A Photographic Tour Of Russian Corruption

Russia Corruption

Photo: Misha Friedman

Russia’s corruption is the stuff of legend, and, despite the country leaving the “Wild East”-tag of the 1990s behind, still endemic.Just last year Transparency International ranked it 33rd-most corrupt of 174 nations. That ranking puts Russia, one of the world’s most important countries, on the same level as Kazakhstan, Iran, and Honduras.

This corruption effects people’s daily life in countless ways, and that is exactly what photographer Misha Friedman wanted to look at it his new project, “Photo51 — Is Corruption in Russia’s DNA?”.

Friedman was born in Moldova, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and moved with his family to New York in the 1990s. After working for Doctors Without Borders in Darfur he began taking photographs, and last year received funding from the U.S.-based non-profit Institute of Modern Russia to spend six months documenting Russian corruption.

“Most people don’t acknowledge this, but corruption in Russia has become its own institution, upon which all other institutions run,” Friedman writes in an introduction to the work.

“Without the patron-client transaction, business and education, police and military, medical and judicial operations, don’t happen. With time, it got so I couldn’t pass anything — a building, a traffic intersection, an abandoned farm — without becoming hyper alert to the way it embodied corruption’s creep into every organ of civic society. In a way, my sense of alertness was a mirror for the paranoia and arrogance that weaves corruption so thoroughly into the logistics of people’s daily lives.”

Friedman’s work is showing in New York at 287 Spring from February 15th, sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia. We’ve included a selection of photos here with Friedman’s own captions below.

Official projects often face allegations of cronyism and corruption.

'Crews working on the set of the Scarlet Sails, a traditional celebration in St. Petersburg marking the end of the school year in June. This famous event draws millions to its spectacular fireworks and numerous music concerts. For years, Scarlet Sails has been marred by allegations of cronyism and misuse of millions of public funds.'

The country has largely failed to make itself suitable for disabled users.

'A wheelchair-bound amputee holds on for balance as he ascends an escalator. Moscow's metro system, like much of the country, is not equipped for access for disabled people. There are very few elevators in the system, and many stations lack ramps on the stairways. Most of the transfers between stations are connected only by stairs and, generally, at least one flight of stairs leads from street level to the Metro entrance.'

Contrasts between luxury life and government clampdowns are rife.

'The window of a shop reflects a mobile jail, such that the store name, Vertu, looks like a licence plate on the truck. Vertu sells luxury mobile phones, encrusted with diamonds or rubies, with golden or platinum cases and is quite popular among the country's elite. The mobile jail, an Ural truck, is used by riot police to lock up and transport anti-Putin demonstrators.'

The rivers around cities are notoriously polluted, but many locals ignore that.

A fishing net is pulled out of the foamy waters of the Izhora River, one of the Neva's main tributaries, just outside of St. Petersburg. While they admit they would not swim in it, local residents ignore the fact that the river is one of the most polluted in Russia - numerous sewage drains channel untreated waste into it from nearby factories.

This photo shows one of President Putin's extravagent personal residences.

'A security guard in the Konstantinov Palace in St. Petersburg, one of President Putin's official residences. The palace was built in the 18th century, fell into disrepair, and was then reconstructed in 2001 with 'donations' apparently demanded from private companies, which are acknowledged on a gilded plaque inside. The renovation began shortly after Putin's inauguration to his first term as president. Now, for a price, anyone can rent it out.'

Many work in the huge penal colony system.

'On the day of Vladimir Putin's inauguration to his controversial third term as Russia's President, two men take a bus to work in the Republic of Karelia. Their place of employment, seen in the background, is the Segezha penal colony, where Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos oil company and once Russia's wealthiest man, is serving a 13-year prison sentence for tax evasion, money laundering and embezzlement. He is considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.'

A children's ecological school is being turned into a Judo club for Putin.

'Bychiy Island on the Neva River has long been home to a children's ecological school and student yacht club. It is now being developed into a private, $100 million judo mega-complex, headed by Arkady Rotenberg, President Putin's childhood sparring partner. Putin, a black belt in judo, serves as the club's honorary president.'

Crime is still a serious problem, especially for women.

'A young man beats a woman on a Moscow street, while police and bystanders look on without intervening. Moscow's Anna National centre for the Prevention of Violence reported in 2012 that a third of Russian women suffer domestic violence and that it kills as many as 14,000 of them each year -- around four times more per capita than in the United States.'

While the country is wealthy from oil, few benefit from it.

'An oil terminal is seen across a river in St. Petersburg. There is so much wealth coming from oil but only for a few, while thousands of homeless people would consider themselves lucky to have such a tent to sleep in.'

The armed forces are notorious for their brutality.

'Sailors guard a door to the command centre of the Navy's Baltic Sea Fleet. The Russian military is still a source of national pride-but most parents do everything they can to exempt their sons from doing the one-year compulsory military service because of widespread, often lethal, hazing.'

Land prices are rising, but many homes have been burnt down if the owners refuse to sell.

'Charred remains of a house in a village Komarovo just outside of St. Petersburg. Houses are routinely burned there, especially of those people who refuse to sell out their property. Land prices have considerably risen in that area, and this property is a good investment opportunity.'

Much of the country's infrastructure is crumbling, even when new.

'Sidewalk on the Garden Ring, the circular avenue around central Moscow. Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow's new mayor and a President Putin loyalist, made the reconstruction of the city's historic streets his pet project for which millions of dollars in funds were allocated. Unqualified migrant workers were hired to save on labour costs while the difference was pilfered. Metal plates patch up defects in the brand new pavement.'

Images of Stalinist Russia's Gulag past are everywhere.

Happy workers are marching towards a better tomorrow on this bas-relief in Medvezhyegorsk's city hall. A former GULAG headquarters this building now also houses a market and a number of other local businesses. Thousands of people have perished in that area of Karelia, their names are still unknown, their remains are still unidentified in mass graves. In today's Russia many people think of Joseph Stalin not as a dictator and murderer of millions of his own people, but as a strong leader, and this message is supported by the current government.

This picture shows a dump that stretches for miles with little public investment.

An official garbage dump, located near a main highway in Karelia, stretches for miles. Local officials claim there is no money to install trash bins, not to mention more efficient waste processing, and appeal to the neighbouring Finland for financial help. Despite such dumps and numerous illegal dumps, the regional slogan is 'Karelia is all about nature.'

The white ribbon here is an unofficial symbol of resistance to the government.

A white ribbon, a symbol of opposition to the current political regime, flutters from the bars of a police detention van outside the Moscow courtroom where three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison after a speedy trial. Following a show of support for the three young women, several protesters were detained. The trial is seen as politically motivated and part of a wider crackdown on dissent. The young women have been named prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International because of 'the severity of the response of the Russian authorities' to their one-minute performance of a protest song at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the saviour .

Hospitals routinely face shortages.

'A nurse is cleaning a cart used for serving food to tuberculosis patients in one St. Petersburg hospitals. This cart is also used to transport bodies.'

Some cannot even afford essential medicine.

'An empty cot in a hospital in Ingushetia. Health facilities across the country have little money to spare with equipment outdated decades ago and with patients buying even essential medicine.'

Half the country has no gas lines.

'A gas line elevated above a street in a village in the Urals. Russia holds the world's largest natural gas reserves, provides half the world with gas, and yet half of the country's population has no gas lines. Most of the villages lack not only gas, but also running water with people living not very different than a hundred years ago.'

Illegal logging is widespread.

Timber yard in Karelia. Russia's numerous forests are cut down at an alarming scale with most of the timber exported. The timber industry is worth around 20 billion dollars per year, however illegal logging is immeasurable. This yard is said to belong to Yelena Baturina, once Russia's richest woman and wife of former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. During his rule her company was one of Russia's biggest construction companies.

Migrant workers live in abandoned buildings.

'Windows of this dilapidated apartment block in St. Petersburg are covered with steel plates. Officially, the building should be vacant but unofficially hundreds of illegal migrants are housed in it. Mostly from Central Asia they come to Russia looking for work. Because these men don't have work permits employers pay them meager wages and treat as slaves, while the police harass them for bribes.'

Some villagers have had to be evacuated from their homes due to the radioactive waste.

'Rafik, 62, stands on the street where his home once stood in the village of Muslyumovo, whose residents were evacuated six years ago to New Muslyumovo, a mile away. The village was on the banks of the Techa River in the Urals, which for many years was a dumping ground for lethal radioactive waste from the Mayak nuclear complex, located less than an hour's drive from Muslyumovo.'

When President Putin drives around Moscow is his motorcade, roads are often completely closed for him.

'A boy plays on the embankment of the Moscow River. The street next to it has been cleared of traffic by the police in anticipation of an official motorcade. Especially in Moscow, drivers face daily road closures for several hours while the President, the Prime Minister, or some visiting dignitary, speeds through the deserted streets.'

Old graves in this cemetery are being cleared — unless the owner pays up.

'A cemetery in Kronshtadt, a former island fortress and traditional seat of the Russian admiralty, houses the remains of naval officers from the last three centuries. The town is clearing the old graves to make room for new ones. Unless, that is, relatives of the buried are willing to pay to keep their loved ones' graves.'

This small sign marks a mass execution of political prisoners in the 1930s.

'On a tree trunk in a forest outside Medvezhyegorsk, Republic of Karelia, hangs a photograph of one of the countless political prisoners who died at this mass execution and burial site in the late 1930s. The Russian government has made no effort to recover or identify the individual remains of the Gulag inmates who are known to have perished here. Now many people think of Stalin not as a dictator and murderer of millions of his own people, but as a strong leader; Putin's current government supports this reputation.'

The country has numerous veterans, and a huge number of MIAs that are never acknowledged.

Hundreds of soldiers die every year during Russia's mandatory military service.

A woman, a new recruit's mother, stands at the entrance of a St. Petersburg enlistment centre, waiting to cast a glance at her son. Recruits from this centre are sent to serve in various regions, as far as Vladivostok, and few parents get to see their sons regularly. Hundreds of soldiers die in accidents or commit suicide every year, about a third from hazing.

Decades of corruption has taken its toll on people's mentality.

'Just outside the 'closed city' of Snezhinsk (Chelyabinsk Region), a group of teenagers marked off their camp site with caution tape. Severe limits on private property in the Soviet Union made Russians prone to staking and fencing off anything they deem their own. Even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, such paranoia still governs much of daily life.'

For some, however, life is good.

'Couples enjoying themselves at one of Moscow's exclusive night clubs. One night out can easily cost a few hundred dollars in the city, with very few being able to afford such a lavish lifestyle. Yet these clubs are popular, as it is customary for men to entertain themselves away from their wives during the week.'

And many, even the poorest, dream of a better life.

'A mural depicting a palace on a building in one of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Petersburg. Most of the residential buildings in this neighbourhood are composed of communal flats, a relic of post-1917 revolutionary Russia. Dozens of families, each family crammed into one room, share one apartment with a communal kitchen and bathroom. In St. Petersburg still thousands of people continue to live in such conditions.'

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