helpful’ connections/experience (aka the revolving door). I wonder if all those corruption indices calculated by different think tanks take those arrangements into account, but I doubt it. My guess is measuring corruption depends a lot on how you define it.

    Just look at EU’s Barroso joining Goldman Sachs for the latest example.

  3. The more I read your blog about “Peter the Great” the more I begun to see you got the title wrong. You need to change it to “Donald the Great” or “Hillary the Great” and yet the context will still fit!

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