A Letter from Moscow

The letter below was sent to us the other day by Petr Bystrov, an artist based in Moscow. We have reproduced it here because it provides vivid, firsthand testimony about the continuing disaster in Moscow and other parts of Russia, and how many people there and elsewhere perceive the bizarre response of high officials to the calamity, which has combined silence, grandstanding, disinformation, and a disavowal of the disastrous neoliberal policies that have aggravated the crisis (including Putin’s 2007 gutting of the country’s forestry management system).

We would beg to differ with Petr’s conclusion, however. First, because even in the face of the present calamity, not all Russians are as “stupid” or “submissive” as he argues. On the contrary, there is evidence of real grassroots solidarity. Second, one of the goals of this blog has always been to make instances of solidarity and resistance more visible to the outside world. The current Russian regime often resorts to intimidation of various kinds when faced with more or less massive popular self-organization (as Peter correctly points out has been the case with the defense of the Khimki Forest). Even when this is not the case (although, sadly, it almost always is), acts of resistance and solidarity are often underreported in the media or ignored altogether, thus reinforcing the sense of powerlessness that afflicts many people here, not just Petr. This is not to mention the mind-boggling level of official corruption and malfeasance that batter ordinary Russians everywhere, as described even in the positive report we have linked to above:

Many people have used their blogs to relate their own anecdotes about delivering aid and fighting fires. In one Gogolesque anonymous post currently making the rounds on LiveJournal, residents from the Chuvash capital of Cheboksary drove overnight to the neighboring republic of Marii-El to deliver boxes of food and nonprescription medical supplies they had purchased with money donated by concerned neighbors.

At one point, the blogger relates, they were stopped by local police who accused them of illegal activity and then helped themselves to some of the supplies in their trunk. Later, they encountered a group of Emergency Situations Ministry employees playing cards and drinking vodka as two fire trucks stood idly by, water leaking from their tanks, unused.

“We’re just in shock, this isn’t the ESM, it’s a FUNERAL BRIGADE,” the blogger comments. (Eventually, the group found a village elder who served them hot tea and gratefully received what remained of their supplies.)

We also cannot help noting that societies seemingly less troubled by a violent historical legacy and a reactionary present also evince symptoms of “passivity” and “stupidity.” Was the official response to Hurricane Katrina any less of a mockery than what we’re seeing in Russia today? Are Americans rioting in the streets to end their country’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan? Have Europeans united in solidarity against attempts to slash and burn the social-democratic model?

The only correct answer to these (rhetorical) questions is: more publicity, more merciless analysis, more solidarity, more grassroots self-organization, globally and locally. Otherwise, we are all doomed to go up in smoke.

__________

To: Petersburgers, friends, correspondents, and the international community

Hello, everyone!

This letter is not a cry for help, but an attempt to inform you about what has really been going on in Moscow in recent days. It is written from the viewpoint of the father of two small children, from an apartment one hundred meters away from the Leningrad Highway section of the Moscow Ring Road, in Novye Khimki.

The already-critical situation (which neither before nor after the events described in this letter has been declared an emergency) that has unfolded in Russia, the Moscow Region, and the city of Moscow since mid-July (forest and peat bog fires, record-breaking heat, the absence of wind or rain) began to rapidly deteriorate on the night of Thursday, August 5, when smog engulfed the city in such a way that by morning (Friday, August 6) visibility was reduced to fifty meters even according to official sources.

On television, there is no information about the nature of the cataclysm from competent sources (doctors, scientists, politicians). On the radio, where there is more freedom, what we mostly hear is criticism of the totally corrupt and devastated systems of fire prevention and forestry management, as well as doubts about a swift resolution of this crisis (or, as the president put it, this bloody mess.)

My suspicions and sense of increasing danger were aggravated by the fact that when the smog was still relatively light, reports about it came hot and heavy. But ever since the situation has become genuinely critical (for example, since the death rate has skyrocketed), coverage on the topic of the fires has become feeble and routine, as if we were dealing with an already-established state of affairs that did not call for emergency measures.

I assume that this was the Kremlin’s way of preventing panic, for there were ample reasons to panic.

The media took the line of defending the reputation of the government and the president, presenting them as wholly engrossed in the bitter struggle with the elements.

In terms of saving their reputations, our political spinmeisters/cosmetologists came up with a quite reliable tack: our leaders are defending and helping people, and they’ll come out looking like heroes. But how long this will go on is not in their power to decide – it’s a natural disaster, after all. Putin said right from the beginning that all the fires would subside once the snows came. And we will еternally honor the memory of those who perish during this time. So now we have to wait no more than three months for a miracle.

Сommenting on Mayor Luzhkov’s absence from Moscow and, in general, his utter silence on the matter, the press office of the Moscow city administration issued a comical statement at the weekend: the smog is coming from the area around Moscow, where there are fires blazing, but in Moscow there are no fires. Therefore, there is nothing for the mayor of Moscow to do here.

Then Medvedev said something to same effect (on Monday, August 9): enough complaining about the government – they’re not the ones starting the fires.

And now for serious matters.

There have been indirect reports (mostly on the radio, but censorship exists there as well) about the transfer of all available resources to prevent the flames from reaching nuclear facilities (in Sarov, Voronzeh, and Chelyabinsk). This information was presented in an apophatic, neutralizing mode: firefighters are battling, they’ve contained the blaze, the danger that existed only an hour ago has now passed. That is, when the danger arose, there was silence. Later we were informed that everything was okay: the problem had been taken care of.

What thus emerged was a classical aporia: at any specific moment in time there is no danger (only smog, fire, and a lack of visibility), but every time you look back, you find out that there had just been a threat, but it had been overcome. I assume that a smart political handler with a philosophy degree came up with this uncomplicated aporia.

Forgive me, dear friends, for descending into sarcasm from time to time: these days have done a terrific job of exhausting me body and soul.

What follows is a brief chronology of the weekend’s events. At around 11:30 p.m. on Thursay, a storm suddenly whipped up. For twenty minutes, lightning flashed and a violent (albeit dry) wind blew. Then there was a sprinkling of rain for literally five minutes, after which thick, bluish smoke suddenly set in. It continued to thicken in such a way that by Friday morning (as had happened during the week and even earlier) it hadn’t cleared a whit.

On Friday, there were very few people on the streets because a categorical ban against opening windows had been issued over the TV.

I was forced to go to the supermarket, which was also filled with gray smoke.

Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, issued a decree (!) that everyone who could should leave Moscow. And yet an official emergency has not still not been declared.

Over the course of a day, the color and density of the smog changes, something visible to the naked eye. The odor of the smoke also changes, ranging from a pungent, charcoal smell to a strong aroma that reminds you of the fact that there are chemical weapons warehouses in the Moscow Region and other parts of the country.

Neither on Friday or at the weekend was there any information forthcoming about the nature of the gas, the color, the smell, the prospects of its lifting, the threat it posed to various age groups or ways of defending oneself against it – nothing.

“Specialists” just keep repeating that the concentration of toxic particles in the air is three to seven times over the norm, which is absurd because these and even more alarming figures had been been made public by “official correspondents” weeks ago, when the sky was completely clear.

On Saturday evening, sixteen (!) children were playing on our playground, which was barely visible from our window. This was a desperate gesture, on the order of drinking sea water to slake one’s thirst. At around this same time it became clear that the situation would not be resolved anytime soon. The smog сould persist for three days or a week or two weeks. The temperature could continue to be abnormally high. The fires could subside and then flare up again. Russia lacks the necessary infrastructure for localizing, extinguishing and managing the flames.

As for us, on Monday we spent the fourth day in a row behind closed windows covered with damp sheets. The temperature and humidity were high; the wind speed, zero meters per second – total calm.

The sun was not visible, and the temperature outside was +34 degrees Centigrade. We broke down and took the kids on a “walk” to the food shop in our own building: they have an air conditioner.

During the second half of the day, the weather cleared for literally two hours, but then there was a sudden gust of wind and masses of gray smoke completely engulfed the sky. We closed the windows again.

Literally everyone who could has left the city, tens of thousands of people. On Monday, there were no traffic jams anywhere in Moscow!

The incidents of people reporting to hospital with heatstroke have been massive, and the death rate is still three times above the norm: the morgues are unable to cope with the influx of corpses. All information of this sort is openly reported on the radio.

On Wednesday we found out that a decree had been “sent down” to the districts to evacuate thousands of children. I spoke personally to a district representative about the condition of my children, who are covered with a rash and breathing more heavily than usual. (Ordinarily, they are healthy kids, and they have no allergies.). In a manner befitting a true Russian politician, he said that there would definitely be evacuations, but he didn’t know exactly who would be evacuated, where they would be sent, and when the evacuations would take place. He asked me to call the following day.

We called the following day. This time we were told that old people would be transported. (I should point out that lifeless old people have already been transported in great quantities during the past days.) It was again unclear when this would happen, but old people have been given higher priority than children – Medvedev’s policy of modernization in action.

Dear friends, I’m not spinning you a tale here, but describing the real situation. Medvedev visited a hospital, where he was told that massive numbers of old people had sought medical care. He responded to this by saying, Good: that means that the lifespan in Russia is increasing.

I would like to devote a separate paragraph to the debilitating patience of the Russian people, who stupidly putter around their cells until the danger has passed and then spill out onto the streets, beer in hand, to enjoy life. Any social initiative – for example, a demonstration or picket – is doomed to nonexistence. That’s how it is. Moreover, the events unfolding around the defense of the Khimki Forest, visible from my window, testify to the fact that initiative is a physically punishable offense.

I have my own theory about this, which I won’t discuss here to save paper. But the submissiveness, stupidity, and omnivorousness of our people appears extremely ominous against the constrasting background of social and economic woes, and natural disasters.

Petr Bystrov
August 7–12, Moscow

Photos courtesy of Petr Bystrov
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Filed under open letters, manifestos, appeals, Russian society

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