The Horror of “Life” in Putin’s Russia
National Public Radio reporter Anne Garrels has produced a multi-part report on the horror of life in an average Russian city in Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia called Chelyabinsk: Then and Now. It’s full of jaw-dropping little-known facts about a nation that is teetering once again on the brink of collapse.
She reports for instance that a doctor at a state hospital in the city earns $200 per month, $400 with overtime. For a 50-hour work week, that’s a stunning $2/hour. For a 40-hour week, it’s $1.25/hour. For a doctor. Working in a hospital. With people’s lives in his hands. And the doctor must work what one describes to Garrels as “mess, pressure and horrible conditions.” What sort of “physician” would agree to work on these terms? What sort of “care” would he provide?
There are more abortions than live births, and this isn’t surprising the way one mother described the conditions surrounding her childbirth:
“Horrible, horrible. A room with 10 women in it. You have to go to a pharmacy and buy everything — stitching, cotton wool. Everything you need during the birth, you buy and pay for. We were told to bring our own sugar. If you are a patient in a hospital, you better have a friend who can bring you food.”
Garrels notes: “Life expectancy for Russian men — 59 years — remains astonishingly low, and well below current levels in Pakistan and Bangladesh. That has combined with anemic fertility levels to cause a drop in population. According to United Nations predictions, Russia’s population could fall by 30 percent by the middle of the century.”
She also finds other pandemic social ills. Alcoholism is rampant, for example. She quotes one local resident: “You see 12-, 13-year-olds sitting in the benches, just drinking beer like soda. So young. That’s a problem.”
And that’s only the beginning
Corruption is epidemic. Transparency International’s 2008 worldwide survey of social and political corruption ranked Russia #147 out of 180 nations on the planet, meaning that only a handful are more corrupt than Russia. Putin Nation is lagging behind places like Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and Kenya, and its rating fell four places from last year. Garells writes:
In Chelyabinsk, corruption has worsened in the past decade. Ask anyone in the city how much he or she makes, and the likely answer is somewhere between $200 and $600 a month. Russia is expensive — really expensive — even in remote areas, so how they live on that is questionable. People usually say “krutitimsa,” translated as “we hustle.” Few live on their declared salary. People get paid an additional amount under the table, or they take bribes. This endemic corruption has bred bitterness and cynicism. Mark Kelleher, an American teaching English in Chelyabinsk, was astonished at his students’ behavior. “Not all, but a large number — they just cheat like crazy,” he says. “And blatantly. It’s accepted.”
But Genrikh Galkin, a local investigative journalist and editor of the newspaper Evening Chelyabinsk, can’t write about the corruption he unearths because he remembers the fate of Anna Politikovskaya and other journalists who have been brutally murdered for daring to speak truth to power. He states: “It’s important to write about it. But it’s not worth getting killed for.”
Garrels shows how the Russian Orthodox Church is working with local government to persecute and squeeze out other faiths from the city. She calls orthodoxy “the de facto official religion” and says that other faiths are accused by the Orthodox Church of treachery against Russia. Protestant clergymen can’t visit schools or prisons they way Orthodox priests can, and they don’t protest the lack of rights because they fear even worse persecution if they speak out. Garrels writes:
The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the state-run media often broadcasts Orthodox harangues against so-called sects, suggesting that the West is using them to infiltrate Russia. In many parts of the country, local officials, the Orthodox Church and the increasingly powerful security services have harassed these so-called sects.
Then she shows how, although the city benefited from the booming energy and minerals markets that temporarily buoyed the Russian economy generally, it is how being rocked by the nation’s profound economic crisis, which arose from over-dependence on those resources. She writes:
On one freezing evening, grim steelworkers pour out of the huge Mechel plant. Management has cut back each worker by four days a month, with a corresponding 20 percent salary drop. The word is that workers here and at other plants across the city will be furloughed for a month over the Christmas and New Year holidays. No one knows where this is all heading. “In addition to cuts, they are holding off paying our salaries,” says Vladimir Fadeev, a Mechel employee. “Management isn’t saying anything. Everyone is just waiting.”
These factory workers had been earning $600/month or a mere $3.75 per hour (at that, though, much more than a local physician). Its managers, Garrels explains, face a terrible Catch-22 situation:
Chelyabinsk, like many Russian industrial cities, actually has a shortage of skilled workers because of a declining birth rate and new opportunities in other fields. Young people just don’t want to go into the factories anymore. Management is in a bind. Sales have plummeted, but if managers lay off valued workers now, they may not be able to find technicians in the future, when the economy picks up again.
37 out of the 40 local banks which offered home mortgages a year ago have ceased doing so now.
And then there’s the crackdown on civil society. Garrels quotes a 28-year-old local who was afraid to give his last name: “”There’s no real democracy here. We are dependent on officials and their whims. There is no free media. I don’t like Putin or President Medvedev. Nothing good will come of what they’re doing.” When he says so, his friends nearby tell him to “shut up.” The young man had spent the prior summer visiting the United States, along with 7,000 other local residents, to work jobs like bussing tables. He says: “I can’t remember any bad things about my trip. It was a great time.” Garrels calls the 7,000 figure “staggering.”
Strangely, Garrels overlooks the most sensational negative feature of life in Chelyabinsk, namely radioactive contamination from the city’s Soviet-era nuclear installations. Called by some “the most contaminated spot on the planet,” the city is ravaged by special health issues: “Skin cancers have quadrupled over the last 33 years. The total number of people suffering from cancer has risen by 21%. The number of people suffering from vascular diseases has risen 31%. Birth defects have increased by 25%.” Putin’s government has done nothing in response to this crisis except to repress information about it.
Chelyabinsk, then, is a microcosm of Russia itself. The small cushion of prosperity it once enjoyed, when crude oil prices were at at a level three times higher than their current plateau, is vanishing as rapidly and magically as it appeared. The full brunt of the economic crisis that has wiped out 75% of the value of the Russian stock market and reduced the Kremlin’s foreign exhchange reserves by nearly half has not yet been felt, but next year it will be. Unemployment is rising, inflation is double-digit, and wages are small. Social services are poor to non-existent, the the group of proud KGB spies that wields power in the Kremlin is rapidly moving to reestablish absolute dictatorship in order to keep the lid on an increasingly frothy cauldron.