Wednesday, September 08, 2004

I called the Russian Red Cross office in Moscow to ask how to donate money or toys/books/medicines from St. Petersburg. The first of the four phone numbers listed on the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station site was wrong; it’s been there for at least three days now, but the man who answered the phone didn't sound annoyed or anything. (Ironically, the head of the Russian Red Cross (RRC) was on an Ekho Moskvy show yesterday, Sept. 6, and the host said that some people were trying to get through but failed and then, of course, assumed that the RRC people weren't doing their job...)

I reached the Moscow office at another number, got the St. Pete office number from them and had the following conversation with a representative there (a journalist in me sort of fainted at some point, dropped all the pens and notepads - I wasn't able to bring myself to ask her name and title, I just couldn't...):

Among the first things she told me was this: "You know, as Valentina Ivanovna Matvienko [St. Pete's governor] said today, no businesses have yet donated anything, only the ordinary citizens have." She sounded very official, in an ugly Soviet way, but, even though it made me feel as if I was some heartless tycoon, I let it pass.

I asked if she could recommend what to donate, and she said: "No used stuff, only new - we don’t have the means to sterilize any of it." (Later, she told me that some people bring some quite unimaginable stuff, old and dirty, and it all gets thrown away.)

"Moreover," she said, "we do not have any storage space here in St. Pete, so it’s better to donate the money." (Their Moscow office, on the other hand, has been shown on the news today, and it looked like people were coming non-stop, bringing everything they could, and some were even staying to help as volunteers.)

I asked her to give me the account number set for the victims so I could transfer the money, and she gave me two, one for the RRC and another for something in Vladikavkaz, possibly RRC as well, though I’m not sure. She assured me that the money wouldn’t disappear because they were going to set up a committee later, to decide how to distribute it – a committee made up not just of the RRC representatives but the Ossetian regional administration people and the locals as well.

She said the kids didn’t need those toys since they were trying to recover - and toys might even be harmful. And there hadn’t been a flood or anything, so most of these people's possessions were intact. And as for the medications, there are enough of those coming from the West.

Then she started complaining about life.

She told me how scared she was to take the subway now, and wait for a bus at a bus stop, and how scary it was to go outside, and yet there was also the danger of being blown up inside one's home. "We've become like Israel," she said at one point.

I told her that yes, I did share her feelings.

Then she said something I still don't quite understand: "Stalin," she said, "was from the Caucasus himself and he knew all about it." I assume that she probably meant Stalin was as cruel as the hostage-takers, because when I replied that it is because of Stalin that we have what we have, she seemed to agree. But I'm not completely sure - I wasn't prepared to hear Stalin's name mentioned by an RRC representative at a time like this.

She also said this: "People living in a totalitarian state always feel safe, while people living in a free country never do – at least this is what those capitalists say."

I decided to change the topic and asked what else their office was involved in - in the times of peace, so to say. She talked briefly about their programs: TB, HIV/AIDS and drug abuse prevention, promotion of healthy lifestyle for children, aid to the refugees. I asked for their address, said I might stop by, and she said, "Yes, do call us first and then please stop by. We are a non-governmental organization, you know, the state doesn’t give money for these programs now, no money at all." (Their office is located on Millionnaya St., very close to the Hermitage...)

And then she got whiny again: "We are not being paid, don't have enough money to last us till the next salary or till the next retirement payment. We live on very very little."

And she went on and on and on, and said something about Beslan, too – and I realized I knew exactly what she was talking about, and yet it was such a wrong time to complain like this. So I told her that people in Beslan have lost their children, which is so much worse than not having enough money.

And this must have woken her up and she switched to the Beslan topic. She said that on the news yesterday night she heard someone say that the older girls had been raped during the siege – and I replied that I did hear it, too, but only once, so I hoped this was not true.

And then she told me about this cop she'd also seen on the news; he said, smiling, that Shamil Basayev (allegedly, the mastermind behind the Beslan attack and a perpetrator of a few other, very violent, ones) had been seen somewhere near Beslan just a few days before the horror, and that he regularly drove by through that area, just like that.

And I asked if they gave the cop’s name on the news and she said no. And I said that this was what they should have been talking and screaming about at those rallies (in St. Pete yesterday and in Moscow today, tens of thousands of people), not the abstract stuff like NO TO TERROR. (The only relatively cool slogan that I've seen there was the one in English: WANT TO HELP? EXTRADITE ZAKAYEV!)

And she said: "But what could he do? Basayev’s guards are heavily guarded and this policeman would just have been shot if he attempted to stop Basayev."

And boy, did it piss me off. I probably shouldn't have said it but I did: "Yes, and instead their children have been shot. Right. I've read in a paper today that the teenage daughter of a former prosecutor of North Ossetia was killed there – they recovered nothing but her ear with an earring - an ear with an earring in it! - and that was all they had to bury of their daughter. Right."

And after that we finally said good-bye to each other, very kindly, wishing each other health and all.

So now I don’t know whether I still want to donate any money to the RRC account – maybe it’s better to just start giving MORE to all those babushkas in the streets here. Maybe I'll even run into this RRC woman this way and will be able to help her.

I do understand her – she is scared and stressed and poor. And I would have probably felt very sorry for her - but not now, not really. This was not the right time to complain about her own problems – she was at work, right? And I wasn’t the right audience for her personal grievances.

God, this is so painful. All of it.

In that interview on Ekho Moskvy, the head of the RRC said one very interesting thing: "You know, what amazed us? Yesterday, we got a call from the Norwegian Red Cross - they are offering psychological help to people in Norway who had watched TV programs about what's happened in Russia. Can you imagine it?"

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