For starters I have to admit that the key reason for my second visit to this country was to attend the World Cup, together with my son. Having said that, we also spent plenty of time away from the football fun. I caught up with one of my colleagues in the Gordon Cook network, Arcady Khotin, and to top it off we struck gold with our Russian guide, Mark Gudkin, who was widely travelled, well-read and of a philosophical bent.
We had many long discussions (sometimes heated) about politics, religion, east-west issues, propaganda, fake news and so on – always friendly – and most of the time when we both had explained our cases we met each other somewhere in the middle, on none of the issues did we end up vastly apart.
Let me say first of all that I was very impressed with the changes I saw in Moscow. The city I visited in 1974 has changed unrecognisably (except for the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil). An enormous amount of money has been spent on those impressive historical buildings and palaces since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Russia, and the maintenance and faithful restorations are awe-inspiring. I was very impressed with the work done over the last 25 years.
Moscow is now one of the happening cities. It is vibrant; it is modern; and its people are dynamic – Muscovites are not much different from their counterparts in New York, London, Paris, Sydney or Amsterdam. And like many of its global counterparts Moscow is heavily involved in smart city developments, which I have reported on in my earlier blog.
What has not changed all that much is the good old Soviet bureaucracy. You get stamps on your tickets and other documents everywhere. In shops and restaurants the staff often has specific tasks in relation to serving drinks, food, payments and supervision and these roles are strictly divided. It certainly provides for some extra employment. Interestingly, that same bureaucracy also lingers on in other previous parts of the old Soviet Union. We noticed this in Armenia, which gained its independence in 1991 but which also still hangs on to some those Soviet levels of bureaucracy.
On average people earn 10% more in Moscow than elsewhere in the country, and the top layer of society earns significantly more than that, their income is more on par with those other metro cities. But the sanctions have made life tougher for the Russians. The rouble has dropped significantly and that has made many products more expensive, and in general has substantially affected people’s buying power. Obviously the World Cup was used by many businesses to earn some good money from the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors – food, accommodation and drinks were often charged at double the normal rates.
The situation in Moscow is in many respects very similar to other places I visited, such as St Petersburg, Kazan and Samara; but at the same time circumstances are also very different outside Moscow.
I love St Petersburg; it was still called Leningrad when I last visited it. The city has style and has been able to maintain much of its unique 18th and 19th century atmosphere. Tsar Peter the Great would recognise his city, while Ivan the Great would not recognise Moscow, which is more dynamic and has changed much more. St Petersburg is working hard on its own modernisation but they are (fortunately) doing this outside the historic centre. It will be very interesting to see how this develops over the next decade, and whether St Petersburg can challenge Moscow in that respect. It also has a lot going for it. For example it has established interesting economic relations with the Scandinavian and the Baltic countries. My colleague Arcady is an example of this new trend, he runs a very successful software company, with business activities also in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. See my blog on St Petersburg.
People had told me that Kazan and Samara have also changed dramatically but as we saw for ourselves you can still find elements of old rural Russia there, with wooden houses and some of the old Soviet infrastructure such as roads, public transport and housing. Although modernisation is unstoppable here also, people are trying not to lose all of the old atmosphere of these cities.
Nevertheless lots of that old Soviet infrastructure still exists in Moscow and St Petersburg, especially in the suburbs just outside the modernised central parts of the cities, in between the more modern new suburbs built during the last 20 years or so.
Kazan has the oldest kremlin in Russia, right on the mighty Volga, and this fortified complex is simply stunning. Interestingly, with significant Arab/Muslim cultural and religious influence blended, both religions are living and working side by side without any problems. Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and the people proudly call themselves Tatars. They were one of the last ethnic groups to be integrated into Greater Russia in 1783.
Samara, also situated on the Volga, and popular with Russian tourists, has one of the largest and most famous breweries (Zhiguli) in Russia, which was very much in evidence during the World Cup celebrations in this city. Add to this the many friendly Russians that joined in the celebrations and shared their local brew with us and I am sure you will get a picture of brotherhood.
But within these cities – and especially outside them – there is still a lot of poverty in Russia. While many young people have used the collapse of the soviet systems to advance their own lives, at the same time many of the older generation are now missing the cushioning effects of the old system. Importantly however, the free soviet education and healthcare systems have been retained, as well as a basic pension system, and this is still operating as a safety net for a very large section of the population. However the pension system is now earmarked for change and that is causing wide-spread anxiety.
Back in 1974 – in the Soviet years – in all of these places churches had either been demolished, allowed to fall into disrepair, or changed into factories. But now they have all been magnificently restored – a process that is still continuing – and these restored buildings are looking stunning, with golden domes and packed full of the most beautiful icon paintings.
All of this certainly gives the feeling that Russians are proud of their country and proud of their history – which obviously fits nicely into Putin’s policy of creating a positive feeling of nationalism. Russian people are very much aware of their history and history is an interwoven part of their lives. Russians in general are also very well read and most Russians know more of the West than the other way around.
Nevertheless educated Russians are critical of their government. They don’t like the restrictions on the freedom of press, the often heavy-handedness of the police, the bureaucracy and some of the country’s foreign policies. But on balance for most of the Russian people the positives have outweighed the negatives so far. Putin remains enormously popular in Russia. When I discussed this with Mark and mentioned some of these negatives he agreed with them but he regularly pointed to the range of Trump policies in the USA, indicating that other countries also have their issues and the heavy-handedness of the Chinese government in relation to personal freedom is significantly worse than the situation in Russia. However, looking at Russia and China I very much prefer the democratic systems in the West with all their faults and shortcomings.
What is currently putting a damper on President Putin’s popularity is his government’s policy to increase the pension age of its people. The government wants to raise the pension age from 60 to 65 for men, and from 55 to 63 for women, to help cope with a shrinking workforce. This needs to be seen in the context of life expectancy in Russia of just 66 for men and 77 for women (according to the World Health Organisation). This change is specially hurting older Russians workers, who already suffer from economic hardship.
This is now also affecting the popularity of Putin among these people. It was already lower among the younger age group and people are therefore becoming more vocal on issues such as corruption, foreign intervention, suppression of homosexuality, press freedoms and nepotism.
But Russia is not alone in this. It also applies at the moment to policies in other countries where populist regimes are winding back some of the democratic gains we have made over the last 50 years. This is particularly evident in some of the East European countries and in Turkey, but developments in the USA, Britain and other western counties are also causing concern, and the West should be careful when calling the kettle black in the case of Russia.
Possible intervention from Russia in elections in the USA, Britain and Germany was also discussed. Most Russians believe their own propaganda on this, and those in the West believe the opposite. We agreed that a lot of propaganda is involved on both sides, which does cloud the issue. But then the Russians asked – what about the many interferences of the USA in political situations, especially in South America and the Middle East? I just read the book Silk Roads – a new history of the world by Peter Frankopan and its chilling to read the political interferences, coups and political assassinations that occurred during most of the 20th century conducted by the British and American governments in Asia and in particular the Middle East. The main aim was to stop the Soviet Union moving into these oil rich territories, with little or no respect for the local people, the local economy or traditional borders, customs and traditions and we are still paying a huge price for their ruthless behaviour during that period. So in relation to the current political interferences – while I most certainly don’t condone them, to the contrary – a more balanced view on these matters is needed.
Whilst I certainly don’t agree with many of the policies in Russia this doesn’t mean that I want to demonise a country – and most certainly not its people. We also shouldn’t overplay the threat of Russia becoming more aggressive. In my opinion the Crimea situation is unique for reasons I will mention below. Russia’s economic size would make it very difficult for it to take on the West. It would not be able to match the investments needed for such operations. The size of its economy is on a par with, for example, Australia and South Korea.
I think a lesson that we are learning is that every country will have to solve its own problems through the power of its own people. Foreign intervention, in whatever form, is not the solution and, yes, people in some counties will find it difficult (see also my analysis on Armenia) to make changes happen without outside assistance, but still they wnt to be in charge of that. We can cheer other people and nations on from the side-lines and we should have open discussions with people across countries on all sorts of political, social and economic issues; but we should try and keep those conversations going, rather than pushing people into corners.
The World Cup, where 32 nations came together, was one of those unique chances for ‘everyday’ people to discuss and share views on such issues. We has many discussions with people from many different countries and we all agreed that if we were able to take the politics out of these issues people would get along with each other quite nicely.
Good people power examples in two other countries that I visited are Iceland and Armenia. Both used non-violent people power to create dramatic change in their countries. In Iceland they had the ‘Pots and Pans Revolution’, when they made sufficient noise to force their President and his corrupt government to leave office after the financial crisis that the government had created. And earlier this year massive non-violent protests in Armenia saw their right-wing president leave office also, being replaced by the person the people wanted to see leading the country. The situation in Iceland is very stable, but in Armenia it remains to be seen if the new leaders can deliver and if they can maintain a stable political situation in their country. Nevertheless, these are good examples of two totally different countries where grassroot people power can create change.
Back to Russia ……
Having, of course, been influenced by the western propaganda on Russia, there was a bit of apprehension regarding travelling to this country. The media and some politicians fuelled this with messages such as don’t travel to Russia, don’t use your mobile, don’t use Wi-Fi, don’t mingle with Russians, be aware of thieves and other criminals and so on. From day one being in Moscow I knew that this was all totally overblown (just to make sure, before I left Australia I had already checked some of these issues with my Russian friends, who indicated that this was more western propaganda than reality).
Of course the World Cup atmosphere helped, and Putin has certainly done a great PR job. But you can’t change the Russian people overnight, so what we met was genuine and I can truly say that we were given much hospitality, much friendship and much help from Russian people. Despite the sometimes massive crowds I saw no violence, no trouble, nothing. And it was good to read in the western press afterwards that this had been the case throughout the country, throughout the tournament. There had not even been any trouble with the Brits, and that says something in football.
Mind you, you wouldn’t want to attract the wrath of the Russian police and hooligan screening in advance had made sure that those known to cause trouble didn’t receive a visa to enter the country. The Russians didn’t take anything for granted and we felt very safe wherever we went.
I even commented on the friendliness of the police, but my Russian friends told me to wait till after the tournament when they are back to normal, indicating that friendliness was not a trait of their local police. It is important to keep in touch with reality.
Propaganda was a much-discussed issue during the many conversations I took part in – propaganda from the West that I am exposed to, and propaganda from the East that my Russian friends were exposed to.
A few examples of propaganda that I personally can recall …….
Back in the days of the Cold War we had the Cuban missile crisis. I remember my mother sitting at the table listening to the radio, expecting a new war to start. Kennedy successful got the Russians not to install the missiles and this was widely applauded – and that was it, as far as I knew. What I never fully had realised was that America had already installed nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, aimed at the Soviet Union, and that had been the reason for Russia planning to install missiles in Cuba. In the end this crisis was resolved, but the American side of the problem was hardly ever mentioned.
While I am not a religious person am very much part of the Christian culture and my interest in history inevitably includes a large number of events, monuments and so on based on the Christian religion. So I knew that in 1054 there was a schism between the western and eastern Christian churches and that the eastern church had separated itself from the western church.
This topic was heavily debated while we were in Russia, with Mark arguing that, no, the western church separated from the eastern church and that the Russians stuck to the orthodox (early) church doctrine, while the west went in a different direction. This really made me think and it is a demonstration of how powerful propaganda is.
And then there is the Crimea, a key reason why there are the western sanctions on Russia. While I, of course, strongly disagree with one country taking over the territory of another, again there are nuances here, and this actually became clear when we were in Denmark. There we visited old Viking towns that are situated around the border with Germany. Being in the border region I came across information that I was not aware of – that Germany and Denmark went to war in the 1860s and that Germany invaded the southern part of Denmark, what is now called Schleswig Holstein; the Germans took over one-third of what was then Denmark.
I was amazed, especially to read that after Germany lost WWI and then WWII Denmark had two opportunities to claim this lost territory back. So why didn’t they? Very simply because over a few hundred years before the invasion the majority of people in this region spoke German and not Danish, and felt far more related to Germany than to Denmark. In the end Denmark accepted the will of these people and let it continue to be part of Germany. Because of this understanding, and the friendly relationship that exists between the two countries, there is now a flourishing cross- border community involved in a range of cultural, social and economic activities.
The majority of people in the Crimea are Russian, and they welcomed the Russian invasion. I can’t see Russia ever giving back the Crimea, whether the West likes it or not. What is needed here is some realpolitik and for a situation to be created like the one that exists between Denmark and Germany, where there is a friendly relationship between Ukrainian and Russian people on both side of the border, so that they can live in peace together. Once again, I don’t condone any invasion but it makes sense to face reality and work out a solution around it. Polarisation and war are not going to solve this problem.
In the end, despites its problems I am more positive about Russia after my trip to this country and I believe that its people will ensure that changes will be made for the better, albeit within the reality of the larger international role that Russia plays and wants to play – not all that different from the situation in the USA or China for that matter.
It will always be a balancing act, but the only way to make this work is to have good communication and good relations between these powers. Failure to achieve this would have a dramatic effect on all the people on earth. Demonising, military interventions and sanctions are certainly not the way forward in our complex world. I totally agree with Angela Merkel, that dialogue is the only way forward.