Russia Takes Soviet-Style Tack To Salvage Space Program

The Soyuz TMA-16M launched to the International Space Station
The Soyuz TMA-16M launched to the International Space Station
Emmanuel Grynszpan

MOSCOW — Compared to last century's Cosmonaut glory, Russia's space program is looking more like a dud these days.

On May 16, a Proton-M rocket crashed in Siberia with its commercial load, a Mexican telecommunications satellite. A week earlier, a Progress spacecraft, a Russian cargo craft that was supposed to deliver more than three tons of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), instead disintegrated in the Pacific Ocean after falling out of orbit. And the difficulties of another Progress craft already docked to the ISS have hampered a planned correction of its orbit.

This isn't the first time that Russia's space industry has faced a succession of misfortunes, even in recent years. But this latest rough patch coincides with the May 18 approval of legislation aimed at overhauling the sector. It calls for all the industry's actors to be regrouped inside a single state corporation, the Russian Federal Space Agency, more commonly known as Roscosmos.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin reacted to the recent series of failures by urging patience. "These contingencies result from a systemic crisis in the industry, which Roscosmos has yet to overcome," he said.

But Mikhail Degtyarev, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Commission for Science and High Technology, characterized the nature of the problem very differently. "Suddenly, two spacecrafts of different types crash," he said. "There's something fishy. National security organizations need to look abroad or inside the sector to find the causes, focusing in priority on the possibility of sabotage." The influential lawmaker believes the right recipe involves a "relentless ideological work from space technicians who need to understand that the goal is to turn Russia into a superpower."

Such Soviet-like stances are raising smiles among space experts such as Yuri Karash, a member of the Russian Space Academy. "Everybody knows the name of the two saboteurs," he says. "They're called Negligence and Incompetence."

A return to the Soviet style

The failures are the consequence of a long period of underfunding, which drove out a great part of our technicians and engineers, says independent expert Vadim Lukashevich. "Today, Russia is greatly boosting production without having the means for it, which leads to accidents," he says.

He believes the formation of a state corporation like Roscosmos is a step in the wrong direction. "The previous model, which consisted in separating the client, that is the space agency, and the manufacturers was better. It's the model that almost everybody uses. But we, on the contrary, have decided to go back to a Soviet-style, opaque model that bans competition. The problem is that we no longer have the USSR's resources, nor do we have the same goals."

The repeated failures of the Proton and Soyuz spacecrafts are forcing some to question the last area of the space industry in which Russia still dominates — namely, launches. Oleg Frolov, a member of the Russian Military Industrial Commission, recently acknowledged that the country's share in the global space industry market had fallen to just 1%.

"That's right," Lukashevich confirms. "We are the very last in scientific exploration, well behind the Americans in terms of military, and as far as satellite conception is concerned, we've even fallen behind China."

There's been a lot of conversation in recent weeks about Russian cooperation with China and India. "These are political announcements that will never materialize because these countries' goals are not compatible with ours," Lukashevich explains. "Our logical partners remain first and foremost the Europeans, then the Americans."

On the political front, the space issue means a lot for Russia, where everybody still remembers the strength of the USSR. A recent poll showed that 47% of Russians want the space program to be expanded, even as the country is mired in its worst economic crisis in 15 years.

On the other hand, British singer Sarah Brightman, who was supposed to be the next "space tourist" in September, has ceased to believe in Russia's capacities. Probably frightened by the recent wave of failures, she has canceled her plans to board a Soyuz capsule and will perhaps be replaced at the last minute by a Russian billionaire.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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