Big Brother Won't Put Russian House in Order

A year ago I moved into a new apartment in a new building in a new neighborhood of Moscow, and was recently nearly robbed. All my neighbors had strong steel doors installed, and I was the only one left with a door that the builders had put in -- a wooden door with a single lock. Besides books, there is nothing of value in my apartment. In the middle of a Sunday afternoon, there was a ring at the door. I didn't open it. There had just been proselytizers from the Jehovah's Witnesses who had proposed their religious literature. I turned them down. The doorbell rang again. Those stubborn missionaries again, I thought to myself. But they turned out to be robbers who were checking whether people were at home. I then heard the door creak and something fall on the floor. My wife ran into the entrance hall and saw that the door had been pried open and someone's running shoe was thrust through the crack. "Tolya," she screamed out at me, "we're being robbed." I ran to the corridor and heard only footsteps racing down the stairs. The peepholes on all the neighbors' doors had been covered over with paper, so that no one would see the apartment thieves by chance. Professionals!


The next day we had a thick steel door with three locks and bolts installed, as everyone else had done. The only way to get through such a door is to blow it up. The young skilled workman told me that we were lucky. He installs one steel door per day in our region and calculated that seven out of 10 orders are made by people who have already been robbed, and only three put the door up just in case.


But why am I recounting this incident?


Because it has already been a year since we, the dwellers of a 17-story apartment building on the Moscow River, in the Maryinsky Park region of the city, have been unable to install a simple door with an intercom in the common entrance of the building. What a row has been made over it. How many accusations and counteraccusations were exchanged. We have already held three tenants meetings, during which we debated putting in a door and how much it would cost. We argued, held separate meetings and cursed each other. And all to no end. The front door is still unlocked; homeless men sleep on the stairs; and hooligans set little fires in the elevator. This is all because half the tenants consider that the ill-fated door should be installed by the local municipal authorities, which is to say the state, and for free, of course.


It has been almost a decade since the collapse of socialism, but we Russians have not yet become accustomed to independent life. We are chronically unable to live without the state's tutelage even in the smallest and most personal circumstances, such as installing a door in the entrance. We are still hoping that Big Brother will take care of us.


We are not used to living by our own wits and efforts. We are estranged from one another, and have yet to gain a true sense of solidarity.


Take the recent scandal in Germany over transporting radioactive waste for storage by train. The entire country protested and worried about the effects on the environment. Tens of thousands of Germans picketed and disrupted the train by lying on the rails. The press and television condemned the government. The train was able to pass through the forbidden zone of Lower Saxony only at night.


In Russia, such an angry show of social solidarity is quite impossible. And this goes not just for the environment. This holds true even when it comes to one's own money that has been earned with difficulty. It is enough to recall the reforms of former prime minister Yegor Gaidar that practically made the personal bank savings of everyone in the country worthless. There was not a single protest. The same is true of the war in Chechnya, during which the people showed complete apathy, and against which only part of the news media spoke out. It was only after a year or so of systematic nonpayment of wages that people began to strike. Few people like Zurab Tsereteli's pompous statue of Peter the Great on the Moscow River. But only a small group of aesthetes gathered on a couple of occasions to protest with toy picket signs, like Lilliputians at the feet of Gulliver.


True, there was a recent exception. I won't hide how astonished I was at the hundreds of Muscovites who came to the British Embassy to give their condolences over the death of the Princess of Wales.


I personally experienced the first feeling of solidarity late in life, in 1989, when I happened to be in Prague during the days of the Velvet Revolution. The outbreak of protests by thousands of citizens against the authorities struck me by its beauty and power of unity. Tears welled up in my eyes. Now that's what a society should be, I thought. Here, people had turned into heros. During the August '91 putsch, the hundreds of Muscovites who went out on the streets and stood by the White House experienced similar feelings. These were three days of rapture over the feeling of solidarity. But the putsch collapsed and we eventually split off into atoms and molecules and cogs.


Acting out of solidarity is considered by most people in Russia today to be exotic behavior, even in areas in which it is most needed -- in everyday life. Any trifling matter is capable of stopping us from banding together to demand something as simple as a door to an entrance or clean stairways and halls. This is to say nothing of the arbitrary rule of the authorities, who should be serving society and not themselves. We are as submissive as a flock of sheep when the prices in the metro are unexpectedly raised without explanation. We are compliant before the whims of the GAI traffic police and their absurd fines for traffic violations. They establish the rules without our consensus. We are at a loss when it comes to the actions of our parliament and government. We don't know how to react together against what we consider to be wrong. We don't know how to think in common terms. For us, at best, common means an extended family, including our children and our elderly parents.


We are patriarchal.


When the Unabomber was arrested in the United States, I asked many of my acquaintances how they felt about the circumstances of his arrest. Most of them condemned not the Unabomber, who had terrorized the country for years with his mail bombs and killed several people, but his mother and brother, who informed on him to the police when they learned of his frightening pastime. For us, the interests of the family are clearly more important than the interests of society. Alas, as long as we continue to live in our own little cells, in our house of cards, in a snail's shell, our common house will remain without doors and without a roof.





Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose most recent novel is "Eron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.