My trip to Siberia Nov./Dec. 2001

Additional comments on society, economy, politics, science and arts

Last updated: 19.5.2002

Siberia is the home to many people who care about their environment and beautiful nature, who helped to keep the wonderful Lake Baikal almost intact till our days against many odds. It is the place, where people were always able to find more freedom than in other parts of Russia, if they were willing to live in the harsh conditions of the wilderness. I remember a hunter with a rifle, dog, and a pile of bags with supplies whom we met in 1971 on board of a boat. He continued somewhere towards the northern tip of Lake Baikal to spend the winter as he pleased, hunting alone. On average, Siberians may be more brave and hardened than others. Naturally they may also be more adventure seekers among them. Siberians used to fight bravely in the World War II. Their heroism was just being remembered at the opportunity of the 60th anniversary of the Battle for Moscow (Dec. 5-6, 1941 was the turning point in the war - this remains a very important event in Russia till the present; just check how many other Battle of Moscow sites an Internet search will reveal). More recently, the adventurer types from Siberia volunteered for the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and one can see of these veterans with lost limbs in Irkutsk streets.

My first visit to the Lake Baikal happened only three years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which the Soviets called "brotherly help". Around the campfire on the Baikal shore and at other opportunities we had many passionate and quite open discussions with our Russian hosts about the nature of the 1968 events. Neither side managed to convert the other one too much to their point of view, though. At that time the Russian students, at least those who were our hosts, seemed to fully believe in their system. It was the generation that was getting into the leading positions in the 1990's, when the system was abandoned so quickly and completely, even all its positive features. It was so surprising to watch, and it remains a source of fascination with Russia for me. The following paragraphs are a little attempt to get some understanding of all this.

Present day Russia has in many respects much more capitalism than we have in Canada. It seems to be the raw, unregulated capitalism creating enormous material differences between people (fabulous wealth for a few and economic hardship for many) in a country, which still some 10-15 years ago was used to relative equality in wealth - but not in power. The former Soviet Union was socialist in name only. It was actually a highly hierarchical society in which ordinary people had no power at all, and the decision-making was strictly top-down. However, the ruling elite was hiding behind egalitarian terminology, and (after the end of the era of Stalin madness), many people were satisfied that their government was taking good care of them. For example, the workers still today remember fondly how they were sent every year to spend their vacations in top recreation spots all over the country (Urals, Caucasus, Black Sea), something most of them can only dream about nowadays. The scientists used to enjoy a prestigious status, and the communist party hierarchy had to respect their opinions. The scientists used this status to enforce (again from the top down) many useful things, such as good general education or preventive sanitary and health care measures on a scale never achieved in many western countries. Some of this still survives till the present time, but is hindered by lack of finances. In the Soviet times, young people often lived happily till the end of their university studies in a rosy world of nice social theories, and then experienced a big shock upon entering the real world often so different from the principles they were being taught at school. In brief, the former Soviet Union used to be a highly paradoxical phenomenon, the true nature of which may still escape many people.

The people who reintroduced official capitalism to Russia in 1990's, were mostly the same communist party elite who governed the country before. At the given moment, it became more advantageous to them than the old system. It was so simple for them because they did not have to consult anybody else in the hierarchical system that existed there. When everybody started to call for a reform, the elite used this opportunity to add the official ownership of enormous material wealth to their political power. Many ordinary citizens who in the past used to believe that their leaders were interested in the well being of everybody, are now feeling betrayed. All attempts during the time of the reforms of early 1990's to spread the wealth more equally among all citizens, as it theoretically belonged to all in the Soviet times, attempts to introduce the true workers' ownership of the means of production, manufacturing co-operatives, or some sort of people's capitalism, failed completely. In a sense, not much has changed since the Soviet times: many of the same people who controlled the economy before, still control it now. In many other respects, everything has changed. Even among Russian authors one can find different characterizations of what actually happened, what is the nature of their present system. Some say that keeping the old elite in power was the only peaceful way to transform the society. That the real redistribution of wealth could have been achieved only through civil war. Journalist Viktor Aksyuchic characterized in 1996 the new system as the bureaucratic-mafian capitalism run by capitalists with the mentality of the communist apparatchiks.

On the positive side, almost all the restrictions on people's personal lives are gone. Although not easy at all, everybody can try to start a new business from zero to compete with the established elite. There is extensive freedom of speech (just see the vast amount of interesting information on the Russian Internet - there's no way to browse through all of it in a lifetime), and one can leave the country to try their luck somewhere else (if they have enough money, of course). For the young generation there is no turning back. To watch the crowds of young people at the universities is quite promising. They seem to be much more self-confident than their parents.

And the situation may finally start to improve also for the masses. When I was in Siberia, people were mildly optimistic about their future. Inflation has stopped. People started to trust the Russian currency, the rouble again. They are not any more interested in keeping their savings in US dollars, as was the case not so long ago. The shops are full of goods (though still very expensive to many).

In any case, the percentage of people who are relatively rich by any standards is still much smaller in Russia than in other countries. The vast majority of people still live in a rather egalitarian way. I talked to a scientist, who was apparently rather comfortable with the old Soviet system. Until recently a great patriot who would not consider leaving her home country despite the fact that the conditions for her work, and her financial and housing situation deteriorated substantially after 1990. She was telling me that most of the Russians do not know how to compete with each other, how to take advantage of others, that they like to help each other instead. And that is the reason why the present Russian capitalism is so uneven. She believes that to create a better society it was not necessary in the 1990's to abolish everything, including those things that worked well in the old Soviet system. That Russia has not learned anything from her past at all. That the same approach, to first destroy everything, and then to build anew on the ruins, was applied in 1917 (in the "reversed" direction, of course), and everybody knows to what terrible ends did it led later.

However, I was rather surprised by the condition of the public spaces (halls, staircases) in all the apartment buildings I visited in Bratsk and Irkutsk. They were usually quite dirty, with missing light bulbs, sometimes with damaged electric wiring hanging out of the walls, as if nobody cared for them for ages. In some places, I found myself in complete darkness after closing the building's front-door, and had to feel around for the next door leading to a staircase poorly lit through broken windows. This was in such a sharp contrast with the interiors of private apartments, which were tidy, usually nicely furnished, often spotless. This situation would not indicate too much caring for common property or communal thinking. To prevent burglaries, front-doors are often made of, or armored with, thick iron sheets, and locked with large heavy iron keys of unusual shapes. Probably to avoid being in complete darkness, the inhabitants of some buildings left these doors wide opened, which defied the whole purpose of putting them up. The public spaces were in a much better shape in the only apartment building I visited in Moscow, where one had to unlock and pass through four armored doors (two at the entrance and another two on each floor) before reaching an apartment door, and to report to an inquiring concierge sitting in a booth between the first two doors.

The single most negative aspect for all Russia is however that the restrictions of Soviet times also prevented very well the transfer of wealth abroad. With such restrictions gone, to be protected from instabilities they helped to create, the new (or old-new) elite is transferring every year tens of billions of dollars abroad, billions that the Russian economy may never see again. That's why there are no more vacation trips for ordinary workers at the bottom of the social pyramid, and diminished funding for the sciences.

Thus the people, especially from the scientific community, who have recently been emigrating from Russia to Canada, are now in a sense fleeing Russia from too much capitalism, or perhaps from a rather bad kind of capitalism in their home country, not from socialism any more! This rather large exodus of many educated people from Russia that started in the middle of 1990's involves people who loved their work in the field of natural sciences, but were unable to continue in it in Russia due to sharp decrease of financing for science and closure of many scientific institutes. They are often remembering with nostalgia the good life they had at home in the end of 1980's, when most of the excesses of communism were gone, and people felt relatively free. There was not much crime, and the scientists enjoyed high social status, which to large extent disappeared by now (retired university professors with outstanding life-long careers may be living on meagre pensions in small rooms in dilapidated university dormitories). Many would never leave their country permanently if everything remained as it was in the end of 1980's.

I was told that the police and the courts of the present day Russia are not very efficient in enforcing the law. Thus most people who want to do any kind of business unfortunately have to maintain good relations with the so called "bandits" (mafia, or let's say euphemistically, the informal law enforcement structures). If somebody owes you money or does not keep some other contractual obligation, there is usually no point to go to the courts, definitely not if you are in a hurry. You turn to the bandits, and they see to it that you get your money back. They can use some extreme methods, though. So you have to "behave" yourself, too!

On a train, I met a fresh graduate from a law school in Moscow. He was born in Irkutsk, and was on his way to his first post of a deputy state prosecutor in a town north of Bratsk. Will this new law enforcement generation succeed to turn things around? Unlike Zhenya the painter, this young prosecutor was favourable to the idea of Reconciliation as promoted by the new meaning of the November 7 holiday. The ancestors of his parents fought on both sides (against each other) in the 1917-20 civil war.

Although the sciences suffer, many areas of art (theatre, visual arts) flourish even after losing most (all?) of the former state subsidies. And good movies are still being produced in Russia. However, the Russian cinemas surprisingly show almost exclusively only the Hollywood movies. It is the same situation as in my home country of Czechia, as in Canada, and apparently in many other countries. It is much easier to see the new (and old) Russian movies for example in Winnipeg, where one can rent them on videocassettes from two Russian stores, than in a movie theatre in Irkutsk!

Few people have computers and Internet access at home, but there are computer clubs or other Internet access points in all large cities, and so I was able to be in an almost daily Internet contact with Canada.

For the last about four years, the Russian army soldiers have been guarding the entrances to all public buildings in Irkutsk, including universities, to prevent terrorist attacks. So far they have been successful at that. They do not interfere much with everyday business of people, though. Upon showing my passport, it was easy to get entry wherever I wanted. Buying railway tickets was a bit more of a hassle. Everybody has to show an ID card, and foreigners are then redirected to separate international ticket counters. At the Irkutsk railway station, this counter was all the time beleaguered by a lot of Chinese citizens (merchants?) who usually spoke little Russian, and so everything took so long! (It was easier and faster for me to buy a railway ticket from Leningrad to Tallinn, Estonia in 1970 without any documents, and to travel to Tallinn without any documents, i.e., technically illegally: at that time, visitors to the USSR had to surrender their passports to the police where they were registered.)

Russia seems to be quite black and white in winter: there is lots of white snow, and most people are wearing dark-colour coats. Women are usually very beautiful in Siberia, and well dressed (always looking to France for guidance in the matters of fashion). Many of them wear fur coats (such as the one in front of the Irkutsk Central Market in the photo on the right) that could be quite expensive (thousands of dollars). It is often very cold in Siberia, and only about 10% of the people have a car. The rest have to walk in the cold and wait in lines at the bus stops in the cold. So a good warm fur coat is actually more a necessity than a luxury. Siberians say about themselves that they are not at all more frost-hardy than other people; they just know how to dress warm.

One could see ads posted on lampposts in some Irkutsk neighbourhoods in which it was stressed that an ethnic Russian family was seeking an apartment to rent. Although no inter-ethnic strains were noticeable, there may be reasons for some hidden sentiments of this type. There is an exclusively Chinese-operated market, very crowded with shoppers all the time. And one can meet other darker-skin merchants and street money changers apparently from Caucasus or the Central Asian republics. These all supply the city with very cheap goods, with which everybody is happy. In spite of that, some may see these suppliers as having easy profits. Many of the ethnic Russians used to work all their life in the production sector, often in heavy, defense-related industries, which went through all kinds of radical changes in the last decade. Due to these changes, some of these industrial workers have lost their jobs, or are now working only part time, or live on pensions that have become insufficient. And at the same time, everybody was taught in the past to look down upon any business activity. There were reports that up to one sixth of the Irkutsk 600 thousand inhabitants were HIV positive, and I have heard claims that this is due to the deliberate efforts of the Chechen drug dealers to spread AIDS to fight in this way against the Russians. The official number of HIV infected in the city is 11 times smaller, only 8,961 cases, but there always were doubts about the official HIV/AIDS statistics. In any case, Irkutsk is known to be a hot spot for drug trafficking rings from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia.

In spite of all kinds of problems, Russians continue to be very patriotic people; most of them ready to put the collective national interests ahead of their personal ones.

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