It was the post-Mikhail Gorbachev era, when communism had definitively ended, but capitalism and democracy had failed to arrive as expected.
In the Murmansk Oblast of the Kola Peninsula in western Siberia, my small team of University of Calgary social scientists were working with the Russian Sami Association and the Gorbachev Foundation to establish basic elements of democracy – small, village-based committees to co-manage the Sami reindeer herds that were increasingly coming into conflict with roads to resources, mining projects and military practice manoeuvres. Our co-management model was well established in Canada; in fact, it was at the heart of the western Arctic comprehensive land claim dating back to 1982.
We were all highly motivated by the prospects for positive change but daily events began to increasingly indicate that our idealism was running into trouble. Basically, the rule of law was collapsing in the villages where we worked. So were the institutions of government that gave many people purpose, data, food, health and safety.
When we arrived for the first time in the village of Yona (population of about 500), our project partners took us for a walk. Ludmilla, our guide, explained that government payrolls had been drastically cut when communism ended. “That building over there was the library. You can see that the windows are broken and the shelves are empty. No books remain. The librarian was no longer paid and she left. Someone sold many books to some Finns. Bad boys got inside and started wrecking the place. It is now kaput.”
Next we walked into a forest meadow filled with empty concrete bases for scientific equipment of some sort. “This was our meteorological laboratory. A small team of meteorologists gathered weather data here for the Oblast government. There is no more money for this work. All of the equipment has been sold,” said Ludmilla.
Next we walked by the old Yona dairy buildings. “The cattle have all been sold. We no longer get dairy products.” There was nothing else to say.
The Yona hospital now loomed ahead of us. “The doctor has sold the X-ray machine and the ambulance. It is best not to get sick now.”
As the walk-about came to an end, we had all got the point – nothing had arrived to replace communism in Yona, with the notable exception of authoritarian, anti-liberal rule in Murmansk, the Oblast capital. It was a society changing in hellish ways.
Nevertheless, we soldiered on with our project, hiring seven Yona Sami to prepare maps of the seasonal migratory trekking of the reindeer. The maps would form the basis for negotiations with the Oblast and Russian military officials in our quest to establish co- management committees.
A year later, on payday, two of our project’s workers, Matryona and her son Valery, were shot with a hunting rifle in cold blood in their flat. The killer fled with their combined week’s pay – US$50 – and to this day has not been found.
I thought of Matryona and Valery again as my mind struggled to come to grips with yet another school shooting. I envisaged an American society riven by political factions, deliberately cutting federal program budgets, doing away with decades of progressive federal regulations by presidential decree, led by an authoritarian, anti-liberal president, reinforcing and abetting the power of oligarchs, and enabling a citizenry armed to the teeth with military weapons.
I’m struggling to see how Donald Trump’s model to “Make America Great Again” differs fundamentally from the Vladimir Putin model of making Russia great again. Both are based on fear of outsiders; centralized presidential powers; mocking the free media, the independent judiciary and legitimate political opponents; and a valourization of money as the ultimate indicator of societal worth.
Trump must salivate when he considers Putin’s length of office, serving as prime minister or president of the Russian Federation since 1999.
But underneath all of the foofaraw, one can sense by his increasingly pathetic tweets a fear of the looming mid-term elections. America is still a democracy and there is reason for hope.
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