Written by Al Lawrence (an American with whom I used to work as an interpreter in 2008), following a journey through the heart of Mother Russia.
What was Churchill’s quote……. “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”……. got that right! SNAFU (for those of you who can remember the old WW2 expression) describes conditions most succinctly. Russia is two countries: Moscow and maybe St. Petersburg tacked on and then. There is the rest of Russia. On several occasions, people have said to me “Went to bed one night and woke up in another country”.
Moscow: unabashedly boisterous, extravagant, awash with oil and gas profits, garish, choked with traffic and pollution and populated by the neuvo-rich and wheelers and dealers of the “new” Russia. An embodiment of the old adage “The good, the Bad and the Ugly”; mostly good – I reckon! The Rest: confused, poor, sometimes angry, disillusioned, disenfranchised, and saddest of all, holding out little hope for the future. And why shouldn’t they be all of “the above”……. In the span of a few short years, their Motherland did a 180 degree turn from communism to capitalism.
Also, in that same abbreviated timespan occurred a seismic shift from secularism to religion. It was not unusual, during social occasions, for some to reflect upon the “old days”, and one got the sense that at some level, there was a nostalgia for the old ways, i.e. communism. This usually played itself out along demographic lines, with the older generation most often expressing these views.
I couldn’t help but to harken back to the darkest days of WW2, with Moscow under imminent threat, Stalingrad decimated and the siege of Leningrad, Stalin somehow had the wisdom to appeal to Soviet Patriotism, rather than Communism to rally the people, and by God, it worked: Mother Russia was the rallying cry. Interestingly enough, in spite of “all of the above”, by and large they approached life with a wry, stoic, earthy good humor, which seems to be the quintessence of the soul and character of the Russian people. They were both engaged and engaging. An expression which I heard on several occasions exemplifies their outlook: “And that’s how we live” – resigned, but still determined to live life to the fullest, and by and large they do. It could conceivably take two, perhaps three generations for them to sort out the conundrum that they are now experiencing.
The people with whom I came into contact were with few exceptions, friendly, inquisitive and outgoing. The risk is, that historically unaccustomed to freedom and democracy (of a sort), and rife with disillusionment, they may revert back to a more familiar (comfortable) mode, such as some sort of totalitarian government. Democracy is fragile and must be tended. Alas, I fear, some form of totalitarianism is the more historically natural state of mankind, in spite of all the recent, Pollyanna-like comments emanating from different sources. The Russian elite does not consider the current status quo as final. All the countries of this region are highly unstable, and subject to unpredictable events. No one here believes that the transition of the post-Soviet configuration has reached its final disposition.
Dramatic geopolitical changes are threatening a return to hot war, involving enclaves of ethnic Russians within ex USSR territories (Georgia, Ukraine, etc.). This time with an oil-rich, stronger Russia standing unambiguously behind the separatist movements. Historically, Russia has always had a siege mentality, in many cases, with good reason. NATO’s real and planned extension Eastwards is currently viewed as a threat.
Disclaimer: These comments are my personal observations.
Al Lawrence, 2008.