The Crocodile’s Bite – Russia’s “Meth Problem” And Drug Reform – Explicit

It is a drug for the poor, and its effects are horrific. It was given its reptilian name because its poisonous ingredients quickly turn the skin scaly.  – The Independent

I have to start by saying that this post will contain some graphic images. Please click the links labeled graphic with caution – some of this is really quite sad and hard to see. I felt necessary to include them because I think that the true nature of drug abuse has to be seen by your own eyes in order to believe it. What drives people to inject literal hydrochloric acid into their veins? Only the junkie knows but by getting a glimpse at the state of despair that these people live, for me at least, gives a better sense of how desperate the situation really is. I have to admit that I became interested in this topic as a matter of narco-terrorism. With Russia being next door to the worlds producer of heroin and a border thats as long as the flight from the US to England, it’s no wonder that Russia is also the biggest consumer of heroin.

Struggle against drug trafficking

Joint US – Russian raid on drug labs in Afghanistan – RIA NOVOSTI

Narco-terrorism is the way that groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Chechen separatists finance their wars against Russia and the US as well as weaken the population in those countries. They expedite the shipment and profit of the sales. With the war in Afghanistan driving down poppy production, there has been a gap between the amount of heroin supplied and what the addicts need. Krokodil fills that gap in the same way that meth has in the United States. It’s cheap to produce, using readily available materials, and turns it’s users into the living dead. In fact, the DEA is now monitoring this growing epidemic in Russia, with increasing concern about it’s spread.

While the United States requires a prescription for codeine (the main ingredient in krokodil), other countries like Canada do not. The DEA is even cooperating with it’s Russian counterpart, the FSKN – Federal Drug Control Service Of Russia. The joint effort is aimed at heroin production in Afghanistan. Both sides have a vested interest in seeing these labs taken out, but the catch 22 is that the poppy is Afghanistan’s cash crop. Millions of farmers subsist on the income they receive off poppy sales because often there’s simply no other alternative.

Girl lighting up a hit of krokodile - crocodile
Lighting up a hit – www.drugwar101.com – some graphic content

The name, Krokodil, comes from the scaly greenish skin that addicts develop after repeated injections. The drug literally eats it’s user. They say that after your first hit the countdown on your life has already started. Enjoy the next 18 months of drug addled euphoria because that’s the typical life span of the user. Russia is looking at a tidal wave of new addicts as the decrease in Russia’s heroin supply (Russia is the largest consumer of Afghan heroine in the world), stemmed by the war in Afghanistan, has created a desperate wedge of users who cannot afford the rising price of heroin. Thus, Krokodile is born.

Here’s a video documentary that is definitely worth watching. Instead of throwing it up on this page, I thought I’d better link to it since it does contain some graphic imagery.

Krokodile Tears Part One – Vice – some graphic content

It’s a drug based on codeine – it’s real name is desamorphine and it has a chemical structure that is almost akin to heroins. The ingredients can be procured at any local pharmacy and the instructions for a proper cook are readily available on the internet. Though while a hit of heroin can give a high lasting 6-8 hours, krokodile is only good for maybe an hour and a half. It takes another hour to cook more. Some of the ingredients used to produce the desamorphine include gasoline, red phosphorous from matches, and hydrochloric acid. The user falls into a vicious cycle of shooting up and cooking almost continuously throughout the day.

I remember one day, we cooked for three days straight,” says one of Zhenya’s friends. “You don’t sleep much when you’re on krokodil, as you need to wake up every couple of hours for another hit. At the time we were cooking it at our place, and loads of people came round and pitched in. For three days we just kept on making it. By the end, we all staggered out yellow, exhausted and stinking of iodine.”- The Independent

The repeated injections cause gangrene and eventual tissue death. The high acidity of Krokodile dissolves muscle and bone leaving late stage addicts looking like something out of  horror film.

“If you miss the vein, that’s an abscess straight away,” says Sasha. Essentially, they are injecting poison directly into their flesh. One of their friends, in a neighbouring apartment block, is further down the line.

“She won’t go to hospital, she just keeps injecting. Her flesh is falling off and she can hardly move anymore,” says Sasha. – The Independent

 

The state apparently has the funds to operate treatment centers for these addicts but the main course of treatment in heroin addiction is methadone. The addict is gradually weaned off of heroin on medically controlled doses of methadone, a medically synthesized version of heroin. The physical pain of withdrawal lasts between one to two weeks. For krokodil users – withdrawal is a living month of hell.

One problem is that methadone is illegal in Russia and can’t be used for treatment. Another is that the state lacks the will to step in and is instead passing legislation that makes the punishment for narcotics harsher and setting punishment for heroin use at the same level as murder.

If the new laws are enacted, drug addicts will face imprisonment or be forced to undergo treatment for their addiction. And the treatment of drug dealers will be akin to that of serial killers. – The Lancet

These draconian measures are hoped to curb the exponential growth of users. Even the simple act of making codeine a prescription medication to prevent users from freely acquiring this main ingredient has fallen flat. Apparently, the pharmaceutical companies make about 25% of their profit from these sales.

rina Pavlova, a recovering krokodil addict, at the Chichevo rehab center in Russia, rocking Artiom Tiomkin — the baby of another

Irina Pavlova, a recovering krokodil addict. – Time

The only option for many of krokodil’s users on their last legs is a treatment center run by religious institutions. Those lucky enough to land a bed can at least hope for some measure of semblance in their lives. Though many groups are labeled as “sects”, synonymous with cult in Russian, at least they help. There’s just not enough money or willpower dedicated to fighting this problem and for an addict on krokodil, they’re a step away from death.

Read More: The Curse of the Crocodile: Russia’s Deadly Designer Drug – Time Magazine

Zhenya says every single addict he knows in his town has moved from heroin to krokodil, because it’s cheaper and easier to get hold of. “You can feel how disgusting it is when you’re doing it,” he recalls. “You’re dreaming of heroin, of something that feels clean and not like poison. But you can’t afford it, so you keep doing the krokodil. Until you die.” – 

The Independent

Could There Be Another Way?

There are many who speculate that the “hard” stance on drugs is actually counter-productive. The train of thought is that by making these drugs illegal, the market is pushed underground. Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for it. With the market now technically a black market, it’s characterized particularly by its de-regularization and literal “cut-throat” survival of the fittest scramble to fill that gap. Eventually, organizations such as Cartels rival the power of the governments. Ahem, Mexico.

The proposed theory is to legalize it. All of it. You heard right. Legalizing all the narcotics will do two things. Enable regularization and taxation. This allows for the addict to seek treatment instead of avoid punishment – which actually is the most cost effective choice since treatment taxes the state much less than incarceration. The money saved on enforcement is used to fund the treatment. The second part is that taxation enforces oversight as well as cutting into the profits of the drug organizations.

Yeah, right.

This all sounds like some Utopian dream conjured up by tourists in an Amsterdam “café”. There’s no way this will work?! Well, Portugal put its money where its mouth is and did just that in 2001.  Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe at the time and a national commission recommended that piece of new legislation. The list of legalized drugs includes cocaine, marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine to name a few. Are these people nuts? Legalizing meth?

Nope. Portugal’s experiment was a resounding success. According to the Time’s article, Portugal has cut it’s drug problem in half. 

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well. – Time article – Drugs in Portugal: Does Decriminalization Work?

The article goes on to say that proportionally more Americans have tried cocaine than Portuguese have tried marijuana. Which coincidentally just became legal for recreational use in the states of Washington and Colorado. While the giggles might get the better of you, the issue actually has a lot of weight. The rest of the world is currently watching at how the Federal Government will respond. Several Latin American countries are considering legalizing some drugs, including a bill proposed by a Mexican lawmaker to legalize marijuana. The bill is unlikely to pass, but it is indicative of the frustration with the neighbor to the north as well as it’s war on drugs that so far has cost Mexico over 60,000 lives.

Read More: Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Introduced By Lawmaker – Huffington Post

It’s all tied together

So what does buying weed from your dealer have to do with the krokodil addict? Actually the connection isn’t too far removed. With the end on Marijuana prohibition in sight, or at least on the horizon, US lawmakers are taking notice of the Portugal case study. With the ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs clear as trillions of dollars have been spent over decades with no noticeable change in usage, the tendency is to be more open to different approaches.

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington for recreational purposes should be seen as the opening shots in the offensive to retake the ground lost in the War on Drugs. I sincerely hope that the system that governs 5% of the worlds population but holds 25% of the worlds prisoners can finally realize redefining the victory conditions for the War on Drugs should not be availability of drugs – but focusing on the human conditions that lead people to abuse drugs.

The legalization of pot will force the Federal Government to make a stance on whether it will enforce the issue. Prior to President Obama’s re-election, his administration took an ambiguous position on the issue. Now with his position secure, proponents of drug reform see this as their chance to make  the push.

Suppose the administration, in my opinion, makes the right decision and legalizes Marijuana. The far-reaching consequences could end up effecting those desperate enough to shoot up krokodil. If the change in attitude holds a steady course, perhaps even Russia will finally be swayed to follow suit – especially when one of it’s biggest allies in the War on Drugs – the U.S. – has implemented legalization. At least those in charge will be forced to acknowledge the problem not just with promises – but with money.

ABC  News report on Krokodil – Some graphic images

I hope that rational thought prevails and that ultimately the people that deserve society’s help the most receive compassion instead of scorn.

– Dmitry

Sources:

In Soviet Russia, Meme Makes You! – Top 5 Russian Memes

Troll Family

Self-Portrait of Author and Family

Disclaimer: This is a somewhat picture intensive post written with my horrible excuse for humor. Also some memes are explicit. Deal with it.

Okay, so you’re asking yourself – what is a meme? How do you even say that word? To be honest I mispronounce “saLmon” so I am probably not going to be the best person to tell you. Thank God for the interwebz though as Dictionary.com says this:

Meme: a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

Analogous to the biological transmission of genes indeed, Sir!

The web is a scary place that wears a nice clean UPS uniform so soccer moms can get their “50 Shades of Gray” from Amazon without ever having to face the dark netizens lurking just below the surface. Peel back a layer and it’s Alice in Wonderland all over again.

Memes are the spawn of the internet subculture that is increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with. The use of memes is even seen during this year’s elections.  NPR wrote an article showcasing the emergence of what some call an internet subculture in political campaigns.

NPR: Political Memes: Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control?

and Politico.com has a gallery featuring some of the funniest memes from this election

BUT I am soooo tired of all the politics lately, as I am sure you are too my dear reader – cause your here – on this site, so grab your binders full of women or if you prefer, women full of binders and lets explore something that you might have to explain to your kids someday. Like why I put a trollface over my daughter. And why it’s hilarious. Despite what my wife says.

I love memes. I really do. And you should too. If you haven’t already swallowed both pills and dove headfirst down the rabbit hole into the wonderful world of memes, lolcats and ragefaces like I have then come, friend – I have some things to show you. (Stifles sinister giggle)

 

Rage Face Indeed

mmhm, yes.

Here’s a quick backstory to what the hell all of this is. Just blame 4Chan. It’s the proverbial evil red-headed step-child that grew up when you were out with your “real family” – and he just stole your truck. Well, you had that one coming – but really 4chan and places like it are the beloved dingy attics and basements of the internet where netizens hang out, post pictures, news, humor, anything goes really – and the result is memes.

They are ideas that are warped and shaped by society. They change depending on whoever is making them and for me that’s the best part. You can see evolution in progress as an idea or image is shaped by each person interested in adding their own touch. So, “transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes” is actually a fairly accurate description of how memes are created: interwebz sex. Just kidding. They are a conglomerate of whoever made them, where they came from, and now they’re in politics.

Meanwhile in Russia

Putin: FFFFFFUUUUUUU!

Okay, okay – I promised to stop with the politics. But clearly Putin is a force of nature, and has spawned countless memes. So I think it’s fair to include him on this list. Oh yeah – the list. Well, the whole purpose of this post was to introduce you to Russian memes and here I am spouting off about the history, culture, blah blah boring. So! Without – much particular order other than my own personal preference and further – further ado…

5) In Soviet Russia…

Known as the Russian reversal – no that’s not something you can try in the bedroom – it was created by this guy:

Yakov Smirnoff

Welcome to the interwebz friend, I will be your guide.

Yakov Smirnoff is a Ukrainian born American comedian who came up with the classic Russian reversal back in the 80’s. The jokes goes something like this:

In America, you put ‘In God We Trust’ on your money.
In Russia, we have no money! 

It’s funny cause it’s true. (Right?) I actually have no clue, but you get the idea. The Russian reversal is now a staple of internet memeology (I totally made that word up.) The Russian reversal has taken on new forms since being brought back from 80’s and variations on this theme are a popular way to satirize what is happening in Russia.

It’s sister meme, if there is such a thing, would be the “Meanwhile in Russia” theme that has those words usually captioning some ridiculous thing that happens only in Russia. Like you know, Bear Cavalry.  Knowyourmeme.com is a great resource to find the backstory on any meme which means that’s pretty much where I “got” my expansive knowledge on this subject. But here’s the source.

An example of a modern take on this meme:

in Soviet Russia, Waldo Finds You

Waldo – Much bigger when you meet him up close.

4) Preved Medved!

Prived Medved, - Russian Bear Surprises Campers

Pictured: Preved Medved, distant relative to Pedo-bear

A painting by John Lurie was adopted and evolved into a Russian meme that’s been popping up all over the Federation (A much cooler name than just Russia), faster than a case of Yakov Smirnoff. Hitting it’s peak sometime in June of 2007 it’s still a great example of good ol’ Russian shenanigans.

Twitter screen grab of Preved Medved

Hint: It’s all about Preved Medved

A query on the Russian search site Yandex.ru (slightly explicit) brings up good examples of the evolution of this particular bear.

It’s even alive on the glorified facebook status site Twatter. I refuse to bring myself to take that site seriously and there’s nothing you can do to change that. (Clasps ears, lalalalalalala)

If any of you know Russian, welcome my fellow spies, you will notice that Preved is a wrong spelling of Privet (Hello). It’s on purpose. I am not quite sure I understand the reasons but apparently it’s a play on words. I guess you just have to be Russian. I am only a half-ling.

Combination Pedo-bear and Killroy was here with a healthy dose of political satire, Preved Medveds entire premise for a joke is just his presence.

Cracked does a great article on two of the memes I am mentioning. Also this.

3) Putin – Brosef Ballen’?

Putin in a Bear Coat

I can certainly see where he gets his charm.

 

Not much has to be said to know where this is going. I am fascinated by this man. He really is a force of nature. The man brought Russia back from the brink of economic ruin but at the cost of judo-chopping freedom in the neck.

This is where Prived Medved gets his political kick from. Medved is a play on Medvedev – the now former Russian President, who was largely seen as a lackey to the man George Bush once referred to as “Cold Blooded”.

If any of you haven’t been keeping up with the news from the Motherland; Medvedev served his term and Putin was re-elected – for his third term in office – because you know, why not? Oh and possible election fraud. But hey, what’s a good election without some scandals, or choice?

The man himself literally is a walking meme-generator. He took controls of a plane that was putting out wildfires since he was a trained pilot (not) and proceeded to show the pilots how putting out fires is all about. Prezident style.

When he’s not busy kicking fires in the teeth, he hunts tigers – with tranquilizer darts so it’s humane, judo chops his way into possibly competing in the Russian Olympic team, drives formula 1 race-cars like it’s no biggie, and generally likes to show everyone just how much bigger and badder his Machismo is by literally doing anything that looks cool.

Oh and let’s not forget he is a former KGB spy.

He’s got an incredible PR campaign that follows him around and records him doing stuff like this:

Putin hunting shirtless

Can we make our President’s do this?

 

You can see that this guy is a gold-mine. He’s got  pop songs written about him. Girls are sending him calenders full of “Tasteful” pictures for his birthday. Bensozia does a quick blurb on him and and to get you started on your journey to Putin picture land, here’s a magazine with some of his best bits.

Essentially Putin wants to be seen as this guy that can do anything. Wildfires? No problem. Terrorists – Bury them. Domestic resentment? Putin smash! And the image is working for him. This guy knows what he’s doing and he’s got a long term plan. I just hope I am on his good side.

Putin Flying on a Crane

Delivering babies to all Russian mothers himself.

2) PhotoExtreme

This is kind of like planking. Someone lies facedown across or on top of unique places and someone else takes a picture. This joke is someone planking. Russian’s probably didn’t get it as ending up lying face down on benches is a pretty common sight over there, or so I’ve heard. In PhotoExtreme the goal is to come up with a scenario and act it out with your friends then take a picture and post. Fun right? Well, as usual bonus points are awarded for “creativity” or as Russians like to call it, danger.

 

Russian Photoextreme meme

Apparently – this happens often

Passerby’s were treated to similar scenes all over Russia as netizens had some fun with their cameras. The goal is to depict some kind of scene. The weirder the better. This meme has elements of the flashmob as people in character chase zombies with chainsaws, hang out of windows, or take bath’s in the street all in broad daylight. It’s no wonder Russian’s never smile in public, they’ve probably seen some things man. It’s the wild west out there as far as the limits go. Cracked breaks it down even further.

1) Russian Youtube Videos

Russia itself has become a meme. It has become a symbol of extreme behavior. Youtube is filled with examples of students chugging vodka before class. Dashcam’s capture crazy driving on a seemingly daily basis and gangs of teenagers roam the city using the buildings as their own playground/gym. You gotta love it. Simply type Russia in Youtube and the world shows you how busy this country is.

From drunkards fighting in the streets to people throwing themselves in front of cars for insurance scams; this place has become the standard for extreme behavior.It’s really the level against which

Because anyone willing enough to do this has a lot more pirozhki’s than I do:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORA9CGTAR8w

Russian Homemade Bungee Jump

Did you watch that? Cause you should – it’s a homemade bungee jump. Let me re-emphasis the “homemade” in that sentence. In no way is this safe. Yet it’s the kind of behavior that’s prevalent amongst our Russian comrades on the side of the world – at least the virtual world.

Well what about other extreme sports? Parkour for example? Parkour? No problem. Here’s Russia’s answer to Parkour:

Russian At It Once Again

Yep – whatever it is, Russia probably has a more extreme version of it somewhere. I bet if they got a hold of that flying suit, they’d probably see how drunk they can get while they jump.

 

Manliness Level Russian meme

Why? Because Russia – That’s why

Lolwut?

So that’s it in a nutshell. Welcome to the wonderful world of memes. If this is your first time joining us it won’t be the last time seeing us. This is internet pop-culture and it’s going to be heard. The beauty of memes is that they’re made by the people. Anybody with a computer can create one about anything in the world. And it can go viral. That brings with it a certain weight that shouldn’t be disregarded.

I really think they should be given a lot more attention as an important part of public voice.  The ability to shoot your message all over the internet and have it be seen by millions of people. Then watch as it evolves, changes and ultimately becomes part of the internet culture can be extremely rewarding. So try making your own, it’s really not hard:

http://memegenerator.net/ – basic meme builder

 http://ragegenerator.com/ – rage comic builder

 

– Dima

The Forgotten – Russia’s Veterans & Military Reform

Vitaly Efremov, a Lieutenant serving in Russia’s Armed Forces, wrote a  “Letter to the Minister of Defense” in the style of, “emenyem.” He painted a picture of a bleak, dismal experience in the service and asked for reforms. The Minister of Defense’s reply?

Lt. Efremov was posted to a distant Siberian base, Ussuriysk as punishment for his protest, in the Russian tradition of cracking down on dissent.  As former military myself, veterans issues are extremely important to me. Service is hard no matter what military you’re serving in and I find a common bond with people across all nationalities because of this. It’s simply a hard way of life and the majority of the people find that their time and efforts are better spent elsewhere. That’s why those that serve deserve special considerations from the government and I don’t think that there is a military anywhere in the world that compensates it’s troops enough for what they do. This particular case helps illustrate the challenges faced by members of my own family in Russia. My experiences in the military and training with the armed forces of eastern European countries have been largely positive and I’d like to bring your attention to the possibility of hope for these forgotten men.

 


Efremov’s video letter to the Minister of Defense (Emenim style)

Dmitry Choukline

My time in Fallujah, Iraq – Dmitry Choukline

I signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps when I was 18 and fresh out of high school. It was the best/worse decision I think I’ve made but the important distinction was that in the end, it was my decision. In some countries, the youth don’t get that choice. When I came back to civilian life, I was able to seek support from an over-burdened and faulty Veterans Affairs – but my point is that I was still able to get the help I needed. Most of my family is back in Russia. My three cousins whom I haven’t since I was 17, have grown up, married, had kids – and two have served in the Army. It was an interesting situation as we found ourselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, at least symbolically.

Both our armed forces had seen changes in their organization during our time in. The Russian government announced that the draft will now only be one year for those slotted to be in the Army. The United States Marine Corp have made radical changes in training, organization and equipment. The Veterans Affairs department is seeing the largest overhaul of it’s structure and benefits since the G.I. Bill was introduced post World War Two. I have honestly been surprised at what the new guys are dealing with, and humbled. My experience serving had been completely different than what my cousins went through. I was very interested to find out what it would’ve been like for me if my family hadn’t moved to the states. With such a change in the way the U.S. does business following it’s recent experience in the “Global War on Terror”, I was wondering if Russia, with it’s increased funding and following wars in the Caucasus, might experience a similar albeit fundamentally different progress of their own.

To give you a little background, the Russian Army is a fairly sizable force numbering roughly around a million souls. The vast majority of these are conscripts. Russia has a bi-annual draft that the majority of those coming of age would like to avoid.

The Hazing

Andrei Sychyov recovering in the hospital following operations to stop the spread of gangrene after he was beaten

Stories like that of Andrei Sychyov, a private who was hazed so badly by his fellow soldiers that he suffered amputation of his legs, genitalia, and part of his hand after gangrene, set in when he couldn’t go to the military hospital for help. The hazing has a formal name: Dedovschina (дедовщина) is the practice of systematic hazing and abuse of the new conscripts, the dukhs (ghosts) by the older “Deds” or grandfathers who are close to completing their military obligations. Dedovschina’s literal translation is grandfatherism and it is a symptom of a broken system. With no-one to maintain order and discipline in the barracks, the lack of a professional enlisted corps of NCO’s and the lack of funds and reluctance of reforms creates a situation where officers leave soldiers in charge of one another to self-govern. You can see how this becomes a problem with the new batch of conscripts being brutalized during their first year, only to find themselves in a position of authority for the second. The cycle continues.

Serving to death in the Russian army – RT.com

It’s not at all hard to find videos of conscripts being abused and hazed. A quick Google search brought up numerous Youtube videos of beatings and humiliation in the barracks. I am not going to put them up here but the point is – it’s widespread.

Reforms

Vladimir Putin is trying to solve this problem. Specifically the problem of overall reform. The Russian military system is outdated and ineffective. Corruption runs rampant and the reluctance to change is deep-rooted in the belief that a numerically large military  – is a powerful one, and necessary to defend Russia’s large borders. Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a research scientist at CNA (a Washington, DC thinktank), is a prominent authority on Russia’s military and the state of their affairs. His blog: http://russiamil.wordpress.com/ is a fantastic resource for almost any type of subject relating to Russia’s armed forces and their reforms. He has this to say about the need to downsize the military…

None of the arguments made in favor of maintaining an army of 1 million soldiers make sense. They are usually based on factors such as the country’s size or the length of its borders, rather than on an analysis of the realistic military threats that Russia might face in the foreseeable future.

The government is pouring in billions of rubles to try and close the gap between the military’s aging infrastructure and the current needs of the state. Dr. Gorenburg explains the intricacies of how difficult this problem is to solve:

http://russiamil.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/the-russian-militarys-manpower-problem/

My limited knowledge in this can only give a quick gist of what’s going on. In order to reform the military by scaling back the number of forces, modernize the existing ones, and professionalize the military – the state, specifically Putin in his agenda, has to ensure accountability across the board for the changes made.

The problem is that the Old Guard is generally opposed to reforms because doing so would decrease the amount of soldiers available for service. A conscripted army is a cheap army to maintain compared to that of professional volunteer military and a professional military cannot be used to perform farm labor for extra pay. The reforms would also tackle the rampant corruption endemic to the military. A lot of the funds originally slated to go to modernizing the military, have found their way into the back pockets of corrupt generals and officials. Putin, apparently, is on a warpath to get this done, and presently this is his third official try to do so.

Progress?

Russia’s Armed Forces on Parade – ForeignPolicy.com

He may be succeeding. Having fired the generals opposed to reform and replaced them with those eager to see change, Putin is pushing ahead with his characteristic determination to get things done. And right now is his best chance to do so. Flush with funds from the nationalization of it’s oil and largely rebounded from the economic crisis of the 90’s, Russia has been pouring money into it’s military. So far, the changes have been largely organizational. This is important however, since it allows the military to contract it’s size and requirements in order to remain an effective defender of national interests.

Robert Haddick, in his article, “This Week at War: A Leaner, Cleaner Russian Army” outlines some of the challenges faced by this administration, as well as some of the changes already enacted. Specifically, Putin’s move to bring in civilian supervisors like Anatoly Serdyukov, the official government tax collector is paying off. The funds are finally starting to go where they were intended.

The Next Step

The benefits of a modernized military are clear to reformers and objectors alike. One of the biggest problems following the re-organization of the military is the building of a professional NCO corps. Non-Commissioned Officers or NCO’s for short, are known as the backbone of the western military doctrine. These professionals are enlisted volunteers responsible for the delegation of authority, the supervision of morale, discipline and training. They have come up through the ranks and provided the guidance and experience needed to make others carry out orders. In short, they are the ones that make things happen on the bottom line – and Russia has no such institution. Well it does – but it’s called Dedovschina and it’s clearly not working.

There is a sign of changing times. In the recent war with Georgia back in 2008, a visible shift was seen when the majority of units deployed – were contract soldiers. The need for incentives to attract service-members has been given some attention. Dr. Gorenburg provides a recent update of the proposed pay structure for the conscripts coming in this year, essentially doubling their pay – link here. While the amount is not necessarily significant, roughly around $200 a month, that’s still a really low figure when compared, for example, to a U.S. Private with less than 4 months of training who earns around $1403 a month. The contract soldiers and officers, on the other hand, may finally be able to find a salary that’s competitive to the civilian sector after their pay was reformed too. This might actually make the military a place that draws young people to it as viable career instead of as a sentence.

The point is that with rising salaries, the hopes for an increase in benefits seems likely to happen. According to the themoscownews.com, veterans of Russia’s armed forces may see more relief coming. President Putin recently signed a decree stating that disabled veterans are entitled to social security, compensation, and medical care (all in various degrees).

 So What?

Training in Ukraine – Ukrainian Marine Corps Officers and my fellow Marines.

Does any of this really matter? Why do I consider this issue of reform all that important? Well besides having a personal connection to these problems, I think there is a great deal to be optimistic about. Just the fact that an institution of such magnitude in a country as historically closed off as Russia is trying to change gives people a lot of hope that things will get better. It seems that maybe “the forgotten” have finally become “the remembered” and the veterans lives will continue to improve. I especially hope this is the case for the disabled veterans, like Andrei Sychyov, or others wounded or hurt in one of Russia’s many brushfire wars.

A reformed Russian army has geopolitical consequences as well, and most of those are actually benificial to the U.S. Think about it this way: a military that is focused on policing it’s own backyard, tactics and equipment similar to those used by Western powers and a high degree of professionalism would make the ideal partner when cooperating on regional problems. The realization that the Cold War is finally over when the army is rebuilt might signal a reverse in the tendency to treat each other as opponents. In essence this could make the U.S.  military’s job easier, the borders a little friendlier, and people’s lives a little better.

– Dmitry

Interesting links on the subject:

Dr. Gorenburg’s blog on Russian military reform: http://russiamil.wordpress.com/

Dedovschina (Grandfatherism – the hazing of conscripts):http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1055451.html

Miscellaneous Russian military photos (updated frequently) – http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?99988-Russian-Photos-(updated-on-regular-basis)/page3488

New Russian military uniforms: http://englishrussia.com/2010/07/13/new-uniform-of-the-russian-army/

 

 

Russian Student’s Traditions – Are We Really That Different?

No matter what school you’ve attended, chances are some of your fondest memories, whether cheering for your favorite football team, or swimming in the fountains during finals week, were all part of a long standing tradition.  At least for me, traditions give us the backdrop against which we see ourselves as the successors to those that came before us. Repeating these same actions we tie ourselves and our hearts to those places where we spent so much of our time and efforts. I think it’s important to see how we remember those times because it’s such a common denominator across cultures.

School traditions give us a reason to connect ourselves to our Alma Mater and regardless of where that place might be located, all places have certain rituals that students will cherish and remember.

In Russia, the school year begins on September 1st known as День Знаний (The Day of Knowledge.) This is an exciting time in the lives of Russian students. Parents and students come to celebrate the 1st day of school and it’s marked with assemblies, speeches from local veterans and the faculty welcoming the students back and wishing them success in their studies. Flowers are often presented to the teachers, poems are read by the upcoming senior students and in some towns a 1st grade girl is hoisted on the shoulders of a senior male student and paraded around as she rings the “Первый Звонок” (First Bell) heralding the start of the academic year. After the assembly the 1st year students are led by 11th graders to their classes. This is a time honored tradition and despite its Soviet roots has easily made the transition to the present day. Comparing my own memories of the first day of school here in the United States, it sounds like Russian students might have a bit more fun during their first day back. – source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_Day

Opening Ceremonies – 1st of September – Simferopol

Uniforms are a big part of the Russian school tradition. Girls and boys dress in their best outfits, especially to mark the beginning and end of the academic year. Although not necessarily a requirement in all schools, the tradition is making it’s way back into the lives of Russian students as uniforms are expected to become mandatory.

 School Uniforms Coming Back?

Soviet Children on their way to School
Photo Credit: RIA NOVESTI

Uniforms usually consist of a suit and tie for the boys. Back in the days of the Soviet Union and even prior to that, during Tsarist times, the boys uniforms sometimes reflected military roots. Since most men upon graduation would find their way into the Armed Forces, it was only natural to begin some of their military education while still in school.

The dress code for girls usually consists of important items. A black dress is worn, over which goes a white apron. Stockings are worn but the fun part, as my mother recalled were the hair bows. Girls would compete to see who could wear the biggest bows and great care was taken to look your very best in front of your peers.

While there is a potential backlash against schools requiring uniforms; I would suspect that most people would generally want to wear whatever they choose. However, it seems that especially when it comes to holidays and celebrations, uniforms are just part of the culture. On those days students will wear a sash around them, but most of the time the sash is reserved for graduation and marks the wearer as a proud graduate completing his or her years in school.

 

More info on Russian school uniforms here: http://listen2russian.com/russian-culture/last-bell/last-bell.html

One of the biggest days in a Russian student’s life is Graduation Day. Although the experience is probably just as exciting from our own memories – Russian’s do love to put out all stops when it comes to having a last send-off for their students.

Graduation in Russian schools is the long-awaited cherished memory for many students. Just as in the beginning of the year, the Last Bell (Последний звонок) is rung to signal that school is finally over for the graduates. Usually around May 25th, the academic year comes to a close and many students take this opportunity to have one last party with their friends before departing for the next stage in their lives. To paraphrase a lesson from “http://listen2russian.com/russian-culture/last-bell/last-bell.html“, the getting ready and taking extra care to look sharp on their last day, students dress up in traditional school attire. The entire school gets involved in the preparations for these festivities. The day is marked by assemblies, speeches, tearful farewells and warm wishes for the future. Following the same traditions as on the 1st day of the year, a 1st grader accompanied by a graduating senior rings the last bell signaling that 11 years of academic studies are finally over for the graduates.

 

Just as in any country, students take the opportunity of their new found freedom to celebrate in their own style. The day is usually marked with parties, walking around the cities parks, and most students find their way to the fountains where it is tradition to splash around. Most can easily imagine what takes places at the end of the day when the recent graduates, realizing that this might be the last time with their school friends, get together for parties to mark the end of one chapter in their lives and the beginning of a new one. Although the party culture is as much a part of student life in Russia as it is in the U.S., I feel it’s interesting and different enough to warrant it’s own blog post. After all, they’re Russian students and that part of their culture is a rich and fascinating story all it’s own.

Despite having graduated from school, the students are not quite finished with their academic obligations. They now have to pass the official state exam for graduates and receive their diploma. The Единые государственные экзамены (ЕГЭ) – or Unified State Exams are held about one week after the completion of the academic year. The diploma won’t come for at least a month. But once it does, it’s time to celebrate again!

Russia’s equivalent to Prom takes place after everything else is finally over. It’s called the выпускной бал, (Graduate’s Ball) and the evening is filled with familiar prom dresses, dancing and a final conclusion to their time together much like the ones experienced in the U.S.

 

My best memories of senior year came from the last days of school. When the anxiety of exams is finally over, graduation has come and gone, and a last farewell party with friends still ringing in my ears, my thoughts turned toward the exciting realization that my next journey was up to me. It seems that my experiences are not so different from my Russian compatriots after all. Despite the differences in academic structure and even academic traditions, the desire to celebrate together and reflect on a closing chapter of our lives binds all students in their memories.

I am sure that there are a few traditions that I might’ve overlooked and I am very happy to invite you to share your own.  What traditions do you have at your school? Are any of these similar to your own?

– Dima

 

Some worthwhile links I found on this subject –

Quick overview of September 1st Holiday:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_Day

A small collection of photographs from that day:

http://sennaya.com/forum/index.php?topic=37.0

Very interesting blog/article about the Last Bell celebrations. This one has a lot of information on the uniforms and traditions. I highly recommend giving it a click.

http://listen2russian.com/russian-culture/last-bell/last-bell.html

Great collection of photographs of a Russian school and it’s students:

http://englishrussia.com/2012/09/09/time-to-study/

An expatriates experience with the Russian school system:

http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/03/a-summer-cut-short-for-russian-school-children/

A Punk Band’s Prayer – Deliver Us from Putin

“Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets

Come, taste freedom with us.“

Pussy Riot

Russia’s literature and music has always had a political connotation to it. With no outlet to vent their frustrations, Russia’s artists, writers and poets have been some of their country’s greatest patriots and also its biggest critics. The recent controversy over the state’s punishment of a punk bands “concert” has ignited the passions of Russia’s youth about the issue of free speech. The band Pussy Riot performed a controversial anti-Kremlin concert in a Moscow cathedral to the delight of their fans and to the disgust of the authorities all the way up to Putin himself.

Hooliganism is an official charge that can carry a sentence anywhere between 3 to 8 years in prison and it’s the state’s official charge brought upon the bands member. It’s also likely to stick. This is Russia – and sometimes it shows just how different it can be.

 

What drives these young women’s hearts? Nadezhda Tolokonnikova explains in her closing statements.

“We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [holy foolishness] of punk. Passion, total honesty, and naivete are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime. The so-called leading figures of our state stand in the Cathedral with righteous faces on, but, in their cunning, their sin is greater than our own ” – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

 

The road to free speech in Russia has long known the heavy hand of the state. Demonstrations have historically been met with riot police, tanks, tear gas and paramilitary police forces. Yet today’s tech-savvy generation has given dissidents a new voice through social media. With the ability to organize protests through online services like Facebook and Twitter, Russian authorities have a hard time in reacting to the growth of such gatherings. Pussy Riots lyric’s might be considered crude by some but they deliver a powerful message of dissent that Dostoevsky would be proud of.

In a way, the band’s usage of Orthodox imagery signals a return to a kind of pure spiritualism that was pervasive amongst Russian literary legends. The nihilistic search for truth, a kind of purity and transparency guides the band’s political and spiritual goals.

“It was our search for truth that led us to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I think that Christianity, as I understood it while studying the Old and especially the New Testament, supports the search for truth and a constant overcoming of oneself, the overcoming of what you were earlier.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s case is easy to categorize as a simple matter of state vs. free speech, however Vadim Nikitin, a contributor to The New York Times in his article “The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot” points out that the band had a bad tendency to actually incite riots. Despite the apparent “Kangaroo Court” put on by the state, the band does have some legitimate criminal offenses to answer for. Nadezhda’s moving words in her closing statements seems to be an effective smoke screen for her participation in a public orgy – while pregnant as a form of protest – (Nadezhda’s profile). Vadim says,

“The members of Pussy Riot are not liberals looking for self-expression. They are self-confessed descendants of the surrealists and the Russian futurists, determined to radically, even violently, change society.”source.

He may have a point as the bands message promotes rebellion against all state organizations not just corrupt ones.

-source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ

An American expatriate blogger in Russia, Почемучка aka “Pochemuchka” (the one who asks a lot of questions) disagrees. The bands more racy activism is irrelevant in the context of their message. She points out that the sheer bravery to stand up so defiantly to the government and corrupt church officials is the real message that needs to be taken away from this case:

“Almost every Russian will tell you outright that the democracy of their country is a farce. But many also support sending these women to prison. In my opinion, seeing these two things as solid opposites prevents any kind of cultural analysis. However, “it’s part of their culture, so it’s okay” is a statement that disregards any universality amongst human beings–like the idea of “basic human rights”… my opinion on the Pussy Riot case is that the sentence these women received for what I see as a logistically simple act of civil disobedience far outweighed the physical damage actually incurred against the church.

This case gives a very exciting perspective into the younger Russian activists and the culture that they are promoting. Despite obvious flaws in their incendiary approach, their message remains the important takeaway. That voice of dissent – delivered through, somewhat unorthodox means was heard loud and clear in the Kremlin. It is interesting to see a new generation of Russia’s warrior poets and their influence on Russia’s historically closed off society.  The question remains to be seen whether this unique approach to activism will lead to any changes in the Russian state’s attitude toward free speech and lend encouragement to others to voice their dissent.

 

Or will their efforts just promote a government crackdown while alienating themselves from the rest of Russia’s citizens?

Please comment and let us know what your views are on the subject. Is this type of behavior justified in the pursuit of free speech and how are these women punk rock activists unique amongst their community? Would this even be an issue in the United States or other countries?

Thanks

– Dima

Interesting links regarding this topic:

Pussy Riot’s Twitter page

Pussy Riot’s Closing Statements

The Pochyemuchka Diaries – American Expat in Moscow

The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot – Vadim Nikitin’s Op-Ed in The New York Times

Punk Punishment: Pussy Riot’s ‘unholy prayer’ splits society – RussiaToday

Pussy Riot profile: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – The Guardian’s story on the Pussy Riot’s “Evil Genius”