[Marxism] Where the Booze Can Kill, and Putin Is Deemed a ‘Good Czar’
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Sun Feb 19 10:27:11 MST 2017
NY Times, Feb. 19 2017
Where the Booze Can Kill, and Putin Is Deemed a ‘Good Czar’
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
IRKUTSK, Russia — The overworked cleaning woman realized that her grown
son was not just sleeping off his habitual hangover in the Siberian city
of Irkutsk when she discovered — to her horror — that he had quietly
Even as his speech slurred and his condition steadily deteriorated, the
man, Renat V. Mukhamadeyev, 31, dissuaded his widowed mother from
summoning an ambulance until about midnight. Wheeled into the emergency
room at nearby Hospital No. 8 — by then a hellish madhouse of the dead
and the dying — he fell into a coma and expired within a day, one of at
least 76 victims of a mass alcohol poisoning.
To many outsiders, including President Trump and his inner circle of
advisers, Russia is riding high today, strutting about the globe. It
wields its clout both openly, by sending its military into Ukraine and
Syria, and surreptitiously, warping politics in Europe and America
through a sustained campaign of propaganda and cyberwarfare.
Yet, at home, the picture is decidedly bleaker.
Since oil prices plunged in 2014 and the West imposed economic sanctions
over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has been mired in a grinding
recession that has lowered living standards throughout the country. For
many people, this has meant exhausting savings, cutting back on
expensive items like meat and fish, growing their own vegetables and —
tragically, in the case of Irkutsk — buying cheap vodka substitutes.
Most of the afflicted in Irkutsk started that Saturday night in December
just like Mr. Mukhamadeyev, trotting out to a local kiosk or small
corner store to buy “boyaryshnik” — “hawthorn” in Russian, lending the
product a false holistic air. The label called it bath oil and warned
against drinking the contents, but it was common knowledge that
bootleggers produced the rotgut specifically as poor man’s vodka.
“Everybody drank it because it was the cheapest,” wailed Zoya
Mukhamadeyeva, 59, Mr. Mukhamadeyev’s mother, tearfully kissing
childhood photographs of her only son.
The working-class neighborhood of Novo-Lenino, where the bulk of the
victims lived in this provincial capital some 2,600 miles east of
Moscow, is in many ways a snapshot of the growing poverty in Russia.
“The situation is typical for the whole country. It just happened here,”
said Yuri Pronin, the editor of Baikalskiye Vesti, a local independent
It was not supposed to be this way. Over the 16 years that Vladimir V.
Putin has served as either president or prime minister of Russia, the
standard of living had inched upward in the neighborhood, even as it
soared in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Squat, five-story banks
of numbing gray Soviet apartment blocks gave way to cheerfully colored,
10-story buildings constructed around appealing playgrounds.
Imported cars clogged the parking lots. Pizzerias and health clubs vied
for the residents’ spare rubles.
As he imposed order on the economy and cut back press and political
freedoms, Mr. Putin promised in return better lives for all Russians,
laying out a series of targets for 2020.
At least 60 percent and maybe even 70 percent of Russia’s 143 million
population would join the middle class. Average salaries would rise to
40,000 rubles a month (more than $1,000 then; less than $700 at current
exchange rates). Russians would live far longer, with life expectancy
for both men and women reaching 75.
During the recession, those and other benchmarks have receded.
Nationwide, the ranks of people who consider themselves middle class has
dropped to around 50 percent. The average wage of 36,703 rubles would
have to be 55,000 in 2017 rubles to equal Mr. Putin’s target. In the
Irkutsk region, the number of people living below the poverty line —
officially 10,000 rubles per month, about $170 — has grown to about 20
percent from 17 percent before the crisis.
In Siberia, residents traditionally raise a birthday toast “to Siberian
health,” as if the harsh climate forges a stronger constitution. In
reality, people in the Irkutsk region die at age 67 on average — 59 for
men — compared with 77 in Moscow. The climate and the drinking, as well
as inferior medical services, take their toll.
The overall population of Irkutsk is also shrinking. “People constantly
discuss the lack of prospects here,” said Mikhail Rozhansky, the head of
the Center for Independent Social Research and Education.
While the modern apartments and new cars lend Novo-Lenino a patina of
prosperity, the people have little work and dwindling savings, said
Andrei Kolganov, who spurned a Moscow career to become a clown in the
neighborhood, parlaying that into a successful children’s entertainment
center. Problems spiraled after 2014.
“The majority of the people in this neighborhood drink illegal alcohol,”
Mr. Kolganov said during an impromptu tour. “You can see that people
don’t live that badly. But they don’t have work, nobody needs them, so
they drink. It’s a Russian tradition.”
Even some local people were shocked by the number of seemingly
comfortable people who drank the tainted alcohol — nurses, teachers,
drivers — people with steady if low-paying jobs. Some victims just
keeled over on the street, residents said, and others were discovered
dead days later in their apartments.
“Everybody knew that it was not bath oil. That label was just meant to
fend off the inspectors,” Mr. Kolganov said. “What really shocked people
is that those who died wanted to give the appearance that they were
doing well, but they lacked the money to buy decent vodka.”
Although sold under different names for decades, even from vending
machines, the basic product remained uniform. Boyaryshnik was packaged
in a 250-gram bottle of almost 95 percent alcohol that cost about $1,
and could be diluted to create a normal-size bottle of what was
considered vodka. A 500-gram bottle of legal vodka, with all government
taxes paid, costs around five times as much.
After the mass poisoning, investigators discovered that some bootleggers
had produced a batch of boyaryshnik using methanol instead of ethanol.
Even a small amount of methanol is fatal, as it destroys the central
nervous system, including the optic nerve.
That Sunday, seeing her son lying practically comatose, Mrs.
Mukhamadeyeva, who juggles three cleaning jobs, summoned a doctor living
in the building. He discovered that Renat had gone blind without saying
Later that night, Mrs. Mukhamadeyeva said, she encountered bedlam in the
emergency room. Even as her son was wheeled into the intensive care
unit, she said, four corpses were carted out. Told to wait, she watched
a woman on a stretcher die by the admitting desk.
“Doctors were running here and there, but they could not seem to do
anything,” she said. There is no antidote to methanol, but some of the
123 affected over all by official count lived — other alcohol they drank
apparently diluted the methanol.
Even before the poisonings, market vendors in Novo-Lenino had noticed
that residents were getting poorer. Shoppers bought more cabbage and
macaroni, less meat. Any discounted produce sold first.
That mirrors changes nationwide. After two years of recession and what
consumers say is roughly a doubling of food prices, government
statistics indicate that the average Russian eats markedly less meat,
fish, dairy products and sugar, while consumption of potatoes, melons
and vegetables has jumped. About half of all Russians grow a portion of
their own fruits and vegetables.
Such changes were not limited to the poor. Some people with suburban
dachas who seeded lawns during the fat years have since dug them up to
plant potatoes, said Larisa Kazakova, a local opposition activist.
“Everyone tries to grow their own potatoes,” said Mr. Kolganov, laughing
when told that a few university professors had denied knowing anyone in
such dire straits. “Do you think a university professor is going to
confess to you that he has to plant potatoes to get by?”
Until the vodka tragedy, nobody protested the economic plight.
“We all saw the difficulties as temporary,” explained Alexander
Rasstrigin, a businessman of ample girth who owns the Progress Plus
“Before the sanctions, people lived quite well,” he said. “People took
out loans. They were confident about tomorrow. They bought cars. They
were sure there would be stability.”
Now it seems as if everyone can afford only half, or less, of what he or
she could before. Pensioners in particular count every kopeck, Mr.
“We buy fewer extras,” he said. “I cannot afford expensive cheese. I
cannot afford good kielbasa. I don’t buy any delicacies.”
The poisoning even roused a rare protest, but only among vendors
incensed after city bulldozers began smashing their 30 market stalls.
They felt they were being scapegoated for the illicit vodka trade, which
the police had long tolerated, if not controlled. Boyaryshnik has since
been banned — at least temporarily — and some two dozen local police
officials, bureaucrats and dealers have been detained, but no major
Asked about the poisonings at a news conference, Mr. Putin criticized
“supervisory bodies” for failing to prevent the tragedy, but ultimately
blamed unidentified foreigners. Given that experts estimate the bootleg
trade represents 20 percent of the national alcohol market, nobody
expects it to disappear soon.
Describing their protest later, a small knot of women grew agitated.
“Let people see how Putin really manages this country, see how poor
people really live!” yelled one.
Tatyana, 58, a short, stout fishmonger, said she lived on a pension of
about $133 a month. She ate normally one week every month, she said,
then subsisted on bread and butter.
“We suffer while those in power eat black caviar by the spoonful,” she
said, miming a person shoving a spoon into his mouth.
“Spoonful?” scoffed Elena, another vegetable seller. “They gorge on
buckets of the stuff!”
In a curiously Russian dynamic, they avoided blaming Mr. Putin personally.
“The president says that small business should be protected, but
lower-level bureaucrats continue with their dark deeds and as a result
we will all end up unemployed,” Mr. Rasstrigin said.
The vendors were convinced, as Russians have been for centuries, that if
only the czar knew of their plight he would surely intervene. “Tell
Moscow, tell Putin, that they are closing the market,” Elena pleaded.
Mr. Putin is expected to win a fourth term as president in 2018,
ensuring him another six years in office. His unmet pledges on issues
like life expectancy do not enter the calculus of most voters, analysts
Older Russians in particular remain grateful to Mr. Putin for ending the
chaos and lawlessness of the 1990s, while over all he has made Russians
feel better about themselves and their country’s standing in the world.
“I like Putin. He is a good czar, and Russia needs a czar,” said Mr.
Kolganov, the businessman, stressing that he wanted to avoid excessive
criticism or praise.
“He is protecting us; how can we say anything against him?” he added.
“If he did not do some of what he promised, well, how can one person do
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from Irkutsk, and Oleg Matsnev
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