Death offers no relief for woes of Russians

Grief: Lives end early,but explanations may arrive late, leaving mourners and the dead rushed, stalled and lost.

January 10, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- They buried Yuri Shlyakhtin on Thursday. His friends and relatives had to go to the morgue to collect him in the morning. He spent much of the rest of the day waiting his turn, as he had so often done in life.

Shlyakhtin was 51 years old, a husband, father, son, neighbor, friend -- and a statistic.

Death in Russia has become a catalog of horrifying numbers. Men are dying at an alarming rate, with the average life expectancy about 60. The high death rate is attributed to heart disease, cancer, poor nutrition, alcohol abuse and accidents.

Shlyakhtin died accidentally. His death was treated with brutal indifference by the authorities, with extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness by his friends and family. Ordinary people here often must accomplish the extraordinary just to meet life's daily demands.

Yuri Shlyakhtin and Natasha Shlyakhtina had been married 26 years. He was on duty New Year's Eve with the GAI, the traffic police, where he worked as an electrician. He came home at midnight to toast his wife, then returned to work.

That was the last time Shlyakhtina saw him until Thursday morning, at the morgue. His face looked so different, like a plastic mask of the man she loved.

Early New Year's Day, according to his family, Yuri had gone to a sauna that the FSB, the successor to the KGB, operated for its employees. He had gone with friends from the FSB and GAI. In the hot, wet room he slipped and fell, fracturing his skull, then died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Having a death in their sauna apparently so rattled the FSB that no one informed Shlyakhtina of his death until Jan. 2, the next day. Even when they called her, the authorities offered few details. They simply told her that her husband was dead.

Neighbors in their apartment building on Petrovsko-Razumovksy Street quickly mobilized around the stricken Shlyakhtina. One neighbor drove her to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor told them that her husband had fallen and that an autopsy would be performed.

Other friends began trying to find out if Shlyakhtina would receive any insurance money. They were told it would depend on whether Shlyakhtin had any alcohol in his blood. "Could you find anyone in Russia without alcohol in his blood on Jan. 1?" one neighbor retorted.

Shlyakhtin didn't own a suit. Friends bought him one for his burial. The GAI paid for the funeral and sent two cases of vodka for the dinner after the burial, a huge relief to Shlyakhtina, who was left with little money. Her husband earned about $80 a month. So does Shlyakhtina, who works in the office of a military factory. Their son, 24-year-old Alexei Shlyakhtin, is disabled.

There are no funeral homes in Russia; families take every detail on themselves. Thanks to her friends, Shlyakhtina was ready Thursday.

They gathered outside the apartment at 9 a.m. A bus awaited the mourners. They rode to Hospital No. 67, on Salim Adil Street -- named after an Iraqi Communist martyred in the 1960s.

At the hospital, forlorn groups of mourners ranged about the grounds, searching for the morgue. Shlyakhtina's group sought the forensic morgue. Others looked for the regular morgue. Almost everyone carried carnations.

Outside the forensic morgue, bloody surgical gloves lay in the snow. Apparently, the gloves had been used in autopsies. Apparently, they had fallen out of the garbage bin when it was emptied. Yuri's mourners walked on the gloves, noticing nothing.

Shlyakhtina, Shlyakhtin's parents, both 84, and other relatives and friends stood in the snow outside the morgue for about 30 minutes, waiting their turn. It was a small, yellow-brick building, with a broken window, that looked as if it had once housed the hospital's boilers. One group after another entered the morgue, carrying an empty coffin, emerging with a body.

The coffins were crudely hammered pieces of wood that looked as if they had come from cargo pallets. The top and sides were covered with red and black crepe. The coffin tops leaned against the building, like tombstones.

After about 30 minutes, it was Shlyakhtina's turn to enter the small room. One wall was draped in red; icons stood on a shelf. In the back corner, a clerk took Shlyakhtin's passport and stamped it for the last time.

Tears slid down Shlyakhtina's cheeks when she saw her husband. His mother kissed him. "Don't go, my sweet one," she cried. "Don't go." Each mourner placed carnations on Shlyakhtin as he lay in his coffin. After about 10 minutes, the air of shock still intense, an official appeared.

"Time is limited," he announced. "You'll have to go now."

Shlyakhtin's brother, Stanislas, and five friends carried Shlyakhtin in the coffin out to a waiting bus.

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