By John Evelyn
Mass starvation. It seems so unreal-something that happens somewhere else, on the other side of the TV screen. It doesn't happen to white folks during peacetime, certainly not in a country that has Jack's pizza delivery and a Maxim's de Paris. Right?
Wrong. As evidence accumulates of the real possibility of a Russian famine, government officials are busy mounting a half-assed cover-up, while the IMF is attempting to organize massive food aid shipments in excess of $1 billion in order to prevent a disaster.
"We can't exclude the possibility of mass starvation if the situation continues to deteriorate." So said Borje Sjokvist, head of the Moscow delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, live on Radio Liberty last month.
Food shortages. Power cuts. Hyperinflation. People squeaking by on garbage, vermin, and the occasional aid parcel. A corrupt and universally hated regime now in the death throes of ideological and moral bankruptcy. Sound familiar? Maybe not if you live in Moscow; expect the capital (and the few other remaining oases of quasi-capitalism and relative wealth) to beef up security and become ever more isolated from the rest of the country.
The vast majority of Russians, meanwhile, will see the widespread poverty that has a virtual stranglehold on the country's territory from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka continue to fortify its roots. For these 100 million faceless statistics that Moscow-and the rest of the world-forgot, Russia's capricious flirtation with free-market reforms will grind to a close exactly as it began-except no one is naive enough any longer to hope that things could change for the better.
How did it happen? Ekho Moskvy radio recently put it neatly, boiling the Yeltsin era to its most basic elements: "bad weather, blight, drought, incompetence, alcoholism, and other natural disasters." In other words, the usual Russian blunders seem to be joining forces with a God who really seems to have it in for his long-suffering Slavic flock this year to create of palpable doomsday mood across one-sixth of the world's landmass. And now it's only a matter of time before the Babylonian excesses of Moscow's New Rich finally succumb to what promises to be a winter full of Biblical degradations.
You almost need a damn slide ruler to tally all the different ways Russia is royally fucked this winter. The ruble has lost two thirds of its purchasing power, just about everyone with savings has seen them virtually wiped out, monthly inflation leapt to 63% in September, the wheat harvest is the worst in 40 years, and even the potato crop is a no-show, early cold and heavy rains having turned most specimen's of the country's biggest staple into practically inedible underground deposits of unpleasant green mush. All of which spells disaster for the 56% of Russians who have been reduced to a survival based on subsistence farming by a government that has never had any desire to pay their wages, not even now that they're worth 66% less than just two months ago.
Oh yeah, and despite defaulting on $200 billion in domestic debt and having received $24 billion from the IMF over the last six years, the government mysteriously doesn't have anywhere near enough money to cope with the consequences of all the above. Nor can it expect to raise so much as a red kopeck abroad, since its credit rating is now locked down in the cellar with the other inbred bastard children of the world.
It took half a century of brutality to drag Russia, as Stalin-era Washington Post hack Walter Duranty put it, "kicking and screaming into the 20th century." Under Yeltsin, the process has been reversed, with vast swathes of the country quietly slipping back into the timeless rhythms of peasant Russia. But these cycles inevitably include years of famine.
For remote northern regions the famine is virtually a done deal. At the Goritsy convent in the Vologda region, Sister Yefaliya and seven other nuns live much as their predecessors did 500 years ago, when Ivan the Terrible imprisoned one of his wives and two of his daughters-in-law there. The nuns survive on what they can grow in their gardens, keep a few head of cattle and goats, and heat their houses with wood stoves. Goritsy, perched on a steep lakeside embankment, looks from a distance like some Tolstoyan idyll of Russian pre-industrial innocence. But this year the normally abundant crop has been decimated.
The locals have no surplus to sell to speculators who drive down in trucks from the neighboring Arkhangelsk region to buy up food for winter. Potato prices on the local market have already risen by 50%. The shortage means total disaster for Russia's Northern regions who rely on produce from the south to survive. Two thirds of Russia is officially classified as the "North." This year, summer in areas of Chukotka in the far north-east lasted only 18 days. The whole region is dependent on outside food supplies.
But despite the fact that the region produces two thirds of Russia's mineral wealth-diamonds, gold, oil, nickel and gas-the 12 million people who live here face the hardest winter in living memory. Due to bureaucratic ineptitude, corruption, and a lack of government cash, the North has to date received only 45% of food supplies and little more than half the coal it needs for the winter. Some remote regions have received less than 20% of the food they need and only 17% of the coal-and the rivers by which they can be supplied have already frozen solid.
The government has two bleak choices: organize a mass evacuation of 1.2 million people from the furthest-flung regions, or pay for costly emergency airlifts of food and fuel. There's no money to do either. Murmansk governor Yuri Yevdokimov got fed up with waiting for the federal government to get its shit together and went to the Scandinavians for emergency aid. His counterpart in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which is almost totally reliant on imported food that is now beyond the means of most of the population, declared a state of emergency and appealed to neighboring Lithuania and Poland for help. The Baltic Fleet in September admitted that its sailors were down to emergency rations and had just over 20 days worth of food left. Since then, a veil of secrecy has descended and a new guy in the fleet's press center gives no further updates. In other words, everything's just fine again.
The government of Yevgeny Primakov has reacted predictably-by privately begging for food aid, and then publicly denying it. Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, confirmed that Primakov raised the issue of food aid at a meeting in Brussels earlier this month. Behind the scenes, EU officials say that they are preparing to send up to $1.2 billion worth of food and medical supplies-one of the biggest disaster relief operations of the decade, an operation that will rival the Band Aid food drives to save fly-infested Ethiopian skeletons back in the 80s.
Aid agencies and the EU are wary of comparing the projected aid operation to a Third World disaster-but it's hard to keep up the fig-leaf of tact. "We need to be very careful not to draw parallels-they hate to be compared to the Third World," says Caroline Hurford of the Red Cross. "They used to be a Superpower, after all."
Deputy Premier Gennady Kulik last week denied that Russia had requested any aid, saying that "foreign aid agencies have offered their assistance." Yeah. And Boris Fyodorov might fly out of my butt. Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov confirmed on his return from a trip to Washington last Wednesday that US officials had also been quietly approached by the Russian government to provide grain. In other words, while Primakov was angrily wiggling his flaccid chin over NATO air-strikes in Kosovo, his colleagues were furtively groveling to Uncle Sam for a "We Are The World" operation, as well as trying to shake down the IMF for yet another tranche of loans.
It's the same story with the Agriculture Ministry. In late September, Minister Gennady Kulik denied that Russia would need to import grain. Twenty million tons were left over from last year's bumper wheat crop of 88 million tons, he said, allowing Russia to make up the shortfall for this year's disastrous 50 million tons. Fine, unless you believe the ministry's official statistics. As of October 16, the agriculture ministry estimated that 1.62 billion rubles ($108 million at the current rate) in cereals would have to be imported to feed the country. And that figure was calculated using the pre-crisis ruble price for wheat, which has just tripled in ruble terms if the grain is bought abroad for hard currency.
But wait, it gets worse. The world's largest country now imports 60% of its food, a figure that rises to 80% in Moscow. Now, with the collapse of the ruble, it's do svidaniya importy, which have already fallen 45% since the end of August. And this is only the beginning.
Can Russia make up the shortfall on its own resources? Over half of the country's livestock has been slaughtered since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and none of it replaced. Local grain production fell 35% and dairy products are down by 55%. Basically, it's very simple: post-Soviet Russia couldn't feed itself even after a good harvest. Period. And this year god had the sense of humor to bless Russia with the worst harvest in 40 years.
Things have got so bad that gold miners-yes, you read that right, gold miners-in Yakutia, many of whom are descendants of Stalin-era Gulag prisoners, came out with a request so stunning, so utterly gob-smacking for Solzhenitsyn-reading Russia-gazers, that it deserves to be relayed in full.
"There's nothing for us here, nothing, nothing," said one miner to an ORT reporter last week. "They don't pay us, they don't feed us, we're going to die in this place."
"Bring back the Gulag," said another miner, "We'll work for food and clothing. That's what we need. We live worse right now. Bring back the Gulag."