Most documentaries about Russia tend to fixate around Vladimir Putin, the former KGB spy turned president, who is clamping down on Russian society and chipping away at its democratic institutions. On occasion, we get non-Russian experts like Stacey Dooley covering the controversial, such as far right groups, anti-gay laws and domestic abuse. Every so often, one appears that actually attempts to cover normal everyday life away from the Kremlin and controversy (though these are important). Or, like my friend Andrei Nekrasov did in 2015, some attempt to deconstruct how Russia got to where it is and assess the impact on the national psyche.
A few days ago, DW did more to provide an insight into Russia today than any documentary in a long time. A German public broadcasting service, the six part documentary did exactly what it said on the tin; look at Russian life from cradle to grave beyond the megalopolis of Moscow and everyday political feed we are used to.
Each episode followed three people (or groups of people) in their daily lives, at least so far as the particular theme of each episode was concerned. Birth, childhood, youth, adulthood, retirement and death in the world’s biggest country all got a special looking in different parts of Russia.
The episodes began with basic facts that would probably surprise non-Russian experts. Russia is getting older and experiencing a declining birth rate. By 2030, we are expecting 12 million fewer people if current demographic trends continue. About 53% of young Russians want to move abroad, and pensioners receive just 180 Euros a month. Many more do not even live to get their pensions, either because they cannot afford to retire or life expectancy catches them up. Finally this information was put out there to the masses in an honest manner. Russia, whilst possessing a vast cultural wealth, is experiencing some socio-economic challenges holding the society back and which look set to stick around for a little while.
Something I have long wanted from a documentary on Russia is to simply show Russians as they are, and its authors to avoid tipping the scales; DW did this and it worked well. If I had one quibble, a little more commentary would have tied up few loose ends much to the viewers’ benefit. The makers could have explained who the Chuvash teenagers in the second episode were, and the 97 year old ethnic Bashkir pensioner speaking her native language. Whilst Russian citizens, and indigenous for that matter, they are not ethnic Russians. Living standards among Russia’s 100+ ethnic groups vary considerably, particularly when taking into consideration their age and location.
The first episode on birth shows how common home births are. Many women simply do not trust going into hospital, or there just is not time for the ambulance to get there. Outside of big towns and cities, hospitals tend to be even more poorly equipped and further away. One woman had her eight months old in her apartment, whereas another gave birth in a pool at home. As of 2018, Russians have 1.6 children per family, and maternity leave can be up to three years.
As a teacher who has worked in Russian schools and universities for the last seven years, for me the most interesting episodes were on childhood and youth. In Russia, ‘upbringing’ is a part of the education process. What comes through the most is both the intensity of schooling and that Russian education places a lot of emphasis on culture; perhaps more than any other European country. Also, the young blogger from Vologda was not chosen by accident. Russians are among the most active social media users worldwide. Much of Russia’s youth view it as an escape from the pressures of school, which the new exam systems have brought more competition to.
So why might 53% of young people want to leave? The documentary fails to explain its own statistic, but it has to do with a lack of real opportunities. Getting ahead in Russia is difficult if you are not extremely talented, have wealthy relatives or know (bribe) somebody to give you a leg up. Salaries remain lower than the rest of Europe, housing problems persist and the economy is over reliant on commodities. Small businesses are extremely difficult to run and set up, too.
The poor quality of housing that pensioners live in will surprise most viewers. And similar to Britain, their lives can be rather lonely, particularly in villages gradually becoming obsolete. So many pensioners continue to live a more traditional way of life, though it begs the question of what will become of these ghost towns if nothing is done to diversify the Russian economy or save them from oblivion.
However, I am not sure this part of the series really captured the difficulty of being a pensioner in Russia today. Seeing an elderly lady in a Moscow Billa* arguing over ten roubles in 2016, or another begging for money at a Pyatorochka** till in Vladimir might catch the reader’s eye a little more. Even the sight of those selling their own vegetables outside supermarkets and metro stations says a lot about how little their pensions actually are.
The only trace of politics came from a young model and two middle aged family orientated people. Each had opposite views of the country they live in and Putin personally, and this was an accurate reflection of the generational divide. Russia’s young have only ever known Putin and are rather sick of him. Many feel their country is being held back by those in power. By contrast, those above the age of forty remember the 1980s and 90s and are genuinely fearful of a return to those times. For them, stability means having a job, salary and food in the shops; seeing that their relatives have enough to get by on speaks more of stability than anything else could. Even if they are not huge fans of Putin, as one woman interviewed remarked, ‘if there is stability, then the government is good’. Young Russians tend to view stability through another lens, which in my view, will become more properly defined over the next five years.
Choosing Russians who are a true reflection of the country as a whole is difficult, but the nation’s huge diversity was captured here. DW has finally given us something more closely resembling Russia today, and aspects of life that most people are unaware of. DW showed the Russians as a population just trying to get by and perhaps feeling a sense of disillusionment from elements of the political system. What this means going forward after COVID-19 remains to be seen.
If you want to learn something, then I recommend dedicating one day of your self-isolation to this series.
* Billa and Pyatorochka are the names of two Russian supermarket chains.
Episode One – Birth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cO58tL1CUw
Episode Two – Childhood https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IG4eVdhbxI
Episode Three – Youth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRIiTk1nR78
Episode Four – Adulthood https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he8FGw9e-pcHYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he8FGw9e-pc&t=1351s”&HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he8FGw9e-pc&t=1351s”t=1351s
Episode Five – Retirement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAnWF6yTaWQHYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAnWF6yTaWQ&t=1288s”&HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAnWF6yTaWQ&t=1288s”t=1288s
Episode Six – Death https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQN420LIwrc