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Russia under the yoke of the cross

(Letter to a Canadian friend)

Oxford, October 2003

Hi, Michael! I can’t wait to share with you my impressions from my latest trip to Russia. Last time I wrote to you about England, saying that the service here is shitty, the health service is terrible, transportation is simply a nightmare, the roads are narrow, and blockheads abound. But now I’m just recently back from Russia, and I recall the words of the Marquis de Custine who wrote in the middle 19th century (I quote from memory): when life gets you really down, make a trip to Russia, and you will realize how fortunate you are to be living in France rather than Russia. I understood what he meant after my latest visit there. We are such fortunate people, you and I: I live in England, while you live in Canada. Now let me tell all in due order.

In “the zone.” Let me remind you that my wife and I traveled to Russia from Shanghai, where she had a successful personal exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum. The advertising was good; they made a TV spot about the art of Wong Luishi (that’s my wife’s Chinese pseudonym) that was broadcast across China and on the international TV channel. My wife was exultant, and I was happy for her and for both of us. The next such exhibition was to take place in Moscow – that’s why we traveled to Russia.

The paintings were shipped from China all within the day; we made all the payments and did all the paperwork required. Prior to our departure for Shanghai we consulted a high-ranking customs worker of precisely the Sheremetievo cargo terminal about the rules for bringing own works of art into the country; he told us that our case involved no difficulties and no additional customs charges. But when the paintings did arrive in Moscow, the Customs workers there forced us, against all rules and laws, to pay an additional $800. It’s not even the charge itself that rankles; it’s the humiliation that is the lot of all people who enter “the zone”, like I said already. Every question we asked was turned to work precisely against us. Valentina, who had just recently been received at the highest level, sat there petrified at the barbarians’ boorishness. We tried to find out: Why? They couldn’t explain anything coherently; they only hinted that some item or other may go missing, and then we would be forced to pay demurrage by the kilogram. We realized that we had entered “the (prison camp) zone” where the thieves rule rather than the law, and should we resist, we would either never see our paintings again or receive such bills for alleged “idle standing” that the $800 would seem like small change. That’s how we got started in acquainting ourselves with Russia’s capitalist, or perhaps criminal, reality, which is actually one and the same thing.

Moscow “piped over”. Perhaps you recall, Michael, that I had to leave Moscow 15 years ago. Back then it was a quite decent city, the Russian capital of the Socialist state. Now it appears to be rebuilt to resemble the West more. There are many new buildings, hotels, billboards, etc. in Western style. Russians apparently loathe their own language; everywhere you hear English: “fitnes klub”, “kvin haus”. Some particularly ridiculous combinations are born, like “kotleta haus” or “café haus” at the airports. By the way, can you imagine this: at the Sheremetievo and Domodedovo airports a cup of lousy coffee costs over three dollars; same price for a bottle of plain water. Even here, in our precious England, I’ve never encountered such prices.

Despite all the construction going on, Moscow makes a terrible impression in the architectural sense, most notably on account of the numerous pipelines that snake along streets like monstrous serpents. It is unclear why they can’t put these pipes underground. The Metro is functioning, more or less, but the fare doubled since my previous visit. The people don’t complain, though. The street traffic is sheer horror: there are traffic jams everywhere, any day of the week, any time of the day. Driving here is akin to highway robbery. Neither drivers nor passengers ever use seat belts, as if proclaiming their fearlessness that way. The result of this fearlessness and idiocy on the streets: according to the Chief of the State Traffic Inspection, in 2002 over 33,000 people died in traffic accidents in Russia, or 20.3 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the figure for England is about 6; in Canada it is even lower. Twice I barely avoided being hit by a Mercedes when crossing the street on a green light; that’s how they drive here. By the way, just one month prior to my arrival a classmate of mine from the University of Leningrad was hit and killed by a car.

Science and education. I wrote to you once already about these matters, but still, here are some fresh impressions. I inspected the research institutes I used to work in: there is no science left there; for the most part only nincompoop old folks are left. All the smarter ones have moved either to the USA or Japan. The number of research workers in the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations (IWEIR), for example, has declined by a factor of four. At that same IWEIR they clip articles from newspapers and collect them in binders. Can you imagine this stone-age technology in our computer age? The salaries are mind-bogglingly miniscule. Can you believe this, Michael: a top-rank research worker with the degree of Doctor of Science makes less that $100 per month. Naturally, everyone has some additional income, holds a second or even a third job. Can you imagine the level and quality of the work they do? Obviously, they produce nothing but hack work. The amazing thing is, full members of the Academy of Science pull in salaries five times (!) bigger than that of a Doctor; I won’t even dwell on students’ stipends. And this state of affairs is advertised as the state’s great concern for scientists. What the state does is pay the folks whose brains no longer function. I know personally some of these Academicians in the field of social sciences; they are capable of nothing but “if only” writings. I could list their names for you, but you don’t know them anyway. Among them there no Webers, or Toynbees, or Schumpeters, or Galbraiths, or Friedmans; there are only Tyutkins and Lyapkins. But the most amazing thing is this: despite the complete collapse of science, Russia’s perfectly imbecilic Education Minister V. Filippov maintains that thanks to the enormous achievements of Russian science, Russia’s education has become “one of the best in the world, if not the best”. Just think, Michael: hundreds of thousands of scientists have fled to the West; the Institute of Mathematics is only kept afloat by royalties received by its workers from abroad; the research facility at Dubna is barely kept alive by donations from the West; Russia ranks last in education levels among 31 countries in a UNESCO study; thousands of schools can’t function normally due to under-funding, and yet the Minister is spouting this kind of nonsense. Here’s an even more paradoxical fact: quite a few people buy this nonsense; their stunning naivety borders on insanity. Russia’s 2003 budget allots only just $3.2 billion for education (4.2% of the total), whereas the UK, with its population of 60 million, allots over $40 billion (9.7%), and in the USA, the total exceeds $600 billion. And still the Russian government claims that their education is the best. Is that imbecility or what?

You may object: what about those two Russian physicists who have just received the Nobel prize? Well, they received it for work done way back in the Soviet era, in the 1950s and 1960s. (One of them currently works in the USA.) As for the current level of science in Russia - it is defined, for instance, in the area of cosmogony by the so-called theory of “Russian cosmism”. It says that the universe was created by a cosmic mind (one of the variants of the anthropic principle in cosmogony). The bookstands are literally overflowing with literature on this topic. In the Russians’ interpretation, this cosmic mind didn’t just plan the emergence of any human, but precisely of the Russian man, whose mission is to save all of mankind. This gibberish is promoted by quite a few Doctors of physics, mathematics and technical sciences; one can’t help but laugh when reading their writings. When I ask them what kind of cosmic mind would doom mankind and the entire universe to eventual death in accordance with the Big Bang theory, they reply that there was no Big Bang, and therefore the universe is eternal. Scientific fact interests them not in the least; they are much more convinced by the balderdash produced by a certain Mr. Muldashev, who put out a series of books describing some immortal sentient beings hiding in a frozen state somewhere in the Himalayas. For these cosmist-humorists, the biggest authority is the crazy M-me Blavatskaya and the Tibetan wisdom which has preserved for some reason all Tibetan peoples in their pristine primeval state.

Obviously this cosmic mind is nothing but a science-like word for god, and all their science amounts to an elementary theology, i.e. clericalism, that is feeding off the ignorance of masses. By the way, one more Doctor of a technical profile has recently produced a “scientific” proof of god’s existence. Big deal! This “doctor” is clearly unaware that the ontological existence of god was “proven” back in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury. In one Oxford bookstore I counted at least 50 titles dedicated to “scientific” proofs of god. But Russians, as always, keep “discovering America”. Oh, well, okay, they are idiots whom the scientific community in the West doesn’t take seriously. In Russia, however, it isn’t just Aunt Manya or Baba Fenya talking seriously about these matters; Doctors and Candidates of Science do it. This advent of obscurantism was hard to expect in Russia, of all places, since it was here in the era of the godless Soviet power science, technology and culture flowered. Now all this is collapsing before the world’s eyes. I think that one of the main reasons is the establishment of all kind of mysticism and religiosity.

Religious obscurantism and nationalist chauvinism. Russia is tumbling with incredible speed back to the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the flourishing of religion in the mass consciousness. Even acquaintances of mine, who are for the most part science workers, Doctors and Candidates of Science, have become trapped in the religious quagmire. They expound in all seriousness about God, and in this connection about the divine predestination of Russia which is supposed to save this world from spiritual emptiness. Objectively, this longing for God in Russia’s current circumstances is quite understandable: whenever people are in fear or in distress, they become particularly pious. But among Russians, this piousness is somehow aggressive in character. One old friend of mine was almost prepared to kill me for being a non-believer, that means non-Russian, that means scum.

Naturally, the current ruling class benefits from this religiosity: the more servants of god among the population, the fewer enemies of the state (all authority is from God, said St. Paul). Slaves are easier to govern. That’s why construction of churches is encouraged all over Russia, at a time when there is not enough money for schools and hospitals. Even Hegel wrote about this: “Religion and politics have always worked hand in hand; religion preached what despotism wanted: contempt for humankind, inability to become anything through one’s own efforts.”

But Russia has its own specifics, as always. It isn’t just that religion and the state are becoming united; religion is transforming into an ideology of Russian patriotism that is beginning to assume the form of chauvinism. It’s no accident that all these prominent patriots wear crosses on their chests for display, including even the President’s wife. The President himself often makes the sign of the cross in public. Michael, have you ever seen your PM Chrétien or our PM Blair make the sign of the cross? I haven’t even seen President Bush do it. In Russia, however, everything is done for show. See you all how spiritually blessed we are!

Jews again. Quite naturally, all this religiosity in its Orthodox execution turns into anti-Semitism: all of Russia’ troubles are caused by Jews, of course. The topic of the Zionist conspiracy has become a favorite among many acquaintances of mine. One of my relatives drove me to distraction with this conspiracy talk; he kept suggesting that I read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I told him that the text is a fake; that fact had been proven many times in serious scientific papers; read even one of them! But he refused to read anything and kept singing his tune.

This stand is easy to explain in principle: should they drop the “conspiracy theory,” their whole scheme for explaining the causes of Russia’s collapse crumbles. Of course, there are always two more old standbys: the intrigues of the USA and of the freemasons. The freemasons, however, appear to be in hiding, the USA is far away, while the Abramovichs and the Avens are in full public view with their millions and billions of dollars. Should the patriots concede that the Jews are not at fault, they would have to admit that the Russians themselves are to blame for beggaring a potentially wealthy country. All these nationalist-patriots don’t realize that their anti-Semitism only serves to glorify the Jews, since they admit that a small number of Jews (less than 500,000 are left in the country, according to the latest census) has managed to outfox and subjugate over 100 million Russians, bringing them to their knees (a station becoming for servants of God, by the way). Despite their anti-Jewish intentions, they work to magnify undeservedly the Jewish nation, maintaining in their ignorance that Jews rule the world. I ask them a simple question: do Jews rule China? Japan? India? The countries of South-East Asia? Africa? Latin America? No answer is forthcoming from them. The truth of the matter is, four fifths of the world’s population doesn't even know who Jews are.

Of course, Jews are indeed quite visible in the advanced capitalist countries, and there objective reasons for that, the main reason being precisely capitalism itself. Jews and capital are two sides of the same coin; the brothers Bauer, Marx and many others wrote of this. In this connection, Russia’s anti-Semitic patriots find themselves in an idiotic situation. On the one hand, they condemn the Bolsheviks for socialism (since almost all of them are anti-Communists) and praise Russian capitalism that existed prior to October 1917; on the other hand, they come down on Jews, clearly ignorant of the fact that in the early 20th century capitalism in Russia (same as in England, then in France, etc.) owed its development precisely to Jews, both Russian and European ones. Rothschild alone was worth a lot; he was very nearly controlling all of Russia’s treasury. And what about the Russian merchant class? Almost 90% of them were baptized Jews; it suffices to browse through the 1912 directory of the Guilds of St. Petersburg. Today’s Russian capitalism, too, owes a lot to the Jewish oligarchs. This, I repeat, is how it should be. How can one possibly be in favor of capitalism, but against Jews? These guys just don’t make sense, Michael. That’s just the kind of patriots they have here – full of boundless ignorance that is born of the Orthodox Christian faith and an inferiority complex.

They have a newspaper here called Zavtra (“Tomorrow”), rather popular among the patriotically minded part of the population. People with more education don’t read it, mainly because of its style and language; it is mostly agitated, foam-at-the-mouth cursing, with some truly “killer” words. One can read it once or twice, but no more than that, even though agreeing with the points made. This paper’s forecasts, however, are something else; they verge on imbecility. In particular, they keep going on about the imminent destruction of the United States. In March or April some Doctor of Economic Science was predicting a collapse of the US dollar by summer. Another economist was trying to convince the readers, in all seriousness, that the entire US economy is bound to collapse before the end of the year, on account of the huge budget deficit. The editor-in-chief, a writer named Prokhanov, produced a series of hysterical articles on the US aggression against Iraq, claiming that Baghdad would become America’s Stalingrad. But look, Michael, how elegantly did he disavow his failed forecasts: yes, indeed, the Stalingrad scenario did not materialize, but who could know that Saddam Hussein would be betrayed by his lieutenants? As if without this betrayal the USA would have failed to take Baghdad and all of Iraq. Similar gibberish was offered by many generals (retired ones, to be sure), some of whom were even predicting a defeat for the USA in this war. The competence level of all these generals, doctors and experts is precisely equal to zero. How can a normal person possibly read this kind of newspaper, where only a harsh curse-word has value, rather than analysis?

Mindset of the rulers. The competence level of the ruling class is no better, to tell the truth. Where are the President’s brains when he is talking in full seriousness about a non-visa regime for Russia in Europe? Within months after this moronic pronouncement of his, even Poland introduced a visa regime for Russian citizens. Same thing with the Iraq policy: a total failure. The President and his Minister of Foreign Affairs made countless trips to Europe; their sole outcome was a waste of the taxpayer’s money. Can you imagine this, Michael: a certain official, reporting on the President’s foreign policy triumphs, boasted that the President had made 40 trips abroad so far this year. Since I followed many of these trips, I can assure you that none of them produced the desired results. That is, all the funds used up for these visits were wasted. By the way, the President loves to voyage in his own land as well, accompanied, naturally, by his retinue, plus the press, etc. Moreover, even when he is vacationing in the South, officials of different ranks visit him there on a regular basis in order to “settle matters.” One can imagine how much all this costs, how big a share of the budget is wasted, especially considering that the budget as such is miniscule. But in Russia they have never counted money. It doesn’t even enter the President’s head that it is unbecoming to show off the golden palaces of the Kremlin to foreign guests at a time when most of the population are paupers.

Elections-show. Michael, I don’t think you can imagine how much dumber the population has become over the last 15 years. Currently they have a political show unfurling: elections to the Duma (parliament). The Kremlin has hammered together a party of its own, called One Russia. All the other parties are straining, putting their act together. On TV, in the press they are discussing candidates, analyzing differences inside parties, between parties. The leaders are making some sort of pronouncements and predictions concerning their prospects. The populace is agitated: who will win? One gets the impression that no one is aware that it matters not a whit who wins or loses. The Duma itself (an anteroom for idle chat, in Lenin’s words) is worth not a penny in the power structure of Russia. The laws they adopt don’t work anyway, since in Russia from the earliest times the laws have had an existence separate from real life, which proceeded along its own ways. Recall the customs incident. The populace doesn’t understand that the official sum of 3.5 billion rubles earmarked for the elections has been taken from them, from their salaries and pensions. The leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (a faux-Communist party) claim earnestly that they help allot the budget more equitably. I can’t understand whether they are kidding or really failing to grasp that Russia’ entire budget is insufficient for solving even one of the country’s problems.

The ruling class, of course, benefits from all this election-related turmoil; it distracts the people from their real problems, such as the absence of power and water in many towns and villages. By wintertime all these problems will become exacerbated, I’m sure, since the housing-and-utilities complex as a whole is close to expiration. Generally speaking, the opposition also benefits from the elections: they create the illusion of a struggle against “the ruling regime”. Why would they want to stage revolutions and risk their lives on barricades in a fight against the regime? The revolution may easily fail, but a one-way ticket to Magadan would be assured. Getting elected to the Duma, on the other hand, is a possibility, and it’s a living; the official salary is about $600 dollars per month. A hundred or two of functionaries are about to win a place at the trough; that’s what the struggle is really about.

As for the people, they get to enjoy a free circus. I have to admit, though, that a certain part of the population appears to start realizing the senselessness of these elections: the percentage of votes cast against all of the candidates is growing, and the voter turnout keeps falling. Apparently some people are starting to see the light after all. Still, there are more than enough fools. The ruling regime is likely to collect the needed minimum number of votes (even if it fails to collect them, it can write them in). The population will be played for fools once again; the farce goes on.

Astrakhan: it stinks, but it is my home town. Dear Michael! You might recall that I showed you once an article in The Vancouver Sun about a certain Canadian heroine. Her heroic status was earned through spending two months among the Inuit in the north of the country, where they – o horror! – switched off hot water once a week; she overcame courageously those creature discomforts. From this perspective, the entire population of Russia are heroes. Even in Moscow hot water is switched off for scheduled maintenance every year for two weeks. And that’s like nothing compared to what I encountered in the city of Astrakhan which happens to be the town of my birth. In the course of this latest trip to Russia I decided to visit my relatives. I traveled there aboard a TU-134 aircraft that was at least 30 years old. It was a scary flight, not only because the airplane was ancient, but also on account of a bunch of fishermen from Moscow who started consuming copious amounts of vodka immediately after take-off. Smoking was not allowed, but several of them lit up over feeble protests of the flight attendants. What ensued was merriment, ruckus, yelling and foul swearing, like in a bazaar. That’s how Russians manifest their culture and spirituality.

Upon arrival in Astrakhan I nearly suffocated right away in the poisoned air. Even in Moscow the air is cleaner. My sister set dinner on the table, but I couldn’t eat anything: practically all of the food was poisoned; the meat gave off the odor of decay. I heard that the city refrigerators had broken down long ago, and there are no funds to repair them. In the heart of downtown there are mounds of trash opposite the philharmonic hall; stray dogs are running everywhere. Evidently the trash removal service is under-funded as well. There is dirt everywhere, the streams and canals are choked with green mould. In the time of my childhood they were clean; we kids fished and swam in them. The general impression is that of ruin, but the amazing thing is that the residents of Astrakhan don’t notice it, so accustomed they have become to filth. As the Japanese say, a worm can smell no stink. After the very first application of tap water I had a herpes eruption on my lips and even my face; upon waking in the morning I discovered that I had been bitten massively in the night by the mosquitoes that made their home in the basement. The residents of Astrakhan don’t get bitten. My Russian relatives are living in truly extreme poverty (one of them, for instance, walks to work for an hour each day, each way, to save the tram fare). The Tartar branch of my family is doing well for some reason; they are all involved in retail trade, same as in Soviet times.

The thought level of the elite did truly shock me. On my previous visit the rector of the Pedagogical Academy (they no longer have colleges there, only academies) offered to create an international relations department for me. Who’s going to teach there? – I asked him. – We’ll invite professors from your Oxford, - he said. – In what language will they be lecturing? – I inquired. – In Russian. – I was startled: why are you so sure that they know Russian? – He looked somewhat embarrassed and said that a solution can be found; there are plenty of interpreters available. – Very well then, how do you intend to pay them? – Why pay them? We have great fishing here, a unique nature reserve; we will arrange hunts for them, and so on and so forth. - And that, I repeat, was a rector of an academy! Can you imagine the level of “the ordinary folk”?

There are some folks with brains, to be sure, but very few, and they are all burning with desire to get far away from Astrakhan: to Moscow for starters, and then eventually out of Russia.

After three days I realized that I would definitely not survive unless I depart immediately (I was unable to eat or drink anything except tea). And that’s me, a former resident of Astrakhan! I’m certain that any resident of Canada or Oxford would expire after just one week in this city. But the people of Astrakhan don’t mind; it’s all “nishtyak” (“cool”) with them, as they say; they were wondering even why I had ever left their paradise. I repeat, even in Astrakhan there are exceptions (my old school teacher and a couple friends of mine), but generally speaking, I have not encountered such ignorance anywhere in the last 15 years.

The exhibition. Valya’s exhibition took place in the Central House of Arts. Many people came to the opening, including the culture councilor from the Embassy of China. There were several reports in the press; three respectable magazines intend to publish detailed articles about her work. It was there that I encountered a phenomenon that appears to contradict what I’ve said above. Quite a few people came to see the exhibition; many of them wrote down their impressions in the guest book, some even did it in verse. Valentina told me that she saw many different kinds of people there, including a few mentally ill ones. But there were also many inspired people who have preserved a truly Russian understanding of art; talking to them gave Valya true creative pleasure. Many people remembered her previous exhibitions. I can testify myself to the admiration and trepidation with which they examined her paintings and read her poems that go with the paintings, then copied the poems to their notebooks.

If it were not for these people, Russia would be hopeless. But apparently it is too early to proclaim Russia finished. The cross is oppressing Russians heavily, it has bent many of them down, turned them into zombies, ignoramuses, morons and slaves. But outside the realm of the cross, and even inside it in places, there are still some live souls and some bright minds. I don’t know whether they will cast off the yoke of the cross themselves, or it will be someone else. Whoever does it, they are the people who can build a new Russia.

At least that’s what I’d like to believe.

Best wishes,

Alex Battler

PS You will ask me, of course: isn’t there anything bright left in Russia? My answer is: yes, it’s the women – the most beautiful ones in the world; but that’s another story, for another day.