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January 20th 2014 print

Michael Galak

In Russia, Paranoia And Penury

In Part II of his travel memoir, Michael Galak returns to the shambles that is the land where he grew up. Few things are as they seem, and those that are testify to a reality as grim as it is corrupt

russia beggarWe land in Moscow later than we should. It is a strange feeling to stand in the crowd, which speaks and understands Russian, an emotion of alienation and residual, nagging suspicion, not to mention discomfort. After living in an English-speaking country since 1978, the Russian language sounds like a foreign tongue which we just happen to understand. Soon this feeling passes, though.

We pick up our bags and rush through the customs and the visa control. We are pleasantly surprised: it is simple and easy –- no one gives us a second look. We run towards the domestic terminal, which, thankfully, is just around the corner. Another queue, another passport control, another security control, another pat down, another luggage search and we are in a domestic plane, full of tired and irritable people. We discover that we have a space, an invisible barrier of alienation around both of us. The meaning of a personal space in Russia is an obscure concept and close personal proximity is a fact of life. To our surprise, we find an invisible ring of emptiness surrounding both of us in the filled-to-capacity plane. The man in the next seat to mine is studiouslystaring into a window, avoiding any form of a contact. We might as well be on different flights for all the human exchange we share.

Part I of Michael Galak’s travel memoir, Dubai, can be found here

We notice that the sound of English is a sign of otherness, a perceived indication of potential danger. It says ‘be alert and wary of the foreigner!’. The looks we receive are hooded, expectant and careful. We try not to speak English, but it does not help much — our demeanour and appearance give us away immediately. Things change when the first contact is made — invariably the human warmth, friendliness and a desire for a conversation become apparent. More than once we are freely offered information, food, drinks, souvenirs, smiles and laughter as soon as the ice of alienation is broken. Most precious and endearing, of course, is the irrepressible Russian ability to laugh at themselves and treat the petty annoyances of travel with humour and a “she’ll be right” attitude.

Beyond the tourist poster

The town we visited is very different from the Russia depicted in tourist brochures. It is one of the post-Soviet monoculture towns — a grey, grimy and shabbily unkempt conglomeration of tired-looking Housing Commission-type apartment buildings, overgrown weeds pretending to be flowers, pockmarked roads and and another of the ubiquitous Lenin statues in front of the tallest building. Typically, one giant enterprise dominates the town’s life. The rest of the town’s industry is a supplement, an auxiliary to the local Goliath, which dominates an industrial landscape and employs the lion’s share of the town’s workforce. “The Combine”, as this factory is called, also  provides accommodation and childcare centres for its workers, supplies them with medical services, subsidises their food and recreation, finances  the town’s meagre landscaping, sports facilities and wotnot.

In other words, the town’s population utterly depends on the successful functioning of The Combine. Any mishap, be it of production or sales, is keenly felt by the entire town of about half-a-million people. This set-up is common for many of Russia’s provincial towns, where most of the population depends on one or two employers. When these employers become superfluous, so do their towns, which start to wither and gradually die. This situation is a mirror reflection of the bigger picture of the entire country, which does not produce anything capable of competing internationally, except raw materials and the crudest of the value-added exports, such as pig iron. The only industries with more-or-less effective quality controls are defence-related.  Any drop in demand for raw-material exports on the international marketplace, such as for oil, coal or iron, could mean a catastrophe for the entire country’s budget.

Near total dependency on the planners’ allocation of budget funds and the associated lack of private-enterprise alternatives engender an attitude of a learned helplessness and hopelessness about the possibility of any meaningful changes in many Russians’ lives. However, compensatory mechanisms, developed by ordinary Russians to survive systemic deficiencies of their society, testify to ingenuity and resilience. Viewed from a Western perspective, these mechanisms often are illegal, immoral or just plain preposterous. From the Russian viewpoint they are nothing but responses to the challenge of existence, legitimate defences against a still-oppressive system.

The feeling of profound mistrust of ordinary Russians towards the State and its institutions is difficult to describe, but it is very real and permeates every facet of the Russian life. Besides, these techniques of avoidance of the State’s tender mercies serve as a lubricant for the otherwise inefficient functioning of the State machinery. The West calls it corruption. Russians call it survival. Who knows whose definition and in which context is correct?

Pining for a superpower past

Russia is a Third World country with nuclear weapons. This simple fact became apparent almost immediately after the collapse of the USSR. This is the fact of life painfully acknowledged by the informed stratum of the population, albeit without grace and quite grudgingly. To be precise, Russians hate to admit it.

The loss of the superpower status is still hurting. The West is commonly regarded as a malevolent force, eternally trying to diminish, destroy and detract from Russia’s greatness. That is why there is a never-ending search for the guilty ones, for the agents of the country’s collapse and failures, and an almost universal belief in a conspiracy that posits the existence of mysterious forces trying to dominate Russia. In this regard Russians are quite close to the delusional Arab view about the cause of their own troubles. Seemingly rational and well-educated people, astonishingly, speak with deadly seriousness about Western attempts to “destroy” Russia. The obvious argument — that if the West really wanted to destroy Russia it would have done so immediately after the collapse of the USSR, when the Soviet Army was in no position to defend the country — does not budge this bizarre conviction. Actually, if one goes by the plethora of critical material in the Russian media, it seems the Russian Army remains at best barely function.

The US, or americosy, as Americans are derisively called, is popularly regarded as the chief malevolent force standing in the way of Russia’s greatness. At the same time the eagerness for a discourse and the sincere friendliness towards Western visitors are, sometimes, overwhelming, if quite incongruous.

In the heady days of the USSR implosion, the USA and other Western counties’ willingness to help with the painful transition from the dictatorship to a democracy was misinterpreted by many Russians as an American willingness to provide unconditional and unlimited help till the end of time. The help was provided, but its effectiveness was very low because of the all-pervading corruption. Thus, the withdrawal or, rather, the introduction of conditions attached to this help was interpreted as an attempt to humiliate and denigrate Russia. Many Russians felt abandoned and betrayed. Curiously, they began to relate to the West as if their nation was a child abandoned by an adored father, the reaction being dismay, anger and unrelenting hostility.

In the atmosphere of the popular suspicion of Western intentions and Russian inability (or unwillingness) to recognise their own shortcomings, the Russian government is seen by many Russians as a guarantor of the country’s integrity and dignity, a stern-but-just Daddy. It is a “lesser evil” perception. The big daddy not only punishes and rules, he also provides sustenance and looks after his children. How would you argue with an omnipotent and an omniscient father about your small salary? How do you argue about a low pension? And these salaries and pensions are indeed small. Suffice it to say, that a young doctors’ basic salary is about $US200-300 per month, and the medium pension stands at about the same level, with prices for quality foodstuffs approximately the same as in the West.  This feeling of personal insignificance is a permanent psychological component of an ordinary Russian’s life and self-perception.

Nothing could demonstrate the difference between the Western and Third World countries better than their differing approaches to the public health and welfare, respect for the law and individual rights.

“Free” medicine? Hah!

The appalling state of the “free” medical services in Russia is compounded by the situation, whereby patients, wishing to be treated by the doctor of their choice in decent conditions, are habitually paying doctors so called “black money” — bribing them as an encouragement to do their jobs to their patients’ satisfaction. Many doctors are forced to accept these offerings to avoid living in poverty. It has created a bizarre situation that sees the police set up sting operations to catch bribe-takers. It also casts the shadow of endemic criminality over the entire medical profession, holding all doctors to be suspects under the existing law. This situation is described in an intensely sad and brutally frank book by the doctor Andrey Shlyakhov, “Doctor Danilov in durdom“. Translated, durdom  means “looney bin” or, more literally, “house of fools”.

The need is so great and salaries so low that the situation is impervious to change,  no matter what. Pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies commonly pay doctors to prescribe their products, with those “commissions” a matter of course. The plight of the old, infirm and a poor – those who cannot pay, in other words — means they are treated more often than not in conditions which are beyond indecent. Frankly, this kind of patient is of little interest to the Russian public health system. They are expected to take what’s available. And considering the paltry budget allocations, that is not much at all. Even these crumbs are often misappropriated as a result of a corruption that is inevitable wherever an independent, transparent audit is not a condition of funding.

The Russian countryside

Despite quite a number of cosmetic changes in big towns, Russian villages remain disaster zones – depressed, ugly and unloved. We are driven by a pretty village built on the bank of a picturesque river and designed for young, low-income families with small children.  Most of these houses are empty, despite subsidised rents and the country’s chronic shortage of available accommodation. The reason for the lack of takers is quite simple: the village is not connected to any road, it is not connected to an electricity grid, there is no gas, no sewerage, no school, no shops and no hospital. After building all these houses no money was left for anything else. Everyone knows which pockets that missing money went into.

The popular folklore presents the countryside as a place of a mental and physical rejuvenation, a place for Russians to return to their roots, with the green fields, rivers, brooks and forests imbuing an almost supernatural healing mystique. In reality, the Russian countryside is as unkempt and underdeveloped as it always has been. Village roads, footpaths, sewerage and general infrastructure are sadly lacking. We visited this same village many years ago. Nothing has changed, except for some roads being paved in few places. The Russian countryside is the place that time forgot.

Thank G-d for Australia.

We were leaving Russia with heavy hearts. We did not expect what we saw. Most Western visitors see the Russia of elegant St Petersburg and ostentatious Moscow, but that is not Russia at all. Those tourist magnets represent a separate state, another state, which got almost nothing to do with the province of reality. These two megalopolises are Potemkin villages designed to convey an impression of prosperity, stability and progress while hiding the far less palatable reality. Those two cities do a great job of it. But real life is quite different and every Russian knows as much. The sadness in their eyes testifies to that.

We were leaving Russia knowing that we are ending what will be our last visit there, leaving behind people and places which we will keep in memory as precious mementos of our past lives, now gone but not forgotten. We are coming back to Australia, beautiful and kind Australia, which accords her children, both native-born and adopted, equal rights and respect. And as befits an indulgent Mum,  a bemused tolerance of human foibles.

It’s good to be home. Coo-eee!