Russia has always been on my list of places I wanted to visit and the opportunity finally came along this summer.
But every time I mentioned my upcoming trip to friends, I got a look like, Why would you go there? The interest for me is that Russia one of the biggest countries in the world, and one of the United States’ biggest adversaries, to boot. And it is the best example of the communist social and political system in action.
Like most people, I had my share of pre-conceived notions about the Russian people and way of life. I thought, for example, that everyone lived in government-provided apartments but was struck as I left Moscow Airport on the way to Moscow at the number of single family homes I saw. I learned that most apartments or homes are privately owned by individuals.
In Moscow, I boarded a river cruise ship, which included presentations on Russia - past and present. I think of Russia as the Soviet Union, but the current name is the Soviet Republic.
When Russians describe their history, they talk of “Soviet times” as a period that ended in 1989. It reminded me of when I first started going to China - you knew a lot about a person depending on whether they were born before or after the Cultural Revolution. Similarly, it seemed like the end of Soviet times marked a big attitudinal change in Russia.
I remember hearing the phrase, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” This was a tongue-in-cheek way of describing frustration regarding the communist mentality of creating make-work jobs and not paying people anything in return.
I had heard about Russians coming to the U.S. and being overwhelmed by the amount of food and the variety of choices in the supermarkets, so I expected to see lines at Russian supermarkets and scarcity. That wasn’t the case. There were no long food lines – just the normal lines at the check-out counters and grocery store shelves contained plenty of products and choices… but the country does aim to sell products that are produced in Russia. However, we had no problem getting my wife’s drink of choice - Coke Zero – and there were bars and restaurants serving a variety of ethnic fare open until all hours in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
I also was struck in the trip from the airport with the Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Lexus dealerships. There were a few older Ladas on the road but most people drove modern foreign cars. I assume they were all produced in Russia. One small vestige of the past could be seen under some new highway flyovers. During Soviet times, people stored their cars in the equivalent of a standalone storage unit with barely enough space for the vehicle. Cars were only driven on weekends to get to one’s Daca - a modest getaway weekend place where Russians went to relax, raise a garden and have some green space.
Today, large apartment buildings house underground parking and those storage sheds are a remnant of the past, still standing but not in use.
Organized religion tells you a lot about a country. The predominant religion in Russia is Russian Orthodox. By definition, orthodox sects are committed to maintaining tradition. The churches for the most part are decorated from ceiling to floor with icons. There is some tension between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church ( the Great Schism), possibly due to the role icons play in the Russian church.
There are more than 40.000 functioning churches in Russia today. In Soviet times, there were only about 100 in operation. During Soviet times a person’s employment and social standing could be negatively impacted if they were seen worshipping in church. As a person of faith it is hard to imagine turning that part of my life on or off depending on the people in power.
Another take-away from my travels was the grit and determination of the Russian people. Their climate is a challenge, and the winters are long and dark. Russians describe the climate as nine months of expectation (waiting for winter to end) and three months of disappointment. St Petersburg has an average of 60 days of sunshine per year.
World War II was, of course, a hardship for all the countries who fought, but the toll on Russia - nearly 27 million people killed – was massive. Most Americans can’t comprehend or appreciate the enormity of that. Russia’s unwillingness to surrender to the Germans under extremely adverse conditions speaks to their determination as a country and as a people.
Then there are the politics. Your average Russian has no interest in them. When you press them on Putin, they shift the conversation to economics. If you look at their economy and how that translates to the average Russian, they are much better off than they were 15 years ago. Yes, it is a totalitarian state. And there are issues with human rights. But I was surprised by how open and candid our Russian guides were. They weren’t afraid to criticize what they didn’t like about the Russian system.
Russia has a long history - more than 800 years – and a rich history of music and the arts. We got a chance to experience a performance of “Swan Lake” and to hear folk music played by a conservatory group. We visited a local elementary school in one of the towns, and a young girl made a presentation for us in English. We visited a middle-class family’s home and shared tea, chocolates and vodka.
All in all, it was a great experience. I came away with a much more positive feeling about the people and what they had to offer. Like any country, you need to get past the leadership and stereotypes and get out among the regular people.
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