Terrance Heath

Where There's a 'We,' There's a Will & a Way

Filed By Terrance Heath | December 21, 2011 4:15 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: American politics, Arab Spring, austerity measures, Russian election, Thom Friedman, Tom Englehardt

Chalk it up to my ADD, but sometimes my brain finds connections the strangest, seemingly most disparate stories among the many I read online every day. Two years ago, I wrote a rather longish blog post titled “Reclaiming ‘We’.” It was partly inspired by NY Times columnist Thom Friedman’s declaration that “There is no ‘we’ in American politics.” Yesterday, Tom Engelhardt brought full circle the ideas I started to flesh out in that post, in a wonderful post inspired by the chant shouted by Russian demonstrators protesting ballot-stuffing and election fraud: “We exist!”

We Exist?”

Engelhardt connects the Russian demonstrations to other demonstrations and protest movements around the world.

Bolotnaya square RussiaOn the streets of Moscow in the tens of thousands, the protesters chanted: “We exist!” Taking into account the comments of statesmen, scientists, politicians, military officials, bankers, artists, all the important and attended to figures on this planet, nothing caught the year more strikingly than those two words shouted by massed Russian demonstrators.

“We exist!” Think of it as a simple statement of fact, an implicit demand to be taken seriously (or else), and undoubtedly an expression of wonder, verging on a question: “We exist?”

And who could blame them for shouting it? Or for the wonder? How miraculous it was. Yet another country long immersed in a kind of popular silence suddenly finds voice, and the demonstrators promptly declare themselves not about to leave the stage when the day — and the demonstration — ends. Who guessed beforehand that perhaps 50,000 Muscovites would turn out to protest a rigged electoral process in a suddenly restive country, along with crowds in St. Petersburg, Tomsk, and elsewhere from the south to Siberia?

In Tahrir Square in Cairo, they swore: “This time we’re here to stay!” Everywhere this year, it seemed that they — “we” — were here to stay. In New York City, when forced out of Zuccotti Park by the police, protesters returned carrying signs that said, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”

Earlier this week, I blogged about austerity’s continued catastrophic success in Europe. Even as I wrote that post, I thought of what Engelhardt wrote the demonstrations in Russia. Synapses firing away, I saw a connection between Engelhardt’s piece and a couple of Daily Beast articles by Anna Nemtsova, about two rather strange Russian news stories.

The first was about a Nizhny Novgorod man who collected female corpses and kept in his home. Anatoly Moskvin, a 45 year-old, self-styled “necropolyst,” specializing in the history of local cemeteries. He wrote and published articles about the cemeteries he obsessively explored. He also disinterred the remains of over 20 girls and young women, snuck them into his apartment, dressed them up as dolls, and installed music boxes in some of them.

The second article was about a 23-year-old woman whose mother kept her locked up in their apartment for nine years, “To save her from heroin addicts, lesbians, and rape.” From the age of 13 Katia stayed in the one-room apartment while her mother, described as a “street sweeper” named “Mad Anna,” left every morning at 5am, after securing some six locks on two doors (one of which was an iron door). When neighborhood children smashed the windows, Anna nailed sheets of iron and metal bars over them. The electricity was turned off last year, due to unpaid bills.

Katia spent her time reading the books and magazines her mother brought home, sorting through the garbage her mother “brought home in large volumes,” and tearing up pieces of cardboard for Anna to sell on the street for 4 cents each, or washing bottles for Anna to sell about about 6 cents a pop.

What struck me about both stories was how the depict what happens when the kind of disaster capitalism Naomi Klein described in The Shock Doctrine as taking hold in Russia as the Soviet Union collapsed. A review of the book summarized what happened to Russia and the Russian people in the aftermath.

Yeltsin now had unchecked dictatorial power, the West had its man in Moscow, and shock therapy had an open field to inflict wreckage on Russia’s people who didn’t know what him them as it unfolded. A corporatist state replaced a communist one, and its apparatchiks were winners along with a handful of western mutual fund managers who made “dizzying returns investing in newly privatized Russian companies.” In addition, “a clique of nouveaux billionaires” (17 in all called “the oligarchs”) were empowered to strip mine the country of its wealth and ship profits offshore at the rate of $2 billion a month.

As a result, Yeltsin’s popularity plunged so he did what all desperate leaders do to hold power with the next election to worry about. He began a war in 1994 in the breakaway Chechen republic killing 100,000 civilians by the late 90s. Elections were held in 1996, and Yeltsin won by overcoming his low approval ratings with huge oligarch-funding and near-total control of television coverage. He then quietly handed power to Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999 without an election but with the stipulation he was exempt from criminal prosecution. His legacy was devastating with Klein noting “never have so many lost so much in so short a time.” When Russia’s 1998 financial crisis hit:

– 80% of Russia’s farmers were bankrupt;

– around 70,000 states factories had closed;

– an “epidemic” of unemployment raged;

– before shock therapy in 1989, two million Russians lived in poverty on less than $4 a day; by the mid-90s, the World Bank estimated 74 million were impoverished and by 1996 conditions for 25% (almost 37 million) Russians were “desperate” and the country’s underclass remained permanent;

– Russians drink twice as much now as before; painkilling and hard drug use increased 900%, and HIV/AIDS threatens to become epidemic with a 20-fold jump in infections since 1995; suicides are also rising, and violent crime increased more than fourfold; and

– Russia’s population is declining by 700,000 a year with capitalism having already having killed off 10% of it as one more example of free market-inflicted disaster. That’s the brave new world disease spreading everywhere with another scorched-earth stop below. Friedman called it “freedom.”

Success? Yes, depending upon your point of view. Catastrophic? For millions of Russians? You bet.

“We Can Do Nothing.”

Nemtsova weaves both stories together to paint a picture of what catastrophic success does to communities, and how is manifests in the lives of individuals.

In both stories, the cases came to light accidentally; Moskvin was allegedly found out when his parents visited him. Neighbors saw Moskvin “carrying heavy backpacks or black plastic bags,” in to his apartment, and even notices “the sweet, stinky aura” that filled their hallway and stairwell every time Moskvin opened his door (presumably, while carrying in those heavy backpacks and black plastic bags. But one neighbor shrugged off the lingering smell, saying “Our buildings all stink of something that rots in the basements.”

Katia was discovered by municipal plumbers, who found her hiding behind a fridge. Nemtsova writes that Katia’s school “didn’t care that their seventh grader suddenly had gone missing,” nor did Katia’s neighbors seem to care whether she was alive or head. Nemtova returned to Nizhny Novgorod, her hometown of 1.5 million people, and visited Katia and Anna’s first floor apartment. There she met a next door neighbor, a single mother who worked at a local auto factory, and whose main concern was “the armies of cockroaches” that marched from Katia’s apartment to hers. Katia’s fate was “a much less important issue,” to the neighbor. Yet she voiced a wish, “grab my own daughter and escape from this rotting hell.”

Nemtsova left Nizhny just before the Soviet Union collapsed, and disaster capitalists and free-market fundamentalists when to work on Russia. She describes what she found upon returning.

nizhny-novgorodI left my hometown, Nizhny Novgorod, as a teenager in the midst of perestroika. I remember the walls in our concrete panel building were as thick as an average volume of Russian prose, but apparently neighbors knew all the details of each other’s personal lives. The oldest of them were keen on sitting on the bench by the entrance, passionately discussing the latest news downstairs; we kids called these people the “special service” for their thorough knowledge of the neighborhood’s life. Whenever one of us needed a carrot for borscht or a hand to move a drunk out of the elevator, the help arrived at once.

Something must have seriously gone wrong in the past two decades. Russians have turned inward. Their attention hardly extends to their neighbors’ lives, much less politics. Political scientists even have a name for this social phenomenon in Russia. They call it a “divorce” between the government and the people. Turnout in last weekend’s elections was 62 percent, the lowest in years. When last September my school friend was killed by her drunken husband, I found out that her neighbors paid no attention to her screams, and as for the state, it did not offer a single shelter for domestic-violence victims to call or run to. And just last month I was struck by the ice-cold indifference of the neighbors who lived next door to a scientist fond of turning the remains of dead girls into dolls.

The most painful is the news that Katia Popova’s case is not unique for the city of Nizhny Novgorod. It was the third case of relatives isolating family members in just this neighborhood of my hometown. In March 2010, authorities discovered a 13-year-old boy, Zhenia Barsukov, who could not speak human language, ate oranges without peeling them, and walked around his apartment naked.

Last March, Viacheslav Kazistov, from the building next to Popova’s, heard somebody screaming: “Save me! Save me!” in the apartment next door. When police arrived and they broke down the door, Kazistov said, they discovered “a paralyzed skeleton” on the floor. All the man had in the room to eat was half a loaf of dry bread and two bottles of water. Yuri Baushev’s own brother kept him locked inside the apartment for almost a year, in hopes of becoming the apartment’s only owner if his brother starved. “I could never imagine that somebody was dying of hunger on the other side of my wall,” Kazistov, a 30-year-old economist, told me. “People became indifferent to each other’s fates even more after the GAZ automotive factory fired more than 3,000 people in our district; everybody is busy with their own survival,” Kazistov said. After saving his neighbor’s life, Kazistov volunteered to help the Popovas; he is one of a few friends Katia has recently made.

What political scientists call a “divorce between the government and the people” sounds like the end result of the people — whole communities of us — becoming estranged from one another. Nemtsova’s stories depict an economic desperation so crushing that community disintegrates under its pressure. There no more time for sitting on stoops exchanging neighborhood gossip, or to even pay much attention to the goings on in your neighbors’ lives — whether it’s the girl next door who disappeared ten years ago, the sickeningly sweet smell of decay wafting from a neighbor’s open door, or the woman whose screams you always heard through the walls before they suddenly stopped.

Help no longer arrives when someone needs “a carrot for borscht or a hand to move a drunk out of the elevator.” You don’t have a carrot to give. And if you did, your neighbor would starve before you gave it to them. The drunk in the elevator can stay there. If he dies there, maybe you can get his apartment. The people who used to be your neighbors, your community, and even your family are now just more competitors for increasingly scarce resources. However desperate or dismal their situation is, yours is equally bad. Perhaps worse. At some point, you can’t afford to care anymore.

What Nemtsova describes reminded me of a New York Times article about the cost of austerity in Lithuania. Like Latvia, and the other Baltic states, austerity hasn’t just hollowed out Lithuania’s economy. It has hollowed out Lithuanians’ hopes as well.

Faced with rising deficits that threatened to bankrupt the country, Lithuania cut public spending by 30 percent — including slashing public sector wages 20 to 30 percent and reducing pensions by as much as 11 percent. Even the prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, took a pay cut of 45 percent.

And the government didn’t stop there. It raised taxes on a wide variety of goods, like pharmaceutical products and alcohol. Corporate taxes rose to 20 percent, from 15 percent. The value-added tax rose to 21 percent, from 18 percent.

… But austerity has exacted its own price, in social and personal pain.

Pensioners, their benefits cut, swamped soup kitchens. Unemployment jumped to a high of 14 percent, from single digits — and an already wobbly economy shrank 15 percent last year.

… Mecislovas Zukauskas, 88, a retired electrician, has lived through the devastations of World War II, the Soviet occupation and, most recently, the death of his wife. He is taking his pension cut in stride.

“The government does what it wants to do,” he said. “We can do nothing.”

“We can do nothing,” nothing beyond what it takes to survive.

People become “divorced” from government when they no longer belief in their combined ability to change it, and thus give up hope. People become indifferent to each other’s fates, when day-to-day survival is so difficult that they can no longer afford to care. There is no community. There is no “we.” Thus, “we” can do nothing.

That’s the real catastrophic success of austerity: “We” don’t exist.”

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