Obviously when an American talks or writes about Russia then political questions get asked. I decided a few preliminary thoughts need to be written. I intend to write a fuller explanation of how I see things later. I am waiting for at least two reasons: First, I had my books shipped by boat so my modest Russian library has not arrived yet. I cannot document statements I will need to make. Second, I want to be here in Russia a bit longer and talk to more people on the subject before fully addressing the issue.
I started thinking about writing some ideas yesterday after I read an article that popped up on my Yahoo News feed. The article was, “Putin’s Russia is a Poor, Drunk, Soccer Hooligan,” by Scott Gilmore of The Boston Globe. It was an op-ed piece, but if one offers opinion then it ought to be an informed opinion. This guy slaps together some isolated “facts” or statistics and draws hard, fast and unfounded conclusions. The author gives no indication of ever having been to Russia or, if he did come, having learned anything. He shows no awareness of authors who have devoted their careers to understanding Russia. Can this kind of article become what qualifies as important political journalism in America? The article was trash, but it gets on the major news feeds and many consider it a source of information. I do not offer these “preliminary considerations,” therefore, as expert analysis. I write as someone whose main hobby is Russian history and politics and who has actually lived here and has family who are Russians.
Certainly when the subject of contemporary Russian politics comes up the first name that gets “front and center” is Vladimir Putin. He elicits strong reactions from most people—either positive or negative. Last year I read about four books on Putin in addition to some of his speeches going back to 2000 when he became president of The Russian Federation. I lived in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia for three years. I still find the man a mystery. But I will offer the following statements and elaborations about him, with the caveat I am still researching.
First, Vladimir Putin loves Russia and is strongly committed to whatever he believes is best for Russia. I think it was Marin Katusa who pointed out Putin simply does not care what the Western press says about him. He is not running for America’s “Most Likeable Man.” I think that irks the American Press Corps especially who are so used to everyone panting after their approval. I think Putin’s recent exchange with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria also shows he is smarter and more well-informed than most of them as well.
Second, I do not think there are many leaders today who work as hard as Putin. He has been accused of having affairs with a number of women, stowing away millions in cash, and chasing tigers all over Russia. The truth, I think, comes from those closest to him (including those who do not really like him) who say he is extremely driven and hard-working, and they do not see any evidence of all these wild rumors the Western press and readers love. Unlike our President in America, he does not go on lightweight talk shows or spend hours watching basketball games. The first press conference I saw in Russia shocked me. He was there for at least three hours answering very difficult and complex questions. I had never seen a politician expose himself to such intense scrutiny and difficult questions. There is no teleprompter. Were the questions screened? I suspect maybe they were, but I don’t know. I do know he still had to do a lot of homework to answer them whenever he knew about them. Obviously, he does work out and still enjoys Judo and Sambo.
Third, a part of the mystery of Putin is his complex background. His father was a war veteran and atheist who became a leader in a local Communist Party group. His mother was a factory worker who was an Orthodox Christian. Putin had two brothers to die before he was born—one infancy and one later from diphtheria I believe. Putin’s mother slipped and had him baptized as an infant. Somehow the marriage of his parents stayed strong despite the ideological differences. Putin loved spy movies and was inspired to join the KGB and served in East Germany. But he says he never quit wearing the cross he received at his baptism. Once he was in a sauna and the furnace caused a great fire. Everything was demolished and Putin and a friend escaped with no clothes. Later a fireman who had sifted through the ashes gave Putin the cross back. Putin says he had no explanation as to how that little thin metal cross survived the fire that destroyed everything else. He decided he would not take it off. Now, I am one of those cynics who does not believe you can ever know a politician’s true religious convictions—at least while he or she is in office. It does seem to me, however, that Putin attends church regularly but not in a way that draws unnecessary attention to it. He considers himself an Orthodox Christian. He has devoted a lot of government funds to rebuilding monasteries and churches destroyed or severely damaged in the Stalin era. My point is not to convince anyone what a great Christian Putin is. My point is that the casual way he is referred to as a KGB agent by Americans, as if that were the sum of who he is, is misguided and simplistic. It is a convenient way for Americans, especially politicians, to indicate he is a bad person.
Putin is liked by most Russians as every poll taken finds. He is not liked by all Russians, however, some of whom are my friends. As I said, I’ll reserve a final evaluation of the man after I have studied him further. But I know both from reading books written by writers I trust and my own experience of being here two years after he became President and being here now that Russia is a lot better off economically and in many other ways as well.
Now an observation about Russians and politics in general. During my first visit here I was in a small Russian village and got involved in a conversation with an older babushka (literally “grandmother,” but the term is bigger than that). She was denouncing America for its horrible bombings and assaults on other countries. So I simply said, “So you don’t like us Americans?” She gave me this quizzical look and then responded, “Of course, I like you. Americans come to our village every year, and they are all such nice, caring people. I have never met an American I did not like.” She then added that important phrase, “I don’t like America; I very much like Americans.” The next day in the same village I gave a talk on why I moved from being an atheist as a young man to believing in God. I set forth a few scientific and philosophical tidbits that had changed my mind. There were very few people in the open building. There was one white haired Russian man who stood in the back. Later, when I was outside, he came up to me and, through my interpreter of course, told me that he was a life-long Communist and atheist. But then he told me he thought I expressed my thoughts very clearly and very well and he would give them more reflection. He then kind of smiled and said, “You do know the early Christian believers were Communists, right? The Bible says, ‘they had all things in common.’” With that, he smiled again, shook my hand and left.
I relay those two incidents to show how I learned to avoid the easy stereotypes of Russians. If I use words like “anti-American babushka,” or “old atheist, Communist Russian,” one would draw conclusions far from the truth of who those people really are. In general, I think Russians are far more open-minded and far more willing to listen to different ideas without jumping to conclusions than most of us Americans. Of course there are exceptions! Nevertheless, I think there has been a general trend among Americans (myself included!) to listen just to sound bites and take short cuts to thoughtful reflection. It is important that we focus on real research and have meaningful discussions with people who come from different perspectives than we do rather than promoting the kind of trashy journalism that comes from people like Scott Gilmore.