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October 14, 2004 by AK

AIDS in Russia

Via Fresh Bilge, a link to a New Yorker article on the spread of AIDS in Russia. There has been a discussion of this on SEELANGS, a mailing list for Slavic and Eastern European Languages (wait until the archive updates itself). Here’s my two kopecks.

Yes, the article is alarmist, but not unduly so: it is time to ring the alarm. No doubt, though, that its credibility is not at all enhanced by the exaggerations and distortions. I, too, was amused by the author’s treatment of _poryadochny chelovek_–a concept rather important to understanding the value system of “old Russians,” the term’s meaning somewhere between “decent man” and a modernized version of “gentleman.”

The article ignores the fact that Russia, as Soviet propaganda used to say about the West, is a country of contrasts. I wouldn’t be surprised if in an operating room next to the “hot plate” room, surgeons were using a regular autoclave because their supervisors cared to keep it in a working condition.

Another weakness is the author’s refusal to take seriously his Russian interviewees on why AIDS is spreading (as opposed to why it is poorly treated). If it is indeed drug use and/or overly liberal sexual mores, why not say it? Reminds me of numerous articles on AIDS in Africa failing to mention the culture of promiscuity that fed the epidemic.

It’s the article’s ending that makes the best point. Russia is not rich, but neither is it dirt poor; in fact, Brent having pierced $50 per barrel, Russia is awash in oil and gas money, as it has been, to a lesser degree, since 2000. Relative to the export revenues, there is even a shortage of investment opportunities outside of the extractive sectors; Andrei Illarionov, economic advisor to Putin, even used to welcome capital flight because he did not believe the money could be prudently invested in Russia. That is, the government both has plenty of tax money at its disposal and a private sector most attentive to the government’s wishes, so channeling a few billion dollars a year into public health and education is quite feasible. It’s a matter of political will, and of priorities.

Think about the money wasted on “rebuilding” Chechnya.


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