Welcome to Gdov, where Russia comes to an end; Russia’s westernmost district is dying out – and with it, hopes for the country’s rebirth.
(opendemocracy.net – Sergey Damberg – November 1, 2017)
Sergey Damberg is a sociologist and graduate of St Petersburg and Bielefeld universities. He directs the Expertise sociological bureau, and is a researcher at Centre for Independent Social Research. In 2014-2015, Damberg was the general manager of Pskov Drama theatre.
Together with Russian sociologist Sergey Damberg, we start a new column series on “sociology of the homeland”. The first topic is social atrophy. It’s an unpleasant topic, but we guarantee a positive ending.
Don’t even think about starting work in Gdov! This is what a fellow sociologist told me:
“Do you know what kind of people live here! We once came here in summer to conduct some research on the shore of Lake Peipus. I had a really heavy rucksack and then another bag with all kinds of stuff in it. It’s really hot, I’m tramping through the village and suddenly I see an old woman. She’s pushing a wheelbarrow. It’s empty, but still heavy, and she’s old. I call over to her: ‘Hey, grandma! Let me give you a hand, I’ll push that barrow and carry my bags in it!’ And you know what she does? She just smirks and says: ‘Yeah right, what an idea!’ And off she goes without looking back.”
Don’t teach, offer medical help, sing, give out books, write reports for a newspaper – whatever you do, don’t do it here, in the westernmost district of Pskov region. The monthly wage is worth a few lunches in Moscow or St. Petersburg. There are, of course, teachers, doctors and librarians here. But the district is dying out, and it’s doing so faster than all other municipalities in Russia. Here, in Gdov, you can see clearly not only where, but how Russia ends.
There’s 300 plus villages in the district. The majority of them are either empty or have just a few dozen families. Most residents are old. People used to fish here, gather the harvest, collect mushrooms and berries – they processed everything themselves. In the 1990s, all small businesses in the poorer regions closed – and everything began to die out here. After the blanket bankruptcies of the 1990s and 2000s, no one tried to develop the district.
Instead of enterprises, people opened agricultural wholesalers. You can get three rubles for a kilo of apples here. You can make money at the post office, too. In one subdistrict, a woman, 80, delivers newspapers for 2,400 roubles (£31) a month.
Over the 26 years of the Russian Federation’s existence, the Gdov district has received exactly zero funds to restore its production base. And one month ago, Pskov’s governor (a millionaire) allocated one million roubles to locals here – though, for some reason, it’s to be spent on football. Local people don’t play football, but the governor visited the district and played football himself. Then he gathered all the public sector workers in the district club, and had the head of the local election committee sat next to him so that everyone understood who was going to monitor the voting and personally count the ballots for the upcoming district election. He ordered everyone to vote for the former deputy head of the district commercial union to become head of the district. He promised that everything will, somehow, be sorted out. And then left urgently, probably forever.
The governor is now acting Secretary of United Russia’s General Council. People in Gdov remember their general secretaries fondly and are happy to vote for them. As a rule, they don’t connect the ritual of elections to the slow death of their district.
A Gdov village is beautiful and empty. The gardens are well looked after – and in the centre of the village there’s the ruins of what looks like a club or school. In the village of Polna, there’s 170 people left. Just like everywhere else, people are leaving, the school has been closed. Children from a dozen different villages are sent to a single school that covers several wards.
The funds stopped coming in to Polna, and both the district club and library disappeared. Now the medical centre is closing, and so is the post office. But people still want to gather somewhere: they’re a community, and they need to be together for anniversaries, wakes, International Women’s Day and New Year parties. They asked to use the old school – to move the club, library, medical centre and, if necessary, the post office, there. To put everything under one roof.
But Polna’s school belonged to the district, not the subdistrict. Do you understand this principle? If a theatre is good, it’s federal; if it’s only OK, then it’s a city theatre. It’s the same inside municipalities: districts get everything, subdistricts – everything else. The school, of course, belonged to the district, and the authorities didn’t let the locals use the building. Now the post office building has nearly collapsed. It’s opened only when there’s elections – people come, they sigh, they vote as they are ordered to, and then the school’s locked up again.
How do buildings become ruins? First, they move everyone out: an office closes, or there’s a crack in the foundations. But there’s no money for repairs. Then the homeless move in, the windows are broken, there’s a fire – and you have your ruin. If it has occupants, then the building can dilapidate over decades – but if it’s empty, then it lasts only for a few months. There’s no doubt: when something collapses, there’s definitely someone who already knows about it, but hasn’t had time to sort it out. They’ve more important things to do.
Gdov district has always been dependent on people who had many more important things to do – so the fact that it’s dying out is expected. Everyone can see it happening.
Here’s a quote from an election leaflet: “Gdov district is a territory with many centuries of history, in which every generation can and should take pride. Military feats and bloody battles…” etc. The thing is – this is rubbish. Gdov was always provincial, for the entire 700 years of its existence. But all the previous regimes gave it a chance to survive, and now its residents are on their own – there’s nowhere for their children to work. And now the current regime, perhaps it will be the last, reminds them of the 1242 “Battle on the Ice” between Alexander Nevsky and the Teutonic Knights, and orders them to be proud of it. Here’s a difficult question: what should be done with Gdov district? It has 300 villages, and there’s probably 300,000 such villages across the country. Should we resettle them? Save them?
How do the authorities respond? With slogans: “Together we’re powerful!” “We choose the future!” “We act together for our hometown!” “We care for people, we believe in the future!” In the end, the state machine’s representative in Gdov proposes the following: “Together we can do a lot!” And then the governors are parachuted in.
From their youth, the parachute governors take up posts at invented ministries, create new ones, take charge and then move on. The Youth Parliament, human resources, Internal Political Directorate, the Apparatus of the President’s Authorised Representative, Expert Centre of Strategic Developments, the Party’s Supreme Council – and then finally there’s the quintessential symbol of power and dysfunction, the Presidential Administration, which has its own apparatus and much else besides.
By storming these corridors of power, you can become a general (a genuine rank of civil servant) by the age of 35-40. Indeed, I’ve already retold the biography of the governor, on whom the survival of Gdov’s villages depends.
During all these years of expanding and consuming our resources, the state has worked with experts and professionals. The latter group has made two mistakes: they didn’t work towards the destruction of the state and didn’t study the destruction of Gdov’s villages. We recognise that we are completely unable of doing that.
We understand that you have to cut back the hedge weeds every year. That way, it at least remains manageable. We understand that the bureaucratic machine hasn’t been a real system for a long time, it just grows by itself. But there’s no means of destroying it. No one’s even developing one. And the disintegration of Russia’s social fabric, the atrophy of local communities, the reducing level of social development remain understudied. We just pretended that, yes, we’ll bring signs of development to every village shortly. This was self-deception. And, as a rule, this came from self-interest: development projects are in demand on the Moscow market of corrupt services.
Of course, the very approach, methodology of Russian state development projects formed in the Soviet period. Here’s an example:
“In 2003-2004, Andrei Fursenko and I discussed the concept of creating larger innovation centres that could qualitatively change the activity of universities… Creating special regions could become a national project to rebalance the country’s development. This could be achieved at the expense of creating university centres with no less than 100,000 students. (P.G. Shchedrovitsky, V.N. Knyaginin, From Growth to Development, 2005).”
These functionaries are completely foreign to the cultures they’re fantasising about. With a bureaucrat’s sleight of hand, they transfer hundreds of thousands of students, and decide which districts will be needed in the new Russian Federation. These demagogues (the “methodologists”) have given birth to dozens of absurd development projects across Russia, and were paid billions of roubles for them.
Thus, two intellectuals sit in a Moscow office and boldly redraw the map of Russia: this is where we are, here we have our backbone regions, there’s the periphery and there we haven’t quite figured it out yet, no matter. And they do this is in a ministry office. The regions receive development strategies from the methodologists, which focus on the classic combination of tourism, agriculture and logistics as “locomotives of growth”. This is what was assigned to the region where Gdov’s villages are dying out.
If you’re not an economist, don’t worry – this stuff is simple:
i) Tourism cannot be a “locomotive of growth” for Pskov, Tula or any other region which doesn’t have a beach. This rather sad domestic tourism accounts for two-three percent of any region’s GDP. Even with all the cafes and souvenir shops, maximum five percent.
ii) Agriculture is so unprofitable that it’s hard to even make ends meet with it if you don’t have black earth or a farm with a million head of cattle. Go to a normal farm, and the word “locomotive” will disappear from your vocabulary forever.
iii) Logistics for a border region is probably tempting, but the infrastructure and financial streams are all federal-level, given that it’s not Pskov region or Leningrad region that borders with Estonia, but the Russian Federation. And you can’t build a region on tax revenues from goods stockpiled near the border.
This is the whole strategy. With this plan, a region would have roughly 28 billion roubles, or the budget of two-three Moscow universities. These funds are supposed to pay the wages of tens of thousands of public sector workers, repair dozens of buildings and facilities.
I promised a positive ending, so here it is. Around 10-15 years ago, it was the state that was the main agent of development. It was focused on roads, sport, boiler stations, theatres – everything apart from what was necessary: jobs for local residents. Now we can be confident that the state will spend funds on start-ups at Skolkovo, bridges to the stars, football and blockchain. But Gdov villages won’t get a penny from the fund for job creation.
How can we organise kindergartens when there’s no money for them, only volunteers and children? How can we write a grant application to the Ministry of Culture for a theatre or orchestra to visit Gdov’s cultural centre? How can we get the locals and the people with their country homes here to communicate? Organise legal support for volunteers? Find the stolen boxing equipment? There’s hundreds of problems, some of them are quite complex – and locals can’t sort them out by themselves.
This means we have to come together. In effect, we’re talking about returning people the right to work – something that’s written into the Russian Constitution, by the way.
Here’s an exercise. Put your hands on your hips, feet shoulder-width apart and say: “The general principle isn’t as important as the fate of a real place. Investing in Gdov is more important than the digital economy. An old, dilapidated town on Lake Peipus is more valuable for our future than concepts of ‘academic towns’. We are the most educated and capable professionals available. So let everyone know that we will help them with advice, can show them how to make a good business, library, newspaper, how to organise fundraising and crowdfunding.” Then write about what you can do to Gdov residents (or me, and I’ll pass it on).
Moreover, we have to start working on the sociology of degradation and quietly, without panic or deceptive hopes, start studying the disappearance of communities and the collapse of cultures.
To sum up, let us rethink the term “civilisation”: let’s see civilisation as a move away from the state, the transformation of the “state” into the “civic”. This is what’s happening in Russia. In the figure of our president, our state has simply failed to live up to its independence – and it just grows old with him year on year. This is why it’s easier for non-state structures and groups to take public functions away from our ageing state.
Look at what’s happening with Russia’s cultural politics. The state has limited itself to propagandising Orthodoxy and militarism, and professional communities continue to form and implement educational projects. Industrial policy, in many fields, is also in the hands of expert and business communities. Urban policy more or less became a selection of commercial projects for property developers as soon as the USSR ended.
Regional policy can also become civic. This is a route neither to separatism, nor open war against our governors. Indeed, governors, our brave corridor generals will be increasingly busy with their own administrations. A civic regional policy will focus on saving our old towns and villages via cooperation between us, Russia’s “complicated” citizens. Citizens who are capable of doing something useful and are ready to help people in need.
While our leadership is satisfied with its own “United Russia”, this is the only route to a genuinely united Russia.
Article also appeared at opendemocracy.net/od-russia/sergey-damber/letter-from-russias-end bearing the following notice:
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