MOSCOW - The Volga River, the longest in Europe and one of Russia’s natural jewels, has not so much flowed for decades. When it's not covered with ice, it fills with fish-killing microorganisms, and emits a putrid stench.
Environmental organizations describe the situation in the Volga region in alarming terms, noting that the region is home to more than 40% of Russians. Environmentalists and scientists also stress that they have the capacity to effect real change, rather than just make statements, but they are generally restricted from doing more by the government.
Judging from its statements, though, the government is perfectly aware of the dire situation.
The fate of the Volga concerns those outside Russia, too. In 2006, UNESCO and Coca-Cola joined forces to create the “Living Volga” program, which is aimed at raising public awareness about the Volga’s ecosystem and how to use its resources responsibly. The UNESCO - Coca-Cola tandem does not really welcome press attention to the project’s finances, though, and we were denied access to financial reports on the program.
But they are eager to talk about their main success: Since 2008 May 20 has officially been Volga Day, and UNESCO has added this holiday to its environmental calendar. The holiday’s program “honors this great river and its important role in providing people with water, food, energy, recreation and life,” through various different educational and recreational activities. Its most important activity is a shore cleanup organized in seven Russian cities along the Volga. Last year, there were 4,000 volunteers and 45 tons of garbage were collected.
Nuclear testing, blooming microorganisms
Statistics on the Volga River are saddening. The Volga basin accounts for 8% of Russian territory, 45% of Russian industry and around 40% of the country’s agriculture. It receives up to 20% of the country’s wastewater. The cities around the Volga see far more than their share of the country’s waste.
But for scientists, the most worrying fact is that Russia still does not have a system for monitoring water resources. Lack of funding is part of the problem, but so is Russia’s absurd bureaucracy. In order to examine fish, scientists are expected to send the Fisheries Agency the specimen they will examine half a year before the experiment begins. One scientist said that researchers will soon have to turn to poachers if they want to get anything done.
Smoke over the river Volga at Nizhni Novgorod (Sergei Dorokhovsky)
It’s clear that many of the Volga’s problems are a result of Soviet experiments on nature, for instance the huge dams that were built. Building the dams put 20,000 square kilometers of highly productive floodplains underwater, and required the resettlement of 650,000 people.
“The Volga no longer exists as a river, it is just a system of water control: one ends and another one starts,” explains Gannadi Rosenberg, director of the Volga Basin Ecological Institute. “These changes have led to a huge increase in the man-made, non-biodegradable waste. In addition, there have been 26 nuclear tests carried out in the Volga basin during the Soviet years. But no one has studied their consequences yet.”
Moreover, the Volga is dirtied by waste from both industry and agriculture, which creates a cascade of problems for residents in the region: from breeding grounds for fish and other animals to concerns about drinking water. The river also has a major problem with microorganisms “blooming” on the surface due to changes in temperature or pollutants. In the Volga, these blue-green organisms both kill fish and make recreation in the river impossible.
All of these pollutants make their way to humans through the food chain, which has led to a joke among hydro-biologists. Russians, they say, are saved by the fact that unlike the Japanese, they don’t eat fish every day.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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