Dmitry Orlov writes:[This is another guest post from Yevgeny, which he wrote in response to my article How (not) to Organize a Community. He poses what, to a Russian, seems an obvious question: “How (not) to organize a WHAT?” You see, upon close examination the English word “community” turns out to be all but meaningless. English speakers all assume that they know what they are talking about when they say it, but a Russian speaker who tries to translate it ends up with the following list: “society, union, locality, district, hostel, state, population, residents, communal ownership.” One begins to suspect that “community” is just a pompous and self-important way of saying “people,” just as American nannies (sorry, “daycare specialists”) refer to the little sprogs in their charge as “doing activities,” instead of “playing games” as normal, non-robotic children do. How did I manage to lose sight of this? “It’s because you listen to idiots,” says my wife. In any case, it is good of Yevgeny to reel me back in.] [Update: Looks like we ruffled some feathers in the Transition Towns neck of the woods. Here I am doing my best to bring to you stories of real survival by real Russians (so you don’t have to limp along with your hackneyed Mad Max/Waterworld clichés), and for that I am painted as being part of an “apocalyptic cult” that rejects the sacred idea of “komyooniti!” This, they say, is a “direct assault on the optimism of people who accept peak oil!” I am happy to be able to assure you that this is all complete nonsense. Jean, who attended my talk in Lincoln, MA last week, wrote this: “I found you very reassuring in your reminding me that despite all the upcoming disaster life will go on; perhaps not as we would like but then perhaps not so bad either. Somehow I had lost track of that. It may not be the life we’re familiar with but then it might be a better life too.”] [Update: Thank you Dave Ewoldt for straightening out the “apocalyptic cult” nonsense I quoted above. Let’s be straight with each other: Transition would have required some Solutions, like Powerdown and Relocalization, to have already been implemented by now on a large scale, so we won’t be making our scheduled stop there. Our next, emergency stop will be at Collapse. Let’s make the best of it.] [Update: It just keeps going. Now Eric Curren of the “apocalyptic cult” nonsense referred to above has provided some more commentary on this ever-exciting topic: “Too much scary talk won’t help us recruit people; instead, it will just scare them away,” he says, and this will prevent us from “preaching beyond the peak-oil and eco-choir.” So, choir, are you scared? All 16,641 of you who have visited this blog since this article got published six days ago? (That, by the way, is a stunning 0.00065% of all of humanity; we are doling out planetary salvation by the heaping teaspoon!) I for one definitely am scared—that this blog will become too popular and turn into a job—an unpaid job, of course. “Preaching”—now that does sound like a job, and may J-Zeus the hip-hop god strike me down if I ever get preachy. Believe me!—or not, and think for yourselves, because you are on your own.]
I read your article about differences in “komyooniti.” Let me ask you as a linguist, what’s the most adequate Russian word for it?
It’s been hammered into my head that the most important things are food, a roof over your head, security and mobility—the first two especially, and everything else is just there to tempt you. And it seems that the best way to procure food is not to take it away or steal it or buy it, but to grow it and to guard it, because there are always people to guard it from. That is, to be close to food. And when the local industrial agriculture kicks the bucket and the food will stop being delivered to the cities, won’t the residents of backward little villages be the winners? You can imagine gangster raids into rural places, rifling through barns and fields, and forcing people to pay a tribute, as in feudal times—but that’s only if they find enough fuel to get there and back.
I know that no matter what economic or political regime prevails, my Russian village kin will survive, provided they hold on to their land and provided climate change doesn’t kill off all the flora and fauna around them. I believe that the Russian, conditioned by centuries of serfdom, the GULAG and the entire Soviet experience, is a very hardy beast, in spite of alcoholism, drug abuse and moral decay. Also, as a child of the industrial ghetto, I entirely agree that the underclass is better-prepared. Our city is a smelly, dusty port city, industrialized in the extreme. It is inhabited by exasperated, embittered, bloody-minded people. Mothers often have to bring up children by themselves because the husbands spend half the year out on the sea. The merchant marine offers about the only way to rise above poverty. The criminal element is prosperous and well-organized, just as it should be in a port city. Every child knows the names of the celebrated local criminals (the so-called “authorities”), including the legendary ones, who perished in the maelstrom of the 1990s. The little children play at Cosa Nostra and go around mugging people. Every one of them belongs to a neighborhood or even a specific courtyard. Sometimes there are wars between kids from different apartment buildings. The most important question in any meeting, during any time of day or night, is “What neighborhood are you from?” If you are unlucky enough to be from the wrong neighborhood, you might still have a straw to grasp if you know one of the local criminal “authorities.” If you decide to get the police involved, then you are in for some additional, official abuse. Smart people don’t stray outside their territory in places where they don’t know anyone. Children know who lives where and who would mug them, and keep out. The parents aren’t particularly concerned about the safety of their children, and the children are quick enough to learn what they need: how to break noses, how to be on guard, how to talk like a gangster, how to spot easy marks for grabbing a cell phone or a wallet, how to be a street-fighter. They start from about age seven, as soon as they start going to school. This all happens quite spontaneously, without any conspiracy. This is how it will always be in my city. It’s not a pleasant way to live, but it is survivable.
I have already lived through some of the experiences mentioned in Reinventing Collapse. Some of my friends took the crooked path in childhood, some have done time, some more than once. But I was certain that they won’t touch me, or let anyone else touch me. On quite a few occasions they saved my skin and even helped me out with money. Some have lived with me, some I’ve sheltered from police: they are “our people” and the police are “the enemy”—along with the rest of the government, and we must defend “our people” from them.
None of this was the case in my father’s village. There were plenty of alcoholics and drug addicts, but everyone was “our people,” and so there was no-one to fight. If any one of them got assaulted, the entire village would be out looking for the offender. Theoretically, a misbehaving stranger could get his comeuppance right there and then, but in fact street crime was all but nonexistent. Bicycles would get stolen, but that is about it.
The people there are a gregarious lot. At all the weddings, funerals, army send-offs, birthdays, anniversaries the house is full of people, there is a ton of food, and plenty of singing and dancing. Everybody has their own domestic food source, and, of course, everyone brews their own alcohol. All passers-by say hello to each other, even if they don’t know each other. Friends and neighbors are treated as part of the family. Russians don’t use the word “cousin”—everybody is just a brother or a sister—and that says a lot about our culture. In that village, I have so many brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers that in every tenth house they are happy to receive me. Growing up, I was bored there, and was attracted by the excitement of the concrete jungle in the city. But village was real life, the way life should be.
My father’s family did not live on this land for centuries. They migrated from the hungry Urals to the fertile Kuban in the 1940s. But nothing held them back from becoming “our people” in just one generation. My grandfather had so many brothers and sisters that the village was a sort of clan—a very large family. Everybody was either related, or friends, or friends of friends, and so everybody could always find a sympathetic policeman, inspector, doctor, teacher, social worker, military representative and so on. All business was transacted in this way only: through acquaintances, which is the one and only guarantee of helpful and excellent service.
The black market flourished to such an extent that nobody depended on official employment or deliveries to stores. Many men fished illegally, and having connections at the Fisheries Service helped a lot. Everyone had kitchen gardens, chicken coops, cattle, pigs. We bought salt at the government store, and bread, although my grandmother could bake the bread just as well herself. But the most pleasant part of the black market is, of course, controlled substances. Dear reader, why do you think it is that Russia lags behind Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in per capita consumption of alcohol? Well, that’s because actual alcohol consumption in Russia is incalculable. To say that not all of what Russians drink is purchased at a store is to say nothing. Black market alcohol manufacturing and distribution thrives in Russia as nowhere else. Superpower politicians seem to have poor memory for history. Everyone knows how the Prohibition in the USA gave rise to powerful criminal syndicates and enriched the Kennedy clan. Well, on May 17, 1985 Gorbachev passed a “dry law” which proved catastrophic for the Soviet economy. Black market production blossomed and thrived right through the 1990s. Before that law, profits from the sale of alcohol made up 25-30% of the state budget of the USSR, and so Gorbachev’s decision was quite possibly the last nail in the Soviet regime’s coffin.
As far as transportation, the busiest street in the village saw maybe one car a minute during the busiest part of the day, and so the air was very clean. At night the village and the surrounding farms turned dark and quiet. But even this small village was served by buses from different directions, and the drivers of these buses could be asked to stop at any house. My uncle drove one such bus, and so on special occasions our family had the bus to ourselves, to go on a mass excursion somewhere—at government expense, of course! (Everyone knew of this, and nobody was opposed.)
The level of poverty sometimes looked quite frightening, but there was something about it that provided a sense of safety and security. I remember watching news reports of street demonstrations in Moscow in 1991: a crowd chanting “Yeltsin is a traitor” marches menacingly toward a line of riot police, and a melée ensues. But we couldn’t care less, because none of this had any effect on us. We were poor under the Soviets, and we were poor afterward, but we stuck together. Whenever we need to marry one of us, bury one of us, get one of us a government job, a solution always presented itself. Family celebrations never involve just the nuclear family. The house is always open, the food is brought in by the guests, and there is always a musician or two present, because after eating and drinking Russians like to sing. At moments like this you can forget that you are living in a third world country and that life is really hard. Saturday is sauna day—another excuse to receive guests, since a sauna relaxes and predisposes to conversation. These are the simple ingredients that make up a real society: Family, Clan, Home—where you feel safe in any situation.
It seems to me that Russia and other former Eastern Block countries have already gone through hell and are now on the way to recovery, while the USA and other formerly rich countries are yet to go through this hell, and nobody knows what it will look like. The take-home point is simple: to survive in a third world country, you have to know who your people are, and who are the strangers. The more of your people there are, the better, but it is absolutely unacceptable if everyone beyond the confines of your family nest is a stranger. Then there is simply no chance that you will survive.