Simon Kordonsky: The Real Russia Refuses to Be Counted

kordonsky
Simon Kordonsky, academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Sociologist Simon Kordonsky: “There Are No Entrepreneurs Listed in the Census”
The Khamovniki Foundation’s Fieldwork Suggests the Country’s Leaders Know Little about Real Life in Russia
Vedomosti
January 29, 2019

The academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research is Simon Kordonsky, renowned in Russia’s analytical circles and a former adviser on federal government policy. Nowadays, he has been looking at things from the other side. How does policy affect the lives of the rank and file? Or, rather, how do the rank and file escape the gaze of politics?

“Rosstat Is a Disaster”
Let us start with a simple question. How many people live in Russia?

I don’t know. Feel free to add ten to fifteen percent to the official figures for the mid-sized cities.

So, many more than 146 million people live in Russia?

There are many more. But we are completely at a loss when it comes to the big cities. It is impossible to count people there.

Why? Aren’t there firm indicators such as bread consumption and use of medical services and public transport?

And who in Russia counts this stuff?

I don’t know.

Sewers are used to count people. Judging by the sewerage, around thirty million people live in Moscow.

How do you use sewage to count people?

A certain volume of sewage is flushed into the sewers, and we have a rough sense of the amount of sewage each person generates. Electricity use, on the contrary, cannot give us a fix on numbers of residents, because people steal electricity. It is a rather complex system.

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The Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research was founded in 2006 by Russian investor and hotelier Alexander Klyachin, who currently serves as the foundation’s board chair. The foundation’s advisory board is headed by Simon Kordonsky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics.

The foundation finances and supports academic field research that contributes to describing Russian society. The foundation aims to make the outcomes of its studies accessible to society as a whole. It has supported over sixty research projects. Among the most discussed have been “Seasonal Workers in Small Russian Towns,” “The Garage Economy in the Russian Hinterlands,” and “The Constructive Role of Informal Relations in State and Municipal Administration.” 

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There are no scams involving shit?

Maybe there is an underground shit trade, but we have not studied it. I am saying that it is awfully hard to calculate the consumption of electricity in the 220-volt networks, which are municipal networks. Superimposed on them are other, high-voltage networks, and there are separate stats on each level. Total loss in the network is around fifty percent. It is hard to quantify how much is used by the populace, and how much by industry, because the rates everywhere are different.

It is the same thing with garages [as workplaces]: they usually survive on stolen electricity. They pay for the hookup, but off the books to the folks who do the maintenance work on the power networks. They pay thirty to fifty percent of the real cost and pay minimum usage rates. So, energy use will not help you count people.

Nor will water use. A considerable number of families do not get their water from centralized mains, but from wells, from their own local networks. Besides, in summer, many families live in the countryside at dachas. In winter, some people temporarily leave the villages, while others stay behind. It is hardly possible to quantify this migration.

Official statistical bodies make no effort to count them?

Of course not, but statisticians know all about it. They have their own professional journal, Statistical Issues [Voprosy statistiki]. Several years ago, the journal published an article explaining the discrepancy between the indicators taken into account and what we see with our own eyes. It was necessary to mislead our enemies in the west.

Camouflage the stats?

Yes. Rosstat is a disaster, you see. Their ontology is Soviet, while they imported their methodology from the west. They carry out the census using western standards, and so all the peculiar aspects of life in Russia disappear from their radar. For example, our census does not count entrepreneurs.

At all?

There are no such people as entrepreneurs in the Russian census. There are people involved in businesses of some kind, and there are people who practice the free professions. The census does not differentiate between them. Rosstat regards people who are paid salaries and people who earn their living by making profits as indistinguishable. So, Rosstat is not an organization from which we should expect anything.

Here is another example. What are cities and villages? There are no cities in Russia as urbanists describe them and, so, there are no villages, either. When he was alive, Vyacheslav Glazychev wrote that Russian cities were conglomerations of settlements. Take the district seat in Tula Region that borders Moscow Region. There are 14,000 people in the entire district. From April to late October, however, the population increases to 150,000 people.

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Simon Kordonsky was born in 1944 in Oirot-Tura (present-day Gorno-Altaysk). He graduated from Tomsk State University with a degree as a chemistry and biology teacher. In 1988, he was awarded a kandidat degree, writing a thesis entitled “Cyclical Procedures in Scientific Research.” State Councilor of the Russian Federation, First Class, he chaired the Presidential Expert Advisory Council in 2000. In 2004, he served as a senior aide to the president. He has been a professor of state and municipal administration at the Higher School of Economics since 2006. In 2011, he was appointed director of the Khamovniki Foundation.

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It increases to 150,000 people? Tenfold?

Yes, tenfold. These people are not accounted for. They do not register their residence.

What about medical services? They are designed to deal with 14,000 people. How do they handle 150,000 people? Or do they handle them?

Nearly all dacha dwellers have cars.

They drive to Moscow for medical care?

Why? Serpukhov and Pushchino are nearby, and they have excellent outpatient clinics. Doctors see patients privately everywhere, and you can always come to an arrangement. Medical care is not the problem. The real problem is trash.

That was going to be our next question. As of the new year, a new trash era has dawned in Russia. Does anyone calculate the amount of garbage Russia generates? Does anyone understand the extent of the disaster?

I don’t know. I saw a business plan drawn up by gangsters in the early 1990s. They wanted to take over the garbage business, and they were partly successful. Everything is alright in the places where they were successful. But in the places where first there were towns and villages, followed by municipalities, and now corporations, there is an utter mess.

Moreover, it has been compounded by another problem: gasification. When people used stoves, garbage was burned, metal and bottles were recycled, and there was relatively little plastic. Nowadays, people prefer to throw things away. As soon as a town or village is hooked up to natural gas, the garbage piles up. There is just nowhere to take it, and there are no institutions or stereotypes for dealing with it.

In the garbage business, there is not only collection but also sorting and recycling.

Yes, garbage collection is not what matters. What matters is sorting and recycling. People live in landfills. They even have conveyor belts. They sort the garbage and sell the recyclables to buyers. It is an ecosystem you cannot change by opening or closing landfills, because these are reliable sources of raw materials, with a production cycle and sales channels. It is difficult and dangerous to describe life in landfills and the cottage trades that thrive there.

Do the authorities give the Khamovniki Foundation a hard time?

Not in the least. But they do not support us, either. So far we have not overlapped with the authorities either regionally or federally, but during our expeditions we cooperate with local authorities, of course.

How do you decide where to go on expeditions?

Accidentally. We have done work in all the federal districts, from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. We have made fewer trips to the south, but now we have seemingly made connections there, too.

Where you have been in the past year? What new things did you find?

We were in the Far East: Vladivostok, Arsenyev, down to Nakhodka, and back to Vladivostok via Bolshoi Kamen. Thirteen people traveled almost 3,000 kilometers, describing the different local cottage trades and crafts.

Artemy Pozanenko recently completed a series of hunting expeditions. He spent several months with hunters and poachers as an embedded observer. Yulia Krasheninnikova has been studying expert evaluations and expert evidence as an institution. It transpires that it has long ceased to exist in Russia as a professional institution. Instead, crappy quasi-expert evaluations and so-called experts have boiled to the top, especially in religious studies, medicine, construction, and science. Dissernet have gone after fake scientific experts, and you know the success they have had.

Olga Molyarenko has been studying ownerless property. It turns out a considerable segment of existing networks and infrastructure in Russia belongs to no one at all.

She started by examining cemeteries. She discovered there are a certain number of cemeteries officially on the books in Russia, but the real number of cemeteries is nearly ten times larger. It is a typical situation. In the villages and small towns, the cemeteries were located beyond the official border of these settlements. They were overgrown by forests and thus registered as forest lands. It is forbidden to bury people in them, but you have to bury people somewhere.

By the way, the land registry is a problem unto itself. Alexander Pavlov added up all the land registered in Russia. Its total area is 1.7 times larger than the country’s official land mass the country, including the northern lands.

Then it transpired that the Defense Ministry’s closed towns have not only collapsed structurally but have also disappeared juridically. The Defense Ministry has not transferred them to the municipalities because, in particular, the municipalities are not capable of dealing with them. They do not have money in their budgets for completing the paperwork and other formalities. You have probably seen concrete two-lane military roads. Most of them belong to no one in Russia. The same goes for the roads along power lines and other infrastructure networks Usually, they belong to no one. They have no legal owners, and they are not listed in anyone’s inventories.

No one maintains them?

They have de facto caretakers rather than de jure owners. Usually, an economy emerges around these ownerless chunks of property The power transmission lines often have no owners. There was a state-owned enterprise that produced its own heat and electricity. The enterprise vanished, but the power station was left running because it keeps the nearby town heated and lit. However, power station itself and its networks belong to no one. Wherever you poke your nose you find the sewerage and water supply all belong to no one. In Krasnodar Region, people simply refused to talk to Olga about it.

What about the city itself, Krasnodar?

It was the same story. In the region’s coastal areas, if they show anyone the real figures for utilities and infrastructure, it would reveal how many tourists actually go there on holiday. They cannot do that, because they would have to pay a lot more taxes.

But how does ownerless infrastructure operate? Don’t contracts have to be signed? Don’t procurements have to be made?

There are people involved, of course. Alexander Pavlov has been making a study of Ulyanovsk for us. There are observable stereotypes. Everything is kept running by relying on connections, relationships, and unwritten rules.

How are fees collected?

The people who benefit pay in cash or favors. Everything is done strictly by the unwritten rules.

Here is a more general question. Are you saying the Kremlin does not know about any of this?

None of it exists on paper. On a personal level, they know. But as officials… Where do you go with it?

Do the aides in the Kremlin show the big brass anything about it?

I don’t think Kremlin aides are capable of helping anyone solve their problems. People have business interests they lobby by tattling on each other. They ask the top brass to make certain decisions, but the top brass keep their distance. A balance emerges, but it is a really peculiar balance, the outcome of a permanent war for resources in which no one can win, since the amount of resources available decreases during hostilities. In turn, this ratchets up tension among belligerent interest groups. However, what really goes in Russia concerns very few people. At best, information about really goes on can be used as arguments in internecine conflicts.

If they are so poorly informed, how do they ensure presidential decrees are executed? For example, when the Kremlin set out to reduce mortality rates caused by cardiovascular diseases?

The rates did drop. There are three lines at the bottom of death certificates: primary cause of death, secondary cause of death, and tertiary cause of death. A person crashed their car because they had a heart attack, and they suffered internal organ damage during the crash. The statistics take stock of what we write on the first line. This is basically how medical statisticians calculate data about mortality. If the Kremlin orders cancer be put in third place, the statisticians will do it, and if the order comes down to reduce mortality as caused by heart disease, the rates will drop.

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Russia’s Underground Cottage Industries
“One of our grantees found a huge cottage industry in a region in the Volga Federal District: around forty illegal airstrips,” says Simon Kordonsky. “Some of them have markings and hard surfaces. They transport goods, teach people to fly, and work in agriculture. Agriculture is their main gig. There is currently no official agricultural aviation in Russia: not only crop dusting but also the constant monitoring of field required by high-tech agriculture. You cannot check out an entire field by walking around it, but these tiny airplanes, often handmade, can do the job.

“By the way, outside of Moscow, there are approximately fifty people who have different airplanes: handmade, store-bought, and imported. These people have the money for them. The circumstances are dicey: air traffic control is not adapted to deal with these aircraft. Pilots of small aircraft make their own deals with air controllers on the side. There are regulations, but complying with them is impossible, and so an administrative market has arisen around this cottage industry. The pilots make payoffs so no one pays them any mind.

“The cottage industries change when the authorities pay attention to them. They exposed the garage economy and started making rounds of the garages, so people have been gradually moving to workshops. Mansions outfitted with workshops are being built outside city limits, just as in the nineteenth century. In Krasnodar, it is plain to see because it is right downtown. There is the market, and the war monument with its Eternal Flame. They are surrounded by one- and two-storey buildings. These are workshops and dwellings.

“Everything you can sell is made there. They distill vodka, roll out meat dumplings, sew linens, build furniture, and rent appliances. There are hotels, prostitutes, hair salons, and hospitals.

“Yes, and the dental industry has gone off the Health Ministry’s radar in certain locales. Outside of Moscow, for example, there are people who own dozens of different clinics. The clinics have no signs on the front door, but the equipment is top flight, and the doctors are terrific. They treat the local elite, so no one is the wiser.

“Did you know that near University subway station in Moscow there is the Nauka research and production facility, an establishment well known in certain circles

“Close to the bluff there there was and partly still is a community known popularly as Shanghai. A few years ago, it contained around five thousand garages, and the artisans who worked there were into everything, including the high-tech production of spare parts for imported cars. They had huge Soviet-era coordinate drilling machines, heavy asynchronous motors, probably imported, and programmers from Moscow State University, and they did great work. Their products were sold as imports.

“Moscow city hall has recently been trying to demolish the place, but Shanghai has resisted. This was place that had an outpatient medical clinic and a barber shop. The cafeterias were really good, featuring food from all over the world.

“Another type of cottage industry is distributed manufacturing, as in the Novokhopyorsk District in Voronezh Region and the Uryupinsk District in Volgograd Region who produce down goods together. They breed sheep and goats, comb the wool, processing it using high-tech machines, equipped with thermostats that fluff the wool, and finally produce the down and weave it. Everything they produce is sold at a wholesale market two hectares in size, open from two to six in the morning. They sell their wares to Roma wholesalers, who distribute the down goods nationwide.

“The government is now in the midst of a campaign against self-employment, but the cottage industries themselves change all the time, regardless of attempts to combat them. In fact, it is not clear what self-employment is. After his state of the nation address, the president gave orders to define the social status of self-employed people. The comrades from the Finance Ministry and Labor Ministry defined their fiscal status, but this is meaningless without defining their social status. What do we call government officials who take kickbacks? Cops running protection rackets? Are they self-employed or not? How do they differ from a university lecturer who works as university exam prep tutor on the side? Or from a physician who puts an ad on the internet saying he will treat patients at any stage in their suffering at any clinic in Russia? 

“There is no difference.

“If we take this approach, we discover the entire Russian populace is self-employed. As I used to say, first we must force people to pay taxes on kickbacks, and then we can deal with self-employment.”

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What do we do in these circumstances? If, as you say, Rosstat has failed to take Russia’s peculiarities into account, and their stats are at odds with reality, this leaves room for playing fast with the facts. What must be done? Should we change the methodologies?

That is a philosophical question. The possibility of accounting itself arises when there is a market. Modern statistics emerged in the seventeenth century when the market emerged, when goods and money parted ways, and people had to account for goods and money separately. If there is no market in Russia (the only market in Russia, perhaps, is the one at our customs border), then accounting can be done arbitrarily, using any criteria you like. The conceptual apparatus of an economy based on accounting and measurement cannot be applied to the realities of an underground cottage industry economy, a clandestine workshop economy, to life in Russia, to an administrative market state organized around the distribution of particular resources. The problem is neither technical nor methodological, but ontological. This is why we cannot count the number of people who live in Russia. 

When you say there are instructions to reduce mortality to a certain level, where do the instructions come from?

Well, there is a Health Ministry in Russia. It reports on the state of the populace’s health. The phrase “increasing life expectancy” appears in all their white papers, although I have never been able to get either ministers or academicians to specify the connection between medical progress and life expectancy. They have different systemic variables. The Health Ministry drafts a report on its work. The report is discussed—I don’t know where nowadays, maybe in the Security Council, maybe in Prime Minister Medvedev’s inner cabinet. The ministry gets orders to improve its figures. This instruction is called a presidential order or government order. On the back of this piece of paper, this order, are the names of the people who will implement the order. They are the folks who come up with the figures and then vet them. You have never heard of these people who draft white papers and come up with figures. You do not know them and you never will, although their administrative weight is no less than that of public officials

Here is a question linked to inflation and estimates. What did Alexander Surinov do so badly he was forced to resign his post as head of Rosstat?

I don’t know the specific reason. He was from the old school, you know, a man taught by folks who belonged to the old school of Emil Yershov [an economist who ran the State Statistics Committee, Goskomstat, from 1989 to 1993, before becoming a full professor at the Higher School of Economics]. Of course, maybe the whole business with driving up the figures and getting phone calls from the top brass rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps he just freaked out.

By tweaking the stats, however, or, rather by existing in a system in which stats are tweaked, the state does not have a more or less realistic picture of reality, and all the plans, programs, evaluations of these programs, and adjustments to these programs are based partly on stats that it tweaks and dreams up itself, and partly on stats dreamed up by God knows who, a faceless crowd of civil servants.

“The Oppositions Needs a Position”
There are the polls done by VTsIOM, but they say the FSO (Federal Protective Service) does its own polls that tell the truth. Does the FSO keep statistics that show the president the truth?

The FSO conducts polls that consist of around 40,000 direct interviews without sampling, but in the final analysis their data is quite similar to the data produced by Alexander Oslon (Public Opinion Foundation or FOM), when it comes to public opinion, at any rate.

Our government conceives itself, and it has operated this way for three hundred years. People would go abroad, people like Peter the Great or Dmitry Kozak. They saw something they liked, came home, and decided they would do things the way they were done abroad.

It is quite hard to find anything Russian about Russia. Everything has been built by the state, but part of what it built got away from the state, and it is this fugitive part that is regarded as unreconstructed and outside state control, a gray zone. When something happens in the gray zone—young people act up, say—the state registers it and becomes alarmed. People are on the move, meaning there is something to it, so they want to devise a youth police, establish a state agency, a ministry for youth affairs, and get funding for it. What happens, ultimately, is that young people live their own lives, and on the other hand there is a state agency that squanders the federal money allocated to channel young people and their energy. The state is on the lookout for something living or seemingly alive, and this thing is nationalized, it is assimilated by the state. The Russian state consists entirely of such agencies, which ape things that occur beyond the state’s reach.

The FSO’s officers also keep track of societal stability, the different protest movements and so on. If protest movements kick into high gear, it means it is time either to nationalize them, which initially happened with the nationalist organizations, or crack down on them. Otherwise, God forbid, interregional synchronization might occur, and then you call in the guys whose jobs it is to neutralize such things, the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”) and the Russian National Guard.

Do you mean it is impossible for the opposition or protest movements to consolidate?

It is probably possible in quite extreme circumstances, as in the late eighties and early nineties. Local uprisings are more likely. You see, the opposition needs a position. What is the regime’s position? It has no position, and so there can be no opposition. Opposition is based on the very same rationale. The regime’s position is that it is opposed to opposition.

We travel around Russia and we see no one in the mood to protest. Yes, people are dissatisfied, but they have always been dissatisfied. Their dissatisfaction is based on the sense someone got more than they did and this is unfair. They will complain to the supreme arbiter, they think, and he will set things right. But the kind of dissatisfaction that existed in Soviet times in Novocherkassk and Biysk, in the ethnic republics, does not exist today.

Nowhere? Not in any of the regions?

Something quite interesting has been happening in the ethnic republics within the Russian Federation, in Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, among the Soviet ethnicitie shaped by Stalin in 1927–1928 as part of his policy on ethnic groups. They are not really nations, but ethnic esthates, social groups shaped by the state and bound to particular territories, so that Bashkirs have a particular status in Bashkortostan and a completely different status in Tatarstan. Rustem Vakhitov, who is based in Ufa, has written quite interestingly about this.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, these ethnic groups took on lives of their own: nations have been emerging in all the ethnic republics, sometimes to the point of hilarity, as happened in Mordovia. We went into a shop where the clerks were speaking Russian. When we approached one of them, they started speaking Mordvin. In the local cultural center, the ladies were sitting around a table covered with albums filled with drawings of costumes. They were designing the Mordvin national costume.

You’re saying the process has not been astroturfed from the top down by the regional bosses?

No, it is a search for identity. People are trying to solve a genuinely timely question: who are we?

Ethnic Russians don’t have this problem?

Ethnic Russians alone have not been emerging as a nation. Russians were never the titular nation [in any of the Soviet national republics]. When Stalin’s nation-building was underway, the Russians were forgotten. Everyone who was pushed out from the the ethnic republics became Russians.

So, people in Arkhangelsk Region could have been called Pomors and also emerged as a separate ethnic group?

The Pomors have their own deal. Yuri Plyusnin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, has described the Pomors as a special ethnic group. Some cunning people politicized his research, and the myth of Pomor nationalism emerged.

These episodes, involving ethnicity, and the absence and search for identity, have been breaking out all over Russia nowadays. What is Siberian identity? People are riled up about this as well. Who are we Siberians? they ask themselves.

Do these trends threaten Russia’s territorial integrity? Will things somewhere boil to the point reached in Chechnya?

This will happen when there is a shortage of resources. Gleb Pavlovsky has described it well. In 1996–1997, when it was obvious the system was disintegrating, it had to be integrated. Two methods of integration were devised. One was financial. There was a multi-currency system. The so-called young reformers nationalized the ruble, turning money into a financial resource distributed by the federal government. The regions and municipalities queued to get their hands on it, competing with each other in the bargain. Elementary order emerged.

The second method was ideological. Vladislav Surkov and his pals dreamed up United Russia and nationalized ideology, trying to manufacture at least a partial copy of the Soviet Communist Party. Their project was generally a success, too, but unlike financial policy, United Russia was not instrumental. No one knew how to use it, except for channeling certain forms of discontent.

So, if there is a threat to territorial integrity, it is a potential threat. However, it is a threat that can be turned to an advantage. An ordinary economy deals with the risks posed by the market: there are winners and losers. Due to its non-market foundations, Russia does not welcome risks. Threats are the dominant tool in Russia’a administrative markets. The people who invent the scariest stores get the cash and the resources. One of the scary stories has to do with the threat to territorial integrity, which the security forces use to obtain resources, because they are supposed to neutralize the threat.

Yet people are always dissatisfied with the way resources are distributed, and so there can be no means of assessing whether threats have been dealt with effectively or not. Once upon a time, threats to public health and public education were identified and prolonged. Resources were allocated for neutralizing these threats, and national projects were launched. Consequently, the threats became even worse. New national projects have been launched, and resources have again been allocated to neutralize the same threats.

We live in the midst of permanent threats, generated by all the stakeholders and pressure groups. The government is faced with the need to emphasize certain threatens and allocate resources for neutralizing them.

Russia was disoriented for a long time, since it had no customary external enemy. Subsequently, different forces united to manufacture this external enemy, and now it is a matter of neutralizing the external threat. I gather that a considerable amount of federal funds and extra-budgetary resources have been earmarked for producing means to neutralized the external threat.

So, we are fighting the good fight against enemies we construed ourselves, against enemies we dreamed up ourselves?

Yes, it’s a good fight. We are winning. We are earmarking resources foor the fight. We are retreating, we are advancing. We are forcing groups to scrap over resources and queue for them. Basically, the scrap going on in the queue is the basis of the current stability.

Russia has been functioning this way for hundreds of years. It generates threats, attempts to neutralize them, and exports its internal tensions through external aggression. This was what happened in Afghanistan.

Can we be completely defeated by such a threat?

We lost in 1991, didn’t we? It was then necessary to generate an internal hotbed of tension, known as “Chechnya,” getting rid of all conflicts in the country and booting them down there.

There were lots of people there who were quite aggressive and itching for a fight. Besides, there was a curious form of self-organization in Chechnya. The first Chechen combat units emerged from construction crews, not from the big clans. Chechens traveled to Siberia together to build cow barns and formed work crews.

“Repeating the Past Is Russia’s Future”
They went there to build cow barns, because there was no work of any kind in Chechnya?

That was not the only reason. It was a very good deal for the local authorities. Building was the only means they had of retaining resources in their area, so numerous construction sites popped up. I was then busy researching construction in the countryside and I saw what was actually happening. I would get an itemized list of the buildings, and there would be ninety sites on it. Then I would make the rounds of the sites and find only forty-two actually being built. The other sites did not exist, but I would find another fifty sites that were not on the itemized list, but which were nevertheless under construction, and it would be Chechens, Ukrainians, and Hutsuls building them. The Chechen work crews came together, because the objective was to protect the forest glades in Siberia.

There is something similar going on nowadays in Tyumen Region, for example. In Dagestan, there are villages that have full-scale diasporas in Tyumen and Surgut. The men have two families, one in Surgut, the other in Dagestan. They ship all kinds of schmutz and fruit to Tyumen, bringing back timber and fish to Dagestan. I imagine it is Tyumen is not the only place where such things go on.

Doesn’t Plato hinder them? It monitors cargo shipments.

Plato monitors the big rigs. There is no system for monitoring trucks under twelve tons. The government farmed out the big rigs with the hope of extending the new system of tolls to low-tonnage transportation. What do I mean by “farming out”? In particular, resources are redistributed from local authorities to corporations. The regions have become less significant in the distribution and redistribution of resources, while corporations have become more important. This will inevitably cause conflicts.

What conflicts?

In the first place, conflicts between the regions and the corporations. And conflicts along the highways, especially federal highways. They are like arteries pumping blood and supporting life: there are tons of gray-zone cottage industries that spring up around them, providing everything from food to prostitutes.

Take the village of Umyot in the Zubova Polyana Municipal District in the Republic of Mordovia, which is on the M5 Ural Federal Highway. Prostitutes are lined up for a dozen kilometers along the highway, along with different roadside establishments. The Zubova Polyana District is home of the famous village of Potma, where five prison camps built during Soviet times as part of the Gulag are still in operation. The district has a population of just over 60,000 people, and around 30,000 of them are convicts, while the non-convict populace are third- and fourth-generation prison guards. So, when a monopolist like Plato appears on the scene, people naturally try and fight back.

There are really interesting migrations underway in Russia nowadays. They say the country is becoming deserted. According to statisticians, people have been moving into the district and regional seats. That is happening, but some of the migrants are regrouping along the big highways. Russia has been shrinking down to a series of highways. New communities are being built, and life there is defined by a highway.

There is another trend, however, of people leaving the cities. These people are adherents of different environmental sects, the Ringing Cedars or Anastasians, for example. We counted several hundred thousand of them. Within a radius of a hundred kilometers from Moscow there are dozens of Anastasian settlements. They have no names,  addresses or anything of the sort. These downshifters are educated people, usually.

Pozanenko sailed several hundreds of kilometers down one of the rivers in the north and counted several dozen settlements that were not registered with the government in any way.  They usually are highly attached to a particular ideology. They go off to live in hermitages, grow cedars, and worship Nicholas Roerich. The ones who survive move away from the ideology after three or four years, becoming ordinary peasants. We have seen this in Altai and other places.

But the inflow is greater from the small towns and villages into the major cities than vice versa?

They are migrants doing seasonal work. Moscow sucks in people who live as far as 400 kilometers to 500 kilometers away. This radius is around 70 kilometers for a large regional capital like Novosibirsk. This is pendulum migration, while migration over great distances is seasonal migration. If we take the Zubova Polayana District again, it is around 400 kilometers from Moscow. The men go to Moscow to work as security guards, while the young women go there to work as “accountants,” meaning prostitutes. This was the case a few years ago, and I doubt whether much has changed.

What a great euphemism!

Here is another thing. A retail chain has agreements with villages to supply laborers for several months. There are several villages, and the villagers take turns going into the city to work. It is very hard to quantify migration like this. On Fridays, it is readily visible at the train stations: the cars are packed because people are going home. Daily migration can be quantified: you just take a look at the terminal stations of the subway and the train stations when people pile into Moscow on the commuter trains. Basically, these are the thirty million people we spoke about at the beginning, the people who shit in Moscow. These are the numbers of people who come to the city. In some regions, as much as forty percent of the population migrates to work.

There is a theory that, in the future, it will be megacities that compete with each other, not countries.

Russia does not have enough oomph for that. What kind of future awaits Russia? Repeating the past is Russia’s future in terms of public opinion and behavior. Look at what people say about the future: the country is going back either to Stalin or Nicholas the Second.

What about a palace coup? Russia has a rich tradition of those.

I don’t believe it.

Why not?

There are way too many competitors.

You said that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed and everything else collapsed with it. Isn’t Putin a similar force for consolidation nowadays?

Putin is not the problem. The problem, as Gleb Pavlovsky says, is transferring power while maintaining stability and territorial integrity. Some people have seemingly decided the problem can be solved by prolonging the leader’s life. Big money is currently being invested in biology and medicine. There are academicians who have long been receiving large sums of money for research on prolonging life.

Do you mean Vladimir Skulachev?

Yes.

They write that he has run into a dead end.

Practically, it is a dead end, of course, but politically the demand for his research is high.

Maybe they will go in search of the Holy Grail?

I think they have gone in every direction they could have. Where do you think their flashy religiosity comes from? What is the cause? They are hoping for a miracle. They really are praying, hoping for a miracle, because there is no rational way out of the impasse.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Motherlandish

5568220a-c275-4d49-b6df-c8de6ceeee3aDenis Shtroo. Photo courtesy of Daily Storm

Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
March 15, 2019

Climate change demonstrations took place in many cities around the world today.

Schoolchildren and adults took to the streets to demand implementation of the Paris Agreement, which primarily aims to counter global warming.

Maybe you have heard of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who organized the movement #fridaysforfuture by skipping classes at school every Friday and picketing the Swedish parliament instead.

It makes sense. What is the point of going to school if the future is threatened? Humankind has killed off 70% of wild animals in the past four years. The oceans contain more discarded plastic than fish. And the list goes on.

But what about Russia? In Russia, environmental activist Denis Shtroo has been murdered in Kaluga. He campaigned against the construction of new waste landfills.

Earlier today, an excavator ran over a trailer containing an activist, who, along with other activists, had been trying to stop garbage trucks shipping Moscow’s garbage to Arkhangelsk Region.

I really want there to be a future, but this is what it looks like.

Like no future at all.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The World’s Largest Toxic Landfill

very toxicThe EU Dangerous Substances Directive classifies methyl mercaptan as “very toxic.” Why has the Russian government increased its maximum allowable concentration in the air by sixty times? Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Russia Raises Limits for Airborne Toxic Chemicals Sixtyfold
finanz.ru
February 19, 2019

The Russian Federal Sanitation and Epidemiology Service and national consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor have drastically raised the maximum allowable concentrations (MACs) of harmful substances in the air, including formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, and methyl mercaptan, a chemical typically emitted by waste landfills.

The current MAC of methyl mercaptan in the air is sixty times higher than it was ten years ago and 660 times higher than it was in 1999, Greenpeace Russia has reported in a press release.

Moreover, the new MAC for methyl mercaptan exceeds the odor threshold by one and a half to three times, meaning the level at which people living near waste landfills can smell the substance.

Greenpeace Russia noted that the MACs of a number of other air pollutants were increased in 2014 and 2015, for example, formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide.

According to the previous standards, about 50 million Russians lived in cities where formaldehyde concentrations had been exceeded. After the MACs were relaxed, the statistics “improved.”  They now show, allegedly, that fewer cities are at risk, and only 20 million Russians may be affected by increased concentrations of carcinogens.

“However, according to assessments by Russian and international scientists, the risks presented by formaldehyde concentrations under the new, current guidelines correspond neither to the standards adopted by the Russian Federation nor common sense,” writes Greenpeace Russia, noting that phenol, formaldehyde, and methyl mercaptan are poisons. Constantly inhaling them increases toxicity in the body and reduces immunity.

“This is one of the factors contributing to a manifold increase of the incidence of flu and acute respiratory infections over the last twenty years,” Greenpeace Russia claimed  in its press release.

As grounds for its decision to raise the MACs, Rospotrebnadzor refers to complex toxicological, sanitary, and epidemiological studies, as well as an analysis of international practices, but it refused to provide the specific research findings, Greenpeace Russia reported.

The Human Ecology and Environmental Hygiene Research Institute, which reports to Rospotrebnadzor, claimed no such research had been conducted whatsoever, and all it had provided to Rospotrebnadzor were background, reference materials. But even they were not taken into account when the decision was taken to increase the MACs for phenol and formaldehyde.

On February 18, Greenpeace Russia sent an open letter to the relevant committees in State Duma, the Russian Security Council, the Russian Health Ministry, the Russian Natural Resources Ministry, Rospotrebnadzor, and Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian natural resources watchdog. In the letter, Greenpeace Russia pointed out that the unwarranted changes to the sanitary norms jeopardized the implementation of the priority national environment and health projects.

Thanks to Julia Murashova and the Coalition to Defend Petersburg for the heads-up. See my previous entry, “Denis Stark: Welcome to the Clean Country,” on the topic of waste management in Russia. Translated by the Russian Reader

Denis Stark: Welcome to the Clean Country

Welcome to the Clean Country*
Denis Stark
Activatica
February 8, 2019

In an article I wrote six months ago, I argued Russia was at a crossroads and there were two scenarios for the future of waste management there. I also wrote that the window of opportunity was quite narrow and was closing. If Russia chose the road of waste incineration, it would be an irreversible decision, at least for the next thirty to thirty-five years.

The window of opportunity has closed, and the scenario has been chosen. Russia is set to become a country with two hundred waste incineration plants and function as the trash bin of Europe and Asia.

What I am about to say is very unpleasant, and you are likely to put it down to the my pessimism. That is why I should say a few words about myself. I have been doing waste management projects for fifteen years. During the last seven years, although I lived and worked abroad, I would come to Russia on weekends and holidays to clean up trash, organize the separate collection of recyclables, hold conferences, and meet with officials.

I believed so strongly in Russia that when my contract in the United Arab Emirates ended in 2018 and my family decided to take a six-month vacation, we didn’t go to Bali, Goa or Montenegro. We went to Russia, where we made the rounds of conferences, met with officials, talked with activists, and wrote articles.

Until January 14 of this year, I continued to believe we could make a difference. This is hard for me to write after fifteen years of intense work in the waste management sector, after making so many friends and publishing a book. I feel responsible to my friends and my country, to my relatives who live in Russia and cannot leave.

I have always been someone who inspired and organized by arguing that small deeds and grassroots involvement would make a difference. I belied it was true, and I still believe it. But now we must admit we have failed.

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What happened on January 14, anyway? President Putin signed a decree establishing the Russian Environmental Authority [Rossiiskii ekologicheskii operator], a public nonprofit company responsible for developing systems for the treatment of solid waste.

Let’s examine several points in the decree and find out what the dry, incomprehensible legal jargon means. The meaning of decrees must be deduced, since they contain numerous long clauses with nice-sounding words, difficult turns of phrase, and formal language. It is thus difficult to cut to the chase and figure out who and what are implied.

To simplify the task, I have replaced what I regard as superfluous verbiage with ellipses and generated my own reading. I am not a lawyer, and so I make no claim to be right. I could be mistaken. My view could be one-sided, so I would advise you to read the decree, watch the president’s speeches on waste management, and reach your own conclusions.

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“The company is established with the goal of creating […] waste management systems […] for producing energy.”

I.e., waste incineration plants will be built. I should explain what this means for readers not familiar with the subject. Officials refer to waste incineration as the production of energy from waste or even recycling waste into energy. This language is misleading, papering over the fact that, besides the energy generated from waste, toxic ash and toxic emissions are released into the atmosphere as byproducts.

“It is involved […] in coordinating the work of the federal government, regional executive authorities, and local governments.”

So, the newly established company will tell the federal government, regional governments, and local governments what to do when it comes to waste. The wording is so gentle and deceptive: “involved in coordinating.” I think this means the new authority will them to what to do.

I am especially jarred by the idea of its riding roughshod over local governments. Are you?

“It is involved in drafting and implementing government programs and projects in the field of waste management.”

My guess is that the new company will handle all government waste management projects. The decree does not say this outright, of course, but no other company has this portfolio. So, I imagine that the new company will enjoy a monopoly.

“It drafts proposals for improving legislation […] and is involved in drafting regulations in this area.”

The new company can amend the laws regulating waste management. Other companies do not have this power, but it does. Does this mean no one else would be able to propose amendments to the laws on waste management? Formally, no. In practice, however, I think the new company will either coordinate or sign off on any and all amendments to the relevant laws and regulations.

“It is involved in drawing up […] agreements […] on the transport […] of waste generated in one region of the Russian Federation to other regions of the Russian Federation.”

That is, the new company will handle the logistics of transporting waste between regions.

“It carries out expert analysis of waste management transport routes and locations […] and submits recommendations for adjusting them.”

So, the new company will be deciding on the logistics, technology, and locations of landfills and disposal facilities in Russia’s regions. But what if local communities do not agree with its decisions?

“It analyzes […] whether the procedures of public discussion of proposed locations have been observed.”

The authority decides whether procedures for public oversight have been observed. For example, if a community opposes the proposed location of a landfill or waste incineration plant, the company can rule the procedure for assessing impact was not observed properly and declare the feedback made at public hearings null and void.

“It implements […] international cooperation […] on issues of waste management, and it makes agreements with international organizations.”

What international issues on waste management could there be? Maybe the decree has in mind importing waste from China and Europe, where the requirements for waste disposal have become more stringent, proposals for waste incineration facilities spark protests, and there is no vacant land left for landfills.

The import of foreign waste should be fairly profitable. Where will the money go?

“It invests temporarily available funds […] and engages in other income-generating activities.”

I will not hazard a guess as to where available funds will be invested.

“It drafts federal and regional government support programs for investment projects and analyzes these programs.”

I.e., it decides which projects to invest in and which not to invest in.

“It is involved in concession agreements and agreements on federal and/or municipal public-private partnerships.”

In Europe, waste management concession agreements are made for periods of twenty-five to thirty years, and governments cannot get out of them. What will happen in Russia?

“It provides […] guarantees (sureties) to private investors..”

For example, it could guarantee shipments of waste in a certain amount, as in Sweden, which provided guarantees to waste incineration plants and currently imports waste from other countries to be burned in Sweden, despite the protests of locals. Nothing can be done, however, because the Swedish government gave its word.

“It carries out voluntary certification of the technological processes, equipment, and capital construction sites necessary for implementation of activities in the field of […] waste management.”

Did I read that correctly? Certification is “voluntary” but at the same necessary for working in the waste management field, meaning that the authority sets the conditions for certifying technological processes, equipment, and construction sites, and no one can make a move without this certification.

“It functions as a customer, operator and/or developer of information systems in the field of waste management.”

The company will have its hands on all waste management information systems. It will bear sole responsibility for the accuracy of information about its doings.

“It engages educational and public awareness work in the waste management field and popularizes modern waste management technologies.”

The company will supersede all grassroots campaigns, organizations and movements that have been engaged in raising public awareness when it comes to waste management and recycling. There is not a word in the decree about cooperating with grassroots organizations, supporting them, developing them or even coordinating them. The new company will do all the educating, explaining, and informing, and the technologies it popularizes will be the most modern by definition.

So, what technologies will the company popularize?

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Perhaps I am worrying in vain? Maybe the new authority will use its unlimited powers for influencing the executive branch from the federal level to the local, its capacity to make and amend laws, and its functions as investor, educator, and certifying agency to promote separate waste collection, recycling, and waste reduction? These things are also mentioned in the decree, after all, not only producing energy from waste. Maybe the company has been established for these purposes?

President Putin answered my questions on December 20, 2018.

“I understand people who oppose the construction of waste incineration plants. We have to make sure the plants do not scrimp on filters, and everything is top of the line in terms of technological know-how, as in Tokyo, where the plants are located right downtown, but there is no smell and there are no problems, because the right know-how is used. We must build two hundred processing plants by 2024.”

This was much more to the point than what Putin said on June 7, 2018, during his annual “Direct Line” TV program. He was as matter of fact as a politician could be.

The decision has been made: two hundred waste incineration plants must be built in Russia. The know-how will be determined by the Environmental Authority, which will have oversight over its own work and also “educate” people about the outcomes of its work.

The decree establishing the authority has been signed. There is no going back: the regime does not take back what it says. Welcome to a garbage-free country, dear rank-and-file Russians. Get your minds ready for “public awareness” campaigns.

That was my introduction. Now I would like to ask the environmentally aware segment of the Russian grassroots community a question. My question is addressed to those of you who know what dioxins and furans are. It is addressed to those of you who have seen the design specifications for the trash incineration plants approved for construction in the Voskresensk and Naro-Fominsk Districts of Moscow Region, and know the differences between this type of plant and similar plants in, say, Tokyo and Vienna.

For ten years you encouraged people to recycle while it still could have made a difference. When, however, you were ignored, you said, “There is still time.”

You thought the horror story in Moscow Region and the regime’s obvious intentions to build trash incineration plants there would trigger a broad-based backlash from the Russian grassroots. When they ignored the story, you said, “It serves Muscovites right.”

When Moscow’s trash was exported to Yaroslavl and Arkhangelsk Regions, you thought it would be more than people could bear. But it was okay: people grinned and bore it.

At each step of the way, the president’s statements have been more and more definite. Now the party’s over. The time for testing the waters has come to an end. The common people have accepted their lot and the powers that be are segueing into “public outreach” mode.

What are you going to do next?

c8238179bed9f435fa597a3ebd1272c2.jpg“Dumping prohibited. Fine: 5,000 rubles.” 

Arkhangelsk activists organized a nationwide day of protest. The protest rallies were attended by several thousand of the usual suspects from around the country. The protest was ignored, and the regime was confirmed in its convictions.** 

That was the best possible outcome. If the day of protest had drawn huge crowds, the regime would have engaged in provocations and arrested the organizers. There was no way to get positive-minded activists who collect waste paper in their own residential buildings to attend: they have no use for rallies.

It would appear that the days of grassroots public conscious raising are over. I doubt the majority of peaceable environmentalists are willing to go to prison like Pussy Riot.

The few remaining dissenting organizations will be subjected to government inspections and shut down for violating the rules. They will be declared “foreign agents.” Or they will simply stop getting grants. On the internet and TV, their campaigning will be seamlessly replaced by the “outreach work” of the Russian Environmental Authority and loyal bloggers and reporters.

* The article’s title is a reference to the Russian government’s so-called Clean Country project for waste management.

** This pessimistic assessment of the protest campaign’s effect seems to be partly contradicted by a February 3 article in the Moscow Times, according to which 30,000 people came out for the protest in Arkhangelsk alone.

Thanks to Sergey Reshetin for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Activatica. Translated by the Russian Reader