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.
RUSSIAN PHILOSOPHY 101
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.