12 May 2005

Bush's legs, and other notes from Russia

Exactly a week ago today, Colin South and I were peacefully sitting in the teacher's lounge at a school in Elektrostal, Russia, when we were confronted by a teacher carrying the latest issue of Argumenty i Fakty ("Arguments and Facts" newspaper) and demanding to know (with a twinkle in her eye), "Why do we need Bush's legs?"

The particular article, punningly entitled "Night Blindness" (literally "chicken blindness" in Russian), said:
"Bush's chickenlegs" steal into Russia. The government wants to increase purchases from the USA.

A draft agreement with the USA, projected out to the year 2009, has already been prepared. For two years our government limited imports, but now they have suddenly decided to increase them.

Why would we need someone else's "legs"? The idea that Russia cannot support itself is an illusion. Before the reforms began, our poultry breeders annually delivered 1.8 million tons of meat to the market. Only 2.4% came from abroad. Then the gates were opened and the country was flooded with imported thighs—and at first they came in duty-free. In the notorious "black 1997" year, imports were winning 65% of the market.

In 2003, our poultry breeders finally succeeded in getting our government to impose an import barrier. Actually, foreigners were conceded 48% of the market, but we were glad to have the remaining half. Levels of production went up right away. But then—the empire strikes back.

"We had barely begun to believe in the seriousness of the intentions to protect us from imports," said Galina Bobyleva, general director of the Russian Poultry Council. "And then what happens? First the government limits imports, and then increases them. In our country there is no agricultural development program for ourselves; to all appearances, we are carrying out someone else's program."

Why have our bureaucrats suddenly became so compliant to "someone else's program"? The answer is simple. It has everything to do with a condition that the Americans have imposed: We buy their chicken meat and then they arrange our entrance into the WTO. These WTO negotiations are conducted in the corridors; the details remain generally unknown. There's no referendum; nobody asks our opinion. What will the WTO give Russia? And in exchange for what?

M. Medvedkov, director of trade negotiations for the Ministry of Economic Development, has outlined some of the outstanding issues. Europe is demanding that tariffs for electricity and other energy resources in Russia are set closer to world levels. Americans want to break into our domestic market for insurance services, banks and telecommunications. And of course, to sell us food products. We can only envy those American farmers, whose president is not at all ashamed to telephone V. Putin personally more than once concerning poultry. And the Russian buyer is compelled to buy those products, and what's more, under those prices determined by the foreign owners of the market.

The meat quota agreement has not entered into force - it is still a draft. Maybe, just maybe, it's worth rethinking?

-Veronica Sivkova
Underneath the humorous discussion of Bush's legs which ensued in the teacher's lounge, there was an undercurrent of combined irritation and resignation. Why were the cards so frequently stacked against Russia? Why did it appear that, everywhere they looked, the USA's agenda was dominant, regardless of the interests of others? And why was their own Russian government so powerless to respond with anything other than brave words?

Two evenings later, Colin and I were in the beautiful city of Yaroslavl, at the confluence of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers. The occasion was a special concert, a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. (Russian-language announcement here [archived]; background on the War Requiem here.) The performers included the Glas Chamber Choir of Yaroslavl, the Yaroslavl Regional Symphony Orchestra, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the Exeter Festival Chorus from England, the Hanau Church Choir from Germany, and the Sokolyata Boys Choir and RGATA Academic Choir from nearby Rybinsk, Russia. Per Britten's instructions, the soloists represented these three same countries: Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (UK), Peter Schuller (Germany) and Natalia Kreslina (Russia).

The performance took place at the Theatre for Young Audiences in Yaroslavl; the seats were designed for children, and when I jammed myself in with my knees next to my ears, I wondered whether I would even be able to last for half an hour. When the music began, all discomfort vanished. Aside from the haunting beauty of the voices and instruments, the poignancy and power of the concert arose from the graceful handoffs from one ensemble to another, one conductor to another, one soloist to another.

From what I could see during the brief week we spent in Russia, the 60th anniversary celebration of the victory against the Nazis was as much an expression of elite self-indulgence as of genuine patriotism. (See this frank assessment [archived] at mosnews.com.) Bush was there to push democracy, and perhaps his legs as well. The UK's Daily Express expressed outrage ("SHAME OF BACK-ROW BRITAIN") that Britain's representative was relegated to the last row of world leaders at the 60th anniversary commemorations in Moscow, whereas former enemies Japan and Germany were in the front row with the USA, Russia, France, and others. Meanwhile, television stations carried many hours of grainy wartime films and patriotic programs.

In contrast to the elites and veterans, most young people did not seem at all caught up in the events. Amidst all these contrasts of heavy patriotism and youthful indifference, the concert in Yaroslavl was a special moment of real beauty and meaning. I was so glad to be there. And I certainly didn't take it amiss that the mayor of Yaroslavl, in introducing the concert, addressed the political significance of the Requiem—that people would not tolerate "unnecessary wars."

Speaking of Russian television, last Friday morning I was caught short by a TV interview with a sexologist, which I heard as I was sitting by the door waiting for a taxi. His subject: the relative importance of an active sex life to men and women, respectively.

Speaking with the hostess of this Good Morning Russia-style program, the guest said that, for men, there were absolutely no harmful consequences from doing without sex. For women, his message was very different: whether it was once or twice a week, or once a month, women needed sex to avoid harm to their reproductive systems. I couldn't help picturing men all over Russia taking notes and planning revisions to their playbooks. I admired the courteous, professional unflappability of the hostess as she took in these imperatives and continued to ask questions.

Travel certainly expands one's horizons.

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