This Is the Russia You’re So Afraid Of?

The year before he retired from the Soviet equivalent of a mayoral post in a small Russian town, my grandfather went to Turkmenistan to visit his old friend Redzhep, a comrade from his Red Army artillery unit during World War II. Redzhep, like my grandfather, had made good of his postwar career, becoming an agronomist. As my grandfather packed for his rail journey back to Russia, Redzhep came to him in a fit of Central Asian generosity: Ivan, he said, I will give you a freight car of melons to take home.

My grandfather immediately said yes, thinking vitamins from a sun-drenched Turkmenistan plantation would be welcomed by the working families in Donskoy, the town in the Tula region, south of Moscow, that he had headed for more than 15 years. Redzhep shook his head: For you, not for the town. My grandfather went home without the melons.

The anecdote became something of a family parable in later decades. My grandfather, a deeply committed Communist, told it and retold it to illustrate how the Soviet Union had heeded the needs of the common people and to draw a contrast with what he felt was a growing callousness and neglect for them in his town — and in Russia.

That neglect began after the Communist system collapsed and has continued since. These days, Russia is projecting its power from Ukraine to Syria to Western Europe. The United States is roiled by allegations that the Kremlin meddled in the American presidential election and has had covert dealings with the Trump campaign.

Meanwhile, support for President Vladimir V. Putin is high and disdain for America, the old Cold War enemy, serves as something of an artificial social cohesive, masking the shortage of natural ones. Most people’s lives focus on economic survival rather than politics, but when they tune into state television, they hear little about domestic problems and plenty about Russia’s international muscle flexing. It is a source of national pride.

Donskoy tells a different story about Russian power.

My grandfather, a combat hero from a peasant family, was an optimist. He rejected a job in Moscow after the war so he could return to his hometown, a mining outpost he thought he could help build into a real city. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the region’s coal was depleted, he persuaded Moscow to build industry in Donskoy. He manipulated the authorities into building a music school. Old coal pits were converted into swimming pools and a stadium, which became a free ice-skating rink in winter with a giant holiday tree.

The ice rink and holiday tree were the first to go, in the 1990s. The swimming pools became algae-blanketed cesspools where my cousins and I caught frogs as kids. Even after Mr. Putin came to power in 1999, promising stability and growth, things didn’t improve much.

In the 2000s, municipal buses were replaced by unregulated “gazelles” — vans as jumpy and difficult to mount as the animal they are named after. Train service to Moscow ended in 2005, so residents now take buses for shift work in the capital, four hours away. The hospital closed its maternity ward for a year in 2015 after its neonatal specialist died because it could not find a replacement willing to accept the low salary. One was eventually brought in from Kyrgyzstan.

Today, in this town of 30,000 people, there is not a single cafe. The main drag is dotted with the offices of loan sharking businesses that offer “micro credits” with 2 percent daily interest to people whose pensions or salaries can’t be stretched to the end of the month.

“Not quite a town anymore, but not yet a village,” Lyuba, a family friend, once described what she observed from her window. Like most Russians bound to a wheelchair, she couldn’t leave her Soviet apartment block for years because it had neither elevator nor ramp.

Donskoy isn’t Russia’s poorest city. The problems here are common in provincial towns: potholed roads, ancient utilities and underfunded health care. Official statistics indicate that the percentage of Russians living below the poverty line — less than $170 per month — has been growing since 2013, and that by mid-2016 they numbered more than 21 million people in a country of 143 million. A report in December on spending by typical provincial families concluded that 70 percent to 80 percent of monthly income goes to essentials like food, medicine and transportation.
While the government spent an estimated $50 billion on the 2014 Sochi Olympics and unleashed a bombing campaign in Syria, there were people in Donskoy living in collapsing dormitory-style barracks built as temporary housing for miners in the 1930s.

In late February, as I waded through melting snow on my way to hail a yellow “gazelle” decorated with a fading sticker that said, “No rides for Obama,” I talked to Boris Minashkin, a former colleague of my grandfather and the mayor of Donskoy from 1997 to 2005, when the town still filled the post through a popular vote. (These days, mayors are appointed by municipal deputies from the local council. Donskoy is run by people from Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.)

I asked him why the city was in such a state of ruin. The problem, he said, is Russia’s tax system, which sucks money from provincial towns and funnels it to Moscow. “Of course, the state must concentrate resources for its stately needs, otherwise there wouldn’t be a state at all,” he said dutifully. But if in the early 2000s, residents of Donskoy could imagine a future where hard work and self-reliance could improve their quality of life, that illusion has disappeared.

At the music school, built in my grandfather’s time, Tatyana, a piano teacher, told me that even though she has retired she works six days a week to make ends meet. Despite sending kids to win in national contests, the school struggles to pay its monthly heating bills. Its grand piano, dating from the ’60s, is coming apart. The modest earnings of the staff are about to decrease because of a new salary “coefficient” imposed by the government this year.

Tatyana says she used to speak out against injustices and voice disagreement with the Kremlin’s position on the conflict in Ukraine and other issues. But recently she’s given up. Outrage by individuals like her over even mundane causes, like failure by the utilities company to deliver services to her building, are met with hostility rather than support from most of her neighbors. Economic stagnation seems to inspire only political stagnation: Last year’s parliamentary elections drew a historic low turnout.

“The patience of our people is a real paradox,” she said. “When Crimea happened, colleagues at the school divided like the country did — 90 percent were for it. The arguments got personal, and we realized we cannot work like this. So, just like that, we went silent. Now we talk only about music.”

Maria Antonova is a Moscow-based reporter for Agence France-Presse.

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