My recent trip to Altai, an enchanted mountaneous area of Siberia bordering China and Mongolia, has confirmed the claims that Russians, historically, do not fight bans, they dilute and incapacitate them with passive, but indomitable resistance.
About the only place in Altai where you can get fined for smoking in a wrong place is the airport (and they did it, in my case). The rest of the territory is, basically, open air, villages and tourist facilities.
A facility is normally a collection of wooden chalets with maybe one communal structure, a kitchen and a bathhouse combined. There are signs “no smoking inside” on the chalets, but then these have always been there. Wood has a tendency to burn when a drunken inhabitant drops a cigarette butt, and it’s a known problem. But if you do smoke in there, nobody is likely to bother you, and the owner of the facility would be the last person to harass guests.
Increasing tobacco prices is a serious thing. People in the countryside of Altai are not rich at all. My friend from there, owning a small village shop, says that the tobacco sales are dropping, but there isn’t a farmer in the area who has not started to grow own tobacco. Not a single person my friend knows has given it up smoking, regardless of the Health Ministry’s upbeat statistics. The city youngsters rather vape than smoke, but mostly because it’s cool, not because they want to “reduce harm”.
Our Smoker’s Rights movement, having branches in about 50 of Russia’s 85 regions, have accumulated quite a collection of cases of the smoking bans being openly or clandestinely boycotted. People smoke on trains, and a fee of about 2 US dollars per day is being given personally to the carriage attendant. For that sum the attendant tells the passengers when the police patrol is gone, and when it may appear again. The police patrols are not very eager to harass smokers, anyway.
There are restaurants with signs “smoking allowed”. There are big airports which have smoking rooms in defiance of all the bans, with wholehearted agreement of city’s authorities. Big city hotels may be the victim of constant checks, but the smaller ones always welcome smokers. There are doctors telling you “don’t even think about giving up smoking on admittance to my clinic, I don’t want your body getting a withdrawal shock on the eve of an operation”.
At the same time offices of regional governors are writing upbeat reports about dropping smoking rates, phony to the extreme. Recipients of these reports believe in them even to a lesser extent than senders do, but they use these fakes for general reports. That’s how you get all those figures of smoker’s numbers in Russia dropping by 17 or even 27%.
You have to have knowledge about both Russia and the outside world to see what’s the basic difference between life of smokers here and there. The difference is in the things that Russia cannot even imagine. Our smokers do not feel isolated. We are not in any way second-class citizens. Nobody (with very few exceptions) really believe that there is such thing as passive smoking that may harm somebody.
We don’t have all those ugly hysterical women waving their hands in front of their faces or yelling “I can’t breathe!”. We don’t, simply speaking, have the grassroots idiocy that makes life of smokers intolerable in the US or some parts of Europe.
You may write and speak against the bans here (and that’s what I do weekly, and get myself published, to a wider and wider audience). You may go to the TV or radio debates with the ugly anti-smoking personalities and blast them to pieces, since they were not prepared to meet any resistance (and a lot of people do it). The TV people openly cheer you on.
So far, the only serious problem facing smokers have been Nazi-style youth gangs attacking people and trying to stop their smoking, but luckily such cases are very isolated so far.
On the other hand, singers and artists, young and old stars, medics, academicians – a sizeable part of Russian elite speaks out for the right to smoke and against the bans. And they only get themselves more respected for that.
Thing is, the bans in the West came after mass brainwashing, while in Russia the reverse was true. And even the brainwashing, which is very much there by now, is been viewed (with disdain) as the government’s totally doomed attempt to repeat its usual folly.
Russia has a long history of governments trying to impose on people something that is supposed to improve general health and lifestyle. Such attempts invariably end with disasters. The most recent case was the “semi-dry” laws and regulations, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, right after his coming to power. Incidentally, that initiative has made Gorbachev instantly suspicious in the eyes of the public.
That was about drinking, not smoking. There were people at the time, demanding total ban on consumption of alcohol and howling about an “alcohol epidemic”. There were limitations of all kinds, noisy propaganda, fines imposed, careers ruined. There was also a terrible rise in consumption of any kind of spirits, with a lot of lethal poisonings. What remains from that time is the reputation of prohibitionists as village idiots, as well as the general notion: never again. And we drink with glee.
So, when an idea of “the harshest anti-tobacco law in the world” was introduced to Russia in around 2010, everybody knew in advance that it was doomed to fail. I’ve heard a lot of our MPs saying that they voted for it with full knowledge that it wouldn’t work, so why bother with debates.
Russia does not have a civic society like in the West. It belong to a very long list of consensus-seeking societies. The most common case of such approaches is manifested in the way we choose our leaders. Like in China, Kazakhstan and so on, the nation starts from reaching a general agreement on who the leader should be, while elections are only a formal act of endorsement of that decision. Funny, but the agreement comes as if by itself, and the media or other means of mass communications are powerless to impose their will on the public. While a really contested election is usually viewed as a sign of a diseased state of the society.
Likewise, protest demonstrations (against smoking bans or anything at all) may only happen in Moscow or maybe 2-3 other cities, with their peculiar and Westernized population, and they essentially mean nothing at all. Similarly phony are rallies supporting smoking bans or any other policies. What matters is the general mood of the public. And the mood in our case is not exactly for smoking (we know it may harm smokers), but against the bans as a means to solve any problem at all.
But, to repeat, we are never actively resisting unpopular measures. We rather ignore them by communal consensus, sabotage them at the slightest chance, and that kind of resistance has proved, through the centuries, to be invincible.
The story of the mentioned “harshest law in the world” and how it was introduced into Russia, merits special attention. We’ll talk about it in my next post.
About the author Dmitry Kosyrev