Winston Churchill said that, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
That seemed to fit the Soviet Union, a weird combination of economic idealism harnessed to totalitarian brutality that cast a shadow on the world for seventy years.
But I’ve just returned from a research/tourist trip to Russia that upended all my Cold War stereotypes. Today’s Russia is patriotic pride, burdened by colossal historical sorrow, and leavened by hope.
The big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are bastions of go-go capitalism that has whiplashed the lives of ordinary Russians. People have gained freedom and opportunity at the cost of security and predictability. The result is a forest of construction cranes, monumental traffic jams, oligarchs to rival the age of the czars, and ordinary Russians struggling to keep up.
The country seems magnificently grand and frustratingly inefficient, newly prosperous and unevenly balanced. Moscow is the nation’s golden black hole, doubling since communist times to 15 million people and holding the bulk of the nation’s wealth. Rural areas, “the real Russia,” according to our guides, are more backward but charming, distant planets orbiting around this central sun.
Our visit in the first half of September was unexpectedly timely. The G-20 Summit began in St. Petersburg while we were there (cutting off access to one palace we hoped to see) and Russian President Vladimir Putin jumped into the Syria crisis to suggest that the Syrians, an ally, voluntarily surrender their chemical weapons.
Who knows if this will work? Some commentators judged President Obama a sap who got played by the perfidious Russkies, and others argued Putin wisely let our President tap-dance his way out of a no-win military strike that would have solved nothing.
Putin, we were told, supports Assad in Syria because Russians prefer “Arabs with neckties,” meaning dictators are preferable to the alternative, Islamic jihadists seeking to assault traditional Western enemies like Russia.
History will judge. For me, it was interesting to read a Time Magazine profile of Putin, written just before the negotiating began, that painted him as a sly and ambitious power-monger embraced by nationalistic rallies and even a motorcycle gang. The tone summoned again the “Russian Bear” menace of the Cold War.
Maybe that’s true at the diplomatic level, but the Russia I encountered was nothing like the gray, grim portrait of the tyrannical Soviet Union I grew up with. Russians were friendly, with a caustic sense of humor about their own politics and history: proud, and clear-eyed about a tumultuous history. They seemed a lot like Americans, and about as menacing as the Kiwanis Club.
They said the “bear” symbol was the West’s invention, not theirs. They prefer the birch tree, which is as lovely as it is ubiquitous in the northern forests.
Russia struggles with geography. The old imperial capital of St. Petersburg is at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. Growing seasons are short, northern soils are poor, distances are immense, and winters harsh.
The collapse of the Soviet Union pushed the nation’s borders back eastward to where they were under Catherine the Great, almost three centuries ago. Having survived invasions by Mongols, Swedes, Poles, the French under Napoleon, and the Germans under Hitler, Russians feel vulnerable in a way Americans have never experienced.
In the last hundred years, Russia lost about 2 million in World War I, up to 10 million in the civil war and famines that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, perhaps 20 million under Stalin’s persecutions, and 27 million in World War II. (Estimates vary, but this gives an idea. By comparison, the United States lost 600,000 to 700,000 in our Civil War and 417,000 in World War II.)
That Russia still exists after such catastrophes, and that its people remain fiercely patriotic to the country (if not their leaders) seemed amazing.
Russia has been a country always lurching to catch up with the West. First under Peter the Great, then Catherine, then the Soviets, and now in centralized capitalist mode under Putin, who, if not loved, seems respected. Each surge has been derailed by invasion or revolution, and the cycle begins anew.
Russians today have been shell-shocked by change. Inflation destroyed most life savings after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Apartments were privatized and vouchers issued, but the net effect was concentration of the nation’s wealth with the top 3 percent of entrepreneurs. Wages today are low by American standards.
Yet Soviet grimness has disappeared in the generation since. The old Soviet apartment blocks are giving way to modern high rises. The architecture from various historical periods, from czarist to Soviet to now, is amazing. There are too many cars for the roads and parking, resulting in gridlock. Urbanites are fashion-conscious and sometimes downright swanky.
I didn’t see my expected babushkas sweeping with straw brooms. I did see machines chattering to frenetically modernize.
The old GUM department store on Red Square is now a glittery galleria of luxury shops a quarter mile long. Western brands abound, from Mercedes to Starbucks. Red Square was filled with scaffolding for a rock concert, not military parades. Onion-domed churches have not just reopened, but in some cases been rebuilt, replacing what the Soviets once dynamited.
“It’s as if those seventy years never happened,” one guide said.
Russians have taken new pride in their czarist palaces and treasures, restoring and opening their stupefying grandeur. A visitor sees first hand the imperial excess that spurred revolution, but also the imperial power that modern Russians miss. They want glory.
They want to have a say in world affairs, and they want respect. Putin is trying to give this to them.
Russia is still not as easy to visit as Western Europe. Visas are an expensive pain, immigration lines slow, the signs are in Cyrillic lettering, and trying to drive would be insane. Like most Americans we joined a tour, in our case a riverboat between St. Petersburg and Moscow.
But the trip proved far more eye opening and educational than my wife and I hoped. The stereotyped Russia of cable news bears little resemblance to what I saw. We experienced a soulful Russia, the Russia of religious mystery, personal striving, bureaucratic frustration, exuberant entertainment, and highly educated achievement.
If you ever get the chance, go see it. You’ll be surprised.