I recently received a gift from friends in Russia—a piece of embroidery that arrived via a convoluted route involving Midwestern Americans who had been traveling in Russia. (Apparently Russians still don’t trust their own postal system.) A nice note from Boris and Marina came with it.
In the ‘90s Marina was my counterpart in a student exchange between her school in Ivanovo, Russia (a textile producing town 300 km NE of Moscow), and my school in Ramstein, Germany. At the time, Boris was Ivanovo’s representative in Russia’s first freely elected Duma (parliament). These were those euphoric days after the “fall of the wall” and the collapse of the Soviet Union—the days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Marina’s note this month ended with a PS: “—and don’t believe all they say on TV about Russia.”
I am not exactly sure what she means. I shouldn’t believe that Russia unilaterally invaded the Crimea? I shouldn’t believe that Russia has a huge number of troops on the Ukrainian border poised for action? However, I am sure of some things about Russia:
(1) The Russian people are warm-hearted, generous, and hospitable. They go all-out to entertain guests. Westerners are always flabbergasted by elaborate entertainments and laden tables in both public and private venues. Their young people are imbued with the same kind of idealism and enthusiasm for a better world as ours are—witness the growth and popularity of the Model United Nations program in Russia!
(2) I think in the last three or four centuries—that same time frame that carried America from the Mayflower and Jamestown to Barrack Obama’s presidency—the Russian people have not been well served by their governments. Under the czars, the common people were held in oppressive serfdom; the czar was to be seen as the “Little Father” (as opposed to the big father—the Deity?). He would take care of a populace too stupid or too naïve to care for themselves. For those who did not wholly accept such benevolence, there was always Siberia.
Lord Acton’s famous adage, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was as true for Russia in the 20th as in earlier centuries.
The communist ideal sought to alleviate the plight of the people, but soon evolved into a reign of terror in which the Soviet dictators “improved” upon the czars’ holdings in Siberia.
It appears to me that the hope and promise of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years has been swallowed up in the greed and ambition of Putin and the oligarchs.
(3) I would add: “No, Marina, I am not assuming a ‘holier than thou’ position.” America’s history has certain parallels with Russia’s: black slaves in America were treated as badly as Russia’s serfs and we are still—a century and a half later—dealing with residuals from that sad institution. Stalin’s forcing the Kulaks to give up their land and their way of life had a parallel in the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans. And Russia’s oligarchs certainly have their counterparts in the Koch brothers and Washington lobbyists who own Congress.
My opinion of the “real” Russia has not changed in the last quarter of a century, but I must admit that my view of world politics and world leaders has become severely tarnished!