Wednesday, October 06, 2004

An interview with Michael Specter, a journalist, and his story on the AIDS epidemics in Russia, in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

There are some very minor inaccuracies (poryadochny chelovek, for example, translates as a decent person, a person of high moral principles, someone you can trust, not as "a man of order and discipline" - even though poryadok is indeed "order" in Russian) - but overall, reading this was as heartbreaking, depressing and scary as thinking about radiation. And perhaps just as pointless. I'm not saying it shouldn't have been written. No. It's just that whenever I read stories titled as dramatically as the interview with Specter ("A Disappearing Country"), I take it too personally: so many people I love, including myself, happen to be part of what's disappearing. This is the wrong attitude, I know, but I can't help it: I do get freaked out. Also, if one trusts the statistics, Ukraine is disappearing at an even faster rate than Russia - but how many people are bothering to write about that? Okay, I did last year, but it was as much of a rant as what I'm writing now. Pointless.

But I really loved the final section of Specter's story - even though it's as much about me personally as it is about that huge, abstract mass, "the people" of this country that I'm not a citizen of:

How many fact-finding tours of southern Africa, of India, and of various countries in Eastern Europe will Russian officials take before they see the implications of the epidemic that is now spreading rapidly within their borders? Why does Brazil, with a comparable population and a slightly lower per-capita income, spend nearly a billion dollars on AIDS each year when Russia doesn’t spend even a tenth that? It can’t be poverty; Russia is not rich, but it has eighty-five billion dollars in its financial reserves. The Kremlin is certainly capable of spending money when it wants to: last year, for example, the lavish three-hundredth-birthday party for the city of St. Petersburg—Vladimir Putin’s home town—cost $1.3 billion. There are more billionaires in Russia today than in any other country—at times, they seem to be buying everything that is not nailed to the ground, from yachts and British soccer clubs to Malcolm Forbes’s collection of Fabergé eggs. “Do you think for one minute that if Putin called these people into a room and said we have a crisis and we need to come up with some money for AIDS they would say no?’’ a senior international health official asked me. “Do you think that anyone in Russia can begin to justify spending just a few million dollars on AIDS each year? There are people there who spend that maintaining their private jets.”

The Kremlin demands to be taken seriously as a world power and as an active member of the Group of Eight industrial nations. The country’s leaders often mention AIDS in public at international gatherings, acting as if Russia still had an empire to control. At home, though, the story is different. “Russia went ahead and made a decision to contribute money to the Global Fund,’’ Christof Rühl, who was until recently the World Bank’s chief economist in Russia, told me. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS was set up by the U.N. to provide money for those countries which cannot on their own defeat aids, tuberculosis, or malaria. I talked to Rühl one day when I was in Moscow. He was taking a break from a conference on Western investment, held at the Radisson SAS Slavyanskaya Hotel. Men in Valentino suits were talking on cell phones and smoking huge cigars. Their drivers and bodyguards, all clad in thick black leather, stood smoking cigarettes patiently by the coatroom.

Russia invested just over four million dollars in 2003 in its federal aids program, but it committed twenty million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Two years ago, the Kremlin’s protracted negotiations effectively delayed a hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar loan offer by the World Bank on the ground that it did not wish to incur further foreign debt. “If you watch,” Rühl said, “you will see the President and all the ministers and the economic advisers going out and saying to the world, with great pride, ‘Russia is a donor country. We are one of you. We are going to help solve this health crisis for these poor nations.’ It is cheap and cynical. It has not been about H.I.V. at all. It was to say, ‘We are a country that helps; we don’t need handouts, like Africa.’ But the truth is that the government is so disorganized and so removed from the needs of its own people that it could not even help get one application filed for the first round of this Global Fund.

“The people just don’t care. On a very broad scale, it’s a country where people care about their family and their friends. Their clan. But not their society. Yet they have this attitude that we are a great power. A donor nation. What does that really mean? It means you pay a few million dollars to the world AIDS fund even though you are too stupid to attempt to profit from it when your own citizens are dying.’’

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