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Suicide on the Volga River: A Tale of Two Republics

    By Mark Ames ( ), the Exile newspaper, issue #146, 2002
    See thr original web-site:
    I went to Chuvashia and Mari-El to find out why so many people were killing themselves there. Two inconsequential republics along the Volga River, known only, if mentioned, as the suicide capitals of the world.
    The suicide rate in Mari-El is said to be the highest in the world. According to some statistics, the rate is upwards of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants (Mari-El has roughly 750,000 people). Russia"s overall suicide rate is less than 40 per 100,000, while America"s is around 10.
    Chuvashia"s suicide rate is over 50 per 100,000, and at one point after the crisis reached 7 per day. Today it"s around 2 to 3 per day, in a republic of some 1,300,000.
    Historically, suicide has always played a key role in Chuvash culture. Until a century or so ago, the ultimate form of revenge a Chuvash could take on his enemy was to go into his enemy"s courtyard and hang himself on his doorstep. In the morning, said enemy would open the door and see the avenging Chuvash hanging there, neck snapped, tongue hanging out, eyes bulging. The living lose. Game over. This was the equivalent of doing a dirty chicken dance in the end zone: the surviving Chuvash would never recover from the shame, while the dead, suicidal Chuvash would live on as a man of honor and integrity, a real fighter.
    "Suicide was never considered a sin here, but rather a virtue," said Alexander Belov, editor of the local Argumenty i Fakty in Cheboksary. "Christianity came late to Chuvashia. Until then we were pagans. That"s still in the Chuvash blood."
    Belov recounted one example: a babushka complained to her neighbor that he was always getting drunk and being loud. He rudely refused her pleas to quiet down. One night it got particularly bad. He got wildly drunk on samogon and made a racket. The following morning, the babushka came to his house with a bottle of samogon and a couple of glasses and tried to set the situation straight. He refused to drink with her and slammed the door on her face. The next time he opened the door, she was swinging from the rafter. Vengeance was hers. Nobody knows what happened to the avenged Chuvash who discovered the old woman swinging on his doorstep, but my guess is that he probably envied people with malaria or Ebola at that point, cuz having an old babushka hang herself on your doorstep was worse than two weeks of boiling organs.
    A few months ago, Chuvashia"s president, Nikolai Fyodorov, gathered together the top editors of the regional newspapers at his offices in Cheboskary to discuss the problem of suicide.
    "He didn"t have any solutions," said one participant at the talks. "He just wanted us to know that he considered it a serious problem and that he wanted to do something about it."
    The republic"s deputy head doctor in the ministry of health, Yevgeny Nikolaev, refused to discuss statistics or specifics with me during a ridiculously evasive interview.
    "If you write about suicide, you"ll just encourage more of it," he said.
    "Don"t you realize that readers will think the problem is even worse if the top medical expert won"t even talk about suicide for fear of encouraging more?" I asked.
    "Ah, I see your point," he said, nodding his head. "Yes, that"s clever."
    Even though Chuvashia and Mari-El are both small Volga River republics in the heart of European Russia, they couldn"t be more dissimilar. The Chuvash are a Turkic people, the only Turkic tribe in the world that adopted Christianity rather than Islam. Their capital, Cheboksary, recently won a state-sponsored competition as the best-run city in Russia. Set in rolling hills on the banks of the Volga, Cheboksary is remarkably clean, well-kept with groomed parks, fountains on the canal that runs off the Volga, and packed with amazingly beautiful girls strolling the sidewalks, nothing but gazelles and giraffes.
    Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari-El, is a post-post-apocalyptic atrocity, pure Soylent Green. I"ve been to my share of provincial cities across Russia, gladly even, but I"ve never seen any regional capital as wretched as Yoshkar-Ola, city of 260,000. I can"t remember colors there -- not even gray. All that sticks in my mind are the lifeless paneli, concrete boxes. Some half-inhabited, others half-built and abandoned. The vegetation was the color of dust. There were few cars on the chewed roads, which hadn"t been repaved in years. Even downtown, we drove on unpaved roads to get to the offices of the local Moskovsky Komsomolets. For some reason there was a huge raft or dingy behind the building, and a dog barking from behind it.
    "Why would you want to go to Mari-El?" one Chuvash had asked me before I left. "They"re all short, ugly, slant-eyed people. It"s depressing over there."
  • * *

    The best explanation for the high suicide rates is ethnicity. The Mari are a Finno-Urgic people. If the Finno-Urgs will be remembered for one contribution to humanity, it"s that they"re the suicide champs of the universe. The Mari are always fielding a top suicide relay squad, competing for the world suicide title with Hungary, Udmurtia and Finland. Estonia"s rate is about half that of Mari-El"s, but that could be because so much of the population there is ethnic Russian and mixed. Or maybe not: Mari-El is only 40% Mari. But it"s 100% fucked.
    The Mari are also probably the last people in Europe to practice paganism on a wide scale. It"s the one thing, along with suicide, that the Mari share with the Chuvash: a late devotion to paganism. The Chuvash only converted in the 18th century.
    Then of course there"s the drinking problem. Chuvashia, with its high concentration of vodka and beer plants, has one of the worst drunkness problems in all of Russia. Mari-El is just about the poorest republic outside of the Caucuses, depending on which statistics you follow. Mari-El has little except for armaments factories (they make the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles there), secret nuclear missile silos, and hunting areas for the richer Chuvash neighbors. Who the fuck wouldn"t drink like a flailing snake fish if they were stuck living in Yoshkar-Ola with no way out? The city was the living incarnation of one of those Platonov novels, that surreal mixture of utter desolation, boredom and hunger creating a sidewalk of famished insectoids.
    "It"s hard for the dog -- he lives only because he was born, just like me."
  • * *

    It was a long weekend. Talking. That"s all I remember everyone doing from the time I boarded the train at Kazansky Vokzal last Thursday until the time I boarded the train at the Cheboksary Central Train Station four days later, mercifully on my way back to Moscow. My ears were raw.
    At Kazansky Vokzal in Moscow, I took an SV lux cabin for about 50 dollars because as a rule I like to be left alone, and the chances are that someone going to Cheboksary can"t afford 50 bucks for an SV car.
    When I first boarded, and when we first chugged off, I was alone in my cabin. Grateful and alone. That was when Vadim showed his face. A thin younger-thirties Russian male with gold chains, a linen blazer and those weird sandworm-colored fancy sandals that European males like to wear along with their linen blazers. Smiling like one of those people who likes himself. Few things in life are more repulsive than a person who likes himself.
    He tried several times to start up conversation with me. I thought to myself, "Is he gay? Is he trying to make a pass at me? Why the hell aren"t I ever put into a train compartment with a hot babe? Why am I always stuck with some male chatterbox. Jesus Christ, he"s going to have opinions about everything. He"s going to tell me what the West is really like, how he"s traveled all over Europe and has no desire to go to America because "there"s nothing interesting there.""
    I"m as much a Russophile as the next alienated Westerner -- my father recently even accused me of being a "Russian nationalist" -- so I think I have the right to call a spade a spade when it comes to the downside of Russians: they can talk and talk and talk until pus pours out of your ears.
    And Vadim didn"t let his people down. After probing my defenses, he finally found an opening, a way to get the conversation going.
    "So, where are you from?"
    "The States."
    "Oh. Is it nice there?"
    "It"s paradise," I said. "I miss it horribly."
    "The most beautiful women on earth. You"ve seen our movies?"
    "Of course," he said. "Titanic is one of my favorites."
    "America is like a fairy tale. The women are all thin and sweet. Money grows on trees. People will just invite you into their homes from off the street. And the best thing of all is that when you don"t want to talk there, they don"t talk to you."
    "Really? That"s interesting," Vadim said. "And I come from Moscow. Have you been to Moscow? Oh, listen to me! Of course you"ve been to Moscow. How else would you have boarded this train. Well, how does Moscow compare to America? Or let me ask you this: have you been to Cheboksary? It"s a nice place, but of course it isn"t Moscow. Moscow! I think it"s as good as any capital city in Europe, don"t you? Of course..."
    And on and on and on...I learned that Vadim is a producer of "pop" and "boy bands like Carte Blanche." Thank you, God, for putting me in the same cabin with a boy band promoter. I know I deserved it, but I couldn"t quite place the sin with the punishment. Was it because I"d given crabs once to Olga?
    As Vadim talked, I lay back on my cabin bed, grabbed a novel by Andrei Volos about Russians stuck in Tadjikistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, and read. That didn"t bother Vadim. He talked while I read. I didn"t even offer him courtesy mumbles. I don"t think he cared whether I was actually listening or not. He just wanted an ear, physically, to be there as his tree fell in the forest, falling over and over and over. Like devushki who dance in front of mirrors in discos. They don"t really care if they"re dancing with anyone else -- they really prefer to watch themselves -- but it"s somehow more satisfying for them if someone"s there while you watch yourself dance, or listen to yourself babble.
    My heroes in the Volos novel were the Russians who didn"t talk much. There was one character -- he"d spent years building a house on the riverbank in Haramabad before some Tadjik warlord drove up, put a gun to his head and said, "We"re going to the registrar now, you"re signing the house over to me." The story was all too true -- I"d seen and heard enough stories like that in Kosovo, after NATO took over. The Albanians first threw out the Serbs and slaughtered them, and later, when they had to be a bit more discreet about their ethnic cleansing, they made the remaining Serb residents offers that they couldn"t refuse. Gun to the head, sign a form at the UN registrar"s "legally" handing over your property, get paid a hundredth of what it"s worth. The Russian, my hero, gave in to the Tadjik bandit, selling his house for a measly 200 dollars. Seething, he uses the 200 to buy a machine gun from a Russian borderguard soldier, sets it up in his house, and waits all night and through the morning for the warlord to arrive. The ending to the tale was disappointing -- it turned out that a friendly Tadjik warlord killed the evil warlord as a favor to the Russian. The Christian point being that, uh, there are good Tadjiks and bad Tadjiks. Volos was looking for the Booker Prize with that PC ending, and he got it. You have to lie to win a literary prize.
  • * *

    Within hours after my arrival, Ilya, my local contact, met me at my hotel and drove me to the Chuvash republic administration building to meet with Natalia Volodina, the Press Minister and "Vice Minister."
    I was only able to get one question off to Volodina. Her answer to that one question took up sides A and B of my microcassette tape. I"ll sum up what she told me: the reason Cheboskary is such a nice town is because of her boss, President Fyodorov. The reason people are living longer and the roads are better paved and the pay has gone from barter to cash and the newspapers aren"t repressed is due to the fact that Fyodorov has served three terms as president, and should be able to serve several more.
    "Look at Mari-El," she said. "They"ve had three different presidents, and the republic is a mess. We"ve had one, and everything here is so good."
    Western journalists have lately begun popping in and out of accessible regional capitals looking for the "regional press" story, the one about how the local bosses stomp on anyone who criticizes them. The story is basically true, though it"s not a very exciting one. Nor is it new, or unique. With America now jailing its own citizens without charges, moving to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act, its media in the hands of a few mostly right-wing oligarchs, it"s hard to see what the big deal is. I remember the hours and days following 9-11. I was listening to NPR in Louisville, Kentucky, since I didn"t get AM radio. The so-called liberal elite from the East Coast kept reminding its NPR listeners, over and over, that we were all going to have to give up our civil liberties. If, after a single two-hour attack by nineteen ragheads, America was ready to trash everything it had supposedly stood for for two hundred years...
    Ilya owns one of the three largest newspapers in Chuvashia. He told me the limits of media freedom: don"t dig too deeply into corruption at the administration level. You can go after the parliament or mayor.
    "We published an article in 1998 about how the health minister Sharapov had used funds to buy himself six apartments in Moscow," he told me. "Using budget money, padding expenses on outlays and skimming the profits, trips to Israel. Next thing I know, tax police raid all my other businesses. I was taken to jail. A criminal slander case was opened up against the general director of our newspaper. We had to print an apology. It took months to calm down."
    "Today, if I have a story about someone in the Fyodorov administration, I have to go to his people with it first to make sure I can publish it," said Tantyana Ilin, the editor of the local edition of Moskovsky Komsomolets. "They"ll say, "Let"s meet and talk about it. Maybe change this here or there.""
    Alexander Belov used to edit Respublika, a pro-parliament, anti-Fyodorov newspaper during the time when the two branches battled much as they did in Moscow. He was forced to print the paper in neighboring Mari-El, and later, according to other sources, he was forced out of his job.
    "It began after the election of Yeltsin in 1996," he said. "After he won, they took revenge because Chuvashia voted for Zyuganov. After that election, we had to print outside of the republic."
    He denies that he was forced out of his job at Respublika. "I was tired of bothering the administration. I didn"t have another job lined up. I just quit and did nothing for almost a year until I took the AiF job," he said, speaking of working for Argumenty i Fakty. I think he was just protecting his skin. A well-known local communist was in Belov"s office when we"d arrived, and returned after we left. He"s still got to be careful.
    Belove denies that there is much repression. "It"s the owners who are more oppressed than the journalists. They want to keep their businesses, and they let us know that," he said. He seemed annoyed with the new fad among Western journalists probing for regional media press repression. "They"re all coming down here now."
  • * *

    Belov studied economics. When he finished the institute, he took a job in a clothing store. In those days, once you completed your education at a VUZ, you were obliged to work for three years in wherever they placed you.
    "I was the only male among 10 women," he said. "At first they were quiet. Then they started gossiping. Gossiping and talking all the time. I couldn"t take it. It was so awful, all their blabbing, that I went and joined the Red Army just to get away. It was the only way to avoid my obligation to the VUZ."
    Joining the Soviet Army to get away from Russian chatterboxes! See, I"m not the only one!
    "I was placed in a unit guarding railroads out in the Leningrad Oblast. I was the only one in the unit with a higher education. They"d force the recruits to build railroads, but they needed someone to write about it, to glorify the miserable work. So they chose me. I got to stay behind writing glowing stories about the work being done by the railroad battalion while everyone else sweated it out on the railroads. That"s when I realized that journalism was my calling. I decided, "I like this profession.""
    Today, Belov is considered one of the two or three top journalists in Chuvashia. Volodina was the other until she took a job in the presidential administration.
  • * *

    On Friday night, Ilya took me to the Corona disco in the southwest apartment block district. "This is where the molodyozh hang out," he said. "We"ll see a different crowd tonight."
    I"d been drinking until 5 a.m. the night before; I"d vowed not to drink anymore. I was on heavy antibiotics from another god-knows-what gnawing on the tip of my urinary tract, about the billionth time that region has been colonized by devushka snapper-bugs. My stomach was already bleeding from the 1000mg of sumamed/vodka fizzing in my lining.
    But it was impossible to behave. The White Moroccan God Factor was through the ceiling. Chuvash women are amazingly beautiful: tall, slender, unusual eyes -- somewhat slanted at the corners yet otherwise almost perfectly roundish, almost beady. I"ve never seen eyes like theirs. The men were mostly short and greasy. It made for good odds for the Moroccan Conquistador.
    The disco was well-packed with a couple hundred kids. The layout was simple enough -- a large round dancefloor, circular viewing area around the dancefloor, and stage for the fag-dancers. The cheaps were drink, so I loaded up on 50 ruble gin and tonics.
    The music stopped. Some drunken thug in an Adidas track suit took the stage. He started egging the kids on about the upcoming parliamentary vote on Sunday, a vote so uneventful even the journalists couldn"t tell me what was at stake. ("They all promise to lower prices on gas and electricity and to attract foreign investment. There"s no difference left anymore.")
    The thug then implored the kids to take up sports. "Sports is good! And vote for Ivanov! Yes, and sports too!"
    I asked Ilya who he was.
    "That"s Vyacheslav Krasnov, our deputy minister and Minister of Sports. He"s very close to Fyodorov," he said.
    Krasnov was making a complete ass out of himself. He went on and on about sports and voting, stopping emphatically between each slurred slogan. At first the kids were embarrassed for him, clapping courteously, expecting it to be over quickly. Then they became embarrassed and angry. They started booing and hissing his every dramatic pause, but nothing could wipe the smile off of Krasnov"s face. Finally, the DJ launched into a techno number. But Krasnov wasn"t done. With the microphone in hand, he started dancing on the stage. The kids poured back onto the floor, trying to ignore him. He wouldn"t budge. Soon, three flaming male dancers with black boots and gloves jumped onto the stage for one of those "N Sync-like dances. Krasnov tried to join them, and they tried in vain to ignore his bulking, lumbering presence. He thrust his arms towards the ground, up in the air, crossed his legs, twisted... it went on for about five minutes before someone held a bottle out to him from the side of the stage and mercifully lured him off. He stumbled along the floor and made his way up to a table of four or five rotund, middle-aged chinovniki in the viewing area by the bar.
    Ilya introduced me to Krasnov. The Chuvash Republic minister of sports was saying something about "keeleri" when I walked up. His face was swollen, eyes almost shut. "Ameriki, eh? Ameriki? Oh!"
    "Your speech was great!" I told him. "You dance really well. You should get up there again!"
    He smiled, nodding his head, and stumbled away.
  • * *

    I don"t remember if it was Krasnov or not, but one Chuvash told me this:
    "There are three words you need to know in Chuvash: uksha, kapsha and ereke. That means "money, pussy and vodka.""
  • * *

    Anastasia was tall, about five feet ten, with sharp high cheekbones, swarthy complexion, dark Chuvash eyes and reddish brown hair pulled back tightly. Her one defect was her ass -- haunches, kind of like a horse"s. But she was easy prey and I don"t have the patience anymore to waste my time charming girls.
    As my mentor Mr. Ramirez recently said about women: "They"ve all got three fuckin" holes, man. And after awhile two of those fuckin holes get all dry and loose and you don"t wanna fuck "em anymore, while the third hole just keeps going "Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.""
    I danced with Anastasia. I bought her the only tequila in her life she"d ever drunk, and the only she ever will drink. She inhaled four glasses one after the other, saying it was the most exotic kaif she"d ever imagined. Ilya and I bought a bottle of champagne for the table where her two other friends were sitting. The champagne bottle cost 120 r

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