Wheels of Misfortune

Putin and Medvedev don't give a damn about Russia's disabled.

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Nov 6 2012, 8:00am

Ever since Gorbachev held office, Russia's political situation has been a paradoxical nightmare. It's as if the state-controlled TV has succeeded in creating this bizarre internal warfare inside every citizen, where the memories of a Western lifestyle are slowly pushed out, forging a space for Putin to establish whatever homophobic, totalitarian ideals he comes up with next. The Russians are dealing with a tussle between the old and the new – a struggle between what they feel is right and wrong – but the brainwashing is getting more and more entrenched, materialising in the unsolved killings of yet more journalists, Putin's Hitler Youth-style Nashi army and the jailing of young women for wearing masks and dancing in a church.    

Despite the fact that the West kicked up a huge fuss over Pussy Riot's sentencing, the reality in Russia is that relatively few people really care. Being in jail is hardly the worst thing that could happen to you there. In fact, people expect a lot worse. There's no open debate surrounding Putin's power – it's just an outright fact that his "Sovereign Democracy" (which is obviously a completely made-up term, because it implies that there's actually some semblance of democracy in Russia) is there to stay.    

The last time I was in Russia, I spoke to someone who'd met Putin in person and gained a bit of first-hand insight into just how ridiculously dictatorial the whole system is at the moment. Andre Elagin heads up the charity Kartegina, a wheelchair factory in Moscow that produces chairs for those who can't afford or don't have the means to access one. His is one of only a few organisations of its kind in the whole country – a gargantuan land mass teeming with injured war-veterans, a poor health service and abject poverty, meaning there are a lot of people who need wheelchairs they can't afford.  

The majority of Russia's disabled are confined to government-issued, Soviet-era metal stools that don't allow them to move independently. Which seems like a blindingly obvious design flaw to me, but whatever, independence and mobility don't seem to be too high on this government's priority list. Considering it's difficult enough getting around on foot in a country like Russia, Kartegina's well-designed, lightweight chairs are a godsend for anyone who can get their hands on one. Production rates, however, are depressingly slow, because the government the charity relies upon for financial support couldn't give less of a fuck.

When I first visited their factory, I was appalled. What I saw looked a bit like a crust squat that had been abandoned and left to rot for a decade: a dingy basement filled with almost archaic machinery, broken lightbulbs and a pretty nasty-looking damp problem. The second time I visited, a sewage pipe had burst, filling the entire basement working zones with liquid shit. The Soviet-era machinery was blocked up with it and the fumes were so pungent that my eyes began to sting. Without the charity, thousands of people would basically be imprisoned – immobile, stuck inside their apartments – but while the government have put the factory on state TV a number of times in a bid to demonstrate how the authorities are "helping the nation", they still receive no monetary support whatsoever.

"It’s just a complete glamourisation,” says Andre. “When the TV crews come in, they set up a load of lights, make the place look clean and shiny and shoot away; the reality is never exposed. I visited a factory in Germany that's similar to us in terms of manufacturing, and their working conditions are light-years away from ours. People are friendly to them, the government supports them and they're treated like the professional organisation they are. We're living in the dark ages – like in the Third World – and this is Moscow! The capital city!”

Spotting the Olympic logo on a batch of wheelchairs during my first visit, I was shocked to learn that this was where chairs for the Paralympics had been constructed, which prompted Andre's story about meeting his country's authoritarian leader.

"Putin was holding a dinner at the Kremlin, which was supposedly to discuss the Paralympic Games," Andre told me. "I'd been asked to attend because the government were looking at Kartegina to create the chairs for the Games. I knew it was going to be a little odd meeting Putin, but I wasn't ready for the actual bizarreness of it. I had to buy a suit and decided to bring my girlfriend, Jenny.   

"We headed up to the Kremlin and congregated in this hall with everyone else – a few were wheelchair-bound – before the dinner started. Eventually a bunch of huge, black-clad security guys came out to announce 'He's ready', so we went and sat in our allocated places at this huge, long table. Then I realised that Jenny had been stopped from coming through.

"I decided to go and find her, but, as soon as I moved, three guards jumped up and demanded to know where I was going. I told them I needed the toilet, they checked something in their ear-pieces, then led me to the loo almost by hand and waited for me, which was awkward because I didn't actually need to go. So Jenny had to stand outside for two hours.

"We were only allowed to talk when we were requested to – the whole thing was just so overwhelmingly formal and rigid. The food, however, was phenomenal; the finest caviar, incredible champagne – the kind of thing you'll only ever have once in a lifetime. Putin sat at the head of the table, like a Tsar, and the main thing that kept going through my head was something I’d seen on Russian news about Cherie Blair getting fined for not having a ticket on the underground in London. I was thinking about how insane and far-removed the idea of Putin’s wife ever getting fined on the metro is. That kind of thing would never happen here. I think most straight-forward Russians were shocked and bemused when they heard about the Cherie Blair incident.”

Andre also spoke with a member of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's council on a chat show on state TV, which turned out to be an experience indicative of the kind of corruption present in Russian media and politics. 

“They’d offered us support on air, claiming that the government would invest in state-initiated support for the community and offered us funding. We got really excited because it’s not often that you hear that kind of news. After the show, we decided to approach him and thank him for the help. When I thanked him, he turned, raised his eyebrows and said 'Are you kidding me? That was on camera, this is real life; there's no money for you. Are you insane?' then walked off. I was gobsmacked at the time, but I can only laugh in retrospect. I mean, this is just the government we have."

Igor, the charity's co-director, added his opinion on the matter: “There's a lot of bullshitting going on in the media, especially the glossing over of reality for TV to create these glowing statistics and an image of nationwide improvement to promote Putin's office.”

“Russia itself if not a poor country," says Andre, addressing the huge rich/poor divide that's been an issue in the country for years. "The land and the resources we have can create serious wealth, but it's only the people in control of those resources who are rich; the oil barons, the oligarchs. All the money belongs to them. We have nothing.” 

When I met Igor, he had just returned from the London Paralympics with some of the wheelchairs that had made the journey all the way from Kartegina's mouldy, fume-ridden basement over to the sparkling new London stadiums and back again. 

“The facilities for people in London are really extraordinary, especially when it comes to disabled access,” Says Igor. “It just didn’t help to see all the fantastic things you guys have and know that we are stuck here, completely powerless and unable to confront the government in any way, but I just had to keep supporting our team. We have to keep some sort of nationalism, otherwise we’ll lose our motivation completely. We’re fighting every day to make the situation better for disabled Russians, while also having to deal with the corruption and the government's theft of our rights. There's an oppression around us still, that's for sure."

Igor's thoughts epitomised that conflicted state of mind that has been affecting the Russian people. While still needing to feel proud of their Russian Paralympians and their hardworking ethics, citizens feel alienated and exonerated by their own government. What guys like Igor hope for is the chance for their birth country to become a place with a good quality of life, better rights and a more even spread of wealth. From speaking to him and Andre, however, it seems like Russia has a long way to go before it rids itself of corruption and moves forward to join the rest of the world in the 21st century.   

Follow Vasilisa on Twitter: @vasilisaforbes

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