Soon after, he recalled in a telephone conversation, he signed an online petition begging U.S. President Obama to take the hospital under his care and fix it up. More than 300 parents in the small capital city of Elista did the same, and the letter was sent to the U.S. Embassy here in Moscow last week for forwarding to Washington.
“We are desperate,” Godin said. “The operating room is dirty, the wards have bare electrical wires coming out of the walls, and mothers who stay with their children have to sleep in their beds with them. No one will do anything. That’s why we appealed to Obama.”
The letter may be addressed to Obama, but the petitioners are using it to pressure their own leaders to listen to them, convinced that if they only knew what was going on, something would be done, a belief that has been cherished throughout Russian history. Once such hopes rested with the czars; today they are directed toward the ruling tandem, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, who have modernized the process.
In addition to piles of letters, Medvedev gets tweets and Putin has an annual televised call-in show, where just three years ago a poverty-stricken 9-year-old Siberian girl appealed for a Cinderella-like dress. Putin invited the entire family to Moscow for tea and gave the girl and her sister party dresses. This July, he visited the village to check on the economic development he had ordered, and gave the now 12-year-old a laptop. That kind of response is rare, but well publicized.
“There’s a certain letter machinery,” said Boris Altshuler, a Moscow human rights activist since the 1970s who offered to get the letter from Kalmykia to Obama, by way of the U.S. Embassy. “It’s like putting a note in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean.”
The residents of Kalmykia, Europe’s only predominantly Buddhist enclave, were tired of waiting. Appeals had been sent along the governmental chain of command, but the parents didn’t know whether anyone had heard. Money had been allocated to repair the hospital in 2008, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Kalmykia’s entrance into Russia. The work was supposed to have been finished in 2009. Many assume the money was stolen or misappropriated — always the first assumption when government disappoints here.
“There is a firm belief that power is very corrupt,” said Boris Dubin, sociopolitical director of the polling group Levada Center, “that they do for themselves and don’t care about people. And there is a parallel three-quarters of the population that trusts Putin and Medvedev. People believe the leaders are good — the czar is good but the boyars [nobility] are bad.”