Sunday, September 26, 2010

Window on Eurasia: To Cut Costs, Irkutsk Governor Wants to Move All 6500 Residents of One District Out of Their Homes

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 26 – Irkutsk Governor Dmitry Mezentsev has directed officials there to come up with plans to resettle the 6500 residents of his region’s Mamsko-Chuisk district because it costs so much to heat their homes in the winter, a step that he says would save the region’s budget 130 million rubles (4 million US dollars) a year.
Mezentsev says that “if this sum were divided among the residents, each would receive 21,000 rubles (700 US dollars) a piece,” an amount that means “it is impossible to speak about the effective expenditure of budgetary funds.” Moreover, he said, once these people moved, they would have better housing and a better way of life (
But it is unlikely that many of those whom Irkutsk would like to shift will believe him or that the money saved from not providing heating in the winter to this district would actually go to the people involved. Indeed, if the past is any guide, many of those the powers that be want to move are likely to refuse.
However, this effort not only highlights the extraordinary difficulties that both officials and the population face in areas of Russia beyond the Urals, difficulties rooted in the enormous distances and absence of key infrastructure, but it appears likely to attract even more attention to a disturbing portrait of life in Siberia and the Russian Far East circulating on the blogosphere.
In contrast to the up-beat and prettified picture of life in the region that accompanied Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent road trip there, journalist Yuri Pankov provides a Muscovite’s view of what he describes as a dying society in a 6000-word diary entitled “The Brotherhood of the End” ( and
Like most diaries – and Pankov spent several weeks in various cities and villages of Siberia this summer – this one features more specific facts than generalizations. But the journalist is more interested than many in moving from the one to the other, and that is perhaps why so many Siberians have paid attention, despite their anger at his words (
According to Pankov, his visit this time – he was last there in the 1980s when conditions were better or at least people were more optimistic – forced him to conclude that “THE COUNTRY HAD DIED. [Emphasis in the original.] Without exaggeration. But no one has taken note of this. They have simply forgotten it for a long, long time.”
In many ways, Siberian cities like Bratsk recall the situation that existed in Moscow “at the beginning of the 1990s.” An “unbelievable” number of drunks, “no churches in principle” because the Soviets had closed them, and “the improbable popularity of taxis” which “simple people use even to go for bread because they are so fearful of thieves and murderers.”
Moreover, Pankov continues, “Siberia and the Far East are lost already. Everyone [there] curses the Chinese but they understand that without them nothing good can be expected. It is better if one’s husband is a Chinese, there is work in Chinese companies, there are Chinese fruits, Chinese restaurants, and vacations in China.”
Environmental degradation is extreme. In Bratsk, people often hear sirens from the factories, just as in Soviet times, to announce that the firms are putting wastes into the air or water. And the water in the lakes and rivers is so polluted that doctors say no one should eat the fish from them, although local people in their poverty do so anyway.
In many Siberian villages and even cities, there are three times as many women as men, a situation that often leads to irregular living arrangements. Women are afraid to get abortions lest they be left unable to have more children, and in some places, they have to give birth in emergency service vehicles because hospitals are so far away.
In some villages, he writes, the number of people actually living is much smaller than the number officials think are there. Local people conceal the deaths and departures in order to continue to receive the pensions of the departed, the only way such residents have to survive given low incomes and the high cost of food from other parts of Russia.
Moreover, Pankov says, his visit proved to him that Siberia has not been “electrified” as many believe. That is a myth. Many places do not have any electricity at all, and even in tourist centers on Lake Baikal, there is power from local diesel generators only for “three or four hours in the evening and one hour in the morning.”
Conditions are now so bad, he continues, that many young people, even though they fear what may happen to them, view service in the military as “salvation,” a way out of their difficulties and one that resembles what many Soviet citizens felt as a result of collectivization in the 1920s and 1930s.
That is what Siberian villages and towns are like now, he says. “All Siberia is one big de-kulakized village.”
Siberians, he writes, view political parties as “commercial enterprises” rather than expressions of the views of one or another part of the population. They see elections are completely fraudulent, and because television exposes them to the better life that Russians elsewhere have, many of them are increasingly angry at Moscow.
For the people he met, “a national leader in Russia would be only someone who builds roads. Nothing more than that is necessary. That is, in general, no rights, no elections, land, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, or conscience – here in one settlement of 1400 residents there are no believers at all.”
The only ones who have even been baptized are those who came to Siberia to earn money in the 1960s or who are the descendents of exiled kulaks. Indeed, Pankov says, people in the villages, “live like animals. They throw trash directly out the door.” Even the youngest curse rather than speak. “The people here are degenerating.”
Only roads will save the situation, he continues, but he provides the interesting detail that as in Soviet times, there are no local maps. He asked various officials to provide him one and even after more than a week, no one could find even a single map of the district. Given that people had nowhere to go, that ultimately was no surprise.
“One of the leading intellectuals of Bratsk,” Pankov said, is a veterinarian who is able to speak freely because he is subordinate not to local officials but to people in Irkutsk. He was the one who said no one should eat fish from the local reservoir, lest the poisons in the water make people ill.
And the veterinarian summed up his feelings about the situation in his Siberian city with words that Pankov might have been able to agree with, at least in part. “A fish rots from the head,” as the saying goes, the vet said, but at the present time, “the country is rotting from Moscow.”

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