Suffering Russia and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1997)

I recently spent time in a Moscow hospital. The medicine was plentiful, the care round-the-clock, and as a foreigner I was asked to pay for it, which I was happy to do. “You know very well”, said the woman who took the money in a voice of steel, “you know very well that you would pay far more at home”, confusing Britain with the USA, or Germany, or perhaps even Brazil. I tried to explain I had never paid for medical treatment in my life, but she could not be shaken.

I am getting used to people  here telling me little-known “facts” about Britain. A colleague, for instance, announced with an important air that as Britain had never had “socialism” we could know nothing about the difficulties of privatisation. Tell that, I thought, to the dockers in Scotland, where whole cities have been thrown out of work by the closure of state-run shipyards. Or to the redundant miners of northern England.

I have come to realise that Russians know very little about the traditions and culture of western Europe, and actually have little interest in them. In the NGO world we hear a lot about the Russian “spetsifika”. I used to pay this due deference, but now it makes me suspicious. Half the time it conceals total ignorance about the “spetsifika” of, say, Spain. And doesn`t it sound that bit complacent? Poor, suffering Russia: your nappy may be soaking wet, but it`s comfier that way.

I was recently asked to take part in a conference about the impact of foreign aid on Russian NGOs. Three things struck me immediately:

[1] Russia must be the only place in Europe where charities pay more than the state. In Britain, for instance, you take a conscious drop in salary when you choose to work in the non-governmental sector. A study of the people who work in, say, Dutch and Russian NGOs and what drives them, still waits to be written.

[2] Look through any NGO directory and the e-mail addresses are mostly east of the Elbe. An NGO in Bradford or Pamplona would kill to have the technology which is commonplace here. When I last counted 80 percent of EU grants were aimed at Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. A measly  10 percent are set aside for NGOs in Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc. – although they too have emerged from totalitarianism in the last 20 years and are helping to “strengthen democracy”. What`s more they actually belong to the EU.

[3] It is hard to keep up with many NGOs here, allowing for their conferences in California and trainings in Trieste. The ecology group I worked with in north west England would have looked on a trip to London as a wild form of partnership and exchange of experience.

To me Russian “spetsifika” spells a lot of privilege which NGOs in southern Europe might envy. Foreign aid to Russian NGOs, it might be said, is reaching the end of Stage Two. If Stage One was blankets and computers and trips to the USA, and Stage Three sees foreign aid donors folding up their tents and slinking away, Stage Two has been the Age of the Consultant.

There is a piece of Chinese wisdom: how many people does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer is obviously four: one to change the bulb and three consultants to help them evaluate the experience. Why have consultants descended on Russia in such force? Partly because of some bad experiences western donors had in Stage One. They decided that Russian NGOs needed training before they receive large grants. “Know-how” has been the slogan since 1992 and with it the idea that “If you teach a man to to fish you feed him for life”. If you give him a fish, the implication being, he leaves it to rot in a drawer or sells it for windscreen wipers.

But this is only part of the answer. If consultants come three to a light bulb in Moscow and  St.Petersburg, they come in fours in London, rather like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. My own NGO, for instance, had secure funds from its members, and was not seeking grants from EU or USA sponsors, but I remember five years of consultants advising us how to hold meetings, interviews, door handles….Why?