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In Russia's small towns, shame can be a useful tactic

June 17, 2007|Erika Niedowski | Baltimore Sun

MAMONOVO, RUSSIA — The wooden board outside the local government building in this town of 7,000 near the Baltic Sea might just as well advertise a community festival or a schedule for trash collection.

In fact, it is a pillar of shame.

Posted on the yellow and green board recently were the names of 50 residents who had not paid their utility bills, some for years; nine residents with other debts; and a fish cannery that allegedly dumped untreated wastewater.

Using a technique from Soviet times, when schools, factories and other workplaces posted the names and photographs of those caught out late, intoxicated or engaging in other behavior considered disgraceful, some Russian regions are using shame to try to deter dereliction.

"It has a good effect because the town is small and everybody knows each other," says Mayor Oleg Shlyk of Mamonovo, whose office overlooks the shame board. "And when you have your name on the board, no matter what your post or rank, there will be a psychological impact on you."

Efforts at public shaming are reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when criminals were put on display in village squares in stocks, their heads, arms and sometimes feet locked between two boards.

The methods are more sophisticated now, but the idea, that the prospect of being shamed before one's peers can be a deterrent, is the same.

Bagrationovsk, a small city nearby in the Kaliningrad region, publishes the names of those who haven't paid for their communal services in the local newspaper. And in the regional capital, a group of young political activists has begun secretly snapping pictures of polluters and -- if they refuse to pay a fine -- posting them online.

A few camera-toting members of the mobile unit of the local chapter of Molodaya Gvardiya, or "Young Guard," the youth wing of the ruling United Russia Party, recently caught two men illegally washing two cars near one of Kaliningrad's many lakes.

"Let him feel ashamed," Igor Shlykov, head of Kaliningrad's Young Guard, said of anyone breaking environmental laws. "It will be difficult for him to look into people's eyes."

The governor of the Ulyanovsk region, more than 500 miles east of Moscow, used the government website last month to list three employees who allegedly "committed breaches in the discharge of their duties."

Two of them, the site said, mishandled documents, and the third, the regional minister of construction, failed to get a project done on time.

The tactic also has been used in the private sector. About a year and a half ago, a nightclub in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, posted pictures on its website of violators of the club's rules. The club's staff wasn't immune: Among the 14 people listed were two waiters who shortchanged customers and a bartender who under-filled drinks, according to the newspaper Novye Izvestiya.

In Mamonovo, officials put up the shame board in the most logical spot, just off the central square, where a bust of the town's namesake, Cmdr. Nikolai Vasilyevich Mamonov, stands.

Shlyk said names are not posted in haste. The city's administrative council conducts inspections to identify violations -- garbage strewn about, buildings in shabby condition. Sometimes, officials get tips on where to look. People tell on their neighbors.

The city always contacts the offenders first, Shlyk said, and gives them a chance to pay a fine or otherwise make amends. If they refuse or don't pay in 30 days, their names and sometimes pictures may be put up.

A recent posting showed someone with the surname Miziryak owing 22,519 rubles, about $873, in unpaid utility bills; and a woman named Gurkina with a debt of about $1,500.

The only photos showed the untreated waste allegedly dumped by the Mamonovsky Fish Cannery, which Shlyk said is building a waste-treatment facility and whose name will soon be removed from the board.

Olga Azarenko, sitting on a park bench just behind the board, said she understands why some residents might not be able to pay. Jobs can be hard to come by, and salaries are low. But she has little sympathy: Life is hard for everyone.

"Almost all of us, we are taking care of our children. We are trying to do our best," she said. "They came here, were given handouts, and they simply got used to it. They're asking for more social welfare. They're not used to fighting for themselves."

She knows one of the women listed on the board for not paying her utility bills. The woman, whom she called "careless," had moved to Germany, but the posting might still have an effect.

"Her parents are here," Azarenko said.

Shlyk said the board had helped reduce the number of offenders, but he offered only anecdotal evidence. "At first, people were irritated and angry; they said they would go to court," he said, but no one has.

"Maybe a thing like this, at first you smile at it," he said. "But I know some cases where children saw their parents' names and they said, 'Dad, Mom, please pay the fine because my friends are teasing me.' "

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