COLUMN ONE : A Society That’s Out of Order : Soviet communism failed, and now so have its services. Planes don’t fly, police don’t respond, buildings grow decrepit--and the people despair.
A frightened old man rushed into a Moscow construction firm last week and begged the workers to come check what he was sure must be a dangerous gas leak in his nearby apartment.
Why don’t you summon the city’s emergency repair service? they asked.
He already had, the man replied, downcast; he had called and reported that his apartment reeked of gas, and the dispatcher had snapped back, “Then breathe on the street!”
And no repairman ever came. Like so many of the most basic services on which civilized life depends, even Moscow’s emergency crews have largely given in to the anomie, to an urge to let even the most crucial things just fall apart--that is one of the most pervasive and frightening aspects of daily life in the fragments of the old Soviet Union.
The reports come from across the breadth of this once intimidating, disciplined and proud superpower.
In the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk earlier this winter, heating systems broke down and mothers gave birth in maternity wards where they could see their own breaths in the frosty air. Doctors in Novosibirsk had to cancel all but the most vital surgery last week because their operating rooms were too cold for cutting.
In the Ural Mountains city of Ekaterinburg, desperate passengers from among hundreds of thousands whose Aeroflot flights have been delayed lately for lack of fuel stormed a plane this month and insisted on flying to the Crimea. The tactic has become increasingly common, and more and more airports are simply closing down when fuel supplies give out.
In Moscow, party-goers at a trendy downtown cinema one Saturday night last month put in an urgent call to 02--the emergency Moscow police number equivalent to 911--and no one ever answered the phone.
Traffic lights in the former Soviet showcase capital routinely remain broken for days, leaving drivers to cross intersections at their own risk with no help from signals that sometimes, perplexingly, shine red and green at the same time.
With the decades-old system based on Communist Party discipline gone for good and practical reforms still being painfully worked out, the old government guarantees of certain--if miserable--work, food, medical care, free housing and basic services have given way to the sense that citizens can expect no help, even when simple survival is at stake.
“I feel so confused in my soul, so out of balance, like I’m permanently out of my element,” Zinaida Ostroukh, a 61-year-old pensioner and invalid, said. “I can have absolutely no faith in the state. Even the money I saved in the bank for my funeral may be frozen or confiscated. Who will pay us pensions in the market (economy)? Who will take care of us? I trust only in God.”
Ostroukh recalled that when rats in the permanently flooded basement of her apartment building ate through the main telephone cable recently, it was not fixed for almost two weeks, and the repair crews told residents they should just feed the rats better if they wanted to keep it from happening again.
To hardened residents of the Bronx or Bombay, such cynical neglect by city services might seem natural, but to the Russian eye it is proof of the encroaching chaos that must inevitably come when strict order gives way.
“You can compare society now to a dying patient,” Aron Belkin, president of the Russian Psychoanalytic Assn., said. “The heart goes, and that leads to kidney failure, and the kidney failure leads to lung failure, and the vicious circle has begun. The lack of 02 leads to the lack of 01 (the fire emergency number). And 09 (information) hasn’t worked well for a long time.”
To Alexander Pavlovich, a former engineer waiting at the Sverdlovsk Region Social Security office to settle his pension, the reason for the daily mess he faces is clear.
“This is a transition period,” the long-faced old man said, “but we’ve been doing this transition for seven years, and everything’s getting worse and worse.
“Before we were afraid, not of God but of power,” he said. “Now, we’re afraid neither of God nor of power. Everything’s disorganized, there’s not enough order and there’s no responsibility, no responsible people.”
Mikhail Rudyak, a Moscow businessman whose workers at the Engeocom construction and geological firm helped the panicked man with his gas last week, agreed.
“It’s not that there’s no money for these things,” he said. “It’s that there seem to be no normal people to organize them.”
Where have they all gone? In large part, they have flocked out of public service and into the better-paying private sector, said Nikolai Somichev, chairman of the Moscow City Council’s Committee on City Management. He estimated that 40% of the city’s repairmen have quit to go private in recent months.
The city is also deteriorating faster and faster, he said, as jerry-built housing thrown up in the 1950s and 1960s reaches the age when it all falls apart, a nasty legacy from short-sighted Communist governments of the past.
“Before, it may have taken two or three weeks, but the repairman would come and fix things,” he said. “Now, the collapse has gotten so complex that a plumber may not be able to fix something.”
But the real problem, he said, is ill-conceived and destructive reforms that tear down systems before any replacements are ready.
Maintenance of Moscow buildings has dropped to virtually nil, Somichev said, because of a complex reorganization scheme of reformist Mayor Gavriil Popov’s administration that had the unforeseen effect of depriving neighborhood maintenance offices of their ability to get the supplies they need.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” he said. “It’s a leadership that doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground.”
And the effect, he said, is that people don’t know where to turn anymore, their fates tossed about by reformers’ sudden inspirations.
“You can imagine how hard it is to maintain things in conditions of collapse and reform,” he said. “People will inevitably be hurt. To give even such guarantees as there were is just impossible.”
The very foundations of daily life have been so shaken, said a Sverdlovsk District pension-seeker who would identify herself only as Mrs. Nikolayev, that she no longer even believes she will be allowed to stay on in the apartment she was allotted decades ago.
With the start of a highly controversial program of privatizing state-owned apartments in Moscow, the snub-nosed former school director said, “You can have lived somewhere your whole life, but you still don’t know what will happen with your house.”
Inefficiency in the Soviet system of trade and wholesale supplies gave the lie to the old Communist guarantee of freely available cheap food years ago, but now the supply system’s quickening disintegration is giving the long lines at grocery stores whole new dimensions.
Ostroukh said that at a food store near her building, desperation among the babushka contingent most responsible for family line duty has reached the point that the group queues for hours even when the store’s shelves are absolutely bare--in order to assure themselves first shot when a shipment of anything comes in.
And with the financial system left in near-ruins by misguided Soviet government policies and unstoppable inflation, even a fat wad of money is no buffer against insecurity anymore.
Moscow secretary Marina Klimenko recalled walking into her neighborhood bread store this month and being told by the saleswoman that supplies had all run out.
“I said, ‘Miss, I really need bread badly. I’ll give you any amount of money.’ But she just said no. People just don’t want money anymore.”
Even more bewildering for Klimenko is the dissolution of the old black market system in which carefully cultivated clerks would sell store goods under the counter in exchange for frequent presents, blandishments and money.
Now, all her “back doors” are closed. “They don’t work anymore because there are just no products,” she said. “Or they come in and they’re all sold within an hour.”
When Klimenko’s stepfather fell ill recently, it took 45 minutes to get through to the ambulance service, and she has had to bring needles to the hospital for him because the doctors have run out.
“Not of disposable needles,” she emphasized, “just of any needles at all.”
The medics who picked up Klimenko’s stepfather told her that they had recently declared a strike after a policeman attacked an ambulance crew, probably seeking its medicinal alcohol.
The police are not falling apart like other city services, Moscow police spokesman Vladimir Zubkov maintained, but he added: “Crime has risen significantly and there have been no cardinal changes in the functioning of the police, and no big injection of money. The struggle goes on, but we are way behind.”
Callers to 02 may have trouble getting an answer, he said, because the equipment at the switchboard is more than 20 years old, and grandiose plans for a new Soviet-made system, under way for years, are mired in technical problems.
“We should have just bought a system in the West,” said Victor Musykhin, chief of the service.
In the courtyard of a prestigious Moscow building last month, residents noted with dismay that a Mercedes and a Volvo parked there for several days were gradually being picked clean--first their windshields smashed, then their side windows broken, then their metal trimmings stripped.
The pathetic carcasses were finally towed away before the owners returned, one witness said.
Inside the building, she said, the light bulbs have been repeatedly stolen from the elevator. Finally, one dismayed tenant, complaining in a note posted in the hallway, asked plaintively, “Comrades, is this really us?”
“Yes, it’s you,” someone scrawled in answer.
Bursts of aggression stemming from the overwhelming frustration of life in a collapsing society can be expected to mount, Belkin of the Psychoanalytic Assn. said.
But in general, he said, Russians have their own unique psychological defense mechanisms against even the extreme insecurity of these times, the foremost being an exaggerated tolerance and passivity and a kind of thick-skinned optimism.
“The Russian people are optimistic in that they tolerate what no other people would tolerate,” he said, always somehow believing that “everything is horrible now, but it could suddenly get better.”
Also, Belkin said, “Russian people have a reduced sense of personal threat. . . . We have our own defenses. We don’t value life: ’02 doesn’t work, the ambulance doesn’t work, so we’ll die. So what?’ ”
Lusya Filonov, a slim photographer’s assistant of 37, used uncannily similar words about emergency services. “If they come, they come, if they don’t, you die,” she said calmly.
“People don’t count on anything--it’s a total bespredel, " she added, using a powerful Russian word meaning utter lawlessness or lack of restraint that originated in underworld slang and crops up more and more often in conversation these days.
Mrs. Nikolayev stoically summed up her view of the post-Soviet civic society: “We think no one needs us, the poor people,” she said. “And if they try to do anything for us, it’s only because they’re afraid of an uprising.”
And will there be an uprising?
She shrugged. “Everybody let off all their steam in the fight against party rule. Now, people are just beaten down, they’re just dead.”