Daily Archives: January 4, 2007

Unhappy Russia . . . and unhappy us, when their smog cloud starts drifting

The New Economics Foundation has just released its “Happy Planet Index” for 2006, measuring the extent to which the nations of the world are poisoning our environment. Russia ranks 172 out of 178 countries surveyed. Only six countries in the entire world are more harmful to the environment than Russia. Cough, cough. Just wait until the giant cloud of toxic smog hovering over Russia starts drifting, and the fetid cesspool-like waterways start flowing, towards us. Oil isn’t Russia’s only weapon, after all.

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Annals of Road Rage: Revolution in Russia is Still Possible!

The Guardian reports that there remains a glimmer of hope for an Orange revolution in Russia against the crazed KGB cartel of the Kremlin:

If there is one topic on which Muscovites all agree, it is the appalling traffic. Fifteen years ago, in the days of the Soviet Union when there were only a few cars on the roads, the traffic was fluid. But driving in Moscow these days is a nightmare, a source of endless problems for the city council, police and football fans. On October 31 the congestion was almost certainly to blame when Spartak Moscow lost (0-1) against Inter Milan. Caught in a jam they had to take the metro to the stadium, arriving in a tizz and late for the warm-up.

The latest scheme to solve the problem is a system to coordinate traffic lights. The mayor, Yury Luzhkov, is talking about yet another ring road. “More sticking plaster on a wooden leg,” grumbles Valentin, who supplements his pension driving a mini-cab, wasting hours every day in the jams.

“There are more and more cars, with 3m on the road now, and there simply isn’t enough room. Moscow is getting too small,” he says. Valentin recalls the Soviet era when ordinary people had to wait five years to buy a car. True to form they turned it into a joke. Valentin particularly likes one story. “A man ordering a new car asks whether, five years hence, it will be delivered in the morning or afternoon. The bemused sales representative asks: ‘Why?’ ‘Well I need to know,’ he replies, ‘because I’ve already got a morning appointment with the plumber, in five years . . . ‘”

These days there are plenty of cars to choose from. In 2005 alone sales of foreign cars doubled in Russia. At present three-quarters of the cars on the road are Japanese, German, Korean or American. Realising the potential of this huge market, Ford, Renault-Nissan and General Motors have started manufacturing in Russia, and Toyota is about to follow suit.

Russians are very brand-conscious, eager to show off their place in the pecking order. Mercedes, Volvos and BMWs are a common sight. Any self-respecting official or business executive must have at least one large Mercedes, with bodyguards and smoked glass (even if it is now prohibited). SUVs are highly prized too, in particular Hummers, the armour-plated, all-terrain vehicle used by the US army.

Middle-class buyers prefer less pretentious Japanese or Korean makes. And at the budget end of the scale there are still Zhiguli, small Soviet-era vehicles such as the one Valentin drives. Frequently “hooted at and insulted” by luxury saloons, he readily acknowledges that he cannot compete with the Mercedes and SUVs: “I pull over as soon as I see them coming.”

The latest hobby for those with powerful cars is burning through the city centre at 160km/h. There are no visible speed limits, and few comply with signs for one-way streets, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. As a result about 100 people are killed on Russia’s roads every day, an annual death toll of 35,000. These figures are beginning to worry the authorities. With 12 accidents per 10,000 cars on the road, Russia has the world’s worst road accident record.

An understanding of the highway code is optional for those who can afford a counterfeit licence ($360). Once behind the wheel, road hogs who would rather not be bothered by the gaishniki (traffic police) can purchase “AAA” number plates, originally restricted to top officials, for about $200,000 on the black market. Impatient motorists may also spend $25,000 on a migalka, the flashing light sported by official vehicles. Ordinary drivers detest the things, as they are obliged to get out of the way as soon as they see the light in their mirror. But the Free Choice Motorists’ Movement has started challenging this throwback to the Soviet era.

“More and more people are getting a migalka. It is dividing society into two categories, those who may do as they like, and everyone else. The members of our movement will not accept this inequality,” says the head of the organisation, Vyacheslav Lysakov, 50. The movement started just over a year ago. It originally coalesced in response to an official decree banning right-hand drive cars. Such vehicles, purchased second-hand from Japan or Korea, mostly belong to members of the emerging middle classes (20% of the population), the constituency Lysakov claims to represent.

Incensed by government plans, he and his friends launched a website, adopted their own colours (an orange and black ribbon), and recruited volunteers across the country. Mobile phones and text messages did the rest. On May 19 tens of thousands of drivers turned out, with their cars, all over Russia. In the capital a stream of angry cars surrounded the government headquarters, hooting for hours. A few days later the government dropped its plans. But the movement’s greatest victory was the release of a Siberian railway worker, Oleg Shcherbinsky, imprisoned for his part in an accident involving the regional governor, Mikhail Evdokimov, in August 2005. The governor’s Mercedes was travelling at 200 km/h, far too fast to avoid Shcherbinsky’s Toyota. The Mercedes braked, skidded and crashed into a tree, killing all three occupants.

The police arrested Shcherbinsky, who explained he had not seen the limo soon enough. In February he was sentenced to four years in prison for “failing to give way”. Lysakov’s movement came to his defence, organising demonstrations all over the country. “Today it’s Shcherbinsky, tomorrow it will be you,” read the car stickers. In March the courts overturned the sentence.

“It’s a victory for civil society,” says Lysakov, adding: “Without our movement Shcherbinsky would still be behind bars . . . The Russian people no longer sees itself as a grey mass. It knows it can have its say.”

He adds carefully: “There is no one behind us. Just the word ‘politics’ would be enough to put off most of our supporters.”

The Mailbag: Burger on Lavelle

Letters, we get letters, we get lots of cards and letters every day!

La Russophobe has received and is pleased to publish the following letter from reader/contributor Professor Ethan Burger of Georgetown University regarding her recent post about Peter Lavelle (look for another installment from Professor Burger, this time regarding corruption in the Russian arbitrazh courts, in the coming days):

Greetings:

I think La Russophobe has been unfair to Peter Lavelle as some of the comments to the piece about him. It is one thing to attack one’s views, it is quite another to attack a person. He has been willing to publish views inconsistent with his own. He views force those who disagree with him to be more intellectually vigorous.

We are all products of our experience, for example, when Jerry Hough was hired to update Merle Fainsod’s “How Russia is Ruled” he produced “How the Soviet Union is Governed.” Hough, unlike the emigres and middle class academics who dominated Soviet studies, grew up in a lower-income household. His critique of Soviet Society was unique.He recognized the importance of interest group politics and put the Totalitarian Model. Although I do not share all of Mr. Hough’s views his writings at least triggered debate in what had been a stale field.

Peter has shown the courage to publish on-line two items I wrote on, when the mainstream press would not raise questions as to President Yushchenko’s first Prime Minister (Yulia Timoshenko) who I regard as at best morally challenged. He also co-authored one piece that supported political change to make the country a more democratic state. I do get annoyed when some of his discussion groups pro-Putin agitprop-types make unsubstantiated statements, but they should ignored or shown to be wrong. We must not lose sight of the fact that former Italian Berlusconi and Jacque Chirac may have been engaged in corrupt activities, that the western press with certain exceptions are not independent, and it is no crime for a country to pursue its foreign policy interests. Finally, I have found some of Peter’s commentaries insightful. He is a contrarian who enjoys going against the convention wisdom, but he has sought to maintain a level civility in his discussion group.

Sincerely,

Ethan S. Burger

Here is La Russophobe’s response to Professor Burger:

Dear Professor Burger:

Thank you for your comments about our post Mr. Peter Lavelle. We certainly agree that if he has had the good judgment to publish your thoughtful and scholarly analysis of the Russian question, then he can’t be all bad.

However, we must question the depth of his commitment to publishing “views inconsistent with his own.” If you think it is a profound one, we suggest you write something praising this blog, submit it to him for publication and see what happens. As an aside, we assume you are not suggesting that Mr. Lavelle disagreed with your views on Yulia Timoshenko, a leading Russophobe in the Ukraine. To the contrary, we believe that Mr. Lavelle, a hard-core Russophile from way back (as we understand it, he’s now employed by government-owned propaganda mouthpiece Russia Today), would have been only too delighted to publish any material criticizing her and therefore undermining the Ukraine’s efforts to free itself from the yoke of Russian oppression. We might also mention, just for the record, our view that though Ms. Timoshenko may very well be tainted by various types of corruption, its hardly likely that she’s as dirty as convicted criminal Victor Yanukovich, her Russophile adversary for control over the future of the Ukraine. As between the two, we’d take Yulia in a heartbeat.

We heartily agree with your observation that personal abuse should be avoided. That’s why we found it particularly offensive to be the target of unprovoked recent personal abuse from Mr. Lavelle, someone we haven’t said a word about for months and have mentioned only once in our whole history, and several of his readers in a e-mail communication to which we were not even made privy. We trust you will express your displeasure at Mr. Lavelle’s unfair and inaccurate comments about this blog, which has also had the good judgment to publish your writings, to him. We look forward to reading it when he publishes it on his venue (that is, if he still has one).

More important than the issue of personal abuse, however, is the question of accuracy. Quite simply, Mr. Lavelle was lying (or experiencing a fit of delusional egomania) when he claimed to be a “favorite target” of this blog. What’s more, only an utter fool could think he could get away with making such statements about this blog without receiving the type of response we provided, so if Mr. Lavelle is half as clever as you suggest he knew full well what he was letting himself in for. The statements of Mr. Lavelle’s correspondent about David McDuff were still more outrageous and lacking in factual basis. Part of the reason for our existence is to impose a stiff sanction on those who enter the blogosphere making statements as factually irresponsible as those offered by Mr. Lavelle’s little clique. Such people must know that a permanent web page will be created documenting their nefarious deeds that will follow them to the end of their days.

Don’t get us wrong. We’d be the last ones in the world to disdain free thinkers and contrarians, and we generally ignore Mr. Lavelle because he’s such an insignificant little flyspeck where the blogosphere (or anything else for that matter) is concerned (and besides, he’s almost indescribably boring). In fact, the only reason we mentioned him is that he mentioned us first. But we don’t think Mr. Lavelle fairly reports on what’s going in in Russia today. We think he minimizes or ignores the bad and maximizes or fabricates the good, and we think that helps push Russia down the road to destruction (however marginally). Therefore, we can’t stand him. If he’s associating with Russia Today, that’s beneath contempt. Maybe, we feel, his publishing occasional criticism of Russia is just a way of sugarcoating his propaganda for the unwary (that is, if he’s really doing it, and we’re not aware of any such publications). Mr. Lavelle may well think this blog maximizes the bad and minimizes the good, and thereby harms Russia. He has the right to his opinion, but he doesn’t have the right to tell outrageous lies about us, and if he does he’ll receive our censure in the strongest terms we can enunciate. If he can’t stand the heat, he should stay out of our kitchen.

Sincerely yours,

La Russophobe

Further comments from readers regarding this issue are always welcome.

Discussing Religion in Russia

National Review’s blog “The Corner” by John Derbyshire contains the following extended discussion of religion in Russia:

An interesting email from Prof. Alexander Lebedeff on the state of religion in Russia:

I would like to share the latest information on religion in Russia, based on a poll by the newspaper Izvestia and the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (ACSPO). The text of the article [unfortunately in Russian—JD] is here.

Briefly, it states that at the end of 2006, 15 years after the fall of the atheistic Soviet Union, 86% of the population believes in God, and only 16% consider themselves atheists.

Fully 63% of the (adult) population consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians. This is 75% of those who believe in God.

The article states that in the beginning of the 1990s, when the ACSPO first began to analyze the data on religion, only 34% of the adult population considered themselves to be Orthodox, by 1999, this had risen to 50%, and now is at 63%.

The percentage of those who are ‘churched,’ defined as those who attend churches at least once a month and regularly partake of the mystery of Holy Communion, is also rising. In the ‘perestroika’ years,it was around 4%, and that has now risen to 10-12%.

If 15 years ago the average age the majority of people attending services was 60, at present the average age has fallen to 48, which is much closer to the average age of the population in general — 44.

Even more important is that the percentage of young people (those under 25) who consider themselves Orthodox is 58%.

This poll was taken in 153 population centers in 46 regions and republics of Russia.

****

Yesterday I posted about a survey of religion in Russia. This generated some mail & comments. Razib has some remarks here (second paragraph). More skeptical is this from a Russian correspondent:
Mr. Derbyshire—-Prot. Lebedeff is putting a lot of lipstick on some very ugly pig. In reality, compared to the Russians, you could say that the Brits are consumed with religious fervor (there are more people going to church in UK than in much larger Russia). If you use the methodology of that poll (and yes, I read the original article), you can find that about 100% of Americans are nice (that is, if you just ask the respondents a question “Are you nice?”)

According to police estimates (Russian police do show up in force wherever and whenever significant numbers of drunk men are expected to congregate), only about 1.5% of Moscow area population actually attend Orthodox churches on Easter (and, of course, anyone not showing up even for Easter can be safely assumed not to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word). Also, according to polls, about one third of Moscow population observe Lent (which is very strict in the East and involves a complete ban on meat – for the entire 40 days, not just on Fridays). But actual sales of meat in Moscow supermarkets decline only the same 1.5% during Lent.

In its media campaign the Russian Orthodox Church totally disregards its own rules and definitions (of what it means to be a member) in order to (grossly) inflate the number of its adherents (the Patriarch is quoted in that article basically counting even people who merely light a candle with good intentions – with such methodology one could count hundreds of millions of Hindus as members of the Russian Orthodox Church!)

And of course, that article completely ignores some more scientific and meaningful polls in which the Russians were actually asked more detailed questions (about whether they believe in particular items of faith – I don’t remember whether only specifically Christian items of faith or other beliefs as well). 84-86% of respondents gave answers absolutely incompatible with Christianity of any stripe. And even if the remaining 14-16% giving ‘Christian’ answers to different questions were the same people for all questions, they do not necessarily really believe with any conviction – they may simply know the ‘right’ answers and choose to give them because they like to consider themselves Orthodox for cultural reasons. Oh, and for the record, I am a Papist.

[Derb] Perhaps people’s poll responses on religious matters should be taken with a grain of salt. I recall a US study some years ago where researchers tried to square poll responses about churchgoing with actual objective data—they counted cars in church parking lots, and so on. The numbers could not be made to match.

****

From a person who really should know, though he asks that his name and clerical status not be posted:

“Mr Derbyshire—-A basic phenomenon when dealing with Russians is that being Russian equates to being Orthodox in the Russian mind. ‘Sectarians’ (i.e., Protestants) are widely reviled, and Uniates (Roman Catholics using the Orthodox liturgical forms) are mostly confined to Ukraine and its environs. When did you last hear of a group of Muslim Russian citizens refer to themselves as Russians?

“The upshot? It’s like Italians and Roman Catholicism. The Italians all claim it, even if the piety and practice aren’t there.”

[Derb] This issue of religious identification from cultural motives (as opposed to actual piety) seems to need factoring into any discussion of how religious a population is. It used to be the case that 99 percent of non-RC English people, faced with a box on a form labeled “Religion” would write in “C. of E.,” even in they hadn’t been inside a church for years. I feel pretty sure that my father—a militant atheist, but 100 percent Grade-A English—did this.

****

John, your correspondent has a good point (as you recognize), and, as you say, the same applies in England. For example, with the exception of “hatches, matches and despatches” and, when the time comes, my own deathbed conversion, I never step foot inside a church, but I always describe myself as C of E.

The more interesting question is how much the distinction between ‘cultural’ and ‘actual’ religion really matters in practice in countries where the wilder excesses of religious enthusiasm have, thank God, faded away. If, in such countries, you identify yourself as a cultural ‘Christian’, your general worldview and moral outlook are, if only loosely, likely to reflect the way that that the practical teachings of that religion (who cares about theology?) have evolved in that country and will not be particularly affected by, for example, your view as to what may or may not have happened two thousand years ago.

What is more problematic (I seem to recall this was discussed in ‘The Closing of the American Mind’) is whether this cutural Christianity is strong enough to be passed on to successive generations. I’d argue that it is, but only in societies culturally self-confident enough to do so. Sadly, England no longer appears to meet that test.

****

Well said, Andrew; but the answer to your question “Who cares about theology?” is, as you surely know from your own email-bag: Lots and lots and lots of NRO readers.

In the recent exchanges about eugenics, one such reader explained to me at length why even the merest kind of genetic intervention is wrong, wrong, wrong. I couldn’t follow his argument at all. It might as well have been in Greek—which, in fact, a couple of his technical terms were!

If that is typical of the arguments that will be placed before the American public to persuade them that it would be wrong, wrong, wrong for them to pay $2,000 to a clinic to increase the odds of their newborn being healthy, clever, and good-looking; well, as I said, lotsa luck.

****

LR on PP

Check out La Russophobe‘s latest installment on Publius Pundit, where she reviews the latest developments and analysis of the Litvinenko affair, and feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section regarding this vital ongoing investigation.