Recently I read Squeaky Robot’s very eloquent and insightful blog from when (s)he was in Russia, warning against the continued use of only ‘one story‘. As I write about people I meet and places I go, I keep on returning to this idea, especially as it challenges this view that ‘the time under the Soviet Union was a purely bad one’. As in any time, some people experienced a completely different version of the narrative than others, and it’s not surprising that the increase of inequality and a more active discussion and open display of social problems now can lead people to be nostalgic for the good old times. Today, clearly, times are good, and times are bad.
By the books, Russia does extremely well in avoiding poverty- although recently increased somewhat, the figure is still around 13%. In Moscow in particular, the unemployment rate has been measured to be between 0.3 and 1.6 for the last few years, a stunning figure and one many a policy maker will be jealous of. Increased efforts to crack down on homelessness (a big problem after the right to accommodation dissolved along with the Soviet Union) as well as alcoholism, have reduced the deaths on the streets, cleaned up the parks, and changed the atmosphere in the city. Gorky Park is a case in point- redesigned so recently that everyone from Wikipedia to Lonely Planet still carry images of a theme park or roller coaster, all of these structures have been removed and replaced with the clean, open and manicured space it is now (See more here or here).
And yet, even with these low figures, we come to face with inequality daily. As in any big city, I suppose, the clashing of living-standards is especially apparent. Walk out of your comfortable shared room, down the street and find the man who works day and night handing out fliers- a job with insane hours that is getting terribly cold, can’t be particularly stimulating, and certainly has no development prospects. Marching past him are students, laughing, joking, wearing their beanies firmly pulled over their ears. After a hop, skip and a jump on the metro you end up on Arbatskaya, where an crumpled heap is lying on the grate above the metro, the only warm place to sleep. At the same time the street vendor selling his paintings seems satisfied with a good day of sales. Half way down the street, in front of the luxury, branded store which attracts fur-clad ladies an old woman peddles flowers.
But while the contrast here is shocking, I get the feeling that there is much being done in Moscow to try and address inequality issues. The benefits that are handed out have a broad reach, are supplemented by the local government, and by most accounts do a lot to help assist especially single parent families and pensioners to avoid poverty.
In contrast, awareness of inequality hit us full force in Sergiev Possad, where I lost count of the women with their small plastic cups. Particularly heartbreaking though, was the small girl that followed us a short while, her high-pitched voice asking us for any small donation we could make. The town is still in the Moscow region, but the lack of blatant wealth challenges the idea of duality that I have from the city itself. The expectation that poverty and wealth go hand in hand was not fulfilled in the way it is in the daily (often hand) swept streets.
The danger of the one-story narrative is pervasive throughout what I write, because I only write of my experiences. I ask the reader to remember this, and also that I am in a city. Differences between the city, especially the capital, and other areas of a country are familiar to all of us. London and the Lake District are metaphorical and actual miles apart. Berlin and the islands in the North Sea are similar- I could go on. In a way cities are particularly interesting because they become a kind of microcosm of human interaction and society, but this especially makes them unique, and non-representative.
And now I ask you: How aware are you of the inequality around you? How does your local government address the issues? Have you been to Moscow, or Russia? Can you point me in the direction of programmes and organisations that actively implement programs of social assistance?