English language blogs on Russia and the CIS suffered a major setback last week. After almost two years of providing news and commentary on all things Russia, Andy from siberianlight.net has called it quits. This is a loss for us all. There was some indication that this might happen when Andy took a short leave of absence to recharge. It was nice to see him return albeit briefly.
I only recently discovered siberianlight.net a few months ago while searching for blogs to link to this site. To my delight I found Andy’s site. It became an instant source of information and inspiration. For those who don’t know (and I doubt many reading this blog are unfamiliar with siberialight.net), Andy’s site provides probably the most comprehensive collection of links to Russian and English language blogs. Andy says that he will keep the site up for a while. This is good news because even if he won’t be making posts, it will serve as a vital resource.
Though I don’t know Andy personally, I want to thank him for his work. His kind mentions have pointed many readers to my blog. His posts were always opinionated, informative and balanced. To his credit he often commented on the quirky aspects of Russian life and news that seems to escape many blogs on Russia, including this one. Most amazing is that many of his posts were done with brevity, something that I myself can’t seem to master. I only hope that he reconsiders and finds the time and energy to start anew. Siberianlight.net will be sorely missed.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Posts are going to be light over the next two weeks as I concentrate on finishing my dissertation chapter on the legacy of the Russian Civil War in the Komsomol. Just thought I make an announcement in case anyone is wondering about the lack of posting.Post Views: 372
By Sean — 12 years ago
The LA Times Moscow correspondent Kim Murphy published a lengthy three part story this past weekend titled “The Vanishing Russians.” The series exposes some frightening facts and stories about the state of Russia’s demographic crisis. The explanations for this crisis bounce between a sordid legacy left by the Soviet Union and the current politics of Russia. Still, her ricocheting between past and present is left without structural logic. This is to her credit as well as to her fault. While the human toll of Russia’s demographic crisis can be touched, the very structural nature of role of capitalism as a system is left to run freely roughshod over the bones of its victims without indictment.
This point will be addressed below. First, some summary and discussion of her nevertheless excellent investigative series.
Part one of the series, “A Dying Population” introduces the problem via personal stories and statistics. The demographic crisis in Russia is now well known. Increasing mortality and declining birth rates since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has created a population scissors crisis in the nation of 142 million people. Still the narratives and figures continue to be striking. For example, according to Murphy, abortions outpace births by 100,000 with 10 million Russian women infertile because of botched abortions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost 700,000 people a year. During Soviet times, Russian men’s average life expectancy is 59 years old, with a 48.5 percent chance of them dying between the age of 15 and 60. Finally, according to Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the upper Duma, “if the trend didn’t change, the population would fall to 52 million by 2080.”
Other factors have helped Russia’s population slide. AIDS, illness, alcoholism, drug use, and suicide have all been factors in exacerbating the demographic crisis. The latter, suicide, was an increasing escape from the hardships of the 1990s. Economic collapse, social instability, and of course the harsh dark Russian winters certainly added to people’s propensity to off themselves. Murphy writes,
Russia’s suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.
Nikolai Zavada, a 21-year-old musician who goes by the name Serial Self-Killer, posted a song on http://www.mysuicide.ru , a well-known website that was later shut down because of public pressure:
I’m going out.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s up or down.
Or who’s holding your hand, an angel or otherwise….
The cold has worn me out.
“People have a lack of hope,” Zavada said in an interview. “That all their efforts are in vain. And also, they have a feeling of eternal emptiness.”
Such narratives read similar to archival documents I’ve read about incidents of suicide from the 1920s.
The increasing gap between deaths and births is only one aspect of the problem. This gap is being aiding by an increasingly corroded health care system. This is the subject of part two, “For the Sick, No Place to Turn.” Not longer with the support of the state, Russian health care is wilting under capitalist reforms. Like most countries, the welfare state has met its death knell. The mantra of privatization is even heard in Russia. As the public system crumbles, those who can afford the emerging private system do so, while those who can’t, must rely on a public system that is losing the competitive war as more would-be state doctors are entering private practice. The logic of the market is draining the public sector of means and minds, and the private grows fat on the corpses of the former. A small present of chocolates, tea, or even blat gets you very far today.
The poor status of Russians’ health is not simply because of alcohol and bad health care; it is also because the widespread environmental damage caused by the Soviet state. Soviet socialism was to make man the ultimate tamer of nature, but nature’s revenge is an indiscriminant litany of effects: cancers, poisoning, birth defects, suffocation, and contamination.
If a crumbling health care system is the second pillar of demographic crisis, the third is migration and higher birthrates among non-Russian populations. Part three, “The Future Looks a Lot More Diverse”, points to an issue that is not just indicative of Russia. Sometimes derisively called “the Empire Strikes Back” in academic parlance, Russia is part of a regional shift as former colonial subjects from all former European empires are now tipping the demographic scales by flooding into the metropole. And like in Britain, France, and Germany, the face of the burgeoning domestic Other is not white or Christian; he/she is dark and Muslim. With political Islam (a term I’ve adopted from Mahmood Mamdani) replacing “communism” and “nationalism” in the discourse of global politics, these Muslims are more and more simply being associated with “terrorist.” Via what Mamdani calls “culture talk,”, the “good” Muslim is eventually eclipsed by the “bad” Muslim. In the end, the political effects of demographic crisis are multifaceted. The population decline of Russians will eventually correspond to a decline in cultural and political influence.
“Demographic trends,” Murphy writes,
suggest that the decrease is likely to continue. Although most experts are skeptical, a former U.S. government expert on Russian nationalities recently predicted that Russia would have a Muslim majority within 30 years.
In addition to its own Muslim population, Russia is home to an estimated 10 million illegal immigrant workers from the largely Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The city of Moscow has swelled to 10.4 million people, and one-fifth of them are Muslims. The Russian capital has the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe.
Along Moscow’s wide boulevards, minarets rise next to the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. Across the country, there are 8,000 mosques, up from 300 in 1991, when Soviet strictures on religious observance were lifted. Markets more often than not are run by immigrants from Azerbaijan. Construction sites would come to a halt if not for low-paid workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
These developments explain the sharp rise in Russian nationalism, racism, and racial violence in a nutshell.
There are roughly three explanations given to explain the ills that inflict Russian society. The first is derived from an argument in academic and policy circles that Russia is still in a state of “transition.” Suspended somewhere between state socialism and capitalism, this argument says, the ills of “development” are harsh, but necessary. It is the birth pains of Russia entering the globalized world. Under this logic social and economic inequality is acceptable because it will condition the spoiled population to embrace a Protestant work ethic.
The second argument lays the blame solely on Putin. By this logic capital is not the problem; Putin is because he has put breaks on a process of liberalization that so flourished in the 1990s. The usual crimes are listed: the persecution of the oligarchs, especially Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the centralization of power, the transformation of United Russia into a party/state, the revival of Soviet traditions, and political repression. These are crimes for sure, but as a Russian friend recently told me, “I don’t like it when Americans explain Russia’s ills to me. The 1990s were so difficult that I understand why many people choose stability over freedom.”
The third explanation is an extension of the second. Russia’s problem is Russians themselves. They drink too much, don’t work enough, are slavish to power, and are racists as well as other reductionist reasoning. The problems let alone the solutions have no social existence—they reside in genetics itself. Such reasoning only makes Russians defensive toward their Russianness. And rightly so.
The point of the matter is that all three of these explanations are merely mystifications. The first posits what Fredric Jameson calls a “singular modernity”: all roads may seem different, but there is only one road to capitalist modernity, a road where the length and severity of overcoming backwardness is measured according to that of “Western” norms of development. The second shrouds the severe costs of the Soviet Union’s collapse as it does smooth over the tremendous wake which spreads to this day. The third is one facet of the worse forms of neo-Darwinism.
1991 was supposed to bring prosperity. It did to some. But that is the nature of capital. It only ever brings prosperity to some. Given the Third Worldesque nature of capitalism in Russia, where Moscow stands at the center with the gravitational pull of the sun, the ruinous effects of the market are only that much greater. This is not to belie the responsibility of the Soviet Union. If that system worked in the first place, it wouldn’t have collapsed. But to constantly evoke the ghosts of the past masks the realities of the present. The same could be said for placing people like Putin at the apex of Russia’s misery. No doubt, his role is crucial but there is no reason to give him more credit that he deserves. There are some real structural reasons for the crises Murphy explores in her series. She gives attention to some of them.
There is one, however, that remains buried in the human narratives she presents. It is capital and its inherently contradictory nature. Within its very being, as Karl Marx observed, are wondrous powers of creation but those creative qualities are not without wonton destruction. Russia is and will continue to be a reflection of capital’s janus face.Post Views: 466
By Sean — 13 years ago
The law restricting NGOs operations in Russia passed a second reading yesterday. According to the Moscow Times, the Duma threw out over 80 provisions based on recommendations from the Duma’s Public and Religious Organizations Committee. The debate took less than an hour. The revisions however don’t amount to much. Duma deputy and Yabloko Party member, Sergei Popov called the revisions “technical.” NGOs would still have to register with the government’s Federal Registration Service, but they will no long be required to set up separate Russian entities. I guess the wise deputies of the Duma realized that setting up Russian front groups didn’t really matter. Still, the law threatens to hamper the activities of many NGOs by making their accounting books open to State scrutiny. Mostly, the bill threatens to throw NGOs into a bureaucratic quagmire thus paralyzing them, as Yelena Rykovtseva of Russia Profile argues. One provision, which is directly related to Mikhail Khodokovsky, not only prevents a person convicted of extremism and money laundering from starting or funding an NGO, but even if they are suspected of such activities.
Unsurprisingly, for many the NGO bill has become representative of Russia’s general political path. In an editorial by New Eurasia Foundation President Andrei Kortunov in Izvestiia, the bill has split Russian political observers into “pessimists” and “optimists.” Kortunov agrees that pessimists outnumber and for good reason. However, he interestingly states, “optimists deserve at least being heard without attributing to the Kremlin sycophants and ardent supporters of manageable democracy beforehand.” The positives lie in the fact the NGO bill has generated a lot of much needed debate, despite the dire outcome, around the following questions:
“What kind of place should civil society institutions have in contemporary Russia? What should be the balance between protection of civil rights and social interests? What should be the balance between critique of the state and partnership with it, between social alarmism and solving of certain social problems? Probably, all these questions do not have unambiguous answers. But it is worth while asking them from time to time even for the most successful and well-to-do leaders of civil society.”
Good questions. And perhaps some discussion around these will attenuate some of the alarmist rhetoric from both sides. For, as Peter Levelle points out,
“Unfortunately, it would appear that those in the media who have criticized the NGO law have not read the legislation in detail. If they had, they might have come to the conclusion that Russia’s efforts to regulate NGOs, foreign ones in particular, is not much different from existing U.S. laws dealing with foreign NGOs.
What many foreign NGOs do in Russia today would be illegal in the United States. The Kremlin is set to emulate the United States by establishing its own version of the “Foreign Agents Registration Act.” The purpose of FARA, according to its Web site, is to ensure the American public and its lawmakers know the source of information (propaganda) intended to sway public opinion, policy and laws.”
Again, this begs the question of what the relationship between the state and civil society should be. Is it one of independence where civil society acts as the watchdog of the state? Or is it that the state regulates civil society’s ability to check its political influence thus reducing it to a mere charitable role? I think a lot of this depends on what one means by “civil society” itself—a term that has increased in usage over the last decade; usage which has only muddled its meaning. Traditionally, civil society meant social groups and organizations that stand relatively autonomous from the state, but exist within the borders of said state. An independent media is often cited as vital to a thriving civil society. But with globalization and the growth of non-governmental organizations, civil society has expanded to include international organizations that have no geographical fixity in their operations. Civil society has increasing become a global civil society which is increasingly positioning itself not below the sovereignty of states, but equal if not above them. But how then do states, which continue to be based on geographical sovereignty, reconcile with the “global” sovereignty of NGOs? Such a question makes the Russian bill not simply a measure of its democracy, but part of an increasing global issue as states confront more and more non-state agents that try to wield political power over and within them.
Unfortunately, the Russian state, like the American one, has increasingly resorted to the rhetoric of fighting terrorism as a way to not only shore up its internal sovereignty, but also expand its external jurisdiction. Whereas the Cold War fostered the establishment of geopolitical spheres of influence, fighting terrorism is providing a similar rational though with concerning additions. For the most part, the geopolitical spheres of influence of the Cold War were military-political. The United States and Soviet Union, for example, used military and political coercion and consent to manage their satellite states. The current reshuffling of geopolitical spheres are political-juridical, where states, led by the United States, are expanding its laws beyond its borders. This expansion of juridical sovereignty along with more traditional military and political variants makes the need for a strong global civil society to act as an international check on state activity increasingly necessary.
It is within this context that I read the Russian bill on NGOs. Its ramifications are specific to Russia, but its implications go beyond that. Given that the most prominent NGOs, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International etc, focus on human rights violations committed by states inside and outside their borders, the attempt to regulate NGOs is not reducible to the States’ traditional right to exercise political power within its borders, but to extend that prerogative outside them. In this light, Russia or even the United States’ claim that the controls over NGOs is about fighting terrorism is not mere rhetoric. It is precisely about this because they know and desire that the fight against terrorism extend their political, military and juridical sovereignty beyond its borders; a desire that puts them increasingly up against the roadblocks NGOs erect and barricade.Post Views: 484