I made reference to Susan Richards’ book Lost and Found in Russia: Encounters in a Deep Heartland in my last post. I have not read the book, nor can I buy it unless I want to pay extra shipping from England. Lost and Found has yet to be published in the US. Too bad. As this Guardian review suggests, it sounds like a worthwhile read:
In the great tradition of Chekhov or Dostoevsky, her subjects live in the anonymous provinces, in the appropriately named town of Marx (what a great choice – at one point she was categorically informed by a telephone operator that “Marx does not exist, but Engels does”). The opening chapters are ones of pure despair. Richards describes struggling to capture the weird reality that just when we all thought the Russians should be celebrating the advent of democracy and freedom, their lives were collapsing around them. Provincial Russia knows a thing or two about hopelessness.
The subsequent 16 years of change have tested her characters to the limits – throwing some off into Siberia, a couple to the Crimea. Richards kept on going back, doggedly and affectionately following the lives they offer up.
Or you can get a taste yourself. OpenDemocracy has published a few excepts from the text:
And if that isn’t enough, Richards recently spoke at OpenDemocracy’s Russia evening in London. Anatol Lieven provided commentary.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
“Only by uniting our efforts can we achieve results in developing our country and ensure that it take an appropriate place in the world,” Putin said in reference to National Unity Day. “That is why, the idea that inspired this holiday seems to be very important to me and deserves support.”
By all accounts, on this National Unity Day is an empty holiday created by the Kremlin to replace Revolution Day on November 7. Even more a sign of desperation, is the fact that the historical event chosen to mark said unity is Russia “liberation” from the Poles in 1612. If you have to look back four centuries to find national unity, then you know you are in trouble.
But everyone knows that the historical reasons for National Unity Day are a sham, and to emphasize that again really isn’t the point. The point is that the celebration of especially this year’s holiday is a reminder of how Russia’s past and present is marked with disunity. And while Putin is for the most part something for the Russia people to unite around, his words can’t help contain a tinge of desperation.
This year’s unity day is like none since its invention in 2005 by the simple fact that November 7 marks the 90th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. No there won’t be any grand celebrations. Nor will there be much recognition of the anniversary on global scale. It’s a bit sad really especially since it’s not a stretch to say that the Bolshevik Revolution was the most important event of the 20th century. Some honest reevaluation of it seems necessary to me, but maybe that is just the historian in me talking.
Celebrations marking the Revolution’s 90th Anniversary will surely be small. Only the most staunchest of communists will probably commemorate it. Still, most Russians, according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, continue to view it as positive. 31% of respondents felt that the Revolution spearheaded “Russia’s economic and social progress.” 26% said that it “helped Russia turn over a new leaf.” Only 16% said it was an impediment to Russia’s development, and 15% saw it as a national disaster. Given how tendentious the Revolution continues to be, there is no doubt that many will argue about what these percentages actually mean.
No matter how one views the Revolution, whether it was a “coup,” a “social revolution,” or simply some kind of back room hatched conspiracy, one can’t deny that it symbolized and continues to symbolize more disunity rather than unity. Such was the case in November 1917. Speaking to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Lenin crafted the Bolshevik’s victory in terms of unity. “We have now learned to make a concerted effort,” he said. “The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organization, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.” Lenin knew that taking power was a gamble and that his party’s strength was concentrated in Russia’s urban centers and among the soldiers. So Lenin, as he would do until his death, preached unity at the moment when disunity was at its most virulent.
But whatever unity among the toiling classes Lenin hoped to retain, they were dashed by the realities of rule. By January 1918, Lenin’s government was getting flooded with letters of protest against disbanding the Constituent Assembly, failing to fulfill its promises, and incapable of dealing with the burden of rule. One unsigned letter “from the front” dated 15 January 1918 to Lenin is especially telling. It reads:
Comrade Lenin: It’s been been four whole days since we’ve had a glimpse of bread, we are walking around naked and barefoot. Yet still there’s no peace and none is expected. Comrade Lenin, did you really seize power so that you could drag the war out three more years? Comrade Lenin, where is your conscience, where are the words you promised: peace bread land and liberty in three days’ time? Did you promise all that just so you could seize power? And then what? But no, you don’t want to fulfill your obligation. Now, this is all lies. If you don’t keep your promises by 1 February, then you’re going to get what Dukhonin got: you’ll drop like a fly. If you’ve picked up the reins then go ahead and drive, and if you can’t then, honey, you can take a flying fuck to hell, or as we say in Siberia, you’re a goddamned motherfucker, son of an Irkutsk cunt (если взяли вожжи то правте а если неможите то летика ты свет нахуй посибирски сказать к ебёной матери ты ёб тваю мать иркутская блядь), who’d like to sell us out to the Germans. No you won’t be selling us out: don’t forget that we Siberians are all convicts.
It’s unknown whether Putin has received any letters from “Siberian convicts” calling him a “motherfucker” or a “son of an Irkutsk cunt,” though if he did, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. Because like with Lenin 90 years ago, Putin’s increasing calls for unity against outsiders, between peoples, and even between security organs speaks more to the reality of its opposite. True, Russia is hardly in the condition it was in 90 years ago, but one should not take Putin’s stability as a sign for greater social harmony.
Perhaps this is why it was a mistake to call the holiday National Unity Day in the first place. Many disgruntled Russian youth have appropriated it as a symbol of their own perceived disenfranchisement. For them, “national unity” means Russkii unity rather than Rossiiskii unity. In weeks leading up to National Unity Day, the few racial attacks were interpreted as examples of this. It’s unlikely that they had any connection to the holiday. If anything they speak to what many fear is a “mushrooming” of Russian ultranationalist groups. And it is clear that authorities are taking more and more notice. The far right presents even more a threat to Russia’s political stability than the liberal or even radical left. 5000 police were mobilized around Moscow and non-Russians were advised to stay off the streets.
The rally for a “Russia for Russians” missed its goal of 7,000, but only by a few grand. 5,000 nationalists turned up including an American named Preston Wiginton. Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas, addressed the crowd with black cowboy hat and all. “I’m taking my hat off as a sign of respect for your strong identity in ethnicity, nation and race,” he told onlookers weathering the light Moscow drizzle. “Glory to Russia!” he said in broken Russian. “White power!” he shouted in his native English. It just goes to show that despite tensions between Russia and the US, Russian and American racists can find common ground. Moreover, for all the talk about racism and xenophobia in Russia, one should recognize that spitting on immigrants has become a favorite pastime of the US Congress and the EU.
Nashi activists countered the Russian March with its own calls for unity. Taking a page out to the Soviet notion of the “friendship of peoples,” 30,000 Nashi, United Russia’s Young Guard, and Mestnye activists marched through central Moscow carrying a “blanket of peace” which they sewed together to symbolize Russia’s multiethnicity. “Young Guard and other guys will come together to show the will of the people unified against those who want to divide the country,” State Duma and United Russia rep Valerii Riazanskii told Kommersant on Friday. “Nashi will present 4 November as a new tradition of celebration, and to Russian (россиян) confidence in multinational friendship and unity of peoples,” said representatives of Nashi. As a group that employs xenophobia as a campaign tactic, I don’t think Nashi is really a good symbol of tolerance.
Of all the marches and rallies around National Unity Day/Revolution Day, I think Saturday’s “March of the Empty Saucepans” in St. Petersburg is my favorite. Comprised of 1,500 protesters, half of which were pensioners, the rag tag crowd shouted slogans like “Putin’s plan is trouble for Russia” and “We’re awaiting a bread uprising” to express their anger at rising food prices and inflation. As NPB organizer Andrei Dmitriev told Reuters, “In Russia, 90 years ago, everything also began as a result of rising bread prices. People took to the streets and the tsar was overthrown.” Well, yes bread riots do have a exceptional place in revolutionary lore but I would advise Dmitriev to not get his hopes up.Post Views: 73
By Sean — 9 years ago
Russia outer face is one of a reemerging, “assertive” power while its inner core is rotting. That’s what demographer Murray Feshbach argues in his latest comment, “Behind the Bluster, Russia is Collapsing,” in the Washington Post.
Russia’s demographic problem is well known. Russia’s population declined by 237,800 in 2007, as the number of deaths was greater than the number of births by 477,770. This was better than in 2006 when the the number of deaths exceeded births by 687,100, but figure remains startling nonetheless. The main projection most experts cite is that by 2050, Russia’s population will decline by 30%. Not much for a resurgent power to celebrate there.
The Russian government has taken notice, but in pure campaignist fashion has turned to making June 12, Russia Day, into “sex day” to promote procreation. Officially called “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia Day,” was the brainchild of Ulyanovsk governor Sergei Morozov to get women to squeeze out a few more for the Motherland. A variety of incentives are offered to couples who gave birth of this golden day: refrigerators, TV sets, washing machines and also cold hard cash. According to Yasha Levine, the grand prize was a brand new Russian jeep aptly titled the UAZ-Patriot.
Russia’s efforts to increase births don’t stop at the ridiculous. There are other practical, though also ineffective, measures being taken to increase the population. One is an emerging anti-abortion movement. Americans will be surprised to find that in Russia anti-abortionists don’t reside in the church. Rather, they are found among the very people and in the very clinics that perform abortions. Nor is the concern about some soul filled zygote or the threshold of life, but about women’s health and population decline.
Still, however noble these efforts my be, the problem as Feshbach outlines is not more breeding as it is keeping the ones you have alive and healthy. As he rhetorically asks, “So what’s killing the Russians? All the usual suspects — HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, suicides, smoking, traffic accidents — but they occur in alarmingly large numbers, and Moscow has neither the resources nor the will to stem the tide.”
Here is a sample of his startling statistics (these are also statistics he presented at a talk at UCLA last spring, which for any naysayers are not his concoction but are based on Russian government figures and the work of Russian demographers):
Three times as many Russians die from heart-related illnesses as do Americans or Europeans, per each 100,000 people.
Tuberculosis deaths in Russia are about triple the World Health Organization‘s definition of an epidemic, which is based on a new-case rate of 50 cases per 100,000 people.
Average alcohol consumption per capita is double the rate the WHO considers dangerous to one’s health.
About 1 million people in Russia have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to WHO estimates.
Using mid-year figures, it’s estimated that 25 percent more new HIV/AIDS cases will be recorded this year than were logged in 2007.
He goes on,
And then there’s tuberculosis — remember tuberculosis? In the United States, with a population of 303 million, 650 people died of the disease in 2007. In Russia, which has a total of 142 million people, an astonishing 24,000 of them died of tuberculosis in 2007. Can it possibly be coincidental that, according to Gennady Onishchenko, the country’s chief public health physician, only 9 percent of Russian TB hospitals meet current hygienic standards, 21 percent lack either hot or cold running water, 11 percent lack a sewer system, and 20 percent have a shortage of TB drugs? Hardly.
TB, the famed disease of the 19th century taking 24,000 lives a year and the reasons for its death touch are inadequate medicines and facilities. That’s scary indeed.
I have only one quibble with Feshbach. And it’s not about his figures or the seriousness of the issue. It’s about his juxtaposing Russia’s recent projecting of its external power with internal decay as if it is some kind of contradiction. Not so in the least. It is precisely when a power begins to rot from the inside does it flex its imperial muscle on the outside. There’s just nothing better, or it seems more ideologically effective, than displacing an internal crisis on to the body of the external Other.
Thanks to frequent SRB commentor Kolya for pointing to the article.Post Views: 45