A dog is a man's best friend, they say. And in Russia, the popular pets helped perfect the Soviet space program. While that may have led to some suffering, the good news for stray pooches on Moscow's streets is that they are no longer hunted down and killed. This week, I'll also take a look at the way Russia plans to improve conditions for our own kind human prisoners.
Q: If Russians love animals so much, please explain the irony of sending the dog Laika up into space in 1957? Chuck MacKenzie, Ontario, Canada.
A: Russians are warmhearted people because they have suffered perhaps more than other nations. Twenty-seven million lives were lost in World War II. One million died of hunger in the siege of Leningrad. My wife went through it and weighed 28 kg. In the Soviet Union, 50,000 people yearly lost their lives in road accidents. And you want me to explain the death of one doggy that was sacrificed in our space experiments in 1957. Would you prefer a human being to have undergone this sacrifice?
There were other dogs, too Belka and Strelka but they came back. What those experiments led to was the launching of the first man into space, Yury Gagarin. Losses are inevitable. Have you forgotten that some cosmonauts, too, lost their lives?
Incidentally, there are many stray dogs in Moscow today. They used to be caught very brutally and put to death in a way that did not befit a civilized society. After many outcries from our citizens, the stray-dog population is being reduced humanely in a very civilized way. They are simply being sterilized by a veterinary doctor, and then released. So, we are humane.
Q: Please tell me about the prison sentences in your country. Babul Hussain, Bangladesh.
A: Our judicial system is undergoing reform, and we want to cut the time a suspect or defendant can be kept under arrest. Courts for minor or medium offences should not pass judgments that entail a prison term they should order people to carry out free public work.
Do you realize that, in Russia, 3.5 percent of the population are convicts or prison officers? Under the new system, the number of inmates should be reduced. Today, 95 percent of the sentences entail deprivation of liberty. After the amnesty in 2000, Russia had fewer prisoners per 100,000 people than the United States. That's already something. Under the amnesty, over 206,000 were freed.
President Vladimir Putin believes that if a person is accused of a crime, he should be imprisoned in only exceptional cases. Prisons lead to the breakup of families, deteriorating health and a worse moral climate in society.
We want to lessen the number of convicts. There should be alternatives to jail or camp sentences. We should set up a whole system of correctional or rehabilitative work, without throwing people behind bars. A person should be jailed before a trial only if he has committed a serious crime. All others should be freed on bail, or kept under house arrest. If such measures are taken, 400,000 people could escape the horrors of prison where people are often packed like sardines.
Q: Hey Joe, what's it like up in Yakutia? Could you tell me something about life there? Tom Johnson, Wellington, N.Z.
A: Yakutia is not only the largest, but the coldest republic in Russia. Today, it is called the Republic of Saha. It is about the size of India. The population of India is over a billion, while the population of Yakutia is less than a million, a thousand times less. Up there, frosts reach 60 degrees Celsius below zero, and rivers become encrusted with nearly two meters of ice. The republic is in the permafrost zone, where the soil is frozen to a depth of 200 meters. I should mention that in summer the temperature rises to 30 degrees Celsius.
They drink fermented mare's milk called kumis, a stimulating and slightly intoxicating drink that they keep in big leather vessels. They love their epic songs about legendary heroes. Their favorite dish is boiled horsemeat eaten with kumis. They love to hold equestrian competitions.
Their horses are plump and short-legged. They are covered with long hair, are hardy, unpretentious and excellently adapted to the local climate. Such a horse does not need a warm stable. It is able to find fodder in winter by raking the snow with its hooves. Their ancestors lived alongside the giant mammoths 30,000 years ago. Yakutia is famous for its diamonds and gold. A modern town called Mirny sprang up in the diamond fields on permafrost ground. Coal, antimony, tin and mica are mined. A branch railroad line runs across Yakutia and connects it to the Baikal Amur line. What do the natives look like? In Tokyo, they could be taken for Japanese.
(E-mail questions to Joe at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)