Russian teachers who are not happy with their low salaries ought to go into business for themselves. That was the official advice of Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in any case.
Medvedev was speaking at a forum called the Territory of the Senses taking place outside of Moscow. A teacher from Dagestan State University asked the PM why teachers in Russia are only paid 10,000-15,000 rubles per month ($150-230) while the average monthly salary of the siloviki is 50,000 rubles ($750).
Medvedev said that the silovik’s job is very dangerous, especially in the Dagestan region (Russia’s North Caucasus). And those teachers who are unhappy with their salaries were told to go earn money in some other way.
“I am often asked about this,” Medvedev mused. “Being a teacher and a professor, it is calling. But if one wants to earn money, there are tons of nice ways to do that faster and better—that is to say, in business. But you didn’t go into business, as far as I can see.”
This was the second time in the past two month that Russia’s Prime Minister has found himself advising people on how to survive in Russia. In May, Medvedev was meeting with the citizens of recently-annexed Crimea when he was challenged by a group of angry pensioners. One woman asked him why pensions in Crimea had not been indexed to inflation, as they had been promised. She also wondered aloud how one can live on $120 a month, which is the size of pensions in Crimea. Medvedev didn’t miss a beat:
We don’t index pensions anywhere in Russia. We do not have the money. Once we find the money, we will index your pensions. Cheer up, and all the best to you. I wish you good health.
Medvedev’s words immediately became a meme on the Russian-language internet. “There is no money. But cheer up!” Some internet users recommended people write down this slogan on their tax declarations.
Apart from Medvedev, the other state advisor on how to survive in Russia is the PM’s own first deputy, Igor Shuvalov. Speaking at Davos in 2015, he proposed that Russian people tighten their belts. “If a Russian feels pressure from the outside he will never give up his leader. Never. And we will bear any hardship we have inside our country—we will consume less goods, less electricity, some other things we are used to,” he said.
To prove his own belt-tightening bona fides as a good citizen of Russia, the deputy Prime Minister bought ten apartments on one floor of an expensive skyscraper in the center of Moscow, according to research by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s group. The most charming detail is that the investigation on the humble, patriotic Shuvalov was published several days after the official had called it “ridiculous” that people buy apartments of 215 square feet.
Another investigation showed that Shuvalov’s modesty has no limits. It turned out that he sends off his dogs to international contests on a private Gulfstream jet. Shuvalov’s wife explained that it’s all in the country’s best interests, because when these dogs win prizes—and they do!—they bring honor to Russia.
Regional members of Parliament are good at doling out advice as well. Last year, the MP from Sverdlovsk Oblast, Ilya Gaffner, tired of citizens whining about high food prices, simply told them to eat less. Unfortunately for Gaffner, he found it hard to practice what he preached, as about a month ago, he officially declared bankruptcy, owing his creditors a lot of money.
Shuvalov’s and Gaffner’s behavior is easy to explain: they are typical representatives of the brazen government official class of modern Russia—a set of public servants who in no way feel bound by any obligations before the people they supposedly serve. In the 1990s and through the mid-2000s, glamour magazines regularly wrote about the luxurious lives of Russian oligarchs—their yachts, their houses, and their cars. In Putin’s post-Crimean Russia, officials have poached the luxurious lifestyle mantle. (The siloviki have as well, but we don’t see it out in the open.)
What is Prime Minister Medvedev doing? That is a bit harder. Obviously, Medvedev is full of ambition and is eager for power. He is keeping his hopes alive for becoming Russia’s President once again, given that today he is the constitutional successor to Putin. At the same time, Medvedev seems to be exhausted. He seems to understand that Putin’s management is a dead end for Russia, and that Putin himself has no real sense of what is going on inside the country—and doesn’t want to find out. Finally, being too weak to make the decision to step down, Russia’s Prime Minister seems to be performing some kind of ritual suicide act—seppuku in slow motion.
What unifies all these faithful public servants? They all belong to the United Russia political party, the political symbol of Putin’s Russia.