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Grigory Pasko: A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg – Part 1

A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg – Part 1 By Grigory Pasko, journalist Chudishche oblo, ozorno, stozevno i layay. Such was the epigraph of Alexander Radishchev, who in the year 1790 wrote his “Journey from Petersburg to Moscow”. If we translate this phrase from Radishchev’s archaic Russian into modern English, we get something like “A monstrosity – obese, insolent, with a hundred maws and barking”. A fat, rude, ravenous, barking creature. The monstrosity that the first Russian revolutionary was referring to was serfdom, at which, indeed, he directed all his literary and civic rage. He directed it convincingly and with talent (although Alexander Pushkin did not agree with many things in his own «Journey from Moscow to Petersburg»). Radishchev received a “royalty payment” for his book from the empress Catherine the Great – internal exile to the Ilimsky fortress. “I looked around me,” wrote Radishchev, “and my soul was pierced by the sufferings of humanity. I turned my gaze within myself – and beheld that man’s affliction arises from man, and often only from the fact that he looks indirectly at the objects surrounding him”. To look indirectly at surrounding objects – this is today’s style of Putinite propaganda, which has supplanted normal journalism. And although Putin is in many ways far from being a Catherine, still, it’s no longer the 18th century outside any more, after all.

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Most of the highway M-10 isn’t nearly this smooth (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

On my latest journey through Russia, one thing that I had every reason to call a monstrosity was the road itself – federal highway M-10 (international code E-105). My driver and I drove from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back. With side trips into towns and villages, we ended up covering nearly 1500 kilometers. I had travelled this highway once before – some 10 years ago. I still remember some of the charming village names: Kiselenka, Kholokholenka, Vypolzovo, Vydropuzhsk, Mironushka, Kharchevnya, Zhary… [The complex philological discourse required to explain the meanings of these names here would completely destroy their unquestionable charm—Trans.] Back in those days, the little villages still bustled with life. Nowadays, they’re dying completely: the neglected peasant huts are precariously leaning to the side, nearly falling over, their wooden walls are black and half rotted from years without paint; the old people waiting for a bus that hardly ever comes, such a look of fatality on their faces you’d think they’re waiting for death itself; the empty fields with not a single animal grazing on them… Along the whole length of the highway you can see a slow trade in just about anything at all: fish, berries, mushrooms, boiling water and tea, bath towels and porcelain, apples and potatoes… [And perhaps the most unusual product of all: restaurant receipts, which truck drivers can turn in as a business expense even though they actually brought food from home for their journey—Trans.]

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Trade in boiling water – Russian know-how? (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

Thus does the village try to survive at the expense of the monstrosity – the road. But the monstrosity just races along on all cylinders, full steam ahead, and only rarely turns its attention to the dying Russia. They’re alien to one another – the bright, powerful tractor-trailers with their foreign wares and the weak, backward Russia with its berries and potatoes. By the way, among other things, those tractor-trailers are bringing both berries and potatoes – and of much better quality – to Russia.

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Peasants sell just about anything you can imagine along the highway (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

Official portrait of the monstrosity The existing highway M-10 “Rossiya” enters into the 9th international transport corridor “North – South” (Helsinki-Petersburg-Moscow-Novorossiysk). The official data are as follows: it provides for the movement of foreign-trade cargoes from the ports of the northwest of Finland into the central part of Russia (with access to the ports of the south of Russia). At the present time, four-lane traffic on the M-10 is organized only on 35% of the highway (200 km), three-lane on 59% (332 km), and two-lane on 6% (32 km). The most powerful impression is made on the uninitiated driver precisely by the three-lane traffic pattern. This is truly a rare form of idiocy. If one considers that the main flow on the highway is large tractor-trailers, then one has to pass them quite often. But there are only two lanes. It is precisely for passing that the third lane was invented. First it opens with a dashed line on the pavement for 500-600 meters, then once again closes with a solid line for 800-900 meters. The result is a jerky ride, which literally wears out the driver. On top of that, the highway abounds in narrow bottlenecks: in the area of Solnechnogorsk, Klin, Tver, Torzhok, Vyshni Volochok, Novgorod the Great…

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Map of part of the Moscow-St. Petersburg route

The structure of the traffic flow along the highway is such that the main flow – 40% – is trucks (up to 50% in separate sections). The intensity of the traffic is up to 120 thsd. units per day with the greatest intensity at the approaches to Moscow and to Petersburg. As an example, it took us 45 minutes just to get in to Petersburg, starting from the turn to Kolpino. True, it was early morning. But the locals say that the traffic jam on Moskovsky chaussé is there all the time. The monstrosity and Radishchev Alexander Radishchev wrote his «Journey from Petersburg to Moscow» in the year 1790. In that same year, the book was read by the Russian empress Catherine the Great, who understood its import all too well: the writer was found guilty of transgressing against “the oath and position of a subject”, and the book was deemed “full of the most harmful notions disrupting the public peace”.

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Catherine II the Great (1729-1796), Empress of Russia (1762-1796)

Having become acquainted with his book, a frightened Catherine said of Radishchev that “this is a rebel worse than Pugachev”. [Emelian Pugachev (born c. 1741) was a Cossack who proclaimed himself tsar and formed an army that took over much of Russia between the Volga and the Urals in 1773-1774. After Catherine’s army savagely put down the insurrection, Pugachev was delivered to Moscow in a cage, where he was diced into quarters in 1775. Catherine subsequently tightened her grip on power and cancelled all plans to free the serfs, setting the stage for Radishchev’s critique of the autocracy.—Trans.]

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Emelian Pugachev (1741?-1775), Cossack, soldier, pretender to the Russian throne, rebel leader

Radishchev’s appraisal of Russia is relevant even today, in my opinion. At a time when the state television channels and the state newspapers hammer like nails into Russians’ heads a message about complete and total tranquility and prosperity in society, the great bulk of the people are sinking ever deeper into poverty. (At the same time, it is true, they don’t connect their situation in the least bit with the Putin government or with comrade Putin personally). “In mercy and for the general happiness” (that’s what it actually says in Catherine’s ukase), Radishchev’s death sentence was commuted to ten years of internal exile in Siberia, in the Ilimsky fortress. What exactly did Radishchev write about? About Russia itself and about how people live in Russian villages. In the chapter «Spasskaya Polist», he described the state and the court of Catherine the Great, “where the tsar appears in garments soaked in the people’s blood and tears”; in «Yedrovo», the writer sings the praises of the “physical image of the peasants, their ceaseless labour for the good of society…” You get the idea. If you want more, read the book. I’ll be blunt: the “physical image” of today’s peasants is quite often that of a degraded drunk mug. “Ceaseless labour for the good of society”? These days, it’s more like a desire and search for opportunities to steal something someplace, or, at best, to earn a bit of money in the household of a modern-day merchant tradesman or country squire.

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Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (1749-1802), Russian nobleman, writer, social critic, proto-revolutionary

Of course, Radishchev also wrote about the horrific poverty of the serf peasants, who have “neither a cow, nor a horse, nor a sheep” left to their name (this is in the chapter «Vyshni Volochek»), about the “shameful disgrace” of the selling of bonded humans at a public auction like cattle (the chapter «Mednoye»); about the pernicious effect of censorship (the chapter «Torzhok»); about the conditions and the system of conscription in those days [draftees served for 25 years—Trans.] (the chapter «Gorodnya»); about the unconstrained anything-goes excesses of those in power (the chapter «Zavidovo»). In today’s Russia, probably the only thing you can throw out from this list is the sale of peasant serfs at public auction. I emphasize: public. Because it exists, just not publicly. Russian television recently reported about the successes of some regional procuracy, with the help of which… slaves were freed. The essence of the story was that one of the government officials had gotten himself some slaves for his estate. The official had them working day and night, without food or rest, to build him a palatial manor. The official escaped and is currently a fugitive. The slaves have been freed. It is known that Radishchev uses the route of the road from Petersburg to Moscow merely as a literary device. And it is also known that the Petersburg-Moscow highway was the tsar’s route for the journey to traditional coronations, the route for monarchs to become acquainted with the state of the country directly, without any intermediation. Today’s tsars do not travel on this route: they use helicopters and airplanes for getting from one place to another. Maybe that’s why Russia’s roads are so awful? Maybe that’s why the M-10 is such a nightmarish road compared with European highways? Echoing the sentiments of certain observers, I can also say that even though Radishchev’s creation was printed about two hundred years ago, many of his accusations are relevant in our time too. “And we shall call the land of desolation blessed… where a hundred lordly citizens wallow in luxury, while thousands do not have a secure livelihood, nor their own shelter from the heat and the cold?” Thus Radishchev. And thus to this day in Russia. The monstrosity and its offspring In the first half of the year 2007, inflation already comprised, according to some assessments, around 6%. The head of the ministry of economic development, German Gref, had promised earlier that inflation would comprise no more than 7-8% in the year 2007. The forecast, as we can see, is not holding true. It is hard in Russia to find a group of goods and services for which prices haven’t gone up. Towards summer, eggs, bread, baby food, canned vegetables, mineral water, and many more items have gotten more expensive… Prices for non-food products have risen by 0.4%, gasoline prices by 0.2%. Experts associate the rise in food prices with the prohibition on foreigners trading in retail markets. [Traditionally, a high percentage of the sellers at Russia’s food markets have been foreign – from the countries of the Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, Moldova, etc. A recent decree, reminiscent of the prohibitions on Jews engaging in various professions in interwar Germany, eliminated all these people from the markets overnight, resulting in a sharp increase in food prices. The only beneficiaries have been the few poor elderly Russian pensioners who have been hastily recruited to work at the markets for a pittance.—Trans.] The increase in gasoline prices (which was particularly relevant to us during our journey) is associated with rising crude prices. (It should also be noted here that 60% of the price of Russian gasoline is taxes to the state, at the same time as in the US, as an example, this number comprises 23%).

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A typical village along highway M-10 (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

Nevertheless, according to the evaluations of specialists, the standard of living of Russians is improving. And how exactly do the people themselves see or feel this? Here’s an example. Prices for real estate have gone up so much that they create a “feeling of stability and wealth” among citizens. Indeed, the cost of housing for ordinary citizens is increasing daily. Inspired by their improved well-being, Russians are sinking into debt by taking out bank loans generously being given out left and right. But all this will last only as long as crude prices remain high. The prosperity could collapse together with a drop in crude prices in the world or a stock market decline. The corruption in the country is savage. You can’t take one step without running into a vampirical government official thirsting for a bribe. Moreover, corruption under Putin has entangled Russia more than ever before, even in the times of tsarism and the Brezhnev stagnation. And the legacy of the Yeltsin years has nothing to do with it: this is already the spawn of Putin the chekist, who came to power with the slogan of “dictatorship of the law”, which, just like he himself, turned out to be nothing but a soap bubble. Until I started talking about concrete examples from life, the people I interviewed on this journey praised Putin and his power. They only complained about minister of health Zurabov. I reminded them that it was Putin who had appointed Zurabov minister. And Putin who isn’t dismissing him even after the high-profile scandals associated with the name of this minister. [Mikhail Yurievich Zurabov has been the official whipping boy for many failed and/or unpopular social programs in recent years – the monetization of benefits, the spectacular mismanagement of a 50 billion ruble government program to provide medicine to the needy, and most recently, pension reform—Trans.]

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Mikhail Zurabov (1953-?), Russia’s favorite scapegoat, depicted here being torn apart by Russian political figures of all stripes in a fanciful collage by Andrei Budanov entitled «The Monetizers»

Many said: Putin’s good, he seems to be concerned about the country. They expressed a readiness to vote for him again and again, temporarily forgetting about the prohibition under the Constitution of the RF against running for the post of president three terms in a row. And when they did remember, they would name the names of Medvedev and Ivanov. What specifically do you like about them, I would ask. Their programmes, their actions, their biographies? No, they would answer me. It’s just that they show them a lot on TV. Does that mean that if they show a pig, for example, on TV a lot, that Russians are going to vote for a pig?