"Russia has two problems: fools and roads", the writer Nikolai Gogol said of his country almost two centuries ago. Russians tend to object that there are fools the world over, but when it comes to roads... This is indeed Russia's Achilles heel, they agree with Gogol, a calamity from which there is no salvation.
Moscow traffic jams have become as much a dubious feature of the Russian capital as Lenin in his mausoleum, prostitutes on Leningradskoe shosse and illegal taxi drivers from the ‘'stans' who drive round the city in clapped-out Russian bangers.
Moscow's roads aren't just congested at rush hour, but even during the day. However much the roads are widened, however many new interchanges are built, the speed of traffic drops from year to year. At the moment it is 22 km per hour. In comparison with Moscow, big cities in developed countries ‘move' one and a half times to twice as fast, according to the director of the Institute for Scientific Research into Traffic Management, Alexander Sarychev LINK(, in his study "The Fruits of Enlightenment" on the site www.polit.ru).
In New York, there are 910 cars per 1,000 residents, and just 340 cars per 1,000 residents in Moscow. This flies in the face of the popular belief that the main problem in Moscow is that there are too many cars in the city. According to the State Road Safety Inspectorate, there are just over 3 million drivers registered in Moscow at the moment. Every day, around 400,000 vehicles drive into Moscow from the Moscow Oblast and other regions of Moscow.
There are 18 cars per one hectare of land in New York, and 34 in the Russian capital. So despite its modest level of car ownership, the Russian capital is facing a severe shortage of space. Because of the density of residential housing, office blocks and shops traffic is pretty well gridlocked, according to Alexander Sarychev. In winter the congestion is even worse, as the snow is not removed and covers not just roads, but footpaths, where drivers often park.
People coming to Moscow find it amazing that the city, with its thousands and thousands of offices has become such a magnet, drawing cars in on weekdays not just from the suburbs, but from far further out. Some 1.25 million people commute to Moscow every day from oneighbouring regions. Just over 2 million jobs, or 38%, are concentrated on 6.5% of the city territory, in a five kilometer radius from the Kremlin. Every morning, a massive tide of people engulfs the "historic" city centre, and in the evening the tide goes out again beyond the Garden ring. The metro and above-ground transport is just as overcrowded at these times. You can spend up to five hours in Moscow sitting in traffic jams these days.
Nikolai Pereslegin, the advisor to the chairman of the committee of the cultural heritage of Moscow complain s that today "the area round the Kremlin is one great office. There is little real life there. If you walk round the city centre at night, you see few windows with the lights on, where people live. It would be more sensible to build offices along the Moscow ring road, to decentralize the city, and create job sites on the outskirts. But there's been no planning. So it's the people who have to keep moving in and out'.
The trouble is that the capital's streets and peripheral ring roads were planned in the 1970s-1080s and have two (at best four) lanes. The main radial highways become narrower as they get nearer to the centre, and at the exit points out of Moscow. These places become narrow bottlenecks where the dense traffic piles up. The only exceptions are Kashirskoe Shosse and Leninsky Prospekt, the longest road in Moscow, which starts one kilometre from the Kremlin. Leninsky Prospekt, often called the "presidential" road", smoothly flows into another highway, the Kievskoe Shosse. Putin and Medvedev often take this direct route to the presidential airport Vnukovo-2. No expense was spared on the construction of this road five years ago, and there is virtually no traffic congestion on the way out of the city. The Kashirskoe Shosse, which leads to the country's largest airport, Domodedovo also works well, thanks to the Germans, who built a modern road there 20 years ago. And that's it! All the other radial roads leading out of the city from the Kremlin are blocked with traffic. There are traffic lights, exhaust fumes, and road rage, where people often resort to using weapons. These conflicts often end tragically, as you can learn from the crime reports. And this is in a country where some 30,000 people die in car accidents every year. "That's the population of a small town", as the head of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov pointed out when presenting these dire statistics at the Senate.
Although there are no perfect answers as to how to save Moscow from its traffic problems, fantastic theories abound and unpopular measures have been discussed by officials, experts and traffic police. The traffic police propose to introduce a toll for driving in the center, as in London. They would divide drivers into two groups, those with odd-numbered and those with even-numbered number plates. One group would drive on odd-numbered dates, the other on even-numbered dates. These proposals were promptly rejected as unacceptable by officials and drivers.
A couple of years ago, Moscow deputies proposed to build more roads 12 meters off the ground, as in Japan. But the economic crisis put an end to this futuristic project, and it is unlikely that it would have been supported by architects and ecologists. Officials also floated the idea of making drivers from outside the city take public transport and leave their cars at car parks at the end of metro lines. But this project never got off the ground either. There is no room to park thousands and thousands of cars by the metro station, and there is no spare land available.
Officials and traffic police also gave up on another apparently sensible idea, to allocate a special lane for public transport, as is they do in London and other European cities. But since Moscow drivers behave like "gladiators", buses and trolleybuses would be unlikely to be able to protect their special lane.
Although the reconstruction of the city's road network has started, it has been considerably delayed, according to Alexander Sarychev. Instead of increasing the network of small and medium roads, the city authorities began by building short road and bridge projects which do not always solve the problems. But how can one build road networks when every spare patch of land in Moscow is being fought over by the developers?
The building sites in the city centre, which block the streets and increase the parking problem, are another problem. Even unique projects like that of ‘Moscow City', officials and architects failed to address the issue of road junctions properly. Even before the tower-blocks have been finished, it is clear that are too few parking spaces, let alone enough roads connecting it to the third ring road which runs round the outskirts of the city. Thank goodness the crisis stopped the investors and at least partly sobered up the builders.
Alexander Sarychev has LINK no revolutionary proposals to make. But he proposes that you have to build the Moscow's road system first. There is also nothing new about the idea of extending the metro beyond the Moscow ring road. The only question is where to find the funding. Money has been splashed about carelessly, as many people have pointed out. This is what opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov concluded, in their recent shocking report "Luzhkov. Results": "The average cost of the Moscow ring road is $100 million per km. The cost of building the third ring road is $117 million per km. In comparison with western building norms, this is an exorbitant price. In the USA the cost of building one kilometer of a four-lane road comes to $4-6 million. A high-class autobahn in Germany cost 8 million Euros per km. One kilometre of a four-lane highway in China costs $3 million, and $3.6 million in Brazil. So the price of building roads in Moscow is at least 10 times higher than elsewhere in the world".
Some transport experts and ecologists have proposed moving the capital to the far side of the Volga, or in the last resort to St. Petersburg. Then over-populated Moscow (over 10 million people) could revert to its status as Russia's cultural capital. This idea has been proposed at various times by the mayors of Russian cities and regions, State Duma deputies, analysts and journalists. They all say the same: Moscow is not elastic. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cram the offices of the administration, law courts and military , the centres of business, culture and sport into the boundaries of the Moscow ring road. But no leader is likely to act on this in the near future, as those who run Russia are not enthusiastic about the notion of a mass relocation of officials and businessmen.
The only solution is to build new bridges, tunnels and road junctions, and to widen roads if possible, at the expense of the yards, squares and footpaths. City dwellers will be able to breathe freely only when they get out of the city, where there are still forests, trees and lakes, the vast expanses of Russia, and enough fresh air for everyone.
Until recently, the restaurant on Leningradsky Prospect, opposite the monumental Sovyetskaya hotel was called 'Antisovyetskaya'. Portraits of famous Soviet cultural figures, known for their dissident ideas, decorate its walls.
Patriarch Kirill's public triumph in Ukraine in July was preceded with another achievement no less important for the Russian Orthodox Church. This took place in the much more intimate atmosphere of the presidential residence in Barvikha, in the Moscow Oblast. There Dmitry Medvedev met with the leaders of Russia's traditional religions, and responded to two appeals from them.
He agreed that the history and culture of the country's main religions should be included in the core school curriculum. He also agreed that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation should have military priests.
Patriarch Kirill was the first to sign both documents. The Muslim and Jewish religious communities supported the Orthodox position, despite previous objections from some muftis and rabbis.
What will this decision mean in practice for schools? Twice a week from the spring of next year, pupils in the fourth and fifth classes will study one of three new subjects. They and their parents will be able to choose between the religious culture of one religion (Orthodox, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism), the history and cultural background of the world's great religions, or the foundations of secular ethics. It will be compulsory for pupils to choose one of these three modules.
To start with, it will be introduced in 18 regions in six of the seven federal regions of Russia. The three-year experiment will be introduced in 12,000 Russian schools, 20,000 classes, 256,000 children and 44,000 teachers, according to the Ministry for Education and Science. From 2012, the new modules will be introduced to all Russian schools.
These three modules, "Foundations of religious culture", "Foundations of history and culture of world religions" and "Foundations of secular ethics",- will be taught by teachers who have taken a special training course, though most of them will probably have had a secular education. The rector of Moscow's State University V.A. Sadovnichy has already expressed a desire to put the resources of the country's leading university behind the re-training of these specialists. But it is clear that at first the main problem will be a serious lack of qualified teaching staff.
The contents of the textbooks for these modules is also likely to prompt public debate. Consequently, the Church has already declared its readiness to work with the Ministry of Education and Science, the Russian Academy of Education, and a number of other institutes in order to inspect the new textbooks and study materials. This has already been announced by the head of the Synodal Department for Religious Education, Bishop Zaraisky Merkury.
The patriarchate has entrusted the writing of the new textbook on the foundations of Orthodox culture to the well-known Deacon Andrei Kuraev, professor of Moscow State University and the Moscow Spiritual Academy. "We must hope that these various textbooks will be written in such a way that whatever religion the children belong to, if they are going to fight during the school break, they'll use the books, rather than the words contained in them as weapons!" said the protodeacon.
"There should be no place for religious propaganda in these lessons, no appeals to perform particular religious rites or to accept particular dogmas. The textbooks should not contain criticism of other religions, and there should not be a single line which could be used as an argument in the debate of the superiority of one religion over another. The subject should be treated secularly. It should be financed by a secular organisation, and ‘indoctrination' into any faith should be prohibited," stressed the author of the future Orthodox textbook.
A long campaign
It took two decades to win state support for the teaching of religious culture. However, thanks to the persistence of children and their parents, and to the good will of local authorities and school heads, in many parts of Russia, classes in Orthodox or Muslim culture have in fact already become part of the curriculum - but only as optional subjects, or as part of the regional component of the curriculum.
For example, in the bishopric of Smolensk, which was headed by Bishop Kirill before he was elected Patriarch, they have already set up a three-tier system of spiritual and moral education for children and young people, embracing Orthodox kindergartens, lyceums and the appropriate faculties and departments in high schools.
In various other bishoprics it was agreed that the Church would work with local education authorities. Teachers were given training on the foundations of Orthodox culture. In one way or another, over half a million pupils are already studying the subject across the country. However, it was the abolition of the regional educational component two years ago that spurred the religious activists into action.
An open letter addressed by Patriarch Kirill to the minister for education and science A.A. Fursenko just over a month before the meeting at Barvikha testified to their disquiet. The Patriarch expressed his concern that despite the agreements previously arrived at, "the educational section on religious and moral culture was missing from the main (compulsory) section of the curriculum of the new federal state education standard for the education of the young proposed for publication on the official site of the Ministry for Education and Science of the Russian Federation. It had been proposed that this would come up with a number of subjects concerning a common system of moral values, to be chosen by pupils or their parents."
The Patriarch asked the ministry to reintroduce the subject of "spiritual and moral culture" to schools. He also asked them to include official representatives of the Church "in a working party tasked with developing federal state educational standards. Also to include them in all bodies connected with the confirmation of these standards, as also with the development of the curriculum on spiritual and moral culture".
The tone of barely restrained irritation in this document is understandable. For the Ministry of Education and Science had blatantly broken all previous agreements, including those reached at high-level meetings in the presence of the head of the presidential administration S.E. Naryshkin and his first deputy V.Yu. Surkov.
Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church (chiefly through the metropolitan, and subsequently through Patriarch Kirill), has been trying for years to persuade its opponents that teaching the foundations of religious culture is only intended to be a voluntary subject. There will be alternatives, which will take into account the regional predominance of different religions.
The Patriarch was at pains to stress that his overriding concern was that the historical and cultural aspect of the new subject should be well established. For without a good grasp of the foundations of the religion that defines the state, it is impossible to understand the country's historical roots, or to appreciate the riches of its national culture.
There was much discussion of the fact that although Russia's constitution stipulates the separation of Church and state, in Russian history the Church is none the less closely linked with the lives of the people, as well as being a significant and influential aspect of civil society.
Finally, the Church issued a polite but firm reminder that freedom of conscience, seen solely as an unlimited opportunity to inculcate atheist thought, is a hangover from the worst days of the state's war against religion
Responding to critics who accuse the Church of trying to clericalise secular society, the Patriarch said: "We are worried about the moral climate in schools which forms the personality of the person, and his or her understanding of good and evil. This is what concerns us, not lobbying for a particular subject of the curriculum, as people often try to make out".
However, the lack of balance in the national education system does raise issues. For example, in Moscow today there are plenty of ethnic schools which receive municipal funding, and sometimes also from the state. There are several dozen Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian, Jewish, Korean, Lithuanian, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Tatar and many other schools, upper secondary schools and education centres. But strange though it may seem, there is not one which specialises in Russian culture (unless you count private schools like the Radonezh gymnasium). In fact, they have not been allowed to teach a course on Orthodox culture in mainstream Moscow schools. It would seem obvious that such anomalies in our approach to educating young people could lead to serious inter-ethnic problems for those living in a multi-ethnic capital such as ours.
The Kremlin heard the voice of the Patriarch. So too did critics of the Moscow Patriarchate, who mocked the "Barvikha symphony" of the Church and State, the "Orthodoxisation of the country" and the "missionary revenge of the church". For they realise the threat which Patriarch Kirill's new policy, which is gaining increasing popular support, poses to their ideas.
This policy lies in turning nominal Christians, people who are Orthodox only in name, into active members of the Church. The Patriarch has set himself the task of bringing the growing generation of Russians into the church and taking care of them, a generation whose spiritual, moral and physical health is now being sorely tested by the false ideals that are forced on it - vulgar consumerism, social egoism, and attainment of personal success at any price. For as the old Russian saying goes, "he who does not know the law does not know sin either".
I hear that at a parish Sunday school where the well-known Moscow priest Maxim Kozlov teaches pupils sing this merry ditty after lessons: "Father Maxim is going to teach us ‘goats' (ed play on name Kozlov) everything!"
I like the pun, the self-deprecating humour. It makes me feel good about the future.Viktor Malukhin works for the public relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate
Dear Mr. President,
Your September 10 article on Russia's challenges is laudably frank and incisive in its analysis and call for sweeping reform. You voiced the belief of many in Russia, and among its friends abroad, that a better life requires more freedom, diversity, and dynamism. Since you gave less emphasis to how Russia should achieve the lofty goals you set forth, we will offer a few suggestions in response to your gracious open invitation for ideas.
Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. William Courtney was US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and was US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia
Whatever path the country takes, Russia's history and traditions must be respected and built upon. You are right to eschew "permanent revolution" and seek a considered, gradual reform process. As you caution, and as Mikhail Gorbachev learned two decades ago, powerful internal forces will oppose change. Building a broad and durable constituency for reform is essential.
Your overall direction is farsighted - Russia must modernize, and in doing so deepen its ties with the advanced democracies and in some areas emulate them. Europe and America lack monopolies on ideas for reform but between their experiences and Russia's own, important lessons have been learned. The most important is the value of open debate and competitive institutions.
You are right that Russia possesses enormous advantages, including "a huge territory, colossal natural wealth, substantial industrial potential, [and] an impressive list of brilliant achievements in the sphere of science, technology, education, and art."
These strengths will enhance productivity and the quality of life if they are invigorated by economic competition built on an open economic and political environment. They will also require greater investments in health and education, a more equitable division of constitutional powers, and new ways to stimulate individual initiative.
Let us look at a few ideas as to how Russia can achieve these aims.
First, do not under-value "the habit of existing on raw materials exports, in effect exchanging these for finished products." Russia will continue to accumulate wealth faster by developing its natural resources than by any other path. But more competitive internal markets, diminished government control and subsidies, and sharply reduced corruption are vital enablers.
For example, breaking up Gazprom and Rosneft into smaller, competing units, and ending subsidized internal prices for energy, would lead to more efficient energy markets and higher productivity. The new companies would generate far more savings and investment for growth than the two lumbering and wasteful giants ever could.
A challenge is to ensure that the returns from raw materials exports do not disappear into private foreign bank accounts, and that control of the new firms does not fall victim to Kremlin intrigues. Depoliticizing the energy sector would also make Russia a more reliable energy supplier to Europe.
Second, you point to "age-old corruption that has drained Russia from time immemorial," because of "the excessive presence of the state in any remotely important sphere of economic or other social activity" and the chronic lack of initiative and technological innovation.
More "checks and balances" are the best way to reduce the heavy burden of corruption on Russian economic life. Tools for doing this include effective legislative oversight of executive power, a free press which exposes corruption and governmental malfeasance, an independent judiciary which holds corrupt officials and business executives accountable, and independent non-governmental organizations (NGO's) which have specialized expertise and can educate and rally public opinion against corrupt practices. These institutions and organizations "compete" against abuse of governmental power and against each other, lessening risks that watchdogs themselves could be corrupted.
Third, you called attention to demographic and health crises, including a declining population and virtual epidemics of cardiovascular disease, AIDS and TB. These challenges may well prevent Russia from meeting your goals for labor supply and a healthy military corpus.
Solving these problems will require systemic changes in diet, lessening the scourges of alcohol and smoking, and improving primary medical care and prevention. Demographics and disease are a greater threat to Russia than any external enemy.
Coercive, top-down approaches, as in the anti-alcohol campaign of the Gorbachev era, ought to be avoided. Building wide public support will be critical. Hence, the government should rely mainly on public education, open discussion, greater investment in the health sector, and reform in the delivery of medical care with a new emphasis on prevention.
Greater openness to immigration from poorer neighboring countries is likely to be the only way a dynamic Russian economy can meet its labor needs. It is time now to begin preparing your countrymen. A continued pattern of overt, sometimes ugly, discrimination will only hurt Russia.
Fourth, you are right to call for legislation to "ensure comprehensive support for the spirit of innovation in all spheres of public life and the creation of a market in ideas, inventions, discoveries, and new technologies." In Europe and America, generous government financing of research and development is paired with competitive, peer-reviewed mechanisms to allocate funding. Keeping politics at bay in decision-making will help Russian science.
Equally important is an economy which can quickly apply the fruits of research and development in innovative ways. For example, nanotechnology researchers probably never dreamed their labors would lead so quickly to a product with such world-wide market penetration as the iPod.
Fifth, your call for "competition among open political associations" is vitally important. Independent political parties and free and fair elections would go a long way to enhance political stability, and lead to governments which expose and prosecute corruption irrespective of the political influence of perpetrators. This is a great strength in the European and American political systems, buttressed by frequent alternations in political power.
Some in Russia equate competitive politics with the "chaos" of the 1990s, and even the "Time of Troubles" four centuries ago. But history shows that political competition, as it develops, tends to marginalize extremist views. This is sorely needed in Russia, as the wave of neo-Nazi criminal acts shows. Competitive politics are what makes advanced democracies so stable. Russians are well educated and more than ready for democracy.
Finally, you speak of doing "everything possible to normalize the life of people in the Russian Caucasus." Calming tensions there will require a secure environment, political openness, and better economic opportunities. Multi-candidate elections, security without abuses, and improved agriculture will help a lot. Moscow city authorities should crack down on the harassment of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia who sell in farmers markets.
These are times of change in the world economy. New creative and competitive energies will be released, and uneconomic activities will be punished by markets. Economic and political reform can position Russia to take stronger advantage of the new opportunities.
America and Europe not only wish Russia well in its reform effort, but believe they have a stake in its success. A secure and prosperous Russia will be less likely to have conflicts with its neighbors, and be a valued economic partner and source of innovation and ideas from which the whole world will benefit.
Ulitskaya to Khodorkovsky 15.10.08.
Dear Mikhail Borisovich,
No one in the journalist world seemed to have had any warning that Medvedev would be gripped with a "sudden passion" to write. There was no mention in the morning papers that the article was going to come out. But several Internet publications immediately reacted, and also posted the article on their sites. Its appearance was picked up soon afterwards by the democratic radio station "Ekho Moskvy".
The most surprising thing was that Medvedev's article was only posted on the official presidential site http://www.kremlin.ru/ at midday. All this combined to make it look as if the appearance of the text on the Internet was spontaneous, which gave an aura of sincerity to Medvedev's address to Russian citizens.
But what was behind all this? What did the text actually contain?
As I am finishing a book about the history of Russian reforms since the time of Mikhail Gorbachev (since the mid-1980s) at the moment, it all felt very familiar. It was as if I'd suddenly gone back a quarter of a century, to the time of my youth, of naïve hopes, empty shops and the rusting iron curtain.
I don't know whether the similarities are obvious to young Russians, who don't remember the events of 1985 very clearly, or to my contemporaries, for whom the events are not fresh in their minds. But it seemed to me that Medvedev's text might almost have been written at the time of Gorbachev's perestroika.
I should remind you that it was then that the leader of the Soviet Communists Mikhail Gorbachev began tentatively to undermine the system that had existed since Lenin's day, and remove conservatives from the political leadership of the USSR. In 1985, it seemed that he was only trying to improve the effectiveness of the Soviet system, while with every year changes took place which turned this system into its opposite - into a society with elements of a market and democracy.
But let us return to Medvedev. The first important point his article makes is to admit that mistakes have been made. This is a cautious affirmation, one that does not undermine the foundations of the system. Medvedev points out the problems that have been revealed by the crisis, the "drop in production that is greater that in other economies (my italics - DT) during the present crisis. The excessive fluctuations of the stock exchange. All this proves," the Russian president concludes, "that we certainly did not do everything that was necessary in previous years. And we certainly did not do everything correctly."
Many Russian readers probably did not realize that in saying this he was taking issue directly with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with the report of the Russian government on results of activity for 2009. Putin, who presented the report at the Duma on the 6th of April, declared: "A severe slump is being experienced by practically all industries of the world economy. In some places, things are better, in some they are worse, but on the whole the situation in the Russian economy is fundamentally no different (my italics - DT) from world tendencies".
In Russia, official Kremlin propagandists constantly emphasize the fact that Medvedev is Putin's successor to the position of president, that he is his younger comrade, and that there can be no disagreements between the two leaders. However, Medvedev's article demolished this notion. And significantly, this is taking happening thanks to an initiative taken by the president himself, and not during a press conference or interview, when things might get said in the heat of the moment which shouldn't have been.
Medvedev is not setting out to confront Putin directly. But at the start of perestroika Gorbachev did not directly oppose his predecessors, either. He was giving the Soviet intellectuals, who were used to picking up on Aesopian allusions, the chance to fill in the blanks for themselves.
Medvedev not only discussed the economy in his article, but also political problems. He noted that "democratic institutions have on the whole been formed and stabilized, but their quality is very far from ideal". This also looks like an attack on Putin, who - even if ironically - in one interview called himself such an absolute and pure democrat that since the death of Mahatma Gandhi he did not even have anyone to talk to.
Medvedev's assessment of the state of Russian democracy is very similar to the early theses of Gorbachev, who showed his confidence in the correctness of the socialist democracy, but proposed to strengthen it. In the spirit of Lenin, so to speak.
Medvedev is essentially saying directly that in future, Russia must move to a parliamentary democracy, where the "leaders in the political struggle will be parliamentary parties which regularly replace each other in power". He is practically repeating the theses of the democratic opposition. But where this is something that the opposition wants to happen today, for Medvedev it is a task for the future. For the moment, according to the president, we must be satisfied with the fact that "political parties have received fresh opportunities to influence the formation of executive power in federation regions and municipalities".
We should remember that under Gorbachev, democratization also began in 1988-89 with the construction of a very unusual system, in which elections were not actually equal, secret and direct, as is customary in modern democracies. That is to say, Gorbachev was prepared to experiment with democratization, but he was afraid to start building a real democracy right now.
It is characteristic that Medvedev is categorical about one thing: we cannot return to the "democratic 1990s". In this, he agrees with Putin, who in recent years has said again and again that in the 1990s capitalism established itself in the country under the guise of democracy, serving its own selfish interests, and also those of its foreign (primarily American) sponsors. Medvedev does not dare to make a drastic break with his older comrade.
In Gorbachev's early years, he too rejected a return to capitalist democracy. The feeling was: why should we move backwards? We will do everything better than under capitalism, we will build socialism with a human face.
Another feature very characteristic of Medvedev is the way he declares a new way of thinking in international relations. He talks of the need for rapprochement with western democracies, something that Putin has not discussed seriously for many years. Medvedev also stresses that "petulance, arrogance, insecurity, mistrust and especially hostility must be eliminated from Russia's relations with leading democratic countries".
As Vladimir Putin has essentially been responsible for creating the parameters of Russian foreign policy since 2000, and foreign ministers have simply been the obedient followers of his policy, words about petulance and arrogance can only apply to Putin. And indeed, some Russian analysts have noted that Putin's behaviour betrays the marks of his difficult childhood, and his unwillingness to forgive insults by other boys, a subject I have written about in detail for openDemocracy.
Another view of Medvedev's: "We must be able to interest partners, and involve them in joint activity. And if we need to change something in ourselves, get rid of prejudices and illusions, in order to be able to do so, and then we must do so." In the mid-1980s, the idea of the need to change something in ourselves was first expressed not by Gorbachev, but by Boris Yeltsin in his speech in the 27th Communist party congress. This was very much in the spirit of Gorbachev's perestroika.
Now let us try to compare the specific picture of the changes which Medvedev is now announcing with the changes Gorbachev was announcing a quarter of a century ago.
Right at the start of perestroika in the USSR, the issue of combating drunkenness came up. Quite recently, it came up once again, and Medvedev gives it pride of place in his article. Under Gorbachev, the war on drunkenness was virtually the only large-scale campaign of his first two years in power.
But there is also another important similarity between Medvedev's approach and that adopted under perestroika. People do not remember that well today that along with the anti-alcohol campaign, the head of the Soviet government Nikolai Ryzhkov did his best to speed up socio-economic development. And the way being proposed was by developing machine-building, i.e. through technology alone. It was only in June 1987 that the issue of changing the economic system was raised. Before that what we mainly heard about was the wonderful breakthroughs that would be achieved by advanced technology combined with sober workers.
And now Medvedev has outlined the five strategic vectors of economic modernization. Typically, he says nothing about the issues that are being discussed by economists. Medvedev, as a new-wave technocrat, simply paints a picture of a bright future where Russia will become a leading country in all key spheres of high technology: new types of fuel, nuclear technology, information technology, advanced satellites, and breakthrough in creating medical equipment. But how are we going to achieve all this, given the raw materials focus of the country, and our dependence on world oil prices, which I have written about in detail in another of my articles? Medvedev does not offer us any insightful discussion about this.
As we may recall, in the 1980s Gorbachev meant to raise Russian automobile construction to a world level by developing the Volga automobile factory (VAZ), without any foreign investments and equipment. To this day, VAZ produces very poor cars that are inferior to western models. Medvedev also forgets about the poor quality of the automobile industry, and immediately talks about more advanced technology.
And in conclusion. How did Soviet citizens see the structure of society during the time of perestroika? On the one hand, there were supporters of perestroika, and on the other there were opponents. This naïve approach pitted good against evil on different sides of the barricades. All the officials and appratchiks were declared to be opponents of perestroika, and the entire people headed by Gorbachev were declared to be supporters.
What does Medvedev write? "People will try to interfere with our work. Influential groups of corrupt officials and "entrepreneurs" who do not engage in any actual enterprise." Once more, we can see an attempt by the political leader to identify himself with the people, and marginalize his opponents.
Even yesterday it was perhaps still hard to imagine to what extent Medvedev would strive to copy Gorbachev's path. He was afraid to oppose Putin, and only took symbolic steps to consolidate his popularity in intellectual circles - a subject I have also written about for openDemocracy.But today Medvedev's intentions are clear. There is, however, one important differrence between the positions of the two men. Gorbachev was put forward by the Soviet leader Yury Andropov, who was the head of the KGB for a long time. Gorbachev only became the leader when Andropov died. There was nothing to stop him from breaking with the policy of his dead predecessor. But Medvedev rules Russia in tandem with Putin. How can policy be changed in this situation?
Why should the state have social responsibilities? There are people who can simply be left alone, and there are people who cannot manage without help. These are primarily people whose ability to look after themselves and take their place in society is restricted for any one of many reasons. The state may not help them directly, but may give active help to the people who take the initiative and perform these functions on its behalf. This is the standard picture. The reality looks quite different.
The NGO Turmalin Centre offers opportunities for social rehabilitation to people with serious mental and physical disabilities. On 5 August the Centre received a letter from the local authority to the effect that the premises they had occupied since April 2003 would have to be vacated by 1 September. When employees of the Centre tried to find out what was going on, they were told that if they didn't comply, all their property would be thrown out on to the street. The "non-residential premises at 26 ulitsa Boris Galushkina" were now to be managed by "Moscow city authorities for the organisation of home-based leisure, social and education work, health, fitness and sports activities."
The Turmalin Centre was not considered to be meeting these objectives, possibly because it was helping people, rather than bringing in revenue to the local authority. Disabled people from all over Moscow came to the Centre. Parents who brought their seriously ill adult children here paid as much as they could, i.e. not very much, and some didn't pay at all.
Employees of the Centre and specialist doctors worked there because they considered that what they were doing matters. They received very small salaries. And they would have continued to receive them, had it not been for the letters from the acting head of the local authority, S.A. Varfolomeeva and the deputy mayor of Moscow V.N. Silkin, which effectively put a stop to the work of the centre.
It appears that Turmalin is considered unnecessary by the government, Moscow city and the Alexeevsky district. It's a place for people who, outside the centre, have no chance of experiencing the normal human pleasures: socialising, making friends, holding hands and being told that they can do something they used to think was impossible, and are doing it well. No one needs these people, apart from their parents, who are already used to suffering for the pain of their children. For seven years these people had somewhere to go. The young adults whose life had been made a misery by their condition stopped screaming and began smiling.
"I've been taking my son to Turmalin for over six years, since the Centre opened. Sasha has autism and learning difficulties. He doesn't talk. When we first came here, he was very restless. He was thought to be unteachable and couldn't be in a room with anyone else. Now he socialises with the people here, and attends the workshops. He loves it here and he smiles every time we come," says Natalya Nikolaevna, Sasha's mother.
"State institutions pay no attention to people like Sasha, and life in special homes for disabled children is like life in prison. In the summer holidays my son stays at home and his condition deteriorates. If the Centre closes for good, he will start to degenerate. It will be bad for him, and for me too."
The mother of another boy says: "We've been coming here for more than four years now. Before that we stayed at home. When we came to Turmalin he was in quite a bad way. I didn't think that my grown-up "difficult" child would be accepted anywhere. I thought we were doomed to sit at home until our old age. At first he would come here for two hours, then we went to all the workshops: he tried candles and ceramics and now he goes to the weaving workshop. He's very enthusiastic about the Centre and gets bored in the holidays. If he sits at home by himself, without his circle of friends, I don't know what he'll do. Here he has his teachers, his doctors and his friends.
"In the Centre his life is much fuller than many healthy people's lives, and richer than mine. I only manage a visit to the theatre twice a year, but here they make up plays, put them on and act in them. He lives a real, full life. I'm glad I found this centre. We'll have nowhere to go from here."
The 30 people who go to Turmalin all have the same problem - multiple disabilities. "When there is just one disability, you can find somewhere for your child, but schools don't accept children like ours as they are too difficult. The Centre is the best thing there could be for them," say the parents.
"The people who have been here for a long time simply attend the various workshops, which include carpentry, candle-making, ceramics and weaving. When a child comes here for the first time, he's taken around all the workshops and chooses one of them, but he's also allowed to go to all the others and try them out. The approach is individual-based. All the lessons are conducted by specialist doctors, who know what's best for every child."
"Every morning the young people tell everyone what they did the evening before, about their morning journey and what's going to happen during the course of the day. In good weather they go for walks in Sokolniki Park. In the spring they made nesting boxes and hung them in the trees. They are all great friends and have excellent relationships with the teachers," the parents say.
"We find our grandson very difficult as he can't communicate," says Klavdia Ivanovna, the grandmother of 23-year-old Boris. "He went to a special school where he learned to read, but when he was 18, there was nowhere for him to go. There was no question of sending him to a home. I found out about this centre by chance, and we came to see what it was like. We were given a very warm reception and my grandson joined the pottery workshop. He gets praise, and he's pleased that he's getting better at it. He's autistic, so it's difficult for him to socialise, but here he has appeared on stage - he recites poems, he talks and makes friends with the others.
"Everyone likes to be with other people. Our kids may be ill, but they're still people, and they want to be like everyone else. At the Centre each child has a teacher and they know they are surrounded by adults who care."
The parents of the children who come to Turmalin say that private lessons are incredibly expensive, and "no one can afford it". In any case the children would be stuck at home, but "here they have their mates, their own circle, they socialise, they're together, and they feel confident." "It only costs kopecks, and those who can't afford it don't pay at all, although we ourselves understand it's only charity that keeps us afloat."
The head of the ceramics workshop Maria Slastenina says: "I've been working at the centre for five years. I came here by chance. I like working here and I don't want to leave. I feel that my life has changed considerably. Working with these young people changes the way you look at life. They open themselves up to us in all their diversity: they have an unusual inner world, an incredibly genuine and pure attitude to life and to everything going on around them. This has a very profound effect on everyone. When you immerse yourself in their world, you get a great opportunity to remain an optimist in our terrifying world. You can take a fresh look at everything and develop a real love of life.
"I had a call recently about the letter saying we must vacate the premises by 1 September. We're in shock. We've been on training courses, we have a lot of plans and have devised new methods for working with the kids. We miss them and they miss us. It's true we we've been given a small period of grace to find new premises, but we're completely at a loss, and appalled by the situation."
The head of the Turmalin centre is Rudolf Grigoryan, a remedial teacher and social therapist. He says "We were officially registered on 30 April 2003. The idea for this centre had come up earlier, because we had developed teaching techniques that were unique in Russia. They were unsuitable for state institutions, but the idea was there and the Centre was founded. Until 2006 Turmalin had a contract with social services and a rental agreement with the Alexeevsky district council. This was all fine until 2007, when the head of the council, Maria Antonovna Feneva, said that she couldn't sign any more agreement with the Centre, as the premises didn't belong to the council.
"We began looking for the owner so as to be able to continue our work. By that time we were already part of the Moscow City Department of Social Protection's integrated rehabilitation programme, we were working with the Committee for Public Affairs, and we had connections with other foundations. We couldn't just stop doing all that.
"The premises turned out to belong to no one, i.e. they belong to the city. There had been numerous requests from the council and the administration that the premises should be transferred to the local authority, as they were short of space. We were categorically opposed to this decision, as we had been told several times that the Centre's social rehabilitation programme was providing something not covered by the local authority. They are responsible for leisure, fitness, social and educational activities, and our work doesn't come into any of these categories. It was suggested that we should work with local people on leisure activities, but we think this is like asking the local authority to bake cakes. Not, of course, impossible, but one has to consider what the cakes would actually be like and who would eat them. The local authority may not bake cakes, but the quality of its work leaves a lot to be desired.
"We don't want to bake cakes, our job is social rehabilitation. We have highly-qualified specialists and a considerable understanding of the problems. Our centre has musical therapists, psychologists and specialist doctors. We can't change the nature of our work just to get on to the local authority list. We said all this to the administration, but it made no difference.
"We are prepared to pay Moscow city authorities a reduced rent. We are looking for premises, which would offer us this possibility as well as meeting our needs in rehabilitating people with learning difficulties (autism) and physical disabilities. So far we have not been offered any alternative or help.
"The President talks about working with disabled people and integration into the European community. Prime Minister Putin says we must ensure the parents of disabled children have the opportunity to work. Now it's those parents that are being kicked out on to the street together with their children. Several of our parents work at the Centre.
"At the moment we pay taxes, but if the Centre closes down we'll lose our jobs, end up at the labour exchange and be a burden on the city budget. We're trying to preserve something that already exists. We aren't asking the Moscow city government to pay our salaries, we are simply saying that we need new premises. We ourselves will find the money to pay the reduced rent.
"We do everything for ourselves and we are law-abiding citizens, but we have no chance of working, as our work is not appreciated. We are told everyone knows about what we do, and the Moscow city government has said that our work is socially meaningful. We're on the city government's register of NGOs, and we have certificates and an emblem from the Committee for Public Affairs. But no premises.
"It costs the state 42,000 rubles (1330 USD) a month to keep a disabled person in a special home. If you look after the child at home, he receives social benefits, so we're saving the government money. We're not trying to replace state institutions or duplicating their work. We offer an alternative for people who want their children to live at home, but also be able to socialise and receive help from qualified specialists. Parents choose us when they bring their children here, so that they can work and be socially active. Now they are prepared to take to the streets to organise a picket."
Employees of the centre are only asking the government for the chance to keep working, though citizens have every reason to demand, rather than ask. To demand that the local authorities and the mayor's office not only stop interfering with Turmalin and others like them, but make it possible for them to carry out the social work which the government and the local authorities don't do.
As we sit in one of Moscow's fashionable neo-Tsarist restaurants, an old friend reminds me that there are only three Cs that matter: Chelsea, Cartier and Courchevel. The economic crisis has affected his real estate business, but not so much that he has to forgo life's many luxuries. In any case, the oil price is already beginning to rise and the economy is easing itself out of recession, so his confidence remains undiminished. For the past 20 years of globalised gluttony, Russia's embracing of conspicuous consumption has been the most pronounced of any emerging market. Some of its manifestations are particular, notably its unhealthy mix of nationalistic hubris and resentment of outsiders, what I have long called "the politics of envy".
Yet Russia's embrace of materialism to the detriment of so much else, shares many characteristics of other countries. In a year of travelling to research my book, "Freedom for Sale", I looked at eight countries, four of them notionally authoritarian - Singapore, China, Russia and the UAE - four notionally democratic - India, Italy, the UK and the USA. Why, I wanted to know, is it that so many people are willing to give up their freedoms in return for the promise of either prosperity or security? Why are people so reluctant to cause trouble, even where they have legal protection for free expression? Or to put it another way: why are the middle classes so easily bought off?
I first went to Russia in the late 1970s. I have been a regular visitor since, including two spells of working as a correspondent, in the mid 80s, and during the heady years of the early 90s. I saw the Soviet Union in stagnation and not-so-blissful isolation, when the verb "to buy" was less important than "to get hold of". The joke was "we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us". In the Yeltsin years, as Communism collapsed and uncertainty was the only certainty, Russians enjoyed unprecedented freedoms.
Russia is one of those countries for which the economic crisis ought to be a blessing in disguise. Over the last boom decade, high energy prices have excused a multitude of pathologies: corruption got worse because there was more to steal; Putin brokered the creation of giant inefficient ‘national champions' that are a deadweight on the more productive parts of the economy; even Russia's one copper-bottomed asset, oil and gas, will decline in the future, as its giant energy companies like Gazprom and Rosneft have simply failed to invest enough to meet supply commitments.
One summer evening recently I was approached by some tourists in the centre of Pskov to ask where they could find the nearest supermarket. I was taken aback: the Pskov Kremlin, the Trinity Cathedral, the streets of old Pskov, the fascinating ancient white- stone churches, the many period houses in varying states of disrepair - all this is in walking distance.
In this book Susan Richards does something that foreigners in Russia hardly ever do: she looks for the effects of the latest political upheavals not in the capitals but in the provinces. She also sets out to explore uncharted waters in two other directions, following not just the fortunes of the state, but the fates of individuals and going to the roots of the Russian fascination with the irrational. Her book is so well written and so imbued with a deep and intimate understanding of Russian culture that it reads almost like a novel, but it also carefully documents how ordinary people's lives are affected by shifts in politics.
Richards' friends from the city of Saratov, on the Volga, and the nearby town of Marx start off in 1992 with a belief in liberal democracy and in a new beginning for Russia that would change the lives of its people for the better. As she presents snapshots of their condition over the following 16 years the author is unflinchingly honest - even for the most persistent of them, the changes for the better, when they do come, come at a tremendous price and not with the support of the state, but rather despite the obstacles the state puts in their way. In 2008 the future looks bleak, and not just because of the world financial crisis. The question of why the country as a whole has yet again failed to transform itself, why the state is unwilling to shake off the legacy of its imperialist and oppressive past, which has been detrimental primarily for its own people, cannot be answered within a single book. The answer would probably require more detailed analysis of Russian politics in the last twenty years than the brief italicized summaries of events which preface the chapters in "Lost and Found in Russia", but this is not the task Susan Richards sets herself. Her way is to observe the hidden areas of Russian life and analyse what she sees as a friend and as a westerner.
Unfortunately, official Russian propaganda has done a lot in recent years to assure its citizens that for a westerner to be a friend is impossible in principle - "the West is against us". Even more worrying is the fact that the Western press more often than not dismisses attempts by Western authors to see what's wrong with Russia as "anti-Russian". In real life, of course, the popular assumption that an absence of democracy is only bad from a Western point of view, while Russians actually do not mind it at all, is much more anti-Russian than the shudder experienced by real friends of Russia at any fresh blow that the Russian state deals its citizens. Susan Richards shows as well as anybody that one can sympathise with ordinary Russians and feel that they deserve a better lot, and yet be critical of the policies of its decision-makers. Moreover, her sympathy is not blind - visiting her friends regularly for more than a decade and a half she tries to make sense of their lives.
The price you pay
The book chronicles the fates of Anna, a brave and talented journalist who fights fraud and corruption; Misha, a budding manufacturer and later a farmer; Natasha, who tries to find her place in the world by moving across the vast country... These three have something in common - the memory of a suicide of a close relative. In fact all the people in the book have some tragedy in their past, which casts its shadow on their present and makes the hardships and pressures of everyday life even harder to bear. And it is hard. The persecution of journalists scares Anna for some time into writing bland articles; overall corruption makes Misha waste energy on unnecessary legal battles; Natasha struggles with her alcoholism. Eventually Misha's efforts to become a businessman pay off and he becomes seriously rich, but his health suffers and he turns to drink. Anna's articles sparkle again, but her existence becomes more and more hand to mouth, and Natasha and her husband resume publishing an independent free newspaper, "The Messenger", while living in the Crimea, a potential hot spot since Russia would like to wrest it from Ukraine. Susan Richards is dismayed at her friends' defeats and proud of their achievements... And it is being so close to them that enables her to see much more than foreigners usually would.
Behind the façade
Unlike many she is not duped, for example, by the outward prosperity of Putin's years. This is how she describes Saratov in 2004:
Although Russia's economy was growing steadily, Saratov had regressed to another century. Old wooden buildings were leaning at tipsy angles along the piss-reeking streets. Headscarved women sat begging, intoning interminable prayers. Homeless men with matted hair, faces burnished by alcohol, rummaged through overflowing rubbish bins. Yet every now and then an immaculately modern girl would emerge from one of the topsy-turvy houses and pick her way to work down the ruined road.
And this is 2008:
We were sitting in a traffic jam. These days there were traffic jams all day long in Saratov's city centre; 4x4s and gleaming jeeps like ours sat nose to nose as far as the eye could see. There was plenty of time to register the new dress shops, the Irish pub, the shopping malls, restaurants and the rash of stylish little cafes. Time enough to register that, with a few, dazzling, exceptions, these frontages had been attached to buildings that looked more derelict than ever.<...>The roads had improved. Clearly, this had been necessary to expedite the escape of the jeep-owners from the sight of the limbless war vets, lurching drunks, and piles of rubbish, bedraggled high-rise blocks, overloaded trams and hollow-eyed grannies begging beneath hoardings advertising holidays in Australia costing only $4.000.
This idea of a "frontage" and what's behind it has a much broader meaning in Russia than just the devastation behind the glitter of the buildings' facades. It is not exactly a "Potemkin village", as it would be untrue to say that the prosperity was all false and only erected to impress. Nevertheless this "frontage" is only a thin layer over the distorted and unreformed mass of the past. This becomes even more apparent when Susan Richards sets off on a journey to explore the minds of the people around her. In the heads of Russian citizens seemingly moving from their recent Soviet past to the new life that began with perestroika, she discovers to her surprise medieval or even pagan beliefs and prejudiceshardly affected by decades of Soviet "militant atheism". The relentless Soviet system merely drove them inwards and people preserved them inside themselves, as hidden fragments of individualism beyond the control of the state. The new freedoms, chaos and uncertainty of the beginning of the 90s made these concealed and half-frozen convictions thaw and flourish - and they found plenty of fertile soil:
The Moscow metro was plastered with bright advertisements for the Bhagavadgita; smiling American missionaries were plying their trade in the street like hookers; in the bookshops, the long forbidden works of Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky were walking off the shelves; the Moonies and Scientology were thriving. Among the home-grown cults, there were six prophets in Moscow that summer who claimed to be the second coming. Vissarion was one of them.
Irrationality as freedom
One of the author's friends, the artistic Vera, goes to join the Vissarion cult in Siberia. Later, Anna, the brave journalist fighting corruption, finds refuge in the Orthodox Church. But the mysterious world of myths and strange creeds extends much further than that. In 1992, in Zarafshan, near Tashkent, Susan Richards meets a Russian engineer, a former communist, who tells her about his encounters with UFOs. After this she misses no opportunity to explore the "collective unconscious" and travels widely in search of it. She spends several days in Burny, a remote Siberian village near the river Tunguska, with Old Believers, who broke with the official Orthodox Church after the schism in the 17th century, listens to a talk about Cosmism and time-energy by a Novosibirsk professor, visits Vera among the followers of Vissarion in the Sayan Mountains and even goes to Mordovia to see a local healer, the hilarious Nina Stepanovna, who however punishes her with a "curse", presumably for being too nosy. Not once does Susan Richards allow herself to mock the people she meets - she is obviously resolved to get as close to their beliefs as possible. In an attempt to become less rational and western she keeps a record of her dreams and once even hears cedars singing. And yet naturally she is unable to make a leap of faith - once she returns home the fascination of the mystery vanishes. She has however to admit that it is very much alive for quite a few people in Russia.
Why? The explanation that springs immediately to my mind, as someone who lived in Russia for two thirds of my life, is the desire to escape. To escape the brutality of life, the determinism of Soviet ideology, the confusion of the post-Soviet years and more importantly, the helplessness of the individual being trodden down by the state. A society which has no room for protest or individual initiative has to turn to its imagination. And of course this helplessness and confusion drives people to trust healers, hypnotists, "extrasensors", and to fear extraterrestrials. Far from dismissing it as backwardness, Susan Richards tries to find the rational reasons for behaviour that is often irrational.
More than once on my journey I had felt as if my sanity were under assault. Now gazing into the night I felt clear. At the moment, things were inside-out and back-to-front in Russia. But the craziness was not to be found in the obvious places. The people seeing those visions in Zarafshan were not the really crazy ones. Nor were the Old Believers, even if they did bury their televisions in the frozen earth. <...> The true insanity had been there in that awesome experiment which Russia and its colonies had undergone, that imperial mission to collectivise the human soul; to own and control everything, from the natural world to every last word printed in the empire.
Today this was the country doing cold turkey, drying out from that experiment, from an addiction to control, to secrets, secrets, secrets. Things might seem to be all over the place, but people were recovering. Before the country could start to develop the first vestiges of a civil society, or institutions which respected the concept of the individual, much more time was going to pass and many more of these toxic secrets were going to have to be drained out of the poisoned body of the state.
The recovery of the people then lies in their ability to make personal choices, no matter how bizarre these choices may seem. Not much else is available. Turning to religious sects or to the Occult is tolerated, while joining a social or a political movement is bound to bring serious trouble, as these are likely to be either manipulated or suppressed, as they have always been throughout Russia's history. Still, these are personal choices, and they ultimately mean freedom.
However, the chapter which ends with the above words is describing 1997-1998. Ten years later it's much more difficult to talk about a recovery. It seems that the number of toxic secrets - like unresolved murder mysteries - has increased dramatically and the ability of people to make individual choices, at least where their judgements are concerned, has become seriously damaged by tighter controls over the press and ubiquitous state propaganda. Coming to Saratov after the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, Susan Richards admits that for the first time in all those years she was apprehensive of her reception there. And some of her friends did indeed turn out to have swallowed the official line on the war.
Moreover, towards the end of the book it seems that the official line has rubbed off on the italicized summaries of Russian politics that begin each chapter. In the chapter on 2005-2007 it says: The president had not merely restored order; he had restored Russia's self-respect. Whose words are those? On the next page we hear it said, "a shade defiantly", by another friend of Susan's, who has turned pro-Putin. But is this double "restoration" a fact? Or in the chapter on 2008: For all the Cold War rhetoric, there was no ideological divide any more. Can the Susan Richards who writes in her last pages about the "aborted hopes for a new Russia, one which would at last come to prize its own people, rather than hoisting itself up on their bones" really believe that the divide between the Western liberal democracies and the Russian state on the value of a human life is not ideological?
Or are these "conventional wisdoms", as the author calls them when acknowledging that she and her friends have bowed to the accepted notion that their hope for Russia at the end of communism was naïve? Another one is the conviction, apparently sincerely shared by Susan Richards, that NATO should not expand right up to Russia's borders. In the general anti-American climate of the day many well-meaning people forget that the initiative to join NATO has always come from smaller countries, desperate for the protection of the West. The fear of annoying Russia's rulers might only lead to sacrificing these countries to them.
Susan Richards is not afraid to think aloud and express contradictory views that reflect the feeling of the moment. On page 244 she writes "At the start of my travels Anna and I both hoped naively that the fall of communism would change something in Russia. In retrospect, of course, liberal democracy never stood a chance." But fifty pages later, at the very end, she muses: "Surely what was wrong [with this hope'] was just that it was not stubborn enough. Hope is sacred, the fine point of the fulcrum of change". And yet, the reason liberal democracy has not taken root in Russia is not the lack of hope, but the fact that those who held power and called themselves democrats did not in fact bother about the people, and an oppressive order survived under the guise of democracy.That is, however, the subject of another book. This one ends with the author leaving Saratov intensely worried about her friends, whose prospects are fairly grim. Apart from anything else it is a book about friendship - about its misunderstandings and tensions, about its compassion and love. This is how the deep heartland of the subtitle becomes the land of the heart.
Today is Wednesday. Two days ago, on Monday morning, there was one of the biggest man-made disasters in the short history of post-Soviet Russia. Yes,yes! The catastrophe happened in the morning. The whole country doesn't live on Moscow time. For thousands of people (and I mean thousands) the accident happened just after 8 a.m. It was the end of the shift, the workers were checking the building and the generating units. End of one shift, beginning of the next.
I have lived in Divnogorsk for almost 30 years. It is a small town of about 30,000 inhabitants next to the Krasnoyarsk Hydroelectric Power Station. This might come as a surprise to someone living in Central Russia. The power station may be called Krasnoyarsk, but the town where the engineers live is Divnogorsk. The industrial zone begins right outside the station and the town itself is 3 km away. The Krasnoyarsk and Sayano-Shushensky power stations are giants bestriding and damming the Yenisei. The pride of the Soviet Union. In their time they were the biggest hydroelectric power stations in the world.
To say that the towns where the engineers live make their living by power generation is not saying much. Every Divnogorsk schoolboy knows the diameter of the pipes through which the water drops on to the turbines, the capacity and the number of the generating units, the dates when each turbine came on stream, the names of the brigade leaders and the volume of concrete in the body of the dam. Schoolchildren were even enrolled in the Pioneers in the turbine room. This is why I, and most of the people who have grown up next to these giants, have a very clear idea of the dimensions and power of these installations.
But - the mightier the Colossus, the more powerful his fall. I was more than surprised that the catastrophe was not at the top of the central news bulletins on Monday. The lead items were a plane crash before the MAKS-2009 Airshow and some terrorist act. The accident, which could put a whole Russian region in a very difficult situation, was further down the list.
There was almost continuous coverage in the local media, but this gave rise to another problem. At the beginning they couldn't resist the usual hype to increase sales. They said things like 'the wall of the Sayano-Shushensky Power Station has collapsed'. Well, actually the station doesn't have a wall, what it has is the body of the dam. There's a wall in the turbine room, which was where the damage was. But you can imagine what anyone would think who has seen the power station and knows what a concrete wall 240 metres high looks like. The websites in the town were in complete chaos on Monday up until lunch time, so it's almost impossible to try and imagine what was going on at the site.
Inhabitants of towns near the disaster-stricken power station rushed to fill their cars and buy provisions, then started leaving town. Petrol prices jumped to 40 roubles a litre. Then the petrol ran out. Mobile networks became overloaded and crashed, but this only added to the general panic. Local leaders didn't know what to do. Directors of hospitals and state institutions sent people home to get ready for possible evacuation. Today my friend from Montreal, who had only just found out about the accident, rang her parents in Sayanogorsk (which will simply disappear if the dam is actually breached). She told me that her mother still thinks that people are being evacuated and that there is still a risk the dam might burst. But it's already Wednesday.
But putting emotions on one side and trying to look at things more calmly... My comments so far have little to do with my scientific work or any part of my professional competence. I am simply commenting as a local person, an observer of events and, actually, from a distance of several hundred kilometres.
Ongoing repairs were being carried out at the Sayano-Shushensky Power Station. For what reason is not yet clear, but water poured into the turbine room, though 'poured' is hardly a description of what actually happened. Water was roaring down a tunnel about the size of the Moscow metro tunnel and from a height of 150m. It surged into the turbine room and smashed everything possible there. There are already pictures of the damage on the internet - it's colossal. The people manning the power station are in the turbine room and the adjoining facilities. There is still no information about what happened to them, but the conjectures are not good.
The station was virtually paralysed and ceased to function, so the sluices which let water through to the generating units were shut in an attempt to stop the flow. But the power station can't stand idle and not let the water through, as this means levels in the reservoir will start rising and could burst over the top. The overflow outlets were opened to prevent this happening.
Every power station has outflow systems. They are used in the event of water levels rising because of spring floods or low-loading in the power station. But there's another problem. The Sayano-Shushensky outflow system has been a real headache for a long time. Water falling from a height of 100m damages the bedrock foundation on which the dam is standing, so when a power station is under construction, a special reinforced concrete channel is built in to the place where the water drops. But this channel regularly got damaged, either because of design mistakes or because the system was overloaded. This problem had been known about for a long time and construction of a by-pass tunnel had been started to prevent the bedrock foundation eroding. This tunnel would have channelled off excess water, by-passing the dam. Construction was under way and completion was scheduled for 2010.
So what's the bottom line? The power station is not producing electricity. The water is discharging directly through the standard outflow system which also has its defects. I don't think anyone can either assess or predict any results or how long the water can go on discharging. In order to reduce the outflow either the by-pass tunnel has to be put into operation (and it will be difficult to speed up the construction in emergency conditions) or the remaining generating units have to be activated. There can obviously be no question of the station being fully repaired in the near future. There is already talk of the time needed for complete repairs being no less than 4 years.
I have grave doubts as to whether part of the generating units can be started up within the next few months, although I could be quite wrong. But whatever happens, the region's economy will experience considerable problems as a result of the almost complete disappearance of the source of cheap energy for the aluminium industry. Energy tariffs are growing, which means prices for the end product will grow too and this branch of industry provides a living for a significant part of the region. Social problems are a real possibility. People living in towns who have gone through the stress of thinking they were about to be drowned may very well not want to go on living there.
This accident is already being compared with Chernobyl on the internet. Which is quite right. In the worst case scenario, if the dam is breached, then about 1 million people will be at risk, including the capital cities of 2 regions - Krasnoyarsk and Abakan. Taking into consideration the outflow problems already described, it may not be a probability that the dam will burst, but it must be a possibility.
A thesis currently circulating in the internet is that this is the beginning of the collapse of Soviet-built infrastructure. It's difficult to disagree. But I wouldn't link the problems of worn out infrastructure with political regimes or forces that are in power. 'Our government does nothing' can be just as successfully reformulated as 'we are paying for past mistakes'. After all, if one starts looking for faults, one can always unearth some errors in design or construction. For instance, when the Krasnoyarsk station was being constructed, the plan was that in winter the water would freeze 30 km after it left the station. But the pool actually spreads over a distance of 200 km, so even in summer you can't bathe in the river in the town (too cold) and in the winter the Yenisei river steams. High levels of humidity and frost - I invite anyone wishing to try their strength to come and see us in December.
Many of the technical mistakes or discrepancies are probably simply due to the fact that these construction projects were often breaking new ground, though mistakes made may not have been serious at the time. Now for the first time we are encountering the problems of clearing up after serious accidents. For that reason I am extremely surprised when I see accusations on the internet that the people who are trying urgently to deal with the obstructions and other problems at the station are not doing anything. There are no prepared scenarios for situations like this. No one really knows how the station will behave in a critical situation, though possibly this is just the situation for testing the level of Russia's scientific and technical development. How quickly can we make more or less realistic calculations, estimates or recommendations, or mobilise resources?
At the moment, as a local resident with an understanding of the scale of these installations, but also their fragility, I can say that it feels like a pretty apocalyptic situation. When I go to visit my mother in Divnogorsk, I bump along roads concreted at the time the power station was being built. I see the 5-storey buildings made of pre-fabricated panels, the forest paths overgrown with grass and the half twisted remains of metal constructions in the park which used to be called 'Siberian Globeflower'. I understand that these are all physically the same age as the power station, but the fact the concrete in the station is hundreds of times stronger and the attention given to the equipment is hundreds of times greater doesn't stop Time in its tracks.
PS Moscow colleagues ask me to comment on suggestions that there might be people left alive inside the station. Many of the rooms around the turbine room are currently under water. Yesterday one man was pulled out of one of them, but he had been in an air bubble. How he managed to survive 24 hours in water of 10 degrees, no one knows.
I don't know, perhaps there are people still alive. Rescuers are working round the clock. Witnesses have said that the divers refuse to get out of the water, they are trying to get through to the blockages. But it has to be that everything there has been pounded to a paste. The spaces are huge and the constructions weigh many tonnes, so pumping out the water or getting through to them quickly is out of the question. It all needs time.
The new year in Russia
Russia's new economy
Russian rights at the crossroads
Beyond the gastarbeiter: post-Soviet migration
Madeleine Reeves (Manchester University, UK) presents the other side of post-Soviet migration.
Russia's year of elections
Women, tradition and power in the North Caucasus
Privatizatsiya, twenty years on
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin