Good news from Russia is a rarity. But today is one of the those rare days. After four and a half years in prison on fabricated charges, the labor activist Valentin Urusov has been released. His release comes ten days after a Khangalssk district court decision. According to Andrei Demidov, the deputy director of Collective Action, Urusov plans to continue his work as a labor and human rights organizer.
Congratulations to Urusov, his family, and all those who tirelessly agitated for his freedom!
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- By Sean — 10 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.
- By Sean — 13 years ago
Last year I was in a Moscow taxi riding from Sheremetevo to my apartment at Profsoiuznaia after spending Christmas in Germany. Of course I began talking to the driver, asking questions about himself, and his family. He happily told me that he had four sons. As a joke I told him that he was raising an army. To this day I don’t know if it was my bad Russian or that my mention of the word “army” brought him such immediate and undeniable disgust. “I wouldn’t send one of my sons to the damn army. I won’t let them take not a one.” I then explained to him what I meant by the comment. He replied, “Not an army, a football team!”
The near death beating of Private Sychyov by an officer at the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy is just another example of why Russian parents like my taxi driver will do anything to get their sons out of the draft. Articles on the incident call Sychyov’s beating, which resulted in the amputation of his legs and genitals because they developed a gangrenous infection, as “hazing” or dedovshchina. I’ve dealt with dedovshchina elsewhere. But the English word “hazing” doesn’t fully capture the violence and brutality of this incident. This was not some fraternity prank. This was not some simple initiation ritual. “Hazing” just doesn’t do it. This is just pure violence.
Here is how former Russian Army Colonel Viktor Litovkin describes the incident on Russia Profile:
Military prosecutors are still investigating the details, but what we do already know is that that a number of drunken “older” enlisted men and NCOs, led by Corporal Alexander Sivyakov, spent several hours tormenting Sychyov, who had only joined the Logistics Battalion at the Chelyabinsk Tank Military College two days earlier. He was forced to crouch for with his arms stretched out in front of him for an extended period, and was then tied tightly to a stool. There have been reports – unsubstantiated as of yet – that the 19 year old soldier was also raped.
The result was severe swelling of Sychyov’s legs, the death of some of the muscle and, ultimately, gangrene. He turned to military doctors for help only four days after the attack, and then only because he was unable to get out of bed. The doctors not only failed to diagnose his condition properly, they failed to treat him at all. Sychyov ultimately had to call the emergency service of a municipal hospital where, in order to save his life, doctors were forced to amputate both of his legs, his genitalia and one finger. He remains in a critical condition, with no guarantees from the doctors that he will survive.
I wanted to write something more substantive on this incident. Time just doesn’t permit me. I urge readers to continue reading Litovkin’s commentary.
- By Sean — 3 years ago
Recent reports in Vedomosti and RBK dovetail nicely with the editorial I’ve translated below from the folks at OpenLeft.ru. Vedomosti predicts that in 2016 Russia’s economy will only worsen—the price of oil will be cheaper, inflation higher, incomes lower, and the ruble weaker. Along these lines, RBK evaluates the growth of social protests in 2015 and suggests that the trend will only continue after the new year. These social actions are a different animal from the protests of 2011-2012. Then Putin could simply wait out angry urbanites with only yielding to a few minor, and mostly cosmetic, concessions. The subsequent tightening the screws effectively neutralized the more radical remnants.
But Putin did something else in 2012 that was no less important to neutralize the threat from the streets. He shifted his constituency away from the cosmopolitan urban classes to the so-called “silent majority” of the working classes in the provinces. This Nixonian move incorporated heavy doses of populism, patriotism and conservative identity politics. Putin’s “populist turn” never contradicted elite rapaciousness. It was never meant to. Elite acquiesces was the other side of coin, and in many ways only continued, not contradicted, the tenor of his first two terms. And until recently, this unity of opposites worked.
As the editors of OpenLeft.ru write below, the social protests of 2015 symbolize the potential fracturing of the “Putin consensus.” It is this splintering of “national unity” that poses the greatest threat to the system. This is not to say that the Putin system is teetering on the precipice as many would like to imagine. Rather it looks to face challenges that expose one of the “third term’s” inherent weaknesses—the system’s lack of political and economic flexibility and dynamism. One of Putin’ successes has been his ability to sell “stability” as legitimization for his continued rule. Now legitimacy is under pressure as “stability” slides into ossification. As the editors suggest, in the context of the economic downward slide, attenuating those pressures might require pitting the two inherently contradictory elements of the “Putin consensus” against each other.
Editors, 25 December 2015
Summing up the past year
The system Putin built wants to appear unchanging: it is based on “stability”, that is, the illusion that there is no alternative to its policies and authority. Analysts’ numerous apocalyptic prophecies signaling the impending collapse are the flipside to “stability.” This past year has witnessed the end to “stability,” but the collapse has not occurred. Instead, a third option between stasis and disaster has prevailed: The quickening oscillation of a downward spiral.
The main elements of the Putin system remain in place, but it’s clearly obvious this very system cannot cope with the deep and extensive crisis. It’s a crisis of incomes of the population (their unprecedented fall since the 1990’s); the crisis of the social sphere (the authorities’ rousing populist statements are not able to conceal their deadly policies of austerity: pervasive “optimization”, budget cuts and the increased pressure on the public sector, and the freezing of pensions); the crisis of regional budgets, upon which the federal center unloaded the main burden of social spending; and the crisis of the Putin economy and its inability to find new engines of growth.
In the context of contracting incomes Putin’s politico-economic system can no longer conceal its predatory nature. The novelty of the past year has been the attempts to resolve budget shortfalls while at the same time filling the pockets of officials and businessmen close to the government with the help of new taxes and fees. It’s not just the Platon system, which provoked the most significant social protests this year, but also tax increases on small businesses, the introduction of paid parking, and additional charges for utilities. The population will pay, that is those who still have something to pay with, for the crisis and so that state corporations and Putin’s friends will have “a very large amount of money.” The conflict is unequivocal: the minority of haves are against the majority of have-nots.
This conflict is becoming more pronounced. It’s not just about the truckers’ protests. The number of labor protests is rapidly growing. According the Center for Social and Labor Rights (TsSTP), the number of protests has increased by more than a third, 37percent, compared to last year, and more than half, 53 percent, to previous years (2008 – 2013). Petr Biziukov, an analyst at TsSTP, concludes that the quantity of protests has transformed into quality. “Physicians’ protests across the country, as well as the truckers’ protests comprised dozens of regions, and showed that the new kind of protests will be connected by a network rather than by local actions. Interregional, multisectoral and even intraregional actions arise more often. It seems that in this instance, the transition from local (isolated) protests emerging in disparate industries to networked actions uniting workers and organizations from different industries, cities and regions under the same slogans is a qualitative shift in the Russian protest movement.”
The “patriotic” consolidation over the last two years, the only purpose of which has been to mask the fundamental conflict of Russian society—the minority haves against the majority have-nots—has stopped working. The “Crimean Consensus” presaged this rift. Surveys show a decline in the public’s confidence in the media which throughout the “third term” has played a major role in maintaining the illusion of national unity against numerous internal and external enemies.
Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the perpetual “Bolotnaya Case” has completely demoralized the urban White Ribbon movement. However, though today’s urban middle classes are forcibly denied political rights, it doesn’t mean that they will not try to go back into the streets. This return, however, won’t be a simple replay of 2011-2012 but will be tied to the current crisis. Only time will tell what form it will take: part of a broader social coalition against austerity or an attempt to mobilize around the 2016-2018 election cycle.
The “Putin majority’s” potential collapse contributes amazingly to Russia’s cynical and unprincipled foreign policy which experts prudently call “the predominance of tactics over strategy.” Faced with a deadlock in the Donbas, Russia “has shifted the theater of war” and rushed into Syria to restore relations with the West. For the Kremlin, the bombing of Syria is a trump card in the “Great Game”, but it is by no means a game for Syrians: it’s a horrific civil war, the end of which Russia’s participation only delays, and whose bombing results in civilian deaths. Russia’s bombs are no less deadly than those of the United States, England, and France.
It’s unknown how much longer the authorities will be able to spin their adventurous imperialism for “restoring Russia’s place in the world.” To keep its own citizens eyes on the illusion that the Syrian adventure is “a war without consequences,” the ruling elite has resorted to regularly falsifying the numbers of military casualties. Another glaring example of this information strategy was the two weeks of deliberate deception about the true cause of the passenger deaths in the A321 Russian airliner over Sinai. In Russia itself, the mass production of external enemies has acquired the traits of a petty and despicable farce. The harassment of Turkish citizens in the last weeks of the year are an especially disgraceful page in this history.
The accelerating economic and social crisis exposes the existing regime’s limited room for maneuver and its stunning lack of flexibility. At the present moment it is practically incapable of reforming itself, or at least, significantly restraining the elite’s appetites. The regime with the country in tow can only barrel downward and bitterly defend “their own” from public criticism, intensify repression, defiantly refuse to make concessions to demands from below, and cut off any possibility for unauthorized political participation from above.
The country enters a new year fearful of the still hidden future, but the “grapes of wrath” are clearly ripening.