The Soviet bureaucracy was famous for catch-22’s, and many still linger. A person’s legal existence, for example, is predicated on their possession of an identity card. The card must display a residential address owned by its holder. However, it is illegal to purchase a property without displaying an identity card. This registration system used to work back when the government supplied everyone with an apartment. But that hasn’t happened since 1990. Consequently, there is a thriving black market for illegal rentals, and thousands at the age of 40 are still registered as living with their parents, whether they do or not. A person without an ID cannot receive healthcare, marry or do anything else requiring basic legal status. If they disappear, nobody knows, which can be rather convenient for some agencies, if devastating for families.
These are the ‘technical homeless’, and Citizens’ Watch has worked hard with other NGOs to give them a voice. Unlike most tight spots in Russia, this is one of the few that a bribe cannot get you out of. A wealthy factory manager, for example, had been forced to buy his house illegally. It didn’t matter until, following a grave diagnosis from his doctor, hospitals refused to admit him without an ID.
It is even worse for the poor, not least the literally homeless street-dwellers of Moscow and St Petersburg. They stand out in the homogenous Slavic capitals, because so many are Asiatic. They come from Greater Russia, a vast and austere wilderness stretching from the Urals to Kamchatca. Many belonged to nomadic tribes well into the 20th century, until they were forcibly settled by Stalin to work the great mines. Those mines, from Yakutsk to Ukraine, are now in the hands of billionaires, and little of the profits ever find their way into locals’ pockets.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Stories of the Wild East sometimes filter through to big cities. When the minerals run out in a hapless Siberian town, the government cuts its power supply and leaves the inhabitants to freeze. Poverty-stricken Easterners arrive in their thousands looking for work in White Russia. By travelling outside the region shown on their ID cards, however, they have become criminals. Instead of arresting them, the authorities find it easier to leave them to the mercy of the street.
This is one the more obvious manifestations of Russia’s entrenched racism. Initially, it had been one of CW’s key aims to combat the rise in fascist groups during perestroika. Now it looks at racial inequity more generally, and recently developed a set of teaching materials for schools. As we review its contents, Pustyntsev warns me not to drink the ice cubes in my drink, ‘unless you want to spend the next three days with diarrhoea. Tap water is okay for showers, but not for drinking.’ When basic infrastructure is so fraught with problems, a functional legal system might seem like a fantasy. Yet with projects confronting racism, Citizens’ Watch continues to aim high. Pustyntsev explains: ‘we need to go beyond the laws and address whatever part of our culture informs them.’
The movie I’m watching closes, complete with tacked on credits for the voice actors. Everyone seems to have enjoyed the ending, especially the fact that the bad guys went to jail and the wrongly accused were free. Pustyntsev and his team hope their push for a transparent judicial system, trustworthy police and freedom of speech — the basic prerequisites for a safe society — will bring a similarly happy ending for Russia.