The Sochi Paralympics Are a Potemkin Village
An interview with Russian writer Alexander Snegirev. Interviewer: Filip Mazurczak
How do you see the organisation of the Paralympics for the first time in Russia in Sochi this year as contributing to bettering the position of people with disabilities in your country?
I have talked with several persons suffering from physical disabilities, both congenital and caused by accidents, and all of them tend to believe that the Paralympic Games are rather entertainment for spectators without disabilities comparable to a circus rather than being motivated to improve the situation of people with disabilities.
It is a well-known fact that builders have equipped all the subways in Sochi with elevators, but they forgot to set up switches at the subway exits. So it is possible to go up from a subway, but there is no possibility to go down. This absurd and sad fact demonstrates that the organisers have no understanding of what they do and why they do it.
Double standards are common all over the world, but in Russia they make up a significant part of tradition. It’s one thing to watch on television how the disabled compete with each other on ski slopes, and it is quite another when it comes to reconstructing the whole infrastructure to meet their needs, to be more careful and to be thoughtful of others and not only of oneself.
What challenges do Russians with disabilities face today? In many post-communist countries, the infrastructure is very unfriendly towards citizens with disabilities. Is this also the case in Russia?
Most of the apartment blocks in Russia are not equipped with wheelchair ramps or special doors. The pavement is not suitable for using wheelchairs. Russia does everything to prevent people with disabilities from going out of their homes. A notorious fact is that in 1949, poor handicapped people who were begging in Moscow and Leningrad, around 70 per cent of whom were veterans of the Great Patriotic War, were simply placed in trucks one night and resettled in special, primitively organised care homes that resembled prisons. There is horrible evidence, including pictures made in one of such care homes at Valaam. The number of disabled people deported during those times is unknown, but it is estimated to be between 120-150 thousand people. Maybe this data is exaggerated, but even if ten times fewer people were persecuted it does not justify either the state that arranged the persecution or the society that accepted it.
Attitudes towards people with disabilities in Russia are not Christian. Russians are ashamed of them, hide them and treat them as a burden. The state needs an individual if he fights, works for crummy salaries or pays taxes. If an individual is not able to do this, the state gets rid of him. Today the disability pension in Moscow amounts to 15,000 roubles (300 euros) and an additional 1,000 roubles per month (20 euros) is allocated to hire an assistant, but understandably no one wants to work for this money. In addition, the handicapped regularly have to prove their disability to the officials, as if an amputated leg or hand would grow back in several years. In Russia, citizens with disabilities can only rely on their family and relatives, as neither the state nor society needs them.
In the current Polish Parliament, there are two deputies and one senator (out of 560) who have disabilities. Are Russians with disabilities also visible in their country’s public life?
Russians with disabilities are not represented in the legislative bodies. Apparently, Russian society is afraid of seeing pain and suffering and is only willing to look only at healthy, decisive people. Mercy is out of favour today. Sometimes public events take place. Irina Yasina, wheelchair-bound over the last ten years, is well-known and attempts to draw attention to the problems of the handicapped spring up every now and then, but these are exceptions.
Have NGOs devoted to fighting for the rights of people with disabilities been forming in Russia? What has the Orthodox Church, whose voice is increasingly influential in contemporary Russia, done on this issue?
The Church is a reflection of the society and is occupied with serving the interests of the authorities, enriching itself and expanding its own influence. Mercy and care for one’s neighbour is on the whole not typical of today’s Russian Orthodox Church, as well as of the whole Russian state. These values continue to remain declarative only, and in reality we are dealing with cruelty and rancour. We live in the world of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, only without sympathy, humanity and resistance to evil. In our world, murderers do not feel regrets and money-makers do not get enlightened. Russia is ruled by anger and greed for gain, there is no room for the weak.
Fortunately, society is slowly changing and this is noticeable. Russia is simply too big to change quickly. It will take many years, but the light is already glimmering ahead.
Translated by Olena Shynkarenko
Alexander Snegirev is a Russian writer. His short novel How We Bombed America won the Crown Prize of the Writers’ Union in 2007. His novel Petroleum Venus about a man who has a son with Down syndrome in contemporary Russia was shortlisted for the National Bestseller Prize, nominated for the Russian Booker and was on the ozon.ru bestseller list for a year. His latest novel, Vanity, was named the best book of 2010.
Filip Mazurczak is an Assistant Editor of New Eastern Europe. He studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.