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Feature Story July 26, 2002
By Mark Ames Browse author Email

I went to Chuvashia and Mari-El to find out why so many people were killing themselves there. Two inconsequential republics along the Volga River, known only, if mentioned, as the suicide capitals of the world.

A poster on a street of Mari-El

Writing on the poster:
Road to temple is road to feature

The suicide rate in Mari-El is said to be the highest in the world. According to some statistics, the rate is upwards of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants (Mari-El has roughly 750,000 people). Russia's overall suicide rate is less than 40 per 100,000, while America's is around 10.

Chuvashia's suicide rate is over 50 per 100,000, and at one point after the crisis reached 7 per day. Today it's around 2 to 3 per day, in a republic of some 1,300,000.

Historically, suicide has always played a key role in Chuvash culture. Until a century or so ago, the ultimate form of revenge a Chuvash could take on his enemy was to go into his enemy's courtyard and hang himself on his doorstep. In the morning, said enemy would open the door and see the avenging Chuvash hanging there, neck snapped, tongue hanging out, eyes bulging. The living lose. Game over. This was the equivalent of doing a dirty chicken dance in the end zone: the surviving Chuvash would never recover from the shame, while the dead, suicidal Chuvash would live on as a man of honor and integrity, a real fighter.

"Suicide was never considered a sin here, but rather a virtue," said Alexander Belov, editor of the local Argumenty i Fakty in Cheboksary. "Christianity came late to Chuvashia. Until then we were pagans. That's still in the Chuvash blood."

Belov recounted one example: a babushka complained to her neighbor that he was always getting drunk and being loud. He rudely refused her pleas to quiet down. One night it got particularly bad. He got wildly drunk on samogon and made a racket. The following morning, the babushka came to his house with a bottle of samogon and a couple of glasses and tried to set the situation straight. He refused to drink with her and slammed the door on her face. The next time he opened the door, she was swinging from the rafter. Vengeance was hers. Nobody knows what happened to the avenged Chuvash who discovered the old woman swinging on his doorstep, but my guess is that he probably envied people with malaria or Ebola at that point, cuz having an old babushka hang herself on your doorstep was worse than two weeks of boiling organs.

A few months ago, Chuvashia's president, Nikolai Fyodorov, gathered together the top editors of the regional newspapers at his offices in Cheboskary to discuss the problem of suicide.

"He didn't have any solutions," said one participant at the talks. "He just wanted us to know that he considered it a serious problem and that he wanted to do something about it."

The republic's deputy head doctor in the ministry of health, Yevgeny Nikolaev, refused to discuss statistics or specifics with me during a ridiculously evasive interview.

"If you write about suicide, you'll just encourage more of it," he said.

"Don't you realize that readers will think the problem is even worse if the top medical expert won't even talk about suicide for fear of encouraging more?" I asked.

"Ah, I see your point," he said, nodding his head. "Yes, that's clever."

Even though Chuvashia and Mari-El are both small Volga River republics in the heart of European Russia, they couldn't be more dissimilar. The Chuvash are a Turkic people, the only Turkic tribe in the world that adopted Christianity rather than Islam. Their capital, Cheboksary, recently won a state-sponsored competition as the best-run city in Russia. Set in rolling hills on the banks of the Volga, Cheboksary is remarkably clean, well-kept with groomed parks, fountains on the canal that runs off the Volga, and packed with amazingly beautiful girls strolling the sidewalks, nothing but gazelles and giraffes.

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