Book review

What’s happening on the streets of Moscow? This book of graphic reportage reveals unknown scenes

Victoria Lomasko’s ‘Other Russias’ goes where media reports don’t in Russia.

A recent issue of The Economist had a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the cover with the headline “A tsar is born”. To ensure the irony was not lost on people, cover had another line below: “100 years after the Russian revolution”. The rise of the former intelligence service strongman and his vice-like grip on all things Russian are well-known stories by now. Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, the country’s role in the Syrian crisis, and the President’s belligerent pronouncements have given rise to visions of a new Cold War – even if US President Donald Trump professes friendship with Putin.

But how is Russia actually doing under Putin? Despite its so-called openness after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, not much news on the lives of the common people has made its way into the western media. From outside the country, it appears that Russians have very few questions to ask their president. This is where Victoria Lomasko’s book of graphic reportage, Other Russias, comes in.

Lomasko makes the reader familiar with protests, anger, suffering and despair amongst Russians, all of it flying under the media radar. With her here-and-now series of sketches and matter-of-fact reports, the cartoonist-activist’s interviews portray lives that are a far cry from a Russian oligarch’s glittering mansion and glitzy pursuits in Moscow. She does not tell a single story through conventional panels, but strings together a series of standalone sketches that provide multiple views and perspectives.

"I got a call. The last old man has died. Our village no longer exists."

With all the sketches in Other Russias were done on-site, it took Lomasko eight years to complete the book. There were no photographs as references, and in some cases she sketched as she spoke to her subjects, with no chance of a second interaction. There are images of live events too, their subjects being in motion as waves of protests crashed on the streets. Lomasko was the proverbial fly on the wall, watching and meticulously recording speeches, statements and casual chat in her sketchbook.

The art may not evoke the kind of response that a more meticulously drawn Joe Sacco album might, but the quick black-and-white sketches capture the moments in all their rawness, exuberance and sincerity. This isn’t the sort of art that the cartoonist learnt during her art school training, but one that helps build a bridge of empathy between her subjects and the reader. But, far from being idle doodles, these drawings suit the style of close-up documentation of life in all its sordidness and helplessness.

The choice of art form is also the cartoonist’s protest against the contemporary art scene in Russia. The death of Soviet socialist realism led to the growth of new Russian art that rejected real people, places and things as subjects. Lomasko successfully counters the argument that all great art has to be abstract. According to Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, comics are “fairly” art – a mixture of fair text and fair art. The book does “fairly” well on Schultz’s definition and more.

Crowd:
Crowd: "We beat Hitler, we'll beat Putin."

The sketches and the associated brief reports are broadly divided into two sections – “Invisible” and “Angry”. The first section, as the names suggests, covers the cartoonist’s interactions with migrant labourers, inmates at juvenile detention facility, old people taking refuge with the Russian Orthodox Church, sex workers, people at forgotten rural schools, and so on. The most striking sketches and stories in this section are on modern day slavery in Moscow. These reports are based on Lomasko’s interviews with young female “slaves” freed by civil society from a grocery store run in the city by a couple from Kazakhstan.

Lomasko documents the stories of rape, torture and other abuse with great care and empathy. Lured by a canny Kazakh lady with the offer of a better life in the city, these girls from an erstwhile Soviet republic were enslaved on their arrival with their passports snatched away, and then brutalised by the store owners. Even the children born to them were not spared. All the while the Moscow police looked the other way. These are not stories from the seamy underbelly of the Russian capital, but from a grocery store frequented by Muscovites right under the nose of the Kremlin.

"We will begin carrying out peaceful acts of civil disobedience."

“Angry”, the second section, covers people’s movements – some unknown even to Russians – to reclaim their rights. From Pussy Riot supporters to truckers, people have been up in arms against censorship, arbitrary increases in tax, the political gagging of Putin’s opponents, farcical electoral practices, and high-handed action to silence the public. Lomasko’s art and text capture the mood through the people she depicts – it allows her to add faces to otherwise nameless protests.

Many of these reports have not featured mainstream media. The Russian authorities have the necessary resources to stamp out dissent. Despite the nature of the protests and her role as a street-level activist-cartoonist, Lomasko does not lose her sense of humour in her book. One interesting example is recorded in a sketch of two policewomen in conversation during a protest in Moscow.

“‘When is this going to end so we can get weekends off?’
‘It doesn’t hurt to dream.’”

Another example, which also reveals Lomasko’s eye for detail, is the writing on a placard during a 2012 protest: “A woman’s work is revolution, not soup.”

Despite many of the characters, places and events being unfamiliar to readers from outside Russia, Other Russias is surprisingly engaging. Many of the issues highlighted are universal – corruption, ramshackle rural infrastructure, homophobia, and the ills of the market economy. It is a portrayal of contemporary Russia that often gets overshadowed by the overtly masculine, tough-talking president.

E Kolkata r moddhye aache aar ek ta Kolkata / Hente dekhte shikhun.
(Within this Kolkata lies another Kolkata / Learn to walk so you can see it.)”

— Shankha Ghosh

These lines by the celebrated Bengali poet Shankha Ghosh come alive in Other Russias. The people on the margins of a society seething in anger populate Lomasko’s view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia from the pavements.

Other Russias, Victoria Lomasko, translated by Thomas Campbell, Penguin.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.

Play

As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.

Play

So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.

Play

As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”

Play

By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.