Tomorrow at nine we board a bus with about 25 passengers (mainly from the US, Germany, Israel and England) to take us on a day tour of Moscow and then to the station for the Siberian railroad. There is some uncertainty as to when or if we will be able to get WiFi connections while en route. So this may be the last post you get for awhile.
It would be nice if I could sum up easily the contradictions we see in Moscow. I can’t but will do the best I can. I think that it boils down to this: most people understand why the nationalism is happening. No one knows where it will end. For intellectuals, artists, business people and professionals this is very unsettling. For some it is terrifying.
Here is the “story line” as I see it:
- Russia has a long history of being a powerful nation. This goes back to the czars and continued through the communist era. People suffered under both the czars and the communists, and the pain of losing 28 million people in World War II is beyond anything I can imagine. (Virtually all of the one million plus marchers had photographs of loved ones, usually multiple photographs.) It is mostly a sad history but also a proud one.
- Many Russians believe the prestige and honor that goes with being a powerful nation was lost beginning in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union came apart at the seams.
- While many have benefitted greatly from the transformation from a communist state to a (sort of) capitalistic one, the majority of Russians have not and are resentful of losing the social safety net they had in the past. Nowadays babushkas are on almost every corner pan handling. (I asked where the old men all were, and the answer was that they are dead. Hardly any men live past 60.) The human mind tends to forget the bad and remember the good. Nostalgia for the “good old days” that never existed under communism is prevalent among many average Russians, so we are told.
- Sanctions and lower oil prices have taken a toll not only on the poor but those struggling to break into the emerging middle class. Average Russians are feeling the pain. For reasons I can’t fathom most prices are outrageously high, so you get the idea that there is injustice. Sound a little like the US? Perhaps but if so, this country is the US on steroids.
- Enter Vladimir Putin. Putin is popular with the average Russian (85% approval) for two reasons: first he brings stability because he is a strong man (and Russia has never demonstrated it can handle governance without a strong man), and second he is committed to bringing back at least some of Russia’s lost prestige and glory. The Crimea was the first step toward the “restoration of glory” agenda, The Ukraine is the second. The average Russian loves it.
- To restore honor and glory, it helps if you have an enemy, something to distract people from thinking about how bad things are. Right now the US is enemy. Obama has been described by some in Russia as the new Hitler, mainly because of the sanctions (sound familiar? Just ask the Tea Party.) and the US the new fascist state.
- The big question is where does this end. Witnessing the first military parade today—the goose stepping soldiers, the tanks, planes and missile launchers—you get the feeling that this might be a little like Germany in the 1930s. But while the big show of military might is abhorrent, I do not believe that the parallel is accurate. Putin is not a Hitler. The big question then is who is Putin and how far will he go? This is what has everyone biting their nails, both in Russia and in other countries. While extremes and excesses abound, Moscow has changed for the better by almost any standard. When we were here in 1993, there was nothing. What Putin needs to do is to rein in some of the excesses of rampant, cowboy capitalism but not return to a nostalgic past that was in reality a nightmare. He also must know that the West will not permit retaking the countries lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The stakes are high, no less than the survival of the planet. Just check out the ICBMs that everyone cheered about when they rolled by today. One of these goes off and it is over. Let’s hope he can maneuver this tricky minefield without everyone (both sides) getting blown up or innocent Russians getting harmed as scapegoats.
Now off to Siberia. Will keep writing and post when I can.