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From cradle to grave Maxim Trudolyubov explains why Russia’s ‘state-family’ business elites are living dangerously

Source: Meduza
Alexander Weinstein / Kommersant

On July 1, Meduza published a new investigative report by Ivan Golunov about Moscow’s funeral industry. Golunov’s first report about this business, released in August 2018, addressed the national market. Russia’s funeral industry has fundamentally transformed over the past 30 years, and the changes across the country have reinforced a single trend: individuals with connections to the state have replaced men with ties to organized crime. Meduza asked International New York Times contributing opinion writer and Kennan Institute The Russia File editor-in-chief Maxim Trudolyubov to explain the problems with this unruly industry and those who control it.

Consider this family portrait. The man of the house, a respected industry manager since the late Soviet times, is now deceased. His wife is an enterprising woman who seizes the new era and creates a private company that quickly becomes the market leader. Their son has returned home to take up his inheritance, after graduating from a university in London. He’s now an elected lawmaker, serving in Russia’s ruling political party, and he even supervises the party’s “Strong Family” project. 

There’s enough ready-made material here to kick-start a literary work about “how it all works” in Russia, and no screenwriter could cook up anything better. But this isn’t fiction: the industry in question is the funeral business; the city is Volgograd; and the legislature drafting laws on family businesses is the local Duma. This entire story is straight out of Ivan Golunov’s August 2018 investigative report on Russia’s funeral industry. 

How many such families are there in Russia? Not many, perhaps, though those we’ve heard of — the Ivanovs, the Patrushevs, the Rotenbergs, the Fradkovs — make it seem like there are lots. It’s hard to resist the notion that these people know what they’re doing — that not chaos but uninterrupted realism, continuity, and even a certain value system guide their lives. In their example and mechanism for interaction between the state and private spheres, we can clearly see the transfer between generations of social status, knowledge, and skills for how to succeed in life. Their children don’t remain abroad — they come back, and take over the watch. 

You almost feel bad for them, once you realize how tenuous their position really is.

In the context of Russian and Soviet history, it is admittedly very difficult to know what is tenuous and what is not. The Soviet order, which preceded today’s “state-family” structure, seemed far more powerful, global, and “stately,” but it, too, collapsed. Nowhere is this strength or weakness more visible than in key transition moments, when life’s most personal and secret components collide with its most public and external: in birth and in death. 

The Soviet state sought to be present at the birth of each new member of society; to incorporate every child, young person, and adult; to provide them the education necessary for the common cause; to join them for each key life moment; and to bid final farewell, at the end.

The state was eager to wrap itself around every life, from cradle to grave, but this wasn’t out of charity. The ideology of the Soviet state’s founders represented an explanation of history’s meaning and the knowledge of its purpose. Party officials claimed to know how to attain this goal and how to accelerate the global movement away from capitalism, toward communism. Having failed to make participation in this movement voluntary, the state forced everyone it could reach into joining. 

Every individual life was supplied as a deposit in the larger historical project. Theoretically, the state needed everyone. People who think nostalgically about the USSR fondly recall this theoretical necessity. 

The state simultaneously waged a war against religion and other competitors over the definition of sacredness. After all, it was precisely in these life-transition moments when citizens struggled especially hard to escape public official life for religion’s personal sphere. Towards the end of the USSR, the state still skillfully preserved the appearance of ideology in everyday life, but it lost transition moments to sacred rituals. 

What remains of the Soviet Union is its total system of record-keeping and welfare, formally at least, in relation to everything connected to birth and death. But after the liberalization of what became known as “the market,” this broke down, as well. The former state monster with all its parades, marches, and missiles threw off its socialist guise and declared that it has no need for society’s individual members.

It turned out that just one thing matters to the state: removing retired beneficiaries from the country’s pension books as quickly as possible. From here, the “free market” supposedly begins, but there’s no breaking through without special access. In the mortuary business, knowing about the moment of death and gaining access to the funeral infrastructure are key competitive advantages, and the winners are those closest to this information or those who can intercept it.

Initially, in the first years after the fall of the USSR, brute force won out, making this a sphere of gangsters, shootouts, and strong-arm entrepreneurship. The state gradually returned to the playing field, however, and strength prevailed again, although this time it was strength based on the ability to create “the conditions for business” (albeit not the conditions that improve a “Doing Business” ranking). This, incidentally, is why it’s hard to imagine what certain families’ children could have learned in London, when all the wealth of experience and the entire set of key instruments for success are right here at home. In fact, the knowledge gained at Western universities could even be harmful in their case. Seizing a market and maintaining a monopoly by cementing it with legislation made possible through access to the lawmaking process is very different, after all, from running a textbook business.

When businessmen in well-connected families and well-placed state agencies decide to settle down, however, they have a problem. The old Soviet state (continuity with which today’s authorities emphasize superficially) kept its citizens in poverty and forced them to participate (often only nominally) in the USSR’s overarching historical project. In a certain sense, the new order is more human: it doesn’t mount global projects, and it only forces citizens to pay exorbitant prices where they can’t find alternatives, ideally from cradle to grave. The funeral business is a perfect illustration — after all, not everyone is ready to add the humiliation of haggling over burial costs or searching for a cheaper mortician to the trauma of parting with loved ones.

These entrepreneurs can’t really be proud of themselves, and they can’t really talk about their success. They can’t put out an alternative business textbook, even though their book would be far smarter and more realistic for Russians than anything made in the West. It would be in high demand, but it would also mean their doom. These businessmen can’t create for themselves the kind of public justification that could guard them without the use of force. Almost everyone has this — the nationalists have it, the social-democrats have it, and the liberals have it. But Russia's “state-family” entrepreneurs do not, because everything they draw on that’s either Soviet or religious is false. And that’s why it’s impossible for them to get by without the use of force, even in everyday business.

This business, like almost any business, demands silence, and the entire logic of Russia’s current political system is imbued with the spirit of maintaining this silence. It’s tempting to describe this state of affairs as “cemeterial,” but really it’s just forced speechlessness.

Text by Maxim Trudolyubov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock