Category Archives: Russia

News and Observer column overlooks big problems in Russian healthcare system

After experiencing frustrating problems with two doctors at a Cary, N.C. medical practice, Oksana Zhirnov decided to take some radical steps to get medical care.

Instead of finding a new local doctor, Zhirnov packed her bags and flew off to Russia to see a physician, she writes in an opinion column in today’s (Raleigh) News & Observer.

Apparently, Zhirnov had a very positive experience in the private Russian medical system—and paid only $250 (plus airfare) for several diagnostics, a diet consultation, and even French herb-based gall bladder tablets.

She believes that her private Russian doctors were so good because they face competition from Russia’s government-run universal health care system.

Based on this conjecture—and the fact that her mother, living in Russia, pays $1,200 a year for medical care—Zhirnov concludes:

My experience with these two health care systems leads me to believe that the American health care system is not as patient-focused as the private Russian system. Maybe a two-tiered system for medical coverage would improve the quality of health care offered to all Americans, like me.

There are excellent arguments being made for the creation of some kind of universal health care coverage in the United States. But Zhirnov’s column is not among them.

While Russia’s private health care system—where doctors are paid in cash by patients—may, in fact, be quite good, Russia’s public system is a corruption-filled mess.

As Alex Rodriguez writes in the Chicago Tribune, “Russia is an unhealthy nation, and its health-care system is just as sick. Its hospitals are understaffed, poorly equipped and rife with corruption.”

Rodriguez goes on to describe how bribery often greases the wheels of remarkably poor medical care, and cites an Open Health Institute statistic that 35 percent of money spent on health care goes to corruption.

A 2007 article from a Moscow Times correspondent published in the New York Times lays out how this corruption affects ordinary patients:

When Karen Papiyants lost his leg in a road accident last year, his medical nightmare was only beginning.

Although like any Russian he was entitled to free treatment, he says the doctors strongly suggested he pay $4,500 into their St. Petersburg hospital’s bank account, or be deprived proper care – and perhaps not even survive.

Faced with that choice, relatives of the 37-year-old truck driver scrambled to scrape together the money. But Papiyants said that did not stop the nursing staff from leaving him unattended for most of the night and giving him painkillers only after he screamed in agony.

“It’s nothing but blackmail and extortion on the part of doctors,” Papiyants said.

Beyond corruption, the Chicago Tribune article notes that in 2006, the state-run system ran low on prescription drugs due to bureaucratic problems. Only those with money to buy drugs elsewhere could afford to stay healthy. In 2007, a state hospital in Eastern Russia ran out of syringes. Again, only those with money to buy their own could be treated.

Given the dismal state of Russia’s public health care system, it’s shocking to see a call for universal health care based on this nation. A two-tiered system of the Russian sort might be good for those in the top tier, but relegating everyone else to bribery and poor care is not something any government program should ever do.

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The St. Petersburg Grand Choral Synagogue, at 2 Lermontovsky Prospekt, is one of the largest in Europe. It serves a shrinking and aging Jewish population, in a city and country that have a history of anti-Jewish sentiment.

For about the first hundred years of St. Petersburg’s existence, Jews were officially forbidden from living in the city. Nevertheless, some lived in the city in order to serve Russian leaders, primarily as merchants or doctors.

Toward the beginning of the 19th century, restrictions on Jews were relaxed, though many were still required to live within the Pale of Settlement in Russia’s western region.

Throughout the 19th century, St. Petersburg’s Jewish population grew, and Tsar Alexander II granted the community permission to build a synagogue. However, construction did not begin until 1883, following Alexander II’s assasination, which triggered anti-Semitism and pogroms in the Pales of Settlement, though not in St. Petersburg.

Completed in 1893, the synagogue has witnessed wars and revolutions, but still tenaciously stands today. Having been neglected and looted during the early Communist period, the synagogue was restored between 2001-2003. According to the synagogue’s official history, on which much of this post is based, the synagogue’s various schools currently serve about 500 Jewish children, the future of St. Petersburg’s Jewish community.

Click here for photos from my visit to the Grand Choral Synagogue.

US will work with Russia to investigate journalist’s Moscow murder

Following the fifth anniversary of the Moscow murder of Paul Klebnikov, a Forbes editor who started the Russian-language edition of the magazine, the Russian government has agreed to accept help from the U.S. in investigating the killing.

One can only hope that the involvement of American investigators will help catch the assasins—and that Russia’s commitment to resolving the case will give journalists who continue to work under dangerous conditions in Russia some respite from the violence and intimidation they sometimes face.

New York Times on Russian Racism

As I was writing yesterday’s post about Russian racism, I was surprised to find that the American media had ignored this issue as America’s first black president visited Moscow. But today, the New York Times addressed Russian racism in a piece on Russia’s lack of Obama-mania:

In the background is the question of race, which Russians view through a complicated prism. For decades, Soviet propaganda hammered home the idea that the United States was an irredeemably racist country, as opposed to the Communist bloc nations. But Russia in recent years has been plagued by racist violence against people from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, as well as other immigrants.

Yet many young Russians, like David Zokhrabian, 21, who recently received a graduate degree in international relations from Moscow State University, said Mr. Obama’s race cut both ways. “Students in Moscow, they are pretty positive about this,” he said. “It’s cool, modern, progressive. All the students know American history, they know about segregation, so it shows us about democracy, how it can be.”

But the same cannot be said for average Russians, he said, adding: “It looks weird to them. They just think that America has gone crazy.”

Racism in Russia

As I was hanging out by the Gulf of Finland recently, a Russian acquaintance engaged me in a conversation about U.S. politics.

“Do you think Obama can solve the U.S. economic crisis,” he asked.

“I think he’s working hard on it – I think he has a good chance,” I responded.

“But,” the Russian persisted, “Obama is black.”

This exchange wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Russians question Obama’s competence based on his ethnicity (though I have relatively few conversations with Russians, in part due to my limited Russian skills).

More broadly, it fits into a pattern of racist attitudes held by some (but certainly not all) Russians towards people who are not white Europeans.

The media has overlooked this attitude, even as newspapers and TV stations have reported on Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia as he visits Moscow.

But for those harmed by Russian racism, this pernicious social fact cannot be overlooked.

Visibly foreign students, particularly Africans and Asians, sometimes face harassment and even violence in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, as documented by the BBC in several 2006 articles.

A lot of the violence is perpetrated by Neo-Nazis, such as the ones described in this TIME article. But the attitude goes beyond the skinheads.

There are also the subtle looks at minorities, the passing comments made about people from “the south” (Largely Muslims from Russia’s southern regions and the bordering former Soviet republics), the police harassment (see this article, for example), the recoiling of subway passengers from dark-skinned people, the racist chants targeting black players at Zenit football matches — all of which make Russia an unfriendly place for those who are not white.

One of our Russian teachers, a middle-aged woman, began class by asking each of her students what we had done the week before.

After we finished describing the museums we had visited, she said, “It’s great that you get out. The Chinese students never go anywhere. Only to the store.”

The same teacher also told us about the “problem” Russia has. People from “the south,” she said, are moving into St. Petersburg and other major cities and giving birth to many children. She worried that these people (who are strong and able to produce lots of kids because they don’t drink, as she put it), will soon outnumber white Russians.

Understanding today’s Russia

With President Obama in Moscow, America’s attention has been focused anew on its former cold war adversary. But nearly two decades after the fall of Communism, Russia remains an enigma to many Americans.

In an excellent example of explanatory journalism, Clifford J. Levy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, offers a simple six-step guide to “decoding Russia.”

Mr. Levy’s broad ideas about modern Russia are quite perceptive and accurate (no earth-shattering revelations), and should be read by every American who wants to gain a better understanding of the new Russia.

They reflect a strong understanding of what makes Russia tick – an understanding no doubt fed by Mr. Levy’s command of Russian and his efforts to reach out to Russian readers and sources.

Through all of Mr. Levy’s points runs a common thread – to understand Russia today, one needs to have an accurate understanding of Russia’s past. As I’ve written about before, this includes an appreciation for the massive toll of World War II – the Great Patriotic War – on Russia, and Russia’s perception that it bore the brunt of the conflict.

Beyond World War II, it’s important to acknowledge that Russians have a mixed view of their past – and that for many, the Soviet system had favorable aspects, while the current capitalist system has its pluses and minuses as well.

For more on what you need to know to understand Russia, including a brief overview of Russia’s take on former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (TIME Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year), check out Mr. Levy’s piece.

Have your own questions about Russia? Leave them in the comments or send me an email, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

On Independence Days

Happy July 4!

I hope you are all enjoying fireworks, barbecues, and all the other trappings of Independence Day in America.

A concert in Palace Square for Russia Day.

A concert in Palace Square for Russia Day.

Russia has it’s own independence day, of sorts, on June 12.

The problem is that Russia has never really received independence from another entity (Unless you want to go back to the Mongol hordes). It’s always been Russia, in one form or another.

That’s why June 12 is known as “Day of adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Federation” or Russia Day – День России for short.

It marks the day in 1990 when Russia declared itself separate (or independent, if you’d like) from the Soviet Union (one of the key steps in dissolving the USSR).

Most Russians don’t really know what to make of the holiday, but they do get the day off of work to attend free concerts thrown by the state (Like the one we went to in St. Petersburg on Palace Square, featuring old Soviet, err, Russian, stars) or to go to their countryside dachas.

Tomorrow – Kronstadt

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring some of St. Petersburg’s 20th century historical sites.

Tomorrow, I’ll be venturing outside the city to the island and naval base of Kronstadt, about 20 miles west in the Gulf of Finland.

Kronstadt was the linchpin of St. Petersburg’s naval defenses at the turn of the twentieth century, and a line of forts on and near the island defend the city from the sea.

But in 1917, during the Bolshevik Revolution, the sailors at Kronstadt mutinied, killing their commanding officers. Due to this revolt, the sailors became known as some of the most pro-Red forces in Russia.

In 1921, however, as Lenin solidified control over the Soviet Union, the sailors became disenchanted with heavy-handed Bolshevik tactics, such as the violent suppression of strikes and the imposition of censorship. In early March, the sailors issued a set of demands, angering Bolshevik leaders.

Days later, 60,000 Red Army troops were ordered to attack Kronstadt across the ice from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The troops suffered heavy casualties in their assault—the ice offered no protection from Kronstadt’s guns—and some had to be forced into battle by the Cheka, the KGB’s precursor.

By mid-March, the rebellion had been suppressed, at the cost of at least 10,000 Red Army soldiers and perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 Kronstadt rebels.

The 1921 Kronstadt rebellion was seen in the West as a sharp rebuke to the Soviet manifestation of Communism. On March 1, 1956, the 35th anniversary of the revolt and a few days after Khrushchev’s (not-so-secret) Secret Speech denouncing Stalinism, the New York Times wrote in an editorial:

In sorrow tinged with hope friends of freedom the world over today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Kronstadt Rebellion, which, though drowned in blood by Lenin and Trotsky, serves even today to remind us of the Russian people’s love for liberty.

Beyond a large and beautiful cathedral, I’m not sure what there is to see at Kronstadt. But there’s no way I could leave St. Petersburg without spending a day on an island steeped in so much history.

Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

The Second World War—and in Leningrad, the 900-day siege of the city by German forces—was one of the defining events of Russian history (yes, I’ve written about the war a lot lately.).

To better understand the role of the Great Patriotic War and the blockade in St. Petersburg’s history, I went to the most tragic monument to the human cost of World War II: Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Click here for photographs from my visit to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I arrived at the cemetery, a half hour walk down Проспект Непокорённых (Avenue of the Unvanquished) in northern St. Petersburg, expecting rows of neat tomb stones marked with Russian names and tragic end-dates from 1941 to 1945. I expected Hammer and Sickles chiseled into stone monuments to brave soldiers alongside the graves of innocent civilians who perished in the blockade.

My vision of military cemeteries was shaped by places like Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

But Piskaryovskoye is nothing like Arlington.

I entered the cemetery between two rectangular white-stone buildings. Inscribed on one’s wall: Пискарёвское мемориальное кладбище – Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I approached the eternal flame that burns red just beyond the entrance—it was hardly visible in the bright sunlight—and looked out over the cemetery in the small valley below.

At the far side, about a quarter mile away, stood a dark statue of Mother Motherland (The name of Mother Russia during Soviet times). Between her and me, I saw three parallel pathways, nearly empty of people, lined by grass and rosebushes. I did not see any tombstones, but thought they must be hidden behind the trees to the sides of the paths.

Descending into the cemetery, I suddenly understood the absence of tombstones.

The grass to the left and right of the paths covered rows of identical rectangular mounds, each marked by a stone inscribed with the year 1942, a Hammer and Sickle, and a leaf.

I had found my chiseled Hammer and Sickles.

But they marked mass graves, 186 in all, containing nearly 500,000 people—more deaths than the United States suffered in the entirety of the Second World War, more people than are buried in all the rolling hills of Arlington.

Never before had I seen mass graves. They struck me as somehow more tragic than traditional tombstones; a jumble of former lives, anonymously lying under green grass in the late June sun.

A few plastic flowers stemmed from the fronts of the graves—strange, bright contrasts to the sombre music playing from hidden speakers.

I made my way down the length of the cemetery, slowly passing the still mounds, til I reached the towering Mother Motherland.

On the stone behind her, there is a memorial poem (translation courtesy of my Lonely Planet guidebook):

Here lie the people of Leningrad

Here are the citizens – men, women, and children

And besides them the Red Army soldiers

Who gave their lives

Defending you, Leningrad,

Cradle of the Revolution.

Their noble names we cannot number

So many lie beneath the eternal granite

But of those honored by this stone

Let no one forget

Let nothing be forgotten.

After pausing to make out what I could of the poem in Russian, I began walking through the rest of the cemetery. (I’ll soon have photos online with more detailed information about the cemetery.)

The mass graves are numbered—I wanted find the last one, number 186.

This goal brought me to the far back corner, far from Mother Motherland, surrounded by trees and grassy mounds of dead.

After some wandering, I found the 186th mass grave. I stopped there a moment, and wondered. How many people were buried under the rectangular mound?

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

As I thought, I picked up a small stone and placed it atop the grave marker.

Over 2000, I figured. And then I made my way back, up, and out of the cemetery.

Click here for my photos from Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

A visit to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Entirely by accident, I visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on June 21, 68 years to the day after Nazi troops poured across the length of the Soviet Union’s western border in Operation Barbarossa, starting four years of blood-soaked conflict on the Eastern Front.

By the time Soviet troops reached Berlin in early May of 1945, about 27 million Soviet citizens (about half soldiers, half civilians) had died, just over 15 percent of the USSR’s pre-war population.

Over a million of those deaths occurred during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, widely considered the most deadly siege in world history.

So that the deaths of the siege (among civilians, largely of starvation, disease, and cold) will never be forgotten, monuments to and reminders of the siege stand throughout St. Petersburg, as I wrote about when I visisted The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

Since that visit, I’ve run into many more of these constant reminders.

Near the Hermitage, a marker affixed to a wall during the the siege advises Leningraders that the other side of the street is safer when German shells rain down. Fresh flowers always lay beneath it.

At Isaaki Cathedral, a giant chunk of stone is missing from one of the 100-ton pillars that support the building. Near the wound, a plaque state it’s cause: Nazi bomb. Another similar piece of damage, on a bridge over the Fontanka Canal, is also marked by a plaque.

But the most visible, impressive reminder of the war is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, located on Moskovsky Prospekt, the main road into St. Petersburg from the south.

Centered around a 48 meter high obelisk, the gray monument pays tribute to both the soldiers and civilians who contributed to the city’s defense and ultimate salvation.

Behind the large obelisk, one can descend into the center of the monument. Here, a smaller monument to civilians lies at the center of a large broken circle, symbolizing the breaking of the siege.

The center of the monument.

The center of the monument.

Music, quiet and somber, plays in this part of the monument, setting the tone.

A small museum of the siege is located beneath the monument. Electronic candles line the tops of the walls. Flags from the many groups of defenders hang from the ceiling. Artifacts from the war fill display cases. The only sound is the ticking of a metronome, played over the radio throughout the siege to let Leningraders know that the heart of the city was still beating.

The museum beneath the monument.

The museum beneath the monument.

Click here for more photographs from the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad.