This New Yorker blog post by Julia Ioffe (pro tip: if you see Russia journalism by Julia Ioffe, you should read it) led me to this horrifying article about a home-cooked heroin replacement that’s ravaging the large Russian drug-using population. If you’re sensitive, proceed with caution. All you really need to know is that the stuff is made with codeine and iodine, is significantly cheaper than heroin, and will kill you within a year in a disgusting flesh-eating way once you start using it regularly. And in Russia, codeine is very easy to get in large enough quantities to make it. And, Russia has a heroin problem – both in terms of demand, and how difficult it is for the average addict to access. The Russian government appears to be doing next to nothing about this.
Depressing all around, but I found this particularly interesting and sad:
“Addicts are being sold [codeine] by normal Russian women working in pharmacies, who know exactly what they’ll be used for,” said Yevgeny Roizman, an anti-drugs activist who was one of the first to talk publicly about the krokodil issue earlier this year. “Selling them to boys the same age as their own sons. Russians are killing Russians.”
Russians are killing Russians. This invokes the duality, familiar to Russians and anyone who studies Russian culture, of svoi and chuzhoi, one’s own and that which is foreign. The idea – not to put too fine a point on it – is that if you’re a Russian, you trust and take care of those who are close to you, and mistrust and/or say to hell with everyone else. Genevra Gerhart, in her wonderful reference The Russian’s World: Life and Language, explains:
“[The] closeness of family and friends creates two personas for each Russian: the public one with a hard exterior shell that knows you must shove or you won’t get any, and the rich, warm, private one that goes to extraordinary lengths for one of her own.”
I’m agnostic on the common claim that this is an ancient, essential characteristic of the Russian people, but I have experienced its traces in contemporary Russian society, and it’s not too hard to see how Soviet society would encourage this attitude. Following the rules may have kept you safe, but it didn’t get you ahead; and while the fear of the Gulag abated after Stalinism, being a maverick was never encouraged, as is evident in this sad, dreamy cartoon short (“Little Idiot Girl”) about a kindergartner who’s a bit of an odd duck. The best way to function in a repressive but broken system is to band together with people who are “your” people, keeping your heads down and pooling your resources against the hard outside world. “Your” people are whoever you let in – your family, close friends, neighbors, coworkers, schoolmates.
In Roizman’s quotation, the definition of svoi is expanded, as it has often been in the past twenty years, to include all Russians. In the post-Soviet vacuum of official ideology, the ethnically-defined nation has been put forward (often for political gain) as one possible replacement for the Soviet brotherhood of all workers. The problem is that, just like the brotherhood of all workers, the nation – except in emigration, or communities with a high level of interethnic conflict – is never going to be a meaningful enough marker of svoi to incite ordinary folks to extraordinary behavior, to calling in favors or staging drastic interventions. I mean, there’s a reason Benedict Anderson’s communities were “imagined.”
Roizman’s complaint is symptomatic of contemporary Russian reality; it reflects a total lack of interest in systemic, government-implemented fixes, and a reliance on – and ultimate disappointment with- the mythos of the common people’s togetherness, strength, and love for one another. It’s the lament of a man who lives in a society where the government does nothing about terrible social problems like drug addiction and HIV infection, and so instead he imagines that the regulatory role in fixing these ills should be played by ordinary people – that folks should draw the svoi/chuzhoi line such that all suffering Russian people are svoi, so that they see their sons and brothers in the addicts they sell pills to. Instead, they look and see only chuzhie lyudi, strangers.