27 March 2007

Russian Philosophy 101

My recent post on Moscow's beggars (see "Beggars and Choosers") left me with an unsettled feeling, as I raise some questions that individuals and societies have stuggled with for ages.

I had a feeling that the publisher of the widely-read and always controversial Russia blog,
La Russophobe, would have some interesting opinions and analysis of these questions, so I invited LR to share her thoughts on the matter. Graciously, LR agreed to put her thoughts on paper, and her response does not disappoint. Her compelling and insightful analysis appears below.


La Russophobe is delighted to accept the invitation of Darkness at Noon to comment on its excellent post "Beggars and Choosers" -- which raises an interesting and fundamental question of political philosophy.

It is an age-old question of philosophy, of course, whether one should punish or counsel a criminal. Some people believe that “root cause of crime is criminals.” Others believe crime exists because society creates the conditions that make it unavoidable. Some believe it’s cruel to throw a criminal into prison and allow him to suffer the consequences of his actions; others believe its cruel to do anything else, thereby exposing more people to being victimized by his actions.

This same question gets transferred to geopolitics. Should we confront the rise of dictatorship in Russia, or should we try to “understand” it and adjust our own behavior? DAN puts the question in terms of Russian beggars, but it’s still the same question. In the context of Russia, however, it’s quite interesting because it asks the same question several different ways. Should we give to Russian street beggars, or pass them by? Should we confront Russia or cooperate with it? What is the policy most likely to lead to the result we desire, a happy and prosperous Russian people who do not threaten their neighbors or the West and who may even be allies in the struggle against the dark forces of the world?

The first of DAN’s comments we’d like to address is this preliminary one: “On whole, there seem to be fewer beggars around Moscow than I remember when I first came here 7 years ago.” Two points ought to be made here. First, as DAN undoubtedly knows full well, Moscow isn’t Russia. It’s certainly no indication of the nation’s well being that Moscow is prospering. In fact, many might argue that the more prosperity we see in Moscow the more we should expect poverty in the rest of the country, since Moscow sucks the nation’s blood like leech. Second, Russia is increasingly a police state, with no independent media coverage of Kremlin actions. It’s quite possible that Moscow’s beggars are just better controlled now, as they might have been in Soviet times. After all, Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities, but Russians have one of the lowest average incomes in the industrialized world. Thus, DAN’s conclusion is an important one: “I have a feeling that this has less to do with Russia's economic prosperity of the last few years - how would the oil boom ever trickle all the way down to them? - and more to do with the Moscow Mayor's efforts to ‘clean up’ the city.” LR couldn’t agree more. The absence of beggars could very well be quite an ominous sign, rather than a positive one, for any number of different reasons.

Then the main point. DAN writes: “Finally, we have the babushkas. These are the ancient, wrinkled gargoyles, wrapped in threadbare padded coats with their heads wrapped in faded scarves. I call them Moscow's gargoyles less because of their appearence and more because they've seen it all in their tormented lifetimes, watching Moscow and Russian transform through the ages: the hope of a new society, the darkness of terror, the starvation of war, the promise of hope renewed, the comfort of stability, and finally disillusionment and disappointment when it was revealed that it was all a sham. These women sacrificed so much - whether willingly or not - in their lifetimes, and now all they can do to survive is to stand on the sidewalk, hunched over leaning on a cane, holding out a little tin cup. It breaks my heart every time I see one. This is not how things should be.”

Truly, they did and do suffer. But let’s not forget that they also caused suffering, including their own. They may have stood passively by while Stalin rounded up their neighbors. They may even have informed on those neighbors. They may have voted for a proud KGB spy to become president, or they may have voted for a proud Communist appararchik. They’re not simply innocent victims, though they are surely pitiable, and though among their number may very well be true dissidents who did all they could to resist dictatorship, true Russian patriots. If they don’t feel the full consequences of their actions, will they ever really change?

And, of course, a powerful argument can be made that by subsidizing their existence, DAN is providing a pressure-release valve that makes it less likely they (or anyone else) will rise up and oppose the system that puts them in such jeopardy. Russia is rolling in windfall oil revenues right now, and it’s supposedly a socialist state. Why is DAN doing what the Kremlin should be doing? Isn’t he, in fact, encouraging the continuation of the begging by undermining the motivation of the masses to demand justice? To his credit, DAN is already asking himself these questions, hence his invitation to LR. We in turn, would like to invite readers to give their thoughts on this interesting question.

DAN writes: “On my last day in Russia, I always gather up all my loose change without counting it, put it in a plastic bag, and wander the city in search of a babushka in need.” What if instead of doing that, DAN rented a bullhorn, went to Red Square and starting speaking out about the manifest failures of the Kremlin to care for Russia’s forlorn babushka? Might he get arrested? If he did, might the resulting international incident do more to end the suffering of Russia’s babushka than a handout? What if he donated the money to a grass-roots organization like Oborona, and then wrote a letter to the editor of a major Western newspaper explaining why he’d done it? Might this start a trend?

The issue is infinitely simple and infinitely complicated: If all Russia needs is a bit of time to get its act together, and it will then start properly caring for its population and building a successful democratic state, then its perfectly proper for DAN to give handouts to babushki in the meantime. But if Russia is hurtling pell-mell into a neo-Soviet meat grinder, his money would be better spent in other ways. DAN may not realize it, but he’s betting on the former alternative. He could be right.

But what if he’s wrong? After all, people have been saying that "all Russia needs is a bit of time" for centuries now. How long before time simply runs out?

For more of LR's analysis of what she terms "the rise (and hopefully fall) of the Neo-Soviet Union," please visit La Russophobe.


Natalia Antonova said...

I take offense to the babushka comments. It is in the nature of human beings to stand by and let injustice happen - it is in the nature of civilization.

Everyone is complicit in evil - whether we like it or not. Babies get a free pass, and puppies... but that's about it.

To single out poor women like that is the height of self-righteousness.

Natalia said...

Oh, and to clarify - I don't think babushkas are innocent because they're poor. I just don't believe innocence.

I hope that makes sense.

Rubashov said...

So Natalia, do I understand you correctly in saying that because there is no such thing as innoncence (and conversely guilt?), that using such false "metrics" to determine our behavior towards individuals is erroneous?

If that's the case, I'm interested whether you think any sort of "decision rule" is possible, and if so, what yours would be...

I extend the invitation to answer that question to anyone else who'd like to share their thoughts as well.

Rubashov said...

Interestingly, I come to the exact opposite conclusion as LR by following the same path. She writes:

"If all Russia needs is a bit of time to get its act together, and it will then start properly caring for its population and building a successful democratic state, then its perfectly proper for DAN to give handouts to babushki in the meantime. But if Russia is hurtling pell-mell into a neo-Soviet meat grinder, his money would be better spent in other ways."

As I see it, if Russia is headed toward democracy, in the long run things will eventually become better, and perhaps one day there won't be many people left begging on the streets. With a better future ahead, perhaps there's less urgency in giving now.

However, neither LR nor I see that happening soon, and we both agree that Russia is becoming more authoritarian. However, I disagree with LR that giving money to old women will make them "less likely...[to] rise up and oppose the system that puts them in such jeopardy." Quite simply, I don't think that frail old women are going to rise up under any circumstances. It's hard enough for them to stand up, let alone make a revolution. I doubt that my donations have much weight in determining whether they'll take to the streets.

I also disagree that donating that money to democracy-promoting organizations, even grassroots ones, will make much difference. I realize that I'm a cynic. It's simply my belief that Russia will not democratize until the masses (and I really mean the masses, not just a few thousand liberals in Moscow) demand it. But when will they demand it? It's a question of mentality - I think the gap between what is and what a grassroots organization can do is too great. I am skeptical of anyone being able to change Russia's mentality easily or quickly.

So what about that babushka on the street? She's not going to rise up, nobody is going to rise up on her behalf, and the state is not going to provide what she needs. And so, I conclude that in such a situation it's more important to give, since without my few rubles she might not have anything at all.

Anonymous said...

There is another factor in play which is Russian corruption and the need for a "krysha" (roof or protection). A few years ago, there were many more people begging in Moscow and the "babushki" were but a small minority: there were the severely maimed soldiers, the sickly children, the people in wheelchairs and many others asking for change. They were however caught up in Russia's corruption and were used to prey upon the sympathy of good people to support individuals that you would not want to meet in a dark alley.

One person I remember vividly was amputated just above the waist and he was in the metro with a can and a sign asking for help. However, no matter how much I empathized with this man and felt deep pity for his plight, I did give him any money. This had to do with the fact that he and others like him were not there by accident: it was pointed out that such individuals had "protection" and they were being exploited to the profit of others. Simply put, you couldn't just go out the metro and beg without "permission." Those who were begging were being used by others to make money, and the "others" in question would be criminals and corrupt police officers (both of which received their "cut").

So, then, I did not give money as most of it would profit the exploiters and little would remain to the exploited. I could not philosophically justify enabling the exploitation of those desperately in need to pay for a criminal's new Mercedes. True, these criminals operate elsewhere demanding "protection" from businesses and others, but I did not see the need to help them any more than necessary.

Nonetheless, such displays have all but disappeared and I believe that the this is the result of the police and politicians. Putin seeks to demonstrate that things have improved in Russia, that Russia is becoming richer and more powerful. Beggars in the metro and in downtown Moscow contradict the image that is being cultivated in the media. So, rather than addressing the problem, it was easier to simply erase it from public view. Putin would have made a wonderful Wizard of Oz: he manipulates the levers behind the scene, but he has no real power to speak of and cannot solve any of the problems facing his kingdom.

andrei said...

I would like to add my five kopecks to the discussion. If you pay more attention to babushkas on Moscow streets you would notice that there are definitely two groups of them: some sell their garden flowers or vegetables or cigarettes, etc. and some simply beg. The most pitiful put an icon on the ground, stay on their knees bending the head so low that you never see their babushka covered faces (excuse my pun). Actually I wouldn’t be surprised that some these kow-towing babushkas are actually dedushkas. They stay so from morning till night and I believe it’s very uncomfortable. I would think janitor’s work is many times more comfortable and better for health. So here’s the question. What do you think about helping babuskas by buying dill or wild strawberries from them? These babushkas are probably as poor as others but at least they EARN their money.

As for authoritarian regimes, communism, democracy, etc. and its connection to poverty and poor babushkas. I saw a lot of homeless beggars and people living in poverty in the US – the richest country in the world. Do you think more freedom and democracy in America will help them? I saw absolutely no beggars in countries like Sweden or Finland – they are definitely democratic but I would call them socialist democracies. Also let’s not forget that “democracy” and “capitalism” in Russia were the main reasons why begging babushkas appeared on Moscow streets. In the Soviet Union only gypsies were begging and babushkas could help their grandchildren with money. Uzbekistan is an extremely poor country but you never see begging babushkas there because traditionally local communes take care of them. Poverty is a very complex phenomenon that has very little to do with “democracy”.

That brings us to the third point. I personally know one of the begging babushka in Moscow. She is definitely very poor and has no relatives but she owns a small flat in one of those apartment buildings on Frunzenskaya Embankment with windows facing the Moskva River and Neskushniy Garden. Guess how much is this flat worth? Would a person in the US be considered poor if his/her house is worth 2 million dollars? Will this person get any welfare from the state? How American or European officials would deal with such dilemmas?

Lyndon said...

With due respect and gratitude to Rubashov for starting this interesting discussion, I'd like to point out a flaw in his original post (quoted above by LR):

...they've seen it all in their tormented lifetimes, watching Moscow and Russian transform through the ages: the hope of a new society, the darkness of terror, the starvation of war, the promise of hope renewed, the comfort of stability, and finally disillusionment and disappointment when it was revealed that it was all a sham.

All seemingly correct, but if you talk to some elderly Russians I think you'll find that the disillusionment and disappointment occurred after the USSR (which I assume is the "it" you are referring to in the final phrase of that quotation) was all gone. By the late '80's, everyone knew that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was a sham, so there was little to be disappointed about. The real sham - in the eyes of the rapidly impoverished people - was the "market economy" which promised western living standards but in practice resulted in the life savings of this entire older demographic going "poof."

So it's a subtle distinction, and perhaps I'm nit-picking here, but this is important if we're thinking about the "hearts and minds" of Russians and their associations with the concept of democracy, which are not always positive as a result of the social shocks of the '90's.

Of course, those shocks were in some measure a market-induced "correction" from the cradle-to-grave Soviet system, but the fact remains: someone who had saved up 10,000 rubles "na knizhke" at Sberbank in 1990 was left with nothing a few years later. Then they were promised "vouchers" (remember?) and again left with nothing. And while the losses and hyperinflation may have actually resulted from the "CPSU gold" leaving the country in boxcars (as one legend of the time about "Zoloto KPSS" had it) or some other machinations by Soviet-era elites (or other economic factors beyond my comprehension), in the minds of the masses these losses are associated with the era in which they were told they were being introduced to democracy and the free market.