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10 July 2000
[Note from David Johnson:
1. Nezavisimaya Gazeta - Krug Zhizni: Aba Gorbacheva, DEMOGRAPHIC
TWILIGHT IN RUSSIA. Super-death rate a new social factor.
2. The Independent (UK): Helen Womack, Russians urge action after
Putin's words leave the masses sceptical.
3. Itar-Tass: Demographic Crisis One of Painful Issues of PUTIN'S
4. Reuters: Russia PM worried about fate of tax reform.
5. RFE/RL: Floriana Fossato, Russia: Journalists Not United In
Defense Of Press Freedom.
6. the eXile: Matt Taibbi, Slaves for God. (Visit to SANAKSARSKY
MONASTERY, NEAR TEMNIKOV, MORDOVIA)]
Nezavisimaya Gazeta - Krug Zhizni
[translation from RIA Novosti for personal use only]
DEMOGRAPHIC TWILIGHT IN RUSSIA
Super-death rate a new social factor
By Ada GORBACHEVA
We first started speaking about the unfavourable
demographic situation in the country several years ago. If the
current trend persists and the birth factor will continue to
fall, the Russian population will dwindle to 100 million (as in
Japan) in 2025 and 50-55 million in 2075. The reduction of
population does not automatically mean the growth of living
standards. Rather, to the contrary: there will be fewer people
and they will live worse.
Experts say the demographic crisis that has hit the
country is unprecedented for peacetime. The process of the
consistent reduction of population began in 1992. The problem
was once again discussed at the recent special parliamentary
hearing. Nikolai Gerasimenko, chairman of the Duma committee on
health and sports, provided truly dramatic figures. According
to the State Committee for Statistics, the permanent population
of Russia amounted to 148.7 million in early 1992, and to
barely 145.5 million in early 2000. In other words, it dwindled
by 2%. It fell by 768,400 (or 0.5%) in the past year, the
largest figure since 1992. The population of Russia diminished
by another 157.800 in the first two months of this year, which
is 13.6% more than in the same period in 1999.
Life expectancy is going down, too. It is 59.8 years for
men and 72.2 years for women. This major gap (in medical terms)
between the life expectancy of the two sexes is completely
abnormal. The death rate among men has always been very high in
Russia, but it is one of the world's highest now.
There is natural decrease of population in the
overwhelming majority of regions and territories of Russia. Two
to three times more deaths than births were registered in 27
regions in 1999. In January 2000, there were three deaths (four
in the Pskov Region) per one birth in ten regions of the
country. The birth rate is falling. The number of births
registered in 1998 was nearly a half of the 1987 figure, and
the figure for 1999 was 5.3% smaller than for 1998. The birth
of second and third children dropped by nearly a half. Only 1.3
million pregnancies out of 4 million lead to the birth of
Our death rate is one of the highest in the world: 14.7
per thousand of population in 1999 (13.6 in 1998). The death
rate is 1.8 times higher than the birth rate (1.6 in 1998). A
total of 151,600 (7.6%) more people died in 1999 than in 1998.
In fact, this can be described as a super-death rate, caused by
the mass impoverishment of the people, internal civil
conflicts, and a dramatic spread of diseases. The death rate
among young people aged 15-19 grew by 40%. Unless we do
something now, only 54% of the young men aged 16 now will live
to the pension age. This is less than a hundred years ago, when
56% of men lived to the ripe age of 60. The main reasons for
death in the economically active age groups are accidents,
poisoning and injuries: 202,000 people (170,400 men and 31,600
women) died of them in 1998.
This unprecedented growth of the death rate is the result
of the deteriorating living standards of the bulk of the
population provoked by the drawn-out socio-economic crisis,
unemployment, chronic arrears of wages, pensions and social
allowances, the diminishing access to free medical assistance
and cheap medicines, the protracted psychological stress, loss
of confidence in one's future and the future of one's children,
and growing crime.
Our health has become much worse. Unhealthy women bear
unhealthy children. Normal deliveries account for only 31.8% of
the total (25% in some regions), and 15% of couples are
Quite a few of the newly born babies are not healthy, and
each third newborn has inborn defects. According to official
statistics, nearly 30% of newborns die of infections, but the
true figure is much higher. Only 10-12% of primary school
children, 8% of general school children and 5% of high school
children are healthy. The disease rate among children under 14
grew by nearly 10% in the past five years. A half of teenagers
(aged 15-17) suffer from chronic diseases. The number of
gynaecological diseases among girls has tripled, and 10% of
abortions are performed on women under 19. An unhealthy
population is entering the economically active and reproductive
period of their lives.
The Independent (UK)
10 July 2000
[for personal use only]
Russians urge action after Putin's words leave the masses sceptical
By Helen Womack in Moscow
President Vladimir Putin's idealistic "state of the nation" address has
failed to impress many Russians, with cynics lining up to say that they
would start to believe in a bright new future only when they saw his fine
words translated into deeds.
"I would sign up for that five times over," said Eduard Rossel, the
governor of the Sverdlovsk region, after hearing President Putin argue on
Saturday that the state needed to be strengthened to make citizens
prosperous and free. "But now there must be action, otherwise this won't go
beyond the realm of words."
Ordinary citizens were as sceptical as the politicians and professional
commentators. "It sounded like a speech by Leonid Brezhnev," said one
Muscovite, referring to the late Soviet leader. "He used to promise the
earth but we still queued for sausage."
The address, delivered to MPs and provincial governors in the Marble Hall
of the Kremlin, seemed aimed above all at potential foreign investors, who
were told that the time had come for "less administration, more enterprise".
The state should stop its inappropriate interfering in the free market,
said the new Kremlin leader, and concentrate instead on its real role,
which included guaranteeing property rights and fighting crime and
corruption. "Unreasonable" taxes should be lowered.
All but the most naive Western businessmen, however, were likely to take
this with a pinch of salt. President Putin admitted as much when he said
that there was too often a difference between "the letter of the law and
Some commentators saw in Mr Putin's speech criticism of former President
Boris Yeltsin and an attempt to depart from his legacy. President Putin,
elected in March, said that the state itself was to blame for recent
problems such as the growth of the black market and capital flight from the
country. However, at no point did he attack his predecessor by name.
Reports said the speech was written by Alexander Voloshin, a member of the
"family" of cronies around the President and the man who was instrumental
in engineering the transfer of power to Mr Putin.
Those likely to be most upset by the speech were Russia's provincial
governors. Russia had not achieved real federalism, the President said,
butinstead had become decentralised, as governors were a law unto
themselves on their own territories.
After the speech, President Putin, the governors and deputies from the
State Duma or Lower House of Parliament discussed a reform Bill that would
oblige governors to respect federal law and strip them of their additional
positions as national senators. For their part, the governors say they
perform a useful service to the country and some accuse President Putin of
being destructive and authoritarian.
The recent treatment of the independent media in Russia has also prompted
fears that President Putin has dictatorial tendencies. Although in his
speech he professed a commitment to a "genuinely free press", he also
complained about the way "oligarchs" or big businessmen used the media and
said that Russian journalism was only as developed as Russian society itself.
Commentators said his position on the media remained ambiguous. "Just as a
fish is either fresh or not fresh, so the press is either free or not,"
said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young liberal deputy from the Duma. "There can be
no two ways about a matter like that."
Demographic Crisis One of Painful Issues of PUTIN'S Message.
ULAN-UDE, July 9 (Itar-Tass) -- Vladimir Putin in his message to the Russian
parliament emphasised that the demographic crisis in Russia is "one of the
most painful questions", leader of the State Duma faction Fatherland Yevgeny
Primakov said in the Buryatia capital Ulan-Ude on Sunday.
According to Primakov, the situation is execerbated by the fact that
following the collapse of the Soviet Union, efforts were not made to channel
migration flows of Russian-speaking people from the Commonwealth of
Independent States to the east of the Russian Federation where vast expanses
Primakov claimed that the reason for such a situation lies in social
conditions which are worse in Siberia and the Far East than in European
Russia. In the opinion of the Fatherland leader, the bridging of this gap is
now one of the most pressing tasks of the state.
Primakov participates in hearings on stable development of the Baikal region.
They opened on Sunday in Ulan-Ude with a meeting between the Fatherland
delegation and Buryatian members of the government and the local parliament.
Russia PM worried about fate of tax reform
By Oleg Shchedrov
MOSCOW, July 9 (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said he
was worried over the fate of a revolutionary tax reform plan after parliament
rejected one of its key components.
Kasyanov said in a television interview broadcast on Sunday that the State
Duma, parliament's lower house, would be asked to reconsider its decision to
keep a tax on turnover, which the government belives is inefficient and an
avenue for fraud.
He made it clear the government wanted the entire tax bill passed as a
"The latest Duma decision fuelled concerns and...led us to the thought that
this event raised worries about the fate of the tax reform," Kasyanov said in
the interview with state-run RTR television recorded on Saturday.
President Vladimir Putin said in his state of the nation address on Saturday
that one of the Russian economy's biggest problems was its ineffective tax
system, which was provoking capital flight and discouraging investment.
Starting tax reform was among the first steps he made after his election in
March. So was trimming the powers of the leaders of Russia's 89 regions,
which benefit from the turnover tax.
The Duma, where pro-government parties gained ground in December's
parliamentary polls, quickly passed most of the new tax laws, including a
revolutionary flat 13 percent income tax.
RESISTANCE ON TURNOVER TAX
But on Wednesday the deputies were staunch in defending the one percent
turnover tax -- which the government wanted to dump altogether along with
other taxes it deems ineffective.
The Federation Council, Russia's upper house, which is made of the regional
bosses, appealed to the Duma to raise the turnover tax to two percent.
Kasyanov said that only 60 percent of the existing turnover tax, which in
theory should bring in 50 billion roubles ($1.8 billion) annually, could be
Of that he said more than half was not paid in cash but with so-called means
derivatives -- payment in supplies to the government or one of agencies or by
settling unrelated debts.
Kasyanov said that was forcing businesses into grey areas, something which
the government could not approve. He hinted that behind opposition to the tax
reform were those who benefited from the complicated deals currently used to
"It is inexplicable why replacing this tax with a transparent excise duty,
which is fully paid in cash and then goes to governors to be used for similar
aims, should not work," he said.
Kasyanov admitted that problems with the turnover tax were the first serious
crisis in so far smooth relations between the government and the Duma, but he
was cautious not to attack the deputies outright.
"I do not want to call it a mutiny," he said. "I want to believe that this
was the result of fatigue and lack of time to work out details."
He said the Duma would be asked to give the law a second reading on July 19
after government amendments, but warned there was little room for compromise.
"The government wants to be consistent," he said. "When we discussed the
(economic) programme we agreed that there should be a systematic approach and
one step cannot be torn from the others."
"Otherwise our government will face the fate of its predecessors who ended in
half-hearted steps, watered down programmes and a deteriorating economic
Russia: Journalists Not United In Defense Of Press Freedom
By Floriana Fossato
Across Russia these days, individual journalists are increasingly concerned
about the state's apparent crackdown on independent media. But so far, there
is little solidarity among them -- and little sympathy for the journalists
themselves among the public at large. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato
Moscow, 7 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the past 10 years, according to opinion
polls, public trust in the Russian media has plummeted. A 1990 survey
conducted by the Commission for Freedom of Access to Information -- a Russian
NGO -- found that more than two-thirds (70 percent) of respondents said they
believed what the media reported.
Six years later, a poll by the same organization found that only 40 percent
trusted journalists. Today, that figure is a paltry 13 percent.
Iosif Dzyaloshinsky is the commission's founder and a Moscow University
journalism professor. He spoke to RFE/RL about the survey results.
According to Dzyaloshinsky, several factors explain the Russian media's loss
in public trust and interest. In most Western countries, he notes, news media
developed in parallel with a flourishing trading class, willing to make
decisions based on information. Historically, he says, this was not the case
in Russia. "The press in Russia developed, from the beginning, among
thinkers. They were writers, they were opposition activists or, on the
contrary, they were people close to the government. These people started
publishing newspapers, writing in newspapers, not because they wanted to
disseminate information, but because they wanted to influence the situation.
[Since then] a journalist in Russia cannot simply act as an informer. It is
an accepted fact that a journalist [is somebody who] must teach how to live."
When Russia started its experiment with democracy after the breakup of the
Soviet Union, journalists were eager to meet the challenge, if poorly
prepared for it.
Many journalists regard the period from 1989 to 1992 as a golden age of the
Russian press. They say that in the turmoil when the communist state
apparatus was crumbling, reporters had unprecedented access to all kinds of
sources. But, Dzyaloshinsky says, this was also a period of great confusion
and superficiality, when few journalists could figure out what kind of
information was out there and who would be interested in it.
Gradually, a new wave of promising young journalists appeared, interested in
presenting facts gathered in a professional way. The sector of the public
most interested in their product was the elite, the new businessmen and
This stage was followed by the rise of large media companies controlled by
business and political leaders. They were interested in hiring professionals,
and they were willing to sustain money-losing newspapers and broadcast
stations in order to acquire tools of influence. Journalists, in turn, were
interested in finding financial backers. It seemed a fair exchange, but some
now say it turned to the journalists' disadvantage.
Leading journalists started being associated -- both in the eyes of the
authorities and of the public -- with their outlets' owners and backers. Many
were regarded as little more than well-paid propagandists engaged in slander
According to Dzyaloshinsky, until very recently, most Russian journalists
took little notice of the public's negative perception. But when the
government last year began moves to control the press -- banning certain
coverage of Chechnya, requiring licenses for newspapers, raiding a prominent
media company -- journalists realized that the public was not on their side.
Yet most exhibited little solidarity towards their colleagues. "At the
moment, everyone believes that he or she is personally good. [In this view]
there are some negative figures, but it's up to them to justify their
conduct. What we are now witnessing is how [people's negative] reaction to
the bad work or to the immoral conduct of some journalists falls on all
journalists," he says.
Dzyaloshinsky says that to defend themselves, journalists should unite and
act as a professional class -- especially if the government starts to tar
them all with the same brush.
But he says this has yet to happen. A huge gulf between Moscow-based
journalists and their provincial colleagues has not been overcome. Blatant
and often dramatic cases of intimidation against by local authorities against
regional journalists have received publicity in Moscow, but haven't led to
solidarity among journalists. Moscow journalists often show disdain for the
skills of their regional colleagues. In turn, regional journalists resent
what they call the "rich Moscow caste."
Sergei Parkhomenko is the editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based weekly "Itogi."
He says that Russian journalists are wary of banding together because of bad
Russian experiences with solidarity.
"In Soviet times," he says, "solidarity among workers was compulsory and
false. Everybody was aware of this. That created antibodies that will last
for a long time." In recent times, Parkhomenko adds, Boris Yeltsin called on
Russians to show solidarity for the new cause of creating capitalism and
democracy. Many felt they had been misled.
After all this, Parkhomenko says, expecting solidarity among people belonging
to the same professional category, or solidarity in society on humanitarian
issues, democratic freedoms and access to information, is next to impossible.
From: Matt Taibbi <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sun, 9 Jul 2000
Slaves for God
SANAKSARSKY MONASTERY, NEAR TEMNIKOV, MORDOVIA-- The monks at this 300
year-old Orthodox monastery unsmilingly claim to be completely indifferent
to wordly politics, but that doesn't mean they're completely without
manners. In anticipation of the arrival of Vladimir Putin on August 4th,
they've asked their stable of unpaid migrant workers-which this week
includes me--to work overtime. Instead of the usual 8 to 5, my crew now
works from 8 to 8, laying bricks and building the foundation for a new
warehouse next to the monastery sawmill. The warehouse, my crew has been
told, is to be finished in time for Putin--or else.
Actually the work day begins earlier than eight. At 5:30 in the morning, a
bell rings in the temple and everybody in the monastery is roused for early
services. That includes monks and novices, of which there about a hundred
here, as well as the "polomniki", pilgrims who travel from all over the
country for three days of prayer, free bunkbed accommodations and
near-prison-quality free food. It also includes the "trudniki"--migrant
workers like us. Whether you believe in God or not--and you better not
admit that you don't--if you're a worker at Sanaksarsky, you have to go to
morning services. It's the law around here.
There are other laws, of course. That there is no drinking, smoking, or sex
on the territory of the monastery is a given. More surprising is the ban on
all reading material. No one in the monastery is allowed to read anything
"wordly"--that is, anything that is not a bible, a prayer book, or an
authorized Orthodox Christian periodical. Newspapers are forbidden. Novels
are forbidden. Shakespeare, Pushkin and Ovid, even Phillip K. Dick, if they
were given any thought, would be forbidden.
The monks keep on a squad of security people (among the few paid workers in
the place) to enforce these rules; they toss beds during work hours and
peer into windows at night. The likelihood of their finding Shakespeare in
this environment is not high. But if they catch you with a dirty magazine,
as happened to one worker here recently, it can be grounds for dismissal.
Neither I nor my friend Aleksei Dindikin, the clown, knew the rules when we
first arrived at Sanaksarsky last Monday night. After a brief negotiation
with Father Nikolai, the monk in charge of the visiting pilgrims' quarters,
we were shoved into a tiny, mosquito-infested room (a "cell", as they
called it) and told to get ready for work early the next morning. I tossed
my things on my bed and immediately dashed down the hall to take a dump,
bringing the 2,900-page "Penguin History of the World" with me to smooth
the process. When I came back, Aleksei was asleep in his bed with a copy of
"UFO" magazine draped across his chest.
At 5:30 the next morning Father Nikolai entered the room to wake us up.
He's a short, barrel-chested man with the dark complexion, severe eyes and
martial bearing to match popular representations of Genghis Khan. When I
later learned that he had, in fact, been an army drill sergent before
taking the vows, I became an instant believer in phrenology. "Get out of
bed," he commanded, with only his face visible in the doorway. "Time for
By the time we looked up again, he was gone. Little did we know that this
was more or less the last time we would have any contact with the monks. We
were about to enter into the lives of monastery slaves, who are not really
part of the machinery of worship here.
Denied wordly pleasures like books and wine, the workers nonetheless are
here solely to serve the monks' worldly needs--to raise the crops the monks
eat, to restore the buildings the monks work and live in, to wash the
monks' dishes. The monks spend up to ten self-flagellating hours a day on
their feet proclaiming to God their hatred for all things terrestrial, and
this is reflected in their treatment of their employees, whose presence
does nothing but remind them of their vulgar physical needs.
In this, however, the monks have something in common with the rest of the
world, which also hates these people who came here to work long hours for
free. As we were to find out, if the world didn't hate them, they wouldn't
ON THE FIRST DAY Aleksei and I dutifully got up to go to mass at 6 a.m. I'd
told Father Nikolai the night before that I was a godless journalist and
didn't want to insult his faith by pretending to be a believer. He
therefore exempted me from the obligation to make the sign of the cross
upon entering the temple. That didn't stop him from trying to convert me,
however. Father Nikolai did not converse in the normal sense of the word.
There were no jokes, no questions about work or about our personal lives,
nothing like that. Instead, every conversation, no matter how hard we
tried, came back to God within about eight seconds.
"You were Christened a Catholic, and that is why you suffer," he said to
me. "Catholicism is a false faith. You don't have the true belief. You
still believe in life on earth."
"Well, that's where I'm registered to vote," I joked.
No response; bad move. "You'll see soon," he said. "Today you're going to
an Orthodox mass. This is your first step to the real faith. Soon you'll be
like me. For me, this world is finished. I am already living for the next
world and the next world only."
The man needs to work on his salesmanship, I thought. Meanwhile, he was
taking poor Aleksei, who did not get off so easily, and leading him by the
arm into the temple. Aleksei was here undercover; he'd been advised by
friends not to reveal his true profession. "A clown, it turns out, is
considered a godless creature," he'd told me on the way here, frowning as
he drove. He hadn't wanted to come-- there's not much humor potential in a
Russian Orthodox Monastery-- but I dangled a couple hundred bucks in front
of him, and he grudgingly agreed to come along with me as my "assistant".
With theater season out, he needed the money.
What was worse from his point of view was that, once we'd arrived, he'd
determined that presenting himself as a non-religious Russian would invite
too many questions-- so he announced at the start that he was a believer.
This was partially true, as he'd been baptized in secret shortly after his
birth in 1960. But it wasn't so true that he didn't freeze in panic the
instant he set foot in the temple. He couldn't make out the prayers the
monks were saying, and, like me, he didn't know when to bow, when to cross
himself, and so on. Not only that, but after 40 minutes on our feet in the
temple--you're not allowed to sit at Orthodox services--Aleksei started to
fall asleep. Twice I had to whack him on the shoulder to wake him up.
"Look alive," I said.
"Yeah, right," he answered.
After an hour and twenty minutes of morning service, all on our feet, we
were led into the trapeznya, the dining hall. Normally the workers are
third-class citizens in the monastery, behind the monks and the pilgrims,
but when it comes to food, the caste system changes a bit. Workers go
second, after the monks. Unsweetened, unsalted kasha, served in tin prison
plates, was scooped out for us by novices and pushed in our direction down
the long wooden tables. We washed it down with tea in ten minutes of
hurried breakfast and headed off to work.
Father Nikolai, making the best of his severely limited sense of humor, had
promised us the night before that we would be assigned the very nastiest,
most unpleasant work detail the monastery could offer-and that we would be
worked until we collapsed. As a result we had spent the whole of the
previous evening wasting valuable sleep time sitting up in our beds in the
dark, our two cartoon sets of dread-filled white eyes snapped open and
plainly visible against the blackness. My bet had been on the pig farm, on
a shit-shoveling unit; Aleksei leaned toward the apiary. "Without gloves,"
As it turned out, we were sent on an ordinary construction assignment, only
one with unusually long hours. Father Nikolai, who swore to us that worldly
politics didn't interest him, didn't tell us why the hours would be so
long. We had to find that out ourselves.
NONE OF THE FOUR other workers on the sawmill construction detail cared a
damn why they were being asked to work overtime. As far as they were
concerned, if they were told to work to eight, they would work until eight.
Who for and why was not their concern. They were lifetimes away from even
thinking such questions. Each of them had their own, more serious problems
to worry about.
Our group was fairly representative of the monastery's worker population,
which numbers about seventy. One, a tall young man named Sergei, was a
dropout from the army. Another, older type, also Sergei, had drunk himself
out of a job and been chased out of his house by his wife and her family. A
third, a still older, bearded man named Slava, had run away from his wife,
who had become a drunk, and was hiding from her and from the world in
The fourth was a woman named Aleftina. In general, women are not allowed to
live at monasteries. But the monks made an exception for this matronly
woman of about fifty who had left "the world" to come work after her son
was taken into the army. The reason the monks made an exception for this
woman was this: she was pious, and she knew how to lay bricks. She'd been a
professional mason for most of her life, and the monks, as were to find
out, definitely needed a mason.
Her head wrapped in a white shawl and her body covered with a billowing
navy blue canvas cloak that must have been a nightmare to wear in the heat,
Aleftina stayed on the other side of the site, far away from us sinners,
for almost the entire time we were there. She laid her bricks in perfect,
spotless rows; her side of the site looked like a little corner of
Buckingham palace. Occasionally she would whisper instructions to us when
we brought her tubs of cement, bricks, and other supplies, but her chief
contributions to the male side of the structure were the disgusted looks
she shot at us from time to time as we struggled to keep the rows of bricks
Slava we hardly ever saw. Older and wiser than the rest, and with strong
leprechaun component to his character, he'd clearly found some innovative
way to avoid work that escaped everyone else. Occasionally we saw him
carrying a jar of mayonnaise to the site, or stirring a cup of tea
somewhere, but that was it. As a result, Aleksei and I were left for the
most part in the care of the Sergeis.
To get these people to tell their stories, incidentally, we had to agree to
not use their real names. But they did allow me to use their real
nicknames, which around the monastery is all that matters anyway. You check
your passport at the door, and from the day you enter, you don't fill out a
form or hear your surname called.
Of the two Sergeis, the tall one is called Sergei Lanky (Dlinny), the other
Sergei Starshy. Sergei Starshy isn't that old at all, just 31, but compared
to Lanky, who at 23 looks and acts like a young adult version of Beavis,
he's ancient. Smallish, narrow-shouldered, and sporting a training-wheel
goatee he hopes will someday turn into a monk's beard, Starshy has been at
Sanaksarsky just two months, although he's been out of the world for longer
than that. Prior to coming to Mordovia, he was in a Kaluga monastery for
nearly a year.
Starshy's story is a typical tale of a trudniki's progress. People who come
to the monastery, either as workers or as monks, tend to do so for one of
two reasons; booze, or family problems. There are a few other fairly common
scenarios: heroin, release from prison, homelessness. But for the most
part, you either drink your way into a monastery, or your wife drives you
there. In Sergei's case, it was both. He drank himself out of a
construction job in Kaluga, and in the process, his wife drove him crazy.
"I'd come home after work, drunk, and I'd take something out of the
cabinet, then forget to close the cabinet door, leaving it open this much,"
he said, showing the distance between his thumb and forefinger. "And I'd
hear about that for hours. It never ended. And so I tried to stay away from
home more, and then I drank more, and lost my job."
Starshy didn't want to leave home, but it wasn't his decision. He and his
family were living with his wife's parents, and when he finally went over
the edge, they kicked him out. "By the time they kicked me out I was in
pretty bad shape. They figured I would end up living under a bridge
somewhere. But I wanted to show them that I could still work, and that's
how I ended up here."
What "ending up here" entails is more or less synonymous with indenture,
and it is an option open to anybody. The monks take all comers. Even you,
the eXile reader, can come to Mordovia and make a deal with the monks to
work on the site-doing whatever they want, whenever they want. They'll take
you. In return, you'll get no money, but free room and board.
It's better than jail in some ways, the same in others, and in others
actually worse. It's better in the sense that the monks feed you
better-variously and four times a day, although workers with experience say
that other monasteries serve food just twice a day, and only kasha. It's
the same in that the living quarters are zone-like; the two Sergeis live
with 12 other men in a common barracks about half the size of a squash
court. But in prison you can at least read the snippets of "Megapolis
Express" the guards give you before you use it as toilet paper. The monks
also frown on staying up all night laughing, or laughing at all at any
time, within the monastery walls.
For work at the monastery Sergei also receives 5 packs of Prima cigarrettes
a week-which sets the monastery back a good 15 rubles-- as well as a tube
of mosquito repellent. He's allowed to smoke the cigarettes on work sites
outside the monastery grounds, which is where ours happened to be. When we
met him, it was twenty minutes after eight, just after the start of the
work day, and he was already smoking behind a pile of bricks, taking a
We introduced ourselves. Stunned and somewhat frightened by the sight of a
professional clown and an American dressed in work clothes appearing on his
slave labor site, Starshy quickly ran and summoned Lanky to size us up. We
answered all of their questions curtly and asked to be directed to work as
soon as possible. Uneasily, they sent us to load a trailer with bricks by
hand, from a nearby supply pile.
Sergei Lanky trailed behind us. I turned and asked him how the work was
"Oh, it's fine," he said, before adding, ominously: "Only, the mosquitoes
are a problem."
He pointed to the brick pile. Aleksei and I flicked a pair of mosquitoes
off our arms desceded upon it without enthusiasm. The work day had begun.
It is difficult to communicate now, in retrospect, exactly how awful the
labor was at this place. Heavy clothes were necessary to deal with the
bricks and the mud, but it was too hot for anything but a t-shirt. Mud and
red brick-dust crept under our shirts, up our pantlegs, into our underwear,
and mixed with sweat, creating a hellish sandpaper effect that was felt
with every step. The mosquitoes located us quickly and within minutes
multiplied to the point where I had to keep my mouth closed to keep from
breathing them in. My arms I lathered with repellent until they were white,
but it didn't help; they bit through the shirt on my back, through the rag
on my head, even through my jeans. There was no way to keep them off-you
just had to deal with it. Within an hour I could see bumps covering my
hands, while my neck was covered with red dust where I'd scratched
spastically with my bricklaying gloves.
And throughout all of this we had to work with the knowledge that at the
end of the day, there will be no bath and no shower. The only relief, the
guys explained to us, was a swim in the nearby Moksha river after work.
Aleksei and I had visited the Moksha the night before. By sunset, there
were so many mosquitoes on the riverbank that we could barely see each
other. Like the lack of newspapers, meat and female company, this was just
one more negative you had to put up with to earn your daily kasha-the
nightly charity blood donation to the local mosquito population.
Carrying bricks and mixing cement is ugly work. Even if you're in good
shape, you start feeling tired after about ten minutes. It took about that
long for the question to pop into my mind: who the hell would do this for
any length of time at all, for free? In exchange for one's freedom? What's
wrong with these guys, that they volunteer to do this?
About an hour into the work day I got my first hint. I was kneeling on the
ground laying bricks, spitting mosquitoes out my nose, when I heard the two
Sergeis start up a conversation:
Lanky: "Who do you think is tougher, Jackie Chan, or Sylvester Stallone?"
Starshiy: "Stallone. Look at those muscles. And the guys he fights, they're
all heavyweight champions, not some bodyguards in Hong Kong."
Lanky: "I don't know. I think Chan is tougher. You figure, he's that small,
and he still beats everyone up. He must be really bad."
Starshiy: "I don't know." Then: "Matt, what do you think? Who would win in
a fight between Jackie Chan and Sylvester Stallone?"
I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "I think the only way those two guys
fight is through lawyers. But I like Jackie Chan better, I guess."
Lanky approved of the answer. By about 10:30 he was spending a lot of time
at my end of the site. He had the usual questions about America-how much do
things cost there, how many bottles of vodka can you buy for fifty bucks,
etc. I asked him how he'd ended up here. He told me an amazing story: after
leaving the army a few years ago, he'd joined up with a satanist cult in
his hometown of Voronezh. He was vague about what happened in the cult, but
it was clear things hadn't ended well; they'd carved a cross in his chest
(which he displayed for me) stole all of his things, and threatened to kill
his family. Soon afterward he joined up with a local monastery in the
Voronezh region to hide from the cult; according to his version, they found
him there and chased him away, sending him on a nationwide tour of Russian
Orthodox monasteries. He's been a worker for monks in any number of
regions-Moscow, Kurskaya, Nizhni, Saratov, and Samara, among others.
He would probably have stayed in one place, he explained, but he keeps
getting thrown out. In fact, he said, this was his third time around at the
Sanaksarsky monastery; twice he's been thrown out of this place for various
offenses-a porno mag once, drinking another time. He has what the monks
would certainly call vices; he drinks every now and then, and sometimes
after dark he sneaks off the monastery grounds to the nearby village of
Alekseyevka, some two kilometers away, and visits one of his two
girlfriends there. "They're both total dogs, with faces like this," he
said, screwing up his eyes. "You have to drink an awful lot to be able to
fuck them. But it's worth it."
Sergei knows he'll be caught eventually, but he doesn't care. Generally, he
says, he borrows some money every time he's thrown out of a place, runs
around town somewhere having a good time for a week or so, then looks for a
new place to live. Sometimes this gets tricky. Before his last trip here to
Sanaksarsky, he got caught on the side of the road in the snow while
hitchhiking with nothing but a bottle of vodka in his pocket. When night
fell, he had to build himself a little cocoon out of sticks and snow off
the side of the road and drink himself to sleep inside it. He nearly froze
Now he's back at Sanaksarsky and he's happy. "This place is paradise
compared to the army," he said. "Nobody beats you here. And they're better
than the nuns in Diveyevo. Women are brutal, never work for women. They'll
work you round the clock, and give you thin soup for it." The chief thing,
he explained, is the food. "Four times a day here, and you can get extras
whenever you want it. Right now, if I really needed to, I could go to one
of the brothers and ask for a packet of tea or some mayonnaise. They're
pretty cool about it."
When the subject turned to food, Starshy and Slava appeared on the scene
immediately. As it turned out, the crew generally starts speculating about
what might be for lunch sometime around eleven in the morning every day. It
is The Topic of Discussion around here. At least four times during our
tenure there Aleksei and I heard reminiscences about the time the monks
served caviar after easter. On a day-to-day basis the guys more
realistically hope for things like pastries or cake, or an unusual soup. A
little while ago the monks sent Slava on a mosquito-feeding trip into the
woods, and he brought back so many mushrooms that the workers have seen
nothing but mushroom soup ever since. As a result, the mere mention of
mushroom soup is enough to make violence a real possibility on the site.
But on this day, old bearded Slava made amends. At around 11:00 he came
running up to the site from somewhere in the direction of the trapeziya.
"It's okroshka!" he announced. "We're having okroshka!"
Cold soup, with egg. A novelty. Sergei Lanky pumped his fist. "Class!" he
shouted. "Finally! Are there fried potatoes?"
"No," Slava said. "No fried potatoes, but there is okroshka!"
"You hear that?" Lanky said to Starshy. "There's okroshka."
"Just kidding," Slava said. "It's mushroom soup."
Both Sergeis pounced on him at once, punching his arms mercilessly. But it
was a friendly elementary school beating, nothing serious. Aleksei and I
looked at each other in surprise. It was odd to see a man near fifty as
Slava is laughing and enjoying this kind of thing like a kid.
Before lunch the men asked us to come visit their barracks. It was about
what you'd expect-stinking, a mess of bunkbeds draped in clothes and bags,
with a single sink full of unwashed dishes and nests of flies. When we came
in, two older men with smashed faces, obvious drunks, were glumly packing
up their things. Lanky explained that they'd been kicked out the day before
for drinking. When they left, Lanky peered out the door to see if anyone
was coming, then pulled out an old newspaper clipping from inside his
pillow and started to read it. I swear to God that's what he did-it was a
scene straight out of Stalinist Russia. Then he leaned over to Aleksei.
"Hey," he whispered. "Do you have any worldly newspapers?"
We did. Just the day before, we'd met with a group of journalists from a
Sarov-based newspaper, and they'd given us a stack of back issues. Aleksei
shrugged and said that he did. Consipratorially, Lanky then leaned over and
gave instructions for bringing the newspapers outside later that night when
we took a walk-if we could spare some, he'd like to have one or two. We
Lunch was Lanky's finest hour. There was kasha and fresh bread, along with
mushroom soup and, as a surprise, eggplant caviar. There was also fresh
kvas-the monks make great kvas. Lanky ate four portions, inhaling them in a
way I haven't seen a person eat since high school. He ate with the
insistent bodily hunger of a growing person, despite the fact that at 23 he
can hardly still be growing. The soup he lapped up to the last drop,
licking the bowl.
Then he started abusing the "waiters"-the monks who work in the trapezniya.
If I had to guess I would say this was probably the one place in the entire
monastery where the workers can get away with cracking wise at the
brothers. Lanky found this place and claimed it as his own. When he
finished his first bowl of kasha, he snapped his fingers at a monk in an
apron who passed by:
"Hey! Brother! Some more kasha!"
A monk passed by with some kvas. Lanky held out his tin cup and with a
mouth still full of kasha said:
"Kvas! Give it here!"
By the end of lunch he was openly hamming it up, calling the monks
"Garcon!" and "Waiter!" to their faces. He was living for this moment, you
After lunch we went back to work, and ashamed as I am to admit it, I almost
didn't make it. With the heat and the bugs and the actual work itself-all
of it together was almost too much. By five I was taking "Prima" smoke
breaks once every twenty minutes. The two Sergeis, meanwhile, took their
only break around then to polish off what they call a "LinKor", or Big
Boat. This is a whole baton of bread, sliced lengthwise in half, and
covered in monastery-made mayonnaise. Those two clowns sat there and each
ate a whole LinKor before my very eyes. What amazed both Aleksei and me
about this is that they sat there outside in complete calm and ate their
meal bugs and all. Neither Aleksei nor I could sit still for more than a
few seconds without being devoured by mosquitoes (our smoke breaks we took
pacing back and forth), but they didn't even seem to notice the bugs.
At the end of the work day, Aleksei and I faced a dilemma. We were filthy
and grimy to the point of physical misery, but we also did not want to risk
going near the river. There was a rusty barrel full of water on the site
that had been used for mixing cement, and I thought seriously about taking
a bath in it. But in the end the two Sergeis, Slava, and three or four
other workers from other sites convinced us to follow them to "Paradise", a
We went. To get there we had to go through the woods, where the insect
factor reached Vietnam levels. Finally we reached a tiny sandy-banked lake
in the middle of a pine forest. The water rippled with landing bugs.
Aleksei and I, frantically swatting at each other, watched as the other
workers stripped to their underwear and dove in. We followed, but
Then an amazing thing happened. All of the workers, including the older
ones, started doing piggyback rides and playing water games that looked
like "Marco Polo". Even Slava, bearded old Slava, was giggling and
splashing water back and forth. It was such a clear case of regression that
it was creepy. I couldn't stand to be out there for more than a few
minutes, and neither could Aleksei, but they wouldn't leave with us. When
we left in a hurry through the woods, they were still back there in the
lake, playing little-kid games.
THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX FAITH is a faith based on power and fear. The Orthodox
God forbids his subjects to sit during prayer, and requires everyone,
including the priests, to look directly forward toward the altar during
services. There is no human-to-human eye contact in church. The actual
doctrine is one of total self-annihilation. When you come to the church you
are told that everything that was your life without God was sinful; only
when all of that life is replaced by God does one become?well, if not holy,
then at least not necessarily doomed. The Orthodox Church does not
encourage its subjects to find a greater understanding of God. It merely
encourages them to accept a master-slave relationship with God, with God as
the infallible master.
On earth the master-slave dynamic is played out endlessly in an elaborate
hierarchy within the church. Discussions within the monastery are therefore
generally limited to humorless paeans to God and orgies of flattery
directed towards one's higher-ups. One worker I talked to while I was
there, an ex-con named Mikhail who'd been at the monastery for three
months, called the monks "supermen. They're really supermen, supermen on
earth." In a conversation on our first day with a pair of novices Aleksei
and I mentioned a monk named Father Varlam, a big, fat prick of a monk who
ran the nuts and bolts of the monastery's giant industrial operation.
Varlam, whose permission I needed to work on the construction site, had
accused me, within the first minute of our acquaintance, of both serving
the devil and of being in league with, of all people, Sergei Dorenko.
"You're all sellouts. You work for the Jews and the American corporations.
You print lies for the devil."
"Nice to meet you, too," I said.
He went on. "Do you want to know why Russia is in such a terrible state
right now? Why people are starving?"
"Bar codes," he said. "They bear the number 666. 666 is the mark of the
Beast. The Beast is sending us bar codes from America. Clinton is
involved?it's been proven?"
And so on and so on. Aleksei and I had to listen to this insane gibberish
for a full twenty minutes. And like Father Nikolai, old Varlam ascribed to
the Lenin school of debate; never stop talking, never concede anything,
wear your opponent down. In this world all dialogue moves in one
direction-top to bottom. There is no exchange of anything between rulers
and subordinates, excepting spittle from the mouth of the former to the
face of the latter.
Anyway, when we mentioned this Varlam to two young novices we caught
fishing on the Moksha, they quickly interrupted us.
"Father Varlam? A genius," the first one said.
"A very holy man," said the other. "And with such depth of mind and
character. I feel lucky to be here with him."
But above even Father Varlam in the monastery is the Starets Iranim. An old
man who looks like a parody of a wise old elder, with a long gray beard,
bright eyes, and a crooked back, Iranim is considered the holiest man in
this part of the world. The busloads of polomniki who come to visit this
place do so primarily to see him. They come close to him, shout questions
at him, beg advice. He answers, generally, by saying things like "Trust in
God"-but nonetheless he is considered a man of great wisdom. Everyone who
talks about him here says the same thing about him, which is understandable
because on virtually every subject here there is only one opinion that
circulates and circulates. About Iranim it is said that he has a hypnotic
power, that he says things that sound simple but which penetrate the soul,
that he knows your problems without being told, and so on and so on. A good
five people laid that whole line on me, including both of the Sergeis.
When we first arrived at the monastery, Father Nikolai rushed to introduce
us to the Starets Iranim, thinking that he was doing us a big favor by
exposing us to the old man's holy flesh. This introduced us to one of the
more repulsive traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. In this religion,
laymen kiss the hands of monks and priests, as though they are royalty.
Father Nikolai urged me to do it, but I would have no part of it,
remembering the advice Denzel Washington gave to Will Smith before the
filming of Six Degrees of Separation-"Don't be kissing no man.". Aleksei,
trying to be polite, approached the old man and innocently held his hand
out, as though for a handshake. The old man recoiled in shock, then offered
his hand again for Aleksei to kiss. This, too, Aleksei fumbled, and the old
man stumbled away.
"Did you feel that?" Father Nikolai said. "Do you understand now?"
On the way to work on the second day I asked Father Nikolai if he thought
it was odd that the church should be working overtime on behalf of a former
KGB agent, a man who in his youth would have snitched on anyone who so much
as crossed himself in public. He shrugged. "Politics don't interest me," he
said. "I barely even know who the President is."
Aleksei and I worked two full days on the job. By the end of the second day
we were dead tired, but the guys in our crew were bubbly and headed for
Paradise again. In a whisper they'd asked us to drive into the Mordovian
town of Temnikov, across the river, and sneak them back a bottle of vodka.
We agreed to this, too. The vodka was a much more serious proposition than
the newspapers had been. We had to hide it in the woods, between two stumps
of a tree, and give them directions to the tree. All of these precautions
were their idea. They even asked us not to point to the tree, but instead
to simply describe it. "There are eyes and ears all over this place,"
Starshy said, looking in a panic back and forth in search of guards.
I tried at one point to ask both of the Sergeis what they thought about
Putin coming, but gave it up pretty quickly. They didn't even want to hear
Putin's name. All they wanted was to be done with their hellish shifts
every day and have their few hours of freedom in a bug-infested lake, or on
a patch of grass with a loaf of bread and some fresh mayonnaise. For this,
and for the privilege of not being beaten by an army commander, or jailed
by a cop for vagrancy, or forced to stay sober and feed one's children,
they were willing to put up with just about any humiliation, even (or
especially) abstract ones like Putin.
I asked Sergei Starshy if he thought he'd ever see his children again.
"I don't know," he said. "I'd like to. But I think I'm going to try to be a
monk instead. I think it's my calling."