What if the potlatch becomes a form of infrastructure development? Imagine: overseas delegations travel in a caravan across the Russian Bridge to Russian Island to a meeting with the Russian leader—beautiful, right? In the name of this picturesque, albeit fleeting image, can they really not spend some two billion dollars of state money—not their own, after all? Jokes aside, but this, we are sure, was the key motivation when Russian officials chose the location for a rather lackluster international event: the APEC summit held in 2012 in Vladivostok. They could have chosen a more developed location in town, where there was at least some semblance of infrastructure, but they chose Russian Island: a former military garrison, connected with the city by ferry alone, where everything would need to be built from scratch.
Much was written about the millions plundered during summit preparations, but the fact remains: it became the most important milestone in the life of the city. Without it, Vladivostok would never have been able to repair or build even a hundredth of what was repaired and built, and all because the leader, in an effort to increase his own prestige, gave a great deal away to everyone: from high-ranking officials and regional elites to “ordinary people.” It does not matter that the Russian Bridge is ultimately a two-billion-dollar bridge to nowhere: it connects the city to an island with a population of five thousand people, and was needed only so that the leader and his foreign guests could travel to the summit location and back. It certainly wasn’t built for the sake of the university, which was relocated to the island after the summit. In this way, the bridge became a true symbol of the post-Soviet model of development, where mega-projects and anniversaries—from championships and Olympics to summits—are nearly the only way to somehow redistribute resources with tangible benefits for Russia’s outer regions.
Post-Soviet centralized systems are not equipped to provide the regions with the ability to do this themselves. They have not created the conditions or institutions for either self-governance or attracting investments. Therefore, if it is impossible to “develop” the regions in any other way, at least this method seems to work. However, this is not “development” per se, nor is it simply corruption. Here there are several political and economic motivations, all generally characteristic of post-Soviet capitalism, each of which contributes to each other, and among them—although we do not wish to justify the government’s position—is the public good: new bridges (aside from the unnecessary Russian Bridge in Vladivostok, several other truly necessary bridges were built), roads, a university, power plants, hospitals, a theater and so on truly do serve society. Of course, they cost several times more than they should have, but when we talk about potlatch events, when the reputation of the supreme leader is on the line, there is no sense in bargaining, just as in the case with those real potlatches. The cost estimates can therefore be inflated without end—and the bigger the expenses, the greater the prestige. This is why the “cleverest” regions are doing their utmost to come up with a reason to hold yet another federal “potlatch”—an anniversary or a championship—receiving funds from the capital to do so. In addition, there is an important point that does not allow the bureaucracy to relax and/or steal all the money dedicated to the project: they must show some real built results by a strictly defined date. When there are no deadlines, the embezzlement can go on indefinitely, as is the case with the Vostochny Cosmodrome. By the way, the five thousand residents of Russian Island are not terribly happy about the Russian Bridge: whereas the trip to central Vladivostok used to take 20 minutes by ferry, it now takes nearly an hour and a half, with the ferry shut down and plenty of traffic to contend with. That’s progress and new infrastructure for you! But who cares about these little things when the Russian Bridge can now be printed on new banknotes (with the Vostochny Cosmodrome on the other side)!
Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.