Getting to Know Russia

Talking with Russians and ex-pats living in Russia gives you a special insight into an often misunderstood culture. Here are a few examples:

Knowing how much many societies rely on tourism these days for employment and foreign revenue, I told someone, “Requiring a visa for tourists is no good for tourism and your economy.” He responded, “It doesn’t matter. No one cares. Russia has gas and oil and minerals.”

Discussing the struggles of civil liberties under Putin, I was told, “Stability is a passage to democracy.”

I told my Russian friend that many Americans are against government regulations on business. She said, “We live in a world where those who believe that regulations on business are bad are running our society. And we’re learning that capitalism without regulation is as bad as tyranny.” I said that I believe we’re all on parallel tracks toward pluralism and democracy, and some societies are just farther along than others. Another friend responded, “What you said is incompatible with reality.”

When I asked why the oligarchs are allowed to wield so much power, my friend said, “In Russia there is no ‘why’.” In Russia you don’t ask for logic and you don’t ask why. Certain norms are inbred.

They say 16 percent of the work force is in the security field. There’s an obsession with rules and security that goes back to czarist days. Any deviation is considered deviant, in the negative sense. About one in five Russians is a free-minded liberal who wants change (therefore deviant). The amount of deviation that’s acceptable fluctuates from time to time. The range is very wide now. For example, everyday Russians are allowed to travel for practically the first time in history. And people embrace the world through the Internet. I was told, “Religion was the opiate of the masses in the old days, Vodka was the opiate in Soviet times, and today, the Internet is the opiate of the masses.”

The 1970s and 1980s were a time when thought leaders in Russia — cultural icons like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and world-famous scientists like Andrei Sakharov — stood courageously for freedom. Solzhenitsyn’s “Open Letter to Soviet Leaders” inspired me as it inspired millions of Russians in the 1970s. I stumbled upon this monument to Sakharov (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975), and it rekindled the respect and admiration I have for individuals who stood up to the Kremlin during those dark and difficult years — freedom fighters who softened the ground for the fall of Soviet Communism that would follow a decade or so later. Photo by Trish Feaster, see her blog – The