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On August 20, 1991 many people in the Soviet Union turned on their televisions to see all regular programming replaced by Swann Lake in an apparent information black out and power vacuum. Gorbachev’s cabinet staged a reactionary coup while he was vacationing in Crimea and for all intents and purposes the Soviet Union died with the failure of the coup, though it would take a few more months before it became official. The coup to save the Soviet Union collapsed in a few short days with no public support. With little in the way of violence or mass demonstrations, the Soviet Union’s more than 80 year odyssey through the 20th century ended with a whimper. The history of the Soviet Union demands to be treated solemnly. The amount of suffering, both self inflicted and from afar, is frightening and in many ways still very apparent even in today’s post Soviet Russia.
What finally brought it down was a combination of a US provoked fall in oil prices, a need for hard currency, the war in Afghanistan, and a lack of inertia. Interesting what wars in Afghanistan, currency problems and the price of oil can do to empires. What ensued in the Yeltsin years was a free-for-all capitalist feeding frenzy of the worst sort that has settled into the Russia of the oligarchs that we see today.
As a Westerner born into the Cold War, the Soviet Union has a tremendous psychological weight for me as the bearer of ‘the other’. It fell so easily into the role of ‘bad’, too easily, that inevitably it created a simultaneous morbid fascination. I still remember as a boy in the 1970’s listening to Radio Moscow on my short wave radio, enthralled by the creepy voice as if I were listening to the Devil himself across the airwaves. I was an English teacher in Cartagena, Spain in the late 1990’s and I didn’t have a television at home, only watching CNN occasionally at the school where I taught. It was a surreal moment when, not having followed the story in the press or on TV, I turn my head to see CNN covering the burial of Nicolas II, his wife, their three daughters and four retainers on July 17, 1998.
As my generation matured many of us realized that a lot of what we heard and read about the Soviet Union was fantasy. In the late 1970’s the fear mongering reached demagogic proportions in the Carter “malaise” era. Missile gaps, the Russian Bear out to get us, and a healthy dose of apocalyptic Christian television; it’s no wonder that it’s so hard for Americans to accept or see Russia for what is really is and was.
First impressions are very important, and I think Westerners first impressions of Russia can be frightening. First, the uniforms and symbols of the Soviet Union still flourish, and, as Pavlov’s dogs, it is easy to believe that we will soon be in a jail cell with a light shining into our eyes. Russians aren’t exactly happy in their public personas, they are very serious and it is easy to jump to the conclusion that they are angry.
Russian infrastructure is often old and not ‘pretty’, the Moscow Metro not withstanding. The facades, entrances and stairwells of buildings often fall into disrepair and the first time you walk into a Russia apartment block you will most likely be very pleasantly surprised by how nice the apartment is compared to the facade.
Russians are very hospitable, which you would never guess by their public expressions. If you spend time in Russia you will spend many, many hours in the kitchen drinking tea and bla bla bla, as they like to say. And as one sits at those kitchen tables, it is hard not to think what went wrong. How did a people that are so smart fall into this kind of decadence. Yes, while God knows Russians have many not so wonderful qualities, documenting them could be an affair fit for Dr. Johnson, it’s impossible not to notice that as a general rule, they are smart bunch, much more so than their American counterparts. And they are almost all very well schooled, in their own Soviet way, but nonetheless, very well schooled.
How does the new Russia compare to the Soviet Union? First, how does the Russian oligarchy compare to the American oligarchy. The similarities are striking. Both Russians and Americans have created two of the most stratified, unequal societies in the developed world. The Russians can be forgiven, they had to pull themselves out of political and economic chaos in the 1990’s, but the US squandered its 10 years of political, military, economic, cultural and technological dominance morphing into a pseudo Latin American oligarchy. The over the top patriotism of both countries is frighteningly similar. You will never see so many flags on cars and homes as in Russia and America. I once saw a jeep in the Russian Far East painted with a mural of the Russian Army and Navy, and saw something very similar in the parking lot of a mall in Florida, a pickup with a mural of the Gulf War. It is hard to imagine any other countries producing men capable of spending thousands of dollars converting their cars into propagandistic comic books.
The knee jerk patriotism that you see in Russia and the United States is something that scares Europeans, and for good reason. Could you imagine a European Union with Russia and the United States as members? Sounds like a logical plan, uniting western, industrialized, Christian democracies? Can you imagine Canada and Mexico joining? Why can’t you imagine Russia and America? It would be like trying marry Madonna and Putin.
Just take a simple glimpse at Russian reactions to the former Soviet Republics moving or removing the old monuments to the fallen in the “great patriotic war”. You don’t want to remind them that they started the “great patriotic war” and that their ‘liberations’ were followed by 40 years of occupation, gulag etc. It is akin to telling Americans why Iranians don’t like them and that they are patsys for the Israelis.
Both countries are big, Russia occupying the eastern half of Europe and the northern third of Asia is the largest country on earth. And you get the sense in both countries of negligible regional differences, very mobile populaces, and of a certain loneliness that you don’t usually see in Europe. The big, depressing Soviet city and the urban blight of the US have many things in common.
Russians are extreme, if you like extreme, you will like Russia. Go camping with a group of Russians is NOTHING like camping with Americans. And one of the most beautiful and hopeful things you see in today’s Russia is the revival and devotion in the Orthodox Church. New churches are sprouting up all over. Sometimes the dreariness of Russia can wear on you, but as soon as you enter their churches, everything seems different. I think for all Christians, the Orthodox ceremonies are immensely beautiful, mysterious and spiritual. There is something very pure and innocent about the devotion you see in people, many of whom were not raised in religious environments. A stark contrast to the harshness of everyday life.
One question I have asked many, many Russians is if there were things better about living in the Soviet Union. This is what I most hear: more security, not only day to day security, but a sense of security about the future, a fabulous education system, not such bad healthcare, tolerable levels of corruption and most interestingly, the feeling that they were special and lived in the greatest country in the world. Funny how so many Americans feel the same thing.
Many also talk about a certain innocence. You can see it the romantic comedies of the Soviet era, their very sweet cartoons, and the camaraderie of old school colleagues. For Westerners I think it is hard to think of the Soviet Union as innocent, but many people were NOT affected by political oppression, the gulag etc. It is important to realize that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the country lost a big part of it innocence and its identity. I would not be surprised that if Russia ever faced a major crisis that some sort of retro-Soviet movement could emerge (it could easily tap into the rampant patriotism) and become a major political force.
A World Bank study was conducted about the wealth of nations, and what factors most influenced why some nations are wealthier than others. Two factors seemed to be best at predicting wealth, years of education per citizen and the rule of law index. Russians are very smart and well educated, but Russia is completely corrupt. If corruption is like cancer, than in Russia it has metastasized to all major organs. University professors, doctors, judges, policemen, nurses, inspectors, in short, endemic and deep rooted corruption. If a magic wand could be passed over Russia, and only one thing accomplished, it should be to erase all forms of corruption. Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev should focus their attention on corruption and not stop till they have turned the tide. Every available resource should be thrown at this problem. The difference between a prosperous Russia, a Russia that can create real hope for the future and a bleak, stratified oligarchy is the solution to this problem. Corrupt capitalism is abusive and humiliating.
People cannot be blamed for taking bribes; it’s the only way to live normally with ridiculously low wages. Russia has institutionalized corruption. It is the only way you can explain overt in your face consumption with bread and water salaries. Russia needs to stop worrying about Ukraine, Georgia, America and China and put all of its energy into solving the corruption problem. The obvious solution is two fold. First, give all public servants a radical rise in salaries, and at the same time pass and enforce draconian anti-corruption laws. A Russia with ‘rule-of-law’, combined with its immense natural and human resources, could easily become the dominant country of Europe again, but it must give itself a chance.