This story will obviously be overshadowed by yesterday’s murder in Ankara, but I feel it should not be overlooked because it is in some way connected:
At least 48 people have died in the Siberian city of Irkutsk after drinking bath essence, Russian authorities say.
The hawthorn-scented liquid was consumed as if it were alcohol, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.
Several others are in a serious condition. Two people have been detained over the deaths and police are removing bottles from shops.
Russian media reported that the victims were poor people, aged between 35 and 50, and were not drinking together.
As I have acknowledged on this blog and elsewhere, things have improved massively in Russia over the last ten or fifteen years on almost every measure. Anyone who denies this has never been there nor is talking to the right people. However, the rapid and many improvements have come about much the same way as China’s have – by starting from an astonishingly low base. I suppose this is true for any country, including Britain, France, and the USA, but for Russia (and I suspect China) the situation is far worse: beyond the facade of Olympic Games, Grand Prix, Champions League sponsorships, recapturing of “lost” territories, new tanks, and supposedly brilliant strategic victories in dusty, oil-free corners of the Middle East, Russia still has many serious structural issues. The obvious ones are the pathetic weakness of Russia’s state institutions, all of which are highly politicised and subject to micromanagement from the Kremlin; Putin’s apparent intention to retain power indefinitely without any sort of succession plan; and the suffocating bureaucracy and corruption which prevents the economy from growing and, more importantly, diversifying.
But under that is the problem that has plagued Russia probably since historians first started writing about it: a huge swathe of the population is desperately poor, they live in appalling conditions, their lives are hopeless, and they deal with it all by drinking to a degree that literally needs to be seen to be believed. Until you have seen two men in their fifties staggering down the street holding each other up in the manner of teenage revelers in Magaluf, only this is 11am on a Tuesday morning outside a shopping centre, then you won’t know how bad alcohol abuse is in Russia. Nor will statistics published in a medical journal have the same impact as seeing a man in his mid-thirties walking his kid to school at 8am while swigging out of a bottle of Bochka.
The younger generation of Russians, who make up the bulk of the emerging middle classes, see this and can’t ignore it. Many of them have parents who only survive because their sons and daughters are paying for proper double glazing, medical bills, food, and utilities. However, they will have more distant relatives, and their parents will have close friends, who don’t have children to help them and they live cooped up in tiny, decrepit apartments trying to survive on a pathetically low pension that has been destroyed by inflation while a callous local authority run by people wearing Breitlings increases taxes and utility charges without explanation. And of course there are the sanctions:
Two years of Western economic sanctions have made the situation worse, and analysts say up to 12 million Russians drink cheap surrogate alcohol, including perfume, after shave, anti-freeze and window cleaner.
The Russian government and its cheerleaders abroad are fond of saying the sanctions have had no impact, pointing to various oil deals and aerial bombings as proof that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with. But the sanctions – or rather, Russia’s bizarre sanctioning itself in response – has driven imported food prices up considerably, leading people to consume the cheaper homegrown staples in greater quantities thus forcing the prices of those up in turn. For anyone who was dependent on homegrown staples to begin with and couldn’t afford the imported stuff, they will be finding it a lot harder to feed themselves. This will leave less money left over for drink, so they turn to alternatives.
There are two things that are worth highlighting in this story. The first is that vodka in Russia is astonishingly cheap, and I mean somewhere in the region of a couple of dollars per litre. True, it is more like helicopter fuel than Absolut, but it at least comes in a bottle marked vodka and is supposedly fit for human consumption. But some people can’t even afford this, and so take to drinking bubble bath and other substitutes. The other surprising aspect of the story is that this took place in Irkutsk. This city is in the middle of Siberia, but it’s not some backward village adjacent to a uranium mine that closed in 1962: Irkutsk is a regional capital, one of the largest cities in Siberia, has theatres, a university, and industries that are still alive. When I went there in 2008 I found it a lot bigger, nicer, and smarter than Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (which admittedly wasn’t saying much). My point is that if this is happening in Irkustk, then it will be much, much worse elsewhere.
So what’s this got to do with Syria? As I mentioned before, Russians are painfully aware of the state of their country: ask any well-educated, smart, patriotic Russian working in the West if they know somebody – one of their parents’ friends, who may have looked after them when they were kids in the USSR – who is now eking out a miserable existence waiting for death and sees none of the vast wealth that is splashed around Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the swanky holiday resorts of Europe. They all will. Ask them what they think of their parents’ pension, and the inflation of the property taxes compared to the services the municipality is providing, and then ask them what sort of mayor they have running the town and spending those taxes. Russians might not talk about it voluntarily, but they all know. There is a reason why the film Leviathan was hated so much, and so many Russians couldn’t bear to watch it.
Russia’s internal problems are likely insoluble, and like many an authoritative leadership they have instead found it easier to rally the country in the face of external threats whether real or imagined. So much of what Russia does outside its borders – culminating in the seizure of Crimea and securing Syria for Assad – is done to satisfy the craving of its population to see Russia flex its muscles on the international stage because it is too painful to see what is going on within its own borders and, despite the veneer, how little has changed and how much opportunity has been wasted. I have yet to hear a coherent strategic reason why Russia wanted Crimea or why they consider Syria of such importance, other than their actions in both places boosted Russia’s “prestige” in the eyes of its population (and a handful of foreigners who think whatever Russia does must by default be bad for the West).
It’s an understandable policy, albeit not one which I support and nor do I think it will take Russia to a desirable destination. Improvements will continue in some areas of that I am sure, as they have been for some time. But stories like the one coming from Irkustk yesterday, and far worse, will never go away and will continue to shine a light on the reality in Russia no matter how much its government spends on vanity projects and efforts to restore lost pride.