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I’m interested in stories that go uncovered and undercovered. Fewer stories are less obscured today than life in Russia under Western sanctions. I’m especially interested in stories that are so imbued with spin and propaganda that the news media has abandoned all pretense of objectivity. That’s certainly true about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

I spent last week in Moscow to check things out for myself. Now I’m in Saint Petersburg. If you’ve never been to Russia, Moscow feels a bit like D.C. — streets and plazas on a scale hostile to pedestrians, impressive metro, intimidating government buildings raised by and for the political class. Saint Petersburg is more like New York, the country’s intellectual capital, steeped in history, sophisticated and hip rather than utilitarian and brutalist.

Friends worried about my safety. Their concerns could not possibly have been more misplaced.

Some worried that I’d be detained like the WNBA player Brittney Griner, who got caught at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis residue yet is being portrayed as a political hostage of Vladimir Putin. I wish Griner the best and hope she doesn’t go to prison, but I don’t understand the assumption of Americans that they don’t have to obey the law when they visit a foreign country. Foreign prisons are full of Americans convicted on drug charges; American prisons host many foreign nationals. If you can’t conform to local legal norms, stay home.

I don’t vape or use cannabis, so no worries there.

But I was pulled out of the passport line upon arrival and pulled into a side office. A young man I think was a Federal Security Service officer questioned me about my occupation, education, travel itinerary, politics and my opinions about Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Unlike other Western travelers from “unfriendly” countries who report having been held for hours, the officer didn’t ask to look at my phone and sent me on my way after about 20 minutes. I assume that my experience was eased by the fact that one of my cartoon clients is Sputnik News.

I’ve been through this sort of thing before. No matter the country or its culture, intelligence agents assigned to border security are cut from the same cloth everywhere you go: young, intelligent, big smiles and a certain sinister charm. The Mossad grilled me for hours at Tel Aviv airport. Same treatment by an Iranian intel dude after entering overland from Afghanistan. Don’t lie to these guys. They’ll know.

Yes, it’s legal to travel to Russia. You can still get a visa. You can still fly in, albeit not over Europe. I flew on a packed plane to Istanbul and connected to a Moscow-bound flight that detoured an extra hour or two by going around and to the west of Ukraine.

The Russian economy, Americans have been told, is a wreck. If so, it’s the biggest secret in Russia. Storefronts are occupied, bustling with shoppers like it’s the week before Christmas. Gas prices are a reasonable \$3 a gallon. Highways and city streets are choking with car traffic and pedestrians. Restaurants and bars are doing brisk business. New buildings are going up. Nowhere in the nation’s two most important cities does one find deranged armies of homeless people screaming at thin air and threatening people, streets blanketed with litter and shattered and boarded-up storefronts, as are blighting New York. There was an hourlong line — on a Tuesday — to enter the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

To be sure, sanctions are affecting the tourism business. Hotel prices have fallen as a result. Restaurants in tourist areas have been impacted as well. Westerners stopped coming when COVID began two years ago; this feels like an extension of that. So it’s not a shock.

Some Western businesses, like McDonald’s and Starbucks, have closed. Who cares, except the Russian workers who got laid off? Burger King is everywhere. As in Rome or Paris, you can score a much better cup of joe at a zillion cafes.

Nothing has made as big an impression on businesses in Russia as Visa and Mastercard’s decision to stop honoring American- and European-issued debit and credit cards in Russia. Russian nationals can use their MIR debit and credit cards here, but not in the West. When Westerners come to Russia, we have to bring a stack of cash to pay for everything, including hotels. There is a sort of workaround; I have an account at one of the major U.S. banks that still has branches here and so have been able to withdraw cash via ATM. Suze Orman would love the inability to go on a credit-card bender.

Signs of war are few and far between: the “Z” logo on some metro posters, the occasional motorist with a patriotic flag on their car, sailors in port for Navy Day.

Needless to say, the sanctions don’t affect Russian political or financial elites. All Biden and the EU are doing is making it harder for Americans and Europeans to visit Russia. This means we have no cultural impact whatsoever, no political influence. As we’ve been doing in Cuba and Iran for decades, we’re cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

Google, or Google News at least, is supposedly blocked in Russia. Not true.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, all officially blocked by the Russian government, actually come and go in some mysterious, haphazard way.

My email is blocked.

Russia allows a lot of Western media outlets, including those highly critical of Russia and its war in Ukraine, to broadcast inside the country. I watched pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian stories here on CNN International, CNBC and the BBC. Western news apps like The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and the Associated Press work without a hitch. However, and oddly, my syndicate’s cartoon website GoComics is inaccessible in Russia.

ORDER IT NOW

In the United States, on the other hand, the powers that be are blocking apps of the TV and radio broadcasters RT and Sputnik News, as well as their text journalism content. Both networks are banned in the EU. By this metric, Russia’s news media is freer than ours.

Many of my friends worried that Russians would respond with rage and violence when they learned I was from the United States. I know from my travels that Americans’ inability to separate people from the politics of their country’s government is fairly unique and so shrugged them off.

But Russians’ reactions have surprised me. Outwardly glum and cold until they get to know you, they warm up with big, bright smiles and express happy surprise that anyone from the United States still takes interest in Russia. Drinks are comped — good vibes all around.

Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis.

 
• Category: Culture/Society, Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Russia 
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  1. Notsofast says:

    what did you lie to the iranians about? this may be most interesting thing that you have written and you gloss right over it. i want to hear more about your midnight express journey to iran. inquiring minds want to know.

    • Replies: @Marshal Marlow
  2. @Notsofast

    I read it as a general conclusion regarding all border posts, rather than something specifically about Iran.

  3. Anonymous[412] • Disclaimer says:

    Thanks for this! I agree completely with your take on Russia and the Russians. The distortion in the west must occur to justify the insane and absurd policies pertaining to Russia.

    I lived and worked in Moscow in the mid-1990’s under the loot fest of Yeltzin. The Russians that worked for me or with me were extremely intelligent, highly educated, professional, and completely agnostic politically other than expressing the horror as they watched their country being dismantled by the looters.

    It was a crime of the century that the Harvard boys et al went in and looted former soviet union, with the help of Russian and western oligarchs and the us govt.

    The average Russian family and citizen suffered greatly under the absurd and heavy handed shock therapy policies that the Harvard boys advised and implemented.

    It is an absolute testament of the determination and intelligence of the Russians that they have come so far from that debacle with able guidance of Putin and his team.

    As far as sanctions, just another mark on the stupidity of the “profiles in courage” in wash dc. They do not work, have not historically worked, and now there is evidence that wink, wink, they are being quietly modified for important sectors of trade.

    • Agree: Decoy
    • Replies: @arthurdecco
    , @Dirk Gently
  4. meamjojo says:

    Don’t let him back into the USA. They may have turned him into a Manchurian Candidate!

    • Replies: @Rahan
    , @Dirk Gently
  5. Rahan says:
    @meamjojo

    Don’t let him back into the USA. They may have turned him into a Manchurian Candidate!

    The Siberian candidate.

    • LOL: meamjojo
  6. Boz says:

    How does one get a visa? I ask because friends from the US want to visit Russia, but supposedly all the Russian consulates in the US are closed. Does one have to get one in Mexico or something? Any advice much appreciated.

    • Replies: @Republic
    , @Tang
  7. dearieme says:

    we’re cutting off our noses to spite our faces

    Or shooting ourselves in the foot. But why? Is it as simple as the American governing class being stupid and ignorant? Or have they worked out yet another way to enrich themselves while impoverishing their citizens? Or are they simply evil?

    In short, what the hell is going on?

    • Replies: @Anonymous
    , @Dirk Gently
  8. Renoman says:

    Good article, thanks!

  9. BuelahMan says:

    Here’s to hoping Rall stays there.

  10. Anonymous[363] • Disclaimer says:

    Great piece. Slow clap. So simple, yet it takes extraordinary common sense or balls. Every US asshole has endless opinions on Russia informed by zero point zero first-hand knowledge.

    Saint Bill Bradley’s greatest achievement was US/Russia exchange. That’s the best way to curb the beltway death machine.

  11. TG says:

    An interesting post. Perhaps the Russians are weathering the sanctions well, it’s possible. They have plenty of food, energy, water, basic manufactures, and the ruling class has not declared all out war on the rocking class and opened up the border to unlimited third-world cheap-labor immigration.

    But: the real thing is going to be sanctions on all those sophisticated technical components, things like the zillions of obscure parts without which modern jet airliners can’t fly for very long etc. Those are very hard to replicate. Even Russia’s energy industry relies critically on very very high tech and specialized components for drilling etc., you can’t just hack this out in a local machine shop, the technologies and supply chains have taken literally generations in the west to build up. The real question is how well Russia holds up under sanctions for years. We will see.

  12. Anonymous[412] • Disclaimer says:
    @dearieme

    All of the above.

  13. Mintoff says:

    History when reviewed from both the defeated’s perspective and the “official” narrative shows there is a consistent “bearing of false witness”. Note: the Ten Commandments prohibit the bearing of false witness: which is the daily activity of the Western Media.
    The sinking of the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour, Gulf of Tonkin, 9/11, COVID all have a certain falseness because normal people could not care less about the “grandiose” notions for a New American Century or what Rhodes Scholars or RIIA or CFR or the WEF perverts think or say.
    We could save trillions of \$ and millions of lives if we just rounded-up these pompous assholes and sacrificed them to Baal or Moloch in a holocaust. Kill the [email protected]&\$!s in a fiery sacrifice to Satan…just take the membership lists of all these groups and execute them all. Not a one deserves mercy esp. Since what they do kills innocent children in all the wars they have orchestrated….in the Ukraine today some poor innocent is being mutilated FOR NO GOOD REASON but that Anthony Blinken et al. Think it a good idea that we fight the Russkies to the last Ukrainian! Is this not insane and worthy of the death penalty?
    Research Lord Malloch (Moloch? Is this a joke?) Brown, the architect of Biden’s presidency…….and ultimately the SMO and the rest.
    Research what an injection of mRNA does to the body. Moderna is a complete shit show with regard to standard medical safety protocol compliance and testing….a case study in the bearing of false witness. Phizeru has literally been convicted of criminal fraud…..should they the lot be treated mercifully? In Spanish to joke around is to “bourlar” the top dog at Phizer goes by the name of Alberto Bourla who speaks English with a thick espaneesh accent…..gas light the guy in the fire no need he should not suffer for each I’ll-gotten kopeck he has stolen through false witness!

  14. Republic says:
    @Boz

    Use a visa agent for best results,could get a 3 year multiple entry visa,not so expensive less than \$200

  15. @TG

    The REAL question is how well AMERICA holds up to the sanctions it’s imposing to “punish” Russia. america is going faster and faster down the shitter and RUSSIA SEES AND KNOWS THAT so does China and the rest of the world. american’s are devoted to stupid though so whatever. we got a war to fight in the Ukraine to help overthrow Russia then China so communism fails across the globe and everybody will be free and democracy wins. Or whatever.

    • Replies: @Derer
  16. Russia allows a lot of Western media outlets, including those highly critical of Russia and its war in Ukraine, to broadcast inside the country. I watched pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian stories here on CNN International, CNBC and the BBC. Western news apps like The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and the Associated Press work without a hitch.

    Either Russians are very dumb or very smart.

    Very dumb because they are not counter-censoring the West.

    Very smart because Russians get to see how hysterically anti-Russian the (((Western))) Media really are. NYT features nothing but endless middle fingers to Russia.

    • Replies: @Thelma Ringbaum
  17. meamjojo says:

    Who’s Embargoing Whom?
    Aug. 2, 2022, 1:00 p.m. ET
    By Paul Krugman

    The other day, my CUNY and Stone Center colleague Branko Milanovic suggested that it would be interesting to “compare Napoleon’s continental blockade against Great Britain to the current sanctions against Russia.” As it happened, I was already on the topic. I had just read Andrew Roberts’s “Napoleon: A Life” and was thinking about the parallels.

    The parallels are not, in fact, very good. But laying out the differences is itself, I believe, a useful exercise, and there are other historical examples of trade embargoes in times of war that come closer to what’s happening now.
    ….
    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/02/opinion/russia-ukraine-war-embargo-gas.html

  18. @TG

    “But: the real thing is going to be sanctions on all those sophisticated technical components, things like the zillions of obscure parts without which modern jet airliners can’t fly for very long etc. Those are very hard to replicate. Even Russia’s energy industry relies critically on very very high tech and specialized components for drilling etc., you can’t just hack this out in a local machine shop, the technologies and supply chains have taken literally generations in the west to build up. The real question is how well Russia holds up under sanctions for years. We will see.”

    Russia has been pumping oil for over a hundred years with it’s own technology and doesn’t need to rely on American technology to get their oil out of the ground. As for parts for airplanes, all this can either be reverse-engineered or purchased through third countries without much effort. The US doesn’t control the world anymore so these sanctions are having more of a negative effect on the west than on Russia.

    • Replies: @Thelma Ringbaum
  19. “. . I know from my travels that Americans’ inability to separate people from the politics of their country’s government is fairly unique. .”

    Truer words were never spoken. Americans are so aggressively ignorant and stupid it defies comprehension.

    • Replies: @paulo
  20. @Priss Factor

    Id bet on “dumb”. Russia is infiltrated up to the hilt with western agents of influence since 1990s. They simply cannot do the censorship on the US or Canada scale, lacking control of their own state media.

    • Disagree: Derer
  21. @Joe Paluka

    Not true; Russians rely on western tech precisely for Oil and Gas drilling and prospecting, or whats it called. Eventually these will be substituted by some Chinese tech. But it is probably about as easy for Russia to substitute tech as for Germany to get off the gas.

    The article is great though, regardless. Western and Ukie propaganda portrays Putuns Russia as if it is still in 1993, while great strides have been made there since 2000. Putins Prosperity is real.

    • Replies: @Joe Paluka
  22. anon[394] • Disclaimer says:
    @TG

    Germany is the highest power of all when it comes to industrial tech, and a case has been made on this website that the Russo-Ukraine war partly reflects a Jewish desire to de-industrialize Germany. Whether that or no, the debacle with Canada and the Siemens turbine suggests Germany will not go along in complete obedience and may well provide a source of impromptu workarounds to sanctions.

  23. paulo says:
    @Hapalong Cassidy

    It’s not that they are ignorant and stupid, it’s just that they live on a different planet , their own …
    Some say America is like a much bigger England , or like an extension of Europe on a grander scale , but although this seems historically logical it is actually not true at all, as soon as you set foot on american soil you know this country is entirely different from the old continent, it’s just another world .

  24. @Thelma Ringbaum

    As I said, the Russians have been drilling for oil for over 100 years and know all the methods on how to get at it. Most of the oil and gas industry still uses the same basic technology they’ve been using for 100 years. The Russians know how to frack and use horizontal drilling methods. Our magical US technology still uses diamond drill bits and pumps the oil out using pump jacks. As for purchasing the software to do geological surveys, the Russians can develop their own or buy it through third parties. Iran has had American sanctions on them for 40 years, it hasn’t seemed to dampen their ability to pump oil and prospect for it. The US is no longer the world leader and Americans are the last to realize it. A good analogy to describe this would be like the ghost that’s been haunting a house not realizing that he’s really dead.

    • Agree: Derer
    • Thanks: Verymuchalive
  25. @TG

    You say
    But: the real thing is going to be sanctions on all those sophisticated technical components, things like the zillions of obscure parts without which modern jet airliners can’t fly for very long etc. Those are very hard to replicate.

    This was one of the main aims of the sanctions imposed on Russia after the initial Ukraine Conflict in 2014. The idea was that export bans on high tech items would drastically reduce Russian production of oil, gas, metals, minerals and other commodities
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_sanctions_during_the_Russo-Ukrainian_War

    In reality, these items are very largely made in Russia itself – hell, it even makes all its own military microchips, unlike America which imports most of them from Taiwan. The few items they do not make can easily be obtained elsewhere.

    You say
    The real question is how well Russia holds up under sanctions for years.

    The Russian economy has been holding up – indeed flourishing – against sanctions for years. They have had little or no effect. The question you should have asked is this. How well will America hold up against sanctions in the coming year, not years.. US National Debt is over \$30 trillion. The accumulated Trade Deficit since 1990 is over \$20 trillion at 2022 prices. These sanctions are drastically raising energy and other commodity prices in America, but not Russia. American economic collapse is likely.

  26. haha says:
    @TG

    Oh, they will hold up all right. The Western sanctions may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Russia. Russia is, has been, and will be a science and and technology powerhouse. NASA rocket engines are designed and manufactured by Russia. No Russian rocket engines, no NASA space journeys. The first man in space was put by Russia. The fastest aircraft ever built was designed and made in Russia during the Soviet era. What they need to learn is how to make sexy, over-priced, short-lived (and largely useless) consumer goods and how to make money. I fear they will catch up there as well. And then they will become more like us!

    • Agree: Derer
  27. Derer says:
    @TG

    Who provided technical components for the first man in space, when Glenn was postponed numerous time for our technical mediocrity.

  28. Derer says:
    @G. Winfield

    I am not sure if this is sarcasm or not. I cannot find any American “democracy” these days…it is all media indoctrination.

    • Replies: @G. Winfield
  29. @Anonymous

    Don’t you think its time to discard the title “Harvard Boys” – a misleading label that only serves to hide the true perps behind a meaningless label?

    They weren’t “Harvard Boys” who banded together to rape Mother Russia…they were organized, international jewish financial manipulators – all of them focused on their organized, long-planned theft of Russia’s assets while at the same time deliberately exterminating the native population of the land.

    Has anyone told them yet that they have failed?

    Thank gawd Putin came along.

  30. zeke0606 says:

    Hi Ted!!!
    Your assessment of Russia these days is very accurate. I’m an American and have lived in Ufa, Russia for over 20 years. I usually don’t go to Moscow or St Pete for the very reasons you cited — besides I’ve been to and lived in most of the ‘big’ cities around the world and do not like the sameness of them.
    You are very correct about the sanctions!!! The only thing I know is the sanctions have stopped the postal mail and cut off any international banking the normies want to do. I’m one of the normies and I really don’t like the blocked banks and mail!!!
    If you ever happen to find yourself in Ufa – stop by for a talk and some belly laughs!!!
    Happy trails!!!
    Mike

  31. @Anonymous

    It was a crime of the century that the Harvard boys et al went in and looted former soviet union, with the help of Russian and western oligarchs and the us govt.

    You could have just summarized all of those groups with one descriptor: the Ashkenazis.

  32. @meamjojo

    He’s a tourist, not a P.O.W..

  33. @dearieme

    Or shooting ourselves in the foot. But why? Is it as simple as the American governing class being stupid and ignorant? Or have they worked out yet another way to enrich themselves while impoverishing their citizens? Or are they simply evil?

    Embrace the power of “AND

    They are stupid and ignorant AND they are enriching themselves while impoverishing their citizens AND they are evil.

  34. Tang says:
    @Boz

    I went to Passports and Visas in Atlanta, let them get my Russian Visa for a charge. The first time I did it myself, 6 years ago, and decided the extra money was worth it, saving the time and effort.

  35. Tang says:

    My friends in Sochi, Russia, say that the nearby, large airports in Rostov and Krasnodar have been closed for security reasons, perhaps related to the war (they are close to Crimea). This leaves Sochi, AER Airport, as the alternative in the area, and consequently traffic at that airport is particularly heavy. Naturally, car traffic is also heavy.

  36. Tang says:

    In the turbulent world, Turkiye occupies a central place. A member of NATO, while President Erdogan is on friendly terms with Mr. Putin. Other leaders talked about exporting Ukrainian wheat, Mr. Erdogan actually got the ships sailing. Meanwhile, millions of Westerners vacation in Turkiye. And millions of Russians vacation in Turkiye. Western credit cards are accepted. And Russian credit cards are also accepted. For all of them the vacation tab will be roughly half of what it would be in Southern Europe.

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