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Memories of life in Russia in 1971

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by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It is precisely half a century ago that our family arrived in Moscow, the capital of the then Soviet Union (USSR). Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 it is Russia’s capital city. In 1971, the “Cold War” was at its peak. According to Wikipedia, The Cold War was the tense relationship between the United States (and its allies), and the Soviet Union (the USSR and its allies) between the end of World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. It was referred to as the “Cold” War because the US and the USSR never directly fought each other.

In July 1970, my father at his request was transferred to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Moscow. We never understood his reasons for selecting Moscow. Maybe it might have been because in 1957 or 1958 he had been chosen to be the diplomatic officer to set up the embassy. According to my father, he had conveyed to the Permanent Secretary (PS) of the the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs that he was not in favour of accepting the transfer. He felt he would not be able to work with the designated Ambassador (Dr. G.P. Malalasekera), a political appointee! The PS conveyed this to the Prime Minister (PM) SWRD Bandaranaike. The PM had sent for my father and asked him why he felt unable to work with the Dr. Malasekera. My father had hesitantly divulged his reason/s at which point SWRD had laughed loudly and told the PS “Send Jayaweera to Singapore where he can be his own boss!” Quite a contrast from what might befall a government servant in the last few decades who refuses to work with a person appointed by the Head of State or even a Minister. How times have changed!

Our departure to Moscow was delayed for nearly five months as my father’s predecessor, whose apartment we were to occupy, had been diagnosed with TB. The apartment had been designated inhabitable by the health authorities in Moscow. As our family comprised seven, we needed an apartment with a minimum of three bedrooms that was not readily available. The Russian Foreign Ministry had said they would need to combine two apartments and that this would be possible after 12 months when a new apartment complex would be ready. On the other hand, our foreign ministry was in a hurry for my father to assume duties in Moscow as there was no senior diplomat at the embassy.

My father was not keen to leave his family behind. Therefore, the government decided to transfer out the junior diplomat at the embassy. Our family was to occupy his apartment, comprising just two bedrooms. It was patently too small for us. However, we were told to bear the inconvenience for six months until the larger apartment was ready.

We ultimately left Sri Lanka towards the end of December 1970. We took a flight to Madras (now Chennai) where we stayed for a few days and then took a flight to Bombay (now Mumbai) and stayed the night. Next morning, we took an Air India flight to Moscow. I still remember my father getting us to look out of the window to get a glimpse of the Himalayas.

We arrived in Moscow on January 2, 1971, and it was freezing cold. The temperature would have been around minus 35 degrees centigrade. Fortunately, some of the Embassy staff who had come to the airport to welcome us had brought some heavy overcoats and headwear to protect us. To our great relief, our apartment was as hot as Colombo!

For a couple of weeks other than our father who went to work, none of us was brave enough to venture outside in the freezing cold! It took some time to get us all kitted out in warm clothing. Once dressed, the only thing visible were our eyes and the nose! Despite being bundled up, once outside for more than 10 minutes, your toes and fingers were more or less frozen.

Everything outside was white; the scenery looked like something from the movie Dr Zhivago. Other than the main road and the sidewalk, all else was covered in three feet of snow; beneath it was solid ice. We would slither around and at times take a tumble as we got to grips with the art of walking in the snow. The Moscow river, a ten-minute walk from our apartment, was rock-solid ice. We were told that even a lorry could drive across the river as the ice was so solid.

As the academic year had started in September, we were told that we would not be attending school for another nine months, which delighted my siblings! The question was how to while away the time inside a small apartment. We quickly realized that the best way was to stand by a large window in the living room and watch and count the number of people who got arrested for “jaywalking”! The law in Russia was extremely strict, and anyone caught crossing the road other than at a designated zebra crossing was breaking the law. Those caught were bundled into a police cruiser and taken away; I assume they were charged and fined. Despite that, every day, there were a few who were brave enough to jaywalk. About 75 per cent of those who attempted to were caught.

The security service monitored the movement of foreign diplomats. The apartment complexes housing diplomats and their families were segregated. No Russian was either allowed to live or even visit unless accompanied by a diplomat. A police post manned 24 hours at the centre of the compound observed who was entering and leaving. They also recorded when a particular vehicle left the apartment complex. It was generally believed that the police post at the embassy where the person worked was informed. In case the person’s arrival at the embassy was delayed, the police would through its network try to trace the vehicle. The same happened in the evening in the reverse order.

I remember an incident that took place after my father got his personal vehicle. We went for a drive and got totally lost. There being no Google maps at the time and our Russian language skills being minimal, we were in a quandary. Fortunately, within a few minutes, a couple of police vehicles arrived, and my father was questioned. When he explained that we were lost the police escorted us back to our apartment complex.

There was also a rule that foreign embassy staff could not travel beyond 40 km from Moscow without informing the Russian Foreign Ministry. Details such as the location, number of people traveling, and vehicle details had to be shared. The summer months in Russia were gorgeous with trees blooming, and generally, it was quite warm. So, most weekends in the summer the embassy staff would organize a day trip for sightseeing and go in a convoy of several cars. We would then try to find a nice spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. On one occasion, the convoy went beyond the informed location, searching for a suitable place for the picnic. I recall our convoy was quickly surrounded and questioned. We were escorted back to a suitable place for us to enjoy our picnic. One of the drawbacks of this restriction was that you could not suddenly get up on Sunday morning and decide that you would like to travel beyond the 40 KM radius despite the day being perfect for an outing.

Another incident that I vividly recall even after 50 years took place in the summer. An Indian diplomat’s son and I were playing badminton by the roadside. It was by a sharp bend near the entrance to the compound. I still remember a blonde girl running towards us. When she reached the spot where we were playing, she slowed down. I think she thought that she had given the policeman at the post the slip. Unfortunately for her, a policeman had seen her and came quietly behind her. He grabbed her by her long hair and dragged her screaming in Russian to the police post. Within a few minutes, a police van came and took her away. My friend and I were astounded but being only 11-years could not do anything to help her. Perhaps she was engaged in the oldest profession who took her chances!

One summer day, my father’s first cousin, living in London, arrived at the embassy unannounced. He had studied in Russia from 1958 until 1964 before returning to Ceylon with a degree in Engineering. Unfortunately, back home, his Russian degree did not get due recognition. He soon found employment in London where both his Russian engineering degree as well language skills were better appreciated. He visited us to seek my father’s assistance to marry his longstanding Russian girlfriend and obtain an exit permit for his wife to accompany him back to London. At that time Russian citizens were not allowed to travel overseas without government sanction. My father arranged the exit permit through his contacts at the Russian Foreign Ministry and the cousin, a true gentleman, was able to honour a promise he made to his girlfriend several years before to come back for her. However, I think my father earned his Aunt’s wrath for helping her son marry a non-Sri Lankan!

Some of the incidents that I have related are not intended to criticize the governance system that prevailed in the Soviet Union. I firmly believe that it was up to the people of the Soviet Union to accept or reject those rules. We were guests in the country, and we needed to abide by their rules. Russia has always stood by Sri Lanka and supported the principle that our country should resolve our problems without foreign interference.

Our stay in Russia was limited to just one year as our education was at a standstill. Our command of the Russian language was wholly inadequate to study in Russian. The government’s education allowance was paltry, and my father could not afford to educate four of his children at the International school. At my father’s request, the government transferred him to our embassy in Pakistan, and we bade goodbye to Russia just after completing one year there. Since then, none of us has been to Moscow, although the destination is undoubtedly in my bucket list of countries to visit.



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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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Health services face imminent collapse due to fuel crisis

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A file picture of a recent doctors’ protest

By Dr B. J. C. PERERA

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Pediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Our free National Health Service is something that brings succor to the poorest of the poor, as well as even the well-to-do, and everybody in-between. As a country and a nation, we are so proud of our health services. In fact, as a developing country, we have shown the entire world how much can be accomplished, even with our meager resources, and with so few facilities made available to us in our health facilities. Our healthcare personnel are second to none anywhere else on the planet, and they try to do their best, even under trying circumstances.

There are shortages of medicines, disposable articles and equipment in our healthcare institutions. It has really gotten worse during the current economic crisis. Yet, we have managed to rise above all that, innovate, beg, borrow and do our best for the patients who come to us. Generally, our health workers will not allow a life to be lost without a fight. A case in point is how these personnel, from the lowest-ranked to the highest, rose and fought tooth and nail during the current COVID-19 pandemic. They worked without any worthwhile rest, even foregoing their meals when things had to be done to save lives. Our countrymen and countrywomen hailed us as their saviours, singing hosannas to all of them for so selflessly handling the crisis. The healthcare personnel showed results and they sacrificed many things and went through hell on earth, to save lives.

However, there is a looming dragon that is likely to inflict telling blows to cripple this hallowed service that is provided for our people. It is not due to shortages of drugs or equipment. Those can be handled to the very best of our abilities. The problem is due to severe human resource depletion that is the likely result of the current fuel shortage. It is a looming catastrophe, as large as life, where our healthcare personnel will not be able to get to their places of work, and they will not be able to respond to sudden emergencies, as there is no transport. The government, ministers and all other stupid politicians do not seem to realise this, and perhaps could not even care less about that. That is of course to be expected, as they have their agendas. They will somehow get their things done, but the people who suffer would be the poor who come to our hospitals.

However, the most distressing thing about this entire fiasco is how among our general public, the thugs, ruffians, desperados, those engaged in nefarious hoarding of fuel and all kinds of Mafias, are beginning to treat healthcare personnel at fuel queues and fuel sheds. Healthcare personnel are not asking for special treatment at fuel stations. They are an absolutely essential service, and all they are asking is for some fuel to enable them to attend to their essential service provisions. Even ambulances have to wait in queues, and are not allowed by the irate public to get priority for fuel.

A couple of weeks ago we saw in the news that a lady doctor driver was driven away from a fuel station by a mob. The most distressing thing about that entire episode was the bravado of a non-health staff lady driver, who shouted with powerful gesticulation of her arms that she had children in the car and could not make concessions to lady doctors. God forbid, but what if one of those children suddenly fell ill and the person to attend to them was the very same lady doctor who was chased away, and that person was not able to get to the hospital due to the lack of fuel?

Starting from Friday the 24th of June 2022, there was a lukewarm arrangement made to provide fuel to essential services, from certain designated fuel stations. every Friday. This was not communicated properly through all the media, and in very many places the public vehemently objected to this. The Borella junction Ceypetco fuel shed was one of the stations which were allocated for this purpose, where the essential services people, including healthcare personnel, queued up in their vehicles from around 6.00 am. The bowsers of fuel arrived only in the late evening, after a 12-hour long wait. There was hardly any security cover and virtually a free for all, with the sparse security personnel turning a blind eye to all the misdemeanors of the general public. There were loads of nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers from the National Hospital, Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children, National Eye Hospital, De Soysa Maternity Hospital and the Castle Street Hospital for Women, who were in these vehicle queues, twiddling their thumbs and being forced to keep away from their places of work. No doubt, these hospitals worked with only minimal skeleton staff. All these hospitals have a collective staff strength running into very large numbers, all working in an absolutely vital essential service. In some outstation areas, the incensed public insisted on the healthcare personnel queuing up with the general public, even on that dedicated Friday, and at least in one area, the hospital had to be closed as most of the hospital staff had to be in fuel queues. For whatever it is worth, this writer has not been able to see his patients for more than a week due to lack of fuel.

Unless a proper system to provide fuel to essential services is implemented by this impotent government, this situation will go from bad to worse. Many hospitals will have to be closed, not due to strikes or trade union actions, but due to a lack of human resources to run the hospitals. Medical personnel will not be able to attend to emergencies, especially outside working hours, and many lives will be lost. Our inability to provide timely treatment could also lead to some patients being maimed for life.

So be warned, our people of our own country. Selfishness and scant regard for law and order on the part of the general public will lead to an unprecedented catastrophe. There will be riots inside and outside the medical institutions with damage to public property. Innocent lives will be lost and blood will necessarily have to be on the hands of the decision-makers and the powers-that-be.

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