Only connect? A staggering lack of communication between citizens can destroy us all

Kremlin and St. Basil's

(Moscow News – – Anna Arutunyan – February 11, 2013)

Anna Arutunyan is the politics editor of The Moscow News

In early December in the Siberian city of Barnaul, Vitaly Sidukhinsky, 28, was trying to board a bus with his mother. The doors closed before his mother could get on the bus, and Sidukhinsky, who was mentally disabled and had difficulty communicating, rode on the bus alone. When the bus reached the end of its route, the conductor threw him out. It was -20 degrees centigrade that day in Barnaul. Twelve hours went by before a woman noticed him and called an ambulance.

From the moment his mother saw the bus drive away, she tried, unsuccessfully, to alert the bus park and the police that her mentally disabled son was on it. The police refused to help her track the bus, and suggested she file a missing person report instead. By the time her son was discovered in a hospital, it was too late: his hands had to be amputated. On Jan. 8, he died. Investigators are checking the bus park over the incident. National media, meanwhile, minced no words when referring to the “social indifference” that led to the tragedy.

This is one of those stories that, no matter how long you’ve been a journalist monitoring the news, just makes you want to shut the world out, wondering if the pain of reading about something like this is even worth sharing with your readers.

But I remembered Sidukhinsky’s story as an extreme ­ albeit far too frequent ­ casualty of a problem that touches everything from political organizing to cleaning up the snow: the staggering lack of communication between citizens.

Sidukhinsky could not communicate because he was born with a congenital mental disability. What is striking is the number of perfectly normal people around Sidukhinsky whose communication skills failed so deplorably.

What is also scary is that I encounter similar failures on a daily basis. When we complain about the perennial “rudeness” (khamstvo) in the service sector, we are actually referring to a problem of communication between two human beings who somehow refuse to believe that they have anything in common with each other. You get into the habit of initially distrusting everyone, from the waitress who serves you your sushi to the legislator who passes a law banning American adoptions.

A newspaper vendor pointed this out nicely when I politely asked her whether the newspaper she had handed me was the right edition: “What, you think just because I’m not Russian I don’t know my newspapers?” She was visibly upset, not just chiding me. By asking the wrong question that belied a distrust, I had inadvertently highlighted what we both knew: that, regardless of nationality, we felt no human affinity for one another, no common values, and only the Russian language, if even that, could serve as a bridge.

Russia is often described as having a culture of “collectivism,” where individuality as a value is discouraged, where the community, or the collective, reigns supreme, destroying the special snowflake of your soul. But several European businessmen working here have told me, in private, that collectivism is one of the biggest myths about Russia ­ right along with the bears and the vodka. Russian society is one of the most individualistic they have encountered, one where a driver will park his SUV on the pedestrian sidewalk ­ and blame city authorities for not providing parking or clearing the snow while lambasting those same city authorities as illegitimate.

I don’t think there is anything inherently “Russian” about this kind of behavior. It’s a symptom of a lack of social cohesion that can have a number of causes and happens everywhere. But in Russia, this lack coexists with an unfailing stereotype of “collectivism” ­ how is that? Could it be that the Kremlin’s occasional clampdowns on “the other” ­ whether on homosexuality, dissenters, or feminist punks ­ are actually an attempt to impose social cohesion by force on a society that lacks it? And could it also be that it’s lack of “collectivism” ­ a sort of individualism gone wild ­ that makes society so vulnerable to abuse of power?