There are few modern nations more depressing than Russia. Crippling alcoholism, barbaric armed forces rituals, woefully corrupt police, rampant bigotry and homophobia, gun-happy journalist killers. Now we can add to that growing list the steady decline of the so-called “monotowns,” one-company factory cities that came to pass under Soviet rule.
According to a biting Times op-ed yesterday, such towns were conjured out of nothing in remote areas, where 20,000 people would be shipped out to make concrete or toothbrushes for the sole factory and employer, which would be charged with providing all other social services.
So what happens now, when such factories are bankrupt, crumbling, and unused? The people — thinking in classically fatalistic Russian fashion that they have no other options for movement or employment — begin to eat grass, consider protesting and, as the Times suggests, risk being brutally repressed by the government.
Here’s Putin’s response to one factory owner’s decision to close:
Prime Minister Putin traveled by helicopter to Pikalevo. Russian crisis management techniques haven’t changed much since the days when czars threw boyars off the Kremlin walls to be torn, limb from limb, by rebellious hoi polloi below. With national television cameras rolling, Mr. Putin berated the local administration, plant managers and the plant’s owner, Oleg Deripaska, formerly Russia’s richest man, whose BaselCement conglomerate is now almost $30 billion in debt. He then ordered them to sign a pledge to reopen the plant. “I did not see you sign!” Mr. Putin barked at Mr. Deripaska. “Come here and sign!” (“And return the pen!” Mr. Putin snapped afterward.)
And if that isn’t enough to ruin your day, the Times goes on to suggest that there are so many of these failed towns and so many of the people don’t realize they could access the state unemployment system, that a snowballing incidencce of widespread chaos is just a matter of time. Add to that the spread of cheap cell phone video and Twitter, and you just might have something truly revolutionary afoot in the motherland.
In all fairness, I should say that Russia is among my favorite places on earth. Over half a dozen years of visiting, I’ve maybe never known such kindness, hospitality and pride. One time, very late on a St. Petersrburg summer evening, I was sitting on a bench reading. A stranger took notice of my book and — owing to lack of much shared language — he used hand gestures to invite me to the roof of a grand old building above Nevsky Prospekt. We drank and sang and then at 3 a.m., he took me to his apartment, a gorgeous turn-of-the-century flat choked with art, books and musical instruments. He lived with his elderly parents and sister, all of whom were up late laughing and talking. They made a meal, we ate, we talked, we drank some more. Well after 7 a.m., I stumbled home, overwhelmed.
Russia is a hard place — it always has been — but therein are good people enduring hard times.