About Hal Freeman

I am an American living in Russia with my wife, Oksana, and three children. We lived in St. Petersburg, Russia 2005-2008, and then moved to America. We lived in my home state of South Carolina for 8 years before returning to Russia in June of 2016. I took early retirement after spending most of my adult life teaching in a University in S.C. While we were living in America I became very interested in reading Russian history, politics and studying the Russian language. Our family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2014. I have two grown sons who are married and have children. They live in South Carolina. We miss them very much, but we firmly believe we are where we should be.

PUTIN’S CONTINUING LEADERSHIP & PRESIDENCY

In my last two blogs I have given biographical overviews of Vladimir Putin up to the time of his appointment as president on January 1, 2000. Next month, March 2018, he is expected by almost everyone here and abroad to be elected to another six year term. How is it that this man from very poor and difficult beginnings has become the leader of Russia for so many years? The West has tried to “demonize” Putin for some time now. If he is as corrupt as they say, as devious as they say, as manipulative as they say, why is it that he continues to enjoy public approval ratings that no national politician in America even comes close to? Are Russians themselves corrupt and controlling (“almost genetically” driven that way according to the racist James Clapper)? Or is it that they are naive, foolish, ignorant or a combination of all the above? If Joe Biden is right, why have the Russians gotten it so wrong?

I would like to point out the way Putin handled three complex issues that I believe reveal aspects of his leadership that are important for understanding how he was first elected president and has been able to stay in office for so long. Obviously there are other factors, and I have left off his handling of several issues and events.  But the nature of a blog is one cannot discuss everything. This is an overview, not an in-depth analysis. I’ll close with some personal observations on why I think things are viewed so differently here in Russia than in America.

THE “SECOND WAR” WITH CHECHNYA. The first issue I will discuss in Putin becoming accepted by the people of Russia arose at the time he was appointed and then narrowly approved by the Duma as Prime Minister. At that time his positive ratings were between 1-2%. Their attitudes toward him began to change as a result of the conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan. This region was made part of Russia centuries ago. Their location is in the southern region around the Caucasus, rather close to the Caspian Sea. Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia joined together in 1917. Eventually they became part of the USSR. The area is heavily Muslim although Dagestan is ethnically diverse. After the fall of the USSR, Chechnya wanted to leave the Russian Federation. Dagestan did not. In 1994 Chechnya rebelled against Russian rule. They went to war. This “first war” with Chechnya lasted two years and proved to be a humiliating defeat for Russia. Despite its much larger size Russia was not able to control Chechnya. Yeltsin tried at least “to contain” the rebels, but was not successsful. The weakness of the Russian military was evident. Yeltsin signed a peace treaty with Chechnya in 1996.

Upon his appointment as Prime Minister, Putin immediately requested absolute and direct control over handling the Chechen problem. Yeltsin agreed. Chechen leader Shamil Basayev had declared he wanted to make neighboring Dagestan an Islamic State. The majority of the people in Dagestan, as it turned out, did not want to become an Islamic State. In August of 1999 when approximately 2,000 Chechen guerillas infiltrated the region, Putin responded quickly. He announced Russia would drive the Muslim terrorists out of Dagestan and pursue them into Chechnya. Putin ordered bombers and helicopter gunships to attack villages and locations where the rebels were known to be. The residents of Dagestan sided with the Russians. The rebels retreated, and Putin ordered his troops to stay in pursuit.

In response the terrorists carried out a series of car bombs. The first bomb was at an apartment in Dagestan where Russian troops were staying. Then there were two bomb attacks on apartments in Moscow and finally one in Volgodonsk (southern Russia). A total of 305 people (including children) were killed, and 846 were wounded. Putin stepped up the pressure in Chechnya and approved his general’s plan for total war. The rebels retreated to Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya. Putin ordered bombing raids. He received international criticism for these attacks, since obviously citizens were killed. Heretofore, the Islamic radicals had used withdrawing into a city as a means of neutralizing their opponent. The plan did not work with Putin. They were terrorists who had killed innocent Russians within the Russian Federation. After having been repeatedly questioned by the media about the bombing attacks on the city, Putin responded angrily to a reporter’s question: “We will go after (the terrorists) wherever they are. If, pardon me, we find them in the toilet, we’ll waste them in the outhouse.” By January the rebels abandoned Grozny. In doing so they fell into a trap set by the Russians for any fleeing militants. Several hundred more rebels were killed trying to escape the city.

Boris Yeltsin later said he considered Putin’s actions at the time political suicide. He indicated he knew Putin saw it the same way. It was as if he did not care that he would not have a political career afterwards, reflected Yeltsin. Putin was determined to defeat them because of what they had done to the citizens of Russia and Dagestan and believed it would prevent further attacks.

The pundits were wrong, however, about the impact his decisions would have on his political future. His popularity began to rise. In the fall his ratings went up into the 20-30% range. His handling of the crisis with the Chechens gave limited vindication to the reputation of a nation whose citizens had had very little to give them any sense of pride in quite some time.

putin in chechnya

Putin took over as president by appointment on January 1 and prepared for his first election ever, which would be in March. Putin hated campaigning and refused to do it in the traditional way. He brought in Dmitri Medvedev to run his campaign but refused to give “stump” speeches or do TV commercials. He made a rather raw remark to the effect that choosing a president was not on the level of deciding on “tampax or snickers.” The main way chosen to let people know more about him were “biographical interviews” aired on television and then in the print media. In addition to information on his background, he told people how bad he thought the problems were in Russia and what he was doing about them. According to surveys, two things impacted people greatly. First, he did what he said he would do in those first three months. He was the first politician who actually told them what he wanted to do and then showed what he was doing to accomplish those goals. Second, people sensed or believed he had not been sucked in by the corruption and intrigue which they had seen for over a decade in other politicians. When the election was held in March of 2000, Putin won by 53%.

PRIVATIZATION & CORRUPTION. After becoming president, Putin focused on the issue of “privatization” which began long before he became president. In general, privatization refers to the process of transferring assets from the government to the private sector. When Gorbachev came to power, the state (USSR) owned almost all the assets in the country. Gorbachev started market oriented reforms which allowed for some limited privatization to be enacted gradually. But perestroika was not an economic plan. Eventually, some joked perestroika had become “catastroika” (destruction, catastrophy). The process got corrupted early on. In general, those with power were able to take control of the large assets of the government. The more they accumulated, the more they were able to bribe whoever they needed to bribe to get even more. Further, they were often able to dodge any taxes on what they illegally obtained. Oil and gas companies were the primary foci of the corruption. The abuse really increased during Yeltsin’s years. At one point Yeltsin even told those in power, “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” So while the term sounds innocuous enough, it was poisonous for the Russian economy.

Putin wanted privatization to continiue but without being the domain of the oligarchs. Putin believed land and other assets should be available for private owndership, but he wanted all Russians to be able to participate. He also did not believe assets essential to the well-being of the country should be in the hands of these oligarchs who seemed focused only on their own profit margins. He set a course that would allow people to obtain their own apartments, land, farms, etc. He dealt with the oligarchs by agreeing that they were free to pursue their business interests, but, in turn, they had to stay out of politics. Further, he encouraged them to invest in Russia. Third, he simplified the tax code. He implemented a flat tax rate on income at 13%. He reduced the rate of corporate tax profit from 35% to 24%. He insisted, however, that there would be greater penalties if corporations or the oligarchs themselves sought to continue to dodge taxes or play politics. Once in February of 2003 Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, perhaps his main nemesis, had a rather sharp exchange in which Khodorskovsky implied Putin was corrupt. Putin responded, “Mr. Khodorkovsky, are you completely sure your taxes are in order?” He replied brazenly, “Absolutely.” Putin responded, “Well, that’s what we are going to find out.” Eventually it did not work out well for Mr. Khodorkovsky.

The result of monitoring the oligarchs and the simplification of the tax system were factors in the increase of the government revenues. There were other important factors as well. Oil prices continued to rise early in Putin’s presidency. That is always a good thing for the Russian economy. Further, the fact that farmers (and others) owned their land resulted in an increase of productivity. This fact supplemented the increase brought about by the main economic assets of Russia—gas and oil.

Additionally, there were events that negatively impacted Putin’s reputation. The sinking of the Kursk, Russia’s most modern submarine, in August of 2000 was perhaps the worst. Putin was briefed on the situation the morning after it happened, and his military advisers gave him a reassuring, albeit very inaccurate, report. They told him the Kursk had plenty of resources for survival. So Putin went ahead with a planned trip to Sochi. Eventually Russia could not get inside the vessel. On August 19 Norwegians arrived and got inside the vessel in 20 minutes. Obviously it was too late. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinksy, two oligarchs who did not care for Putin, controlled the TV news media and presented the news in the worst possible light for Putin. Putin’s popularity suffered.

Встреча В.Путина и М.Ходорковского в Кремле

CHANGES IN PAY/ECONOMY. The third issue Putin faced was maintaining the military and government services while also translating the government revenues into tangible help for the working class. After becoming president he increased pensions by 12% and then shortly thereafter by 20%. The average income in 2000 when Putin became president was 2,700 rubles; the average in 2012 when Putin last ran for president was 29,000. One reason the salary rate was so low in 2000 was because teachers, government workers, medical professionals and others went without pay for many months at a time. For example, last week my wife ran into the lady who taught her English when she was in high school. They began talking about the “old days,” and her teacher recalled how they went for months without pay in the 90s. She once taught six months in a public school without a paycheck. This was not uncommon. People did whatever they could to survive. After classes some teachers from Oksana’s school ran to the flea market to sell packages with imported tights – a part of the wardrobe coveted by many Russian women and girls, but scarce in the communist days. By the end of spring of Putin’s first year in office, all unpaid salaries had been paid.

Putin’s popularity continued to rise over the years. In 2004 he won by 70%. Putin could not serve as president in 2008 because of the constitutional restriction to two consecutive terms. After Dmitry Medvedev was president for one term (while Putin served as Prime Minister), Putin was re-elected in 2012 with 63% of the vote.

After having lived here and trying to familiarize myself with Russian attitudes as much as possible, there are things I see that cause misunderstanding on the part of Westerners, particularly Americans. We Americans tend to get very emotional about our leaders. It is often a love or hate relationship. After Hillary Clinton was defeated in 2016 there were many scenes on TV and in print media showing her followers openly weeping. Even looking at the reporters on CNN or MSNBC one could see the deep sense of personal loss felt by the news commentators. As one friend quipped to me, “Wow, you’d think their best dog just died.” Likewise, I have seen people get very emotional in their support of Donald Trump. If one says something negative about him, there is often a strong cry of offense. Clearly, Trump has been maligned by the majority of media types who just do not like him. The debate or the discussion then becomes heated and emotional. This scenario is how the majority of political “discussions” now take place in America. To a great extent in America, politics is being done at a visceral level.

Now, I’ve seen Russian newscasters and debaters get pretty excited and even shrill, but it is usually over issues or interpretations of the facts. Clearly there are exceptions, but most Russians I know personally or see on TV just do not get emotionally involved with Vladimir Putin either way. Some really like him; some don’t care for him. But when I read that Putin gets an 80% approval rating, I don’t interpret that as meaning 80% of Russians are in agreement with all he’s done or that they fawn over him and get a Chris Matthews’ “thrill going up the back of the leg” when he speaks. Most Russians I know see good points and bad points in Putin. Some I know who are generally favorable to him still think inflation has outrun pensions; many believe he does not give enough breaks to help out small businesses. On the whole, however, most think he does a good job on other fronts. So they look at the total picture and approve of the job he’s doing without being willfully blind to the flaws.

AMERICA AND PUTIN. The sanctions and the expansion east by NATO has strengthened Putin’s support in Russia. Since the first sanctions a few years ago his approval ratings have gone from the low 60s to the low 80s. Last week I was chatting with my friend Yuri. He was a physician in the Soviet navy. He is Ukrainian by birth and still travels home on rare occasions. He became a bit nostalgic about the old USSR days. He said, “We all got along. It was before the West came in and gave money to the Nazi supporters. They split us up. And health care…my patients did not worry about paying. We had free health care.” I thought he was going to tell me he really would like to return to a Communist leader. He continued, “Hal, do the American leaders not know how much they have done for Putin’s support? If it weren’t for Putin, the West would have destroyed our economy and moved their NATO troops within our borders. They want us at war with Ukraine.” Yuri supports Putin because he realizes the West wants global superiority, and he doesn’t want to risk a change in leadership. He’s not a fervant Putin supporter, but he believes Putin cares about the country and will stand up to Russia’s western adversaries.

Then a few days later we were riding back from church in a taxi. The cab driver somehow starting talking about politics and next month’s election. He said, “We have to have Putin as our leader. If it weren’t for him the West would have auctioned off our country by now. Listen to what they say about us. They want to destroy us. With someone else in power, they probably would.”

Biden’s plans are, because of his extreme ignorance and strong political ambitions, misguided and counterproductive. Since he knows nothing of Russia, he and those who share his uninformed views have ended up encouraging the very attitudes they would like to undermine. I pointed out in Part 2 of my response to Biden and Carpenter’s article that the sanctions have actually caused the Russian economy to diversify and flourish. Now Congress has had the U.S. Treasury compile a list of over 200 oligarchs (basically individuals worth over 1 billion dollars) and political leaders “close to Putin” evidently to prepare sanctions against them. Apparently it does not occur to these “Russophobes” that they may be driving these individuals to Putin. Many of them have invested heavily in the West. Putin has tried to get them to invest in Russia. Now they may have to. Even Mikhail Prokhorov is on the list. He is the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. He’s probably as pro-American as any Russian I know of. Yet he’s deemed “close to Putin”? So they want to drive his financial assets—well over a billion dollars—back into Russia? Good for Russia; bad for America. The short-sightedness and, well, stupidity of our Russian policies are amazing.

Putin himself is not driven by emotions. All kinds of verbal assaults have been thrown at him by Western leaders as I discussed in an earlier blog. He never responds in kind to what I have termed their juvenile attacks. He maintains the air of a diplomat. He sets the tone for political discussion here. Until there is a return to informed diplomacy in America, I am sure Putin’s political base is secure. This is not because Russians are foolish or gullible or evil. It is because American leaders ignore authentic and informed diplomacy and continue to allow the “deep state” neocons and neo-interventionist liberals to lead us further down a path of destruction.

ADDENDUM: After writing my last blog on Putin and mentioning charges of corruption I came across this article by Sharon Tennison, who has extensive knowledge of Russia and how things get done here. She lived and worked in Russia for many years and has done much to foster good relations between Americans and Russians. The article makes her experience and research clear on the subject. https://consortiumnews.com/2018/02/06/understanding-russia-un-demonizing-putin/

 

 

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VLADIMIR PUTIN: FROM THE KGB TO THE PRESIDENCY

In my last blog I wrote about the early years of Vladimir Putin, addressing particularly his parents’ early life and struggles as well as his own. I ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of his time as a KGB administrator in Dresden, Germany. I mentioned my “target audience” was the Western, mostly American, readers who are unaware of much of Putin other than what they read in the daily news. I was gratified to hear from a number of such readers who told me that they appreciated the entry because they knew almost nothing about Putin’s past. It was also good to hear from readers outside the West who already knew the details but had positive things to say about the review. So in this current blog I’ll pick up where I left off. I’ll summarize the years between his departure from Germany and his rise to the presidency of the Russian Federation. “Russiagate” just will not go away in America, and even this week John McCain found a way to interpret the uproar over the releasing of “the memo” as doing Putin’s “work for him.” The caricature of Putin continues, so I think it important to offer another, and I believe more accurate, portrayal.

When Putin left Germany in 1990 he was offered a position at a strategic office of the KGB in Moscow. He turned it down for a lesser position in Leningrad. Leningrad was his hometown, and his parents, who still lived there, were now aged and their health was declining. His work was at Leningrad State University. While his “official” job was in the special affairs department for the Dean of the university, actually he was monitoring foreign students and their documents and relationships with Russian students for the KGB. While there his name was given to Anatoly Sobchak, who had been a law professor at the university while Putin was there. Sobchak was a democrat who would go on to be mayor of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and become quite an influential politician. He was a very impressive speaker who broadcast lectures on democratizing on Leningrad TV. More than one source says he became the most well known politician in Russia after Yeltsin. Putin had been a pupil of Sobchak’s when he was a student there, but it isn’t clear that Sobchak remembered him.

Sobchak, based on the recommendation and a personal meeting, asked Putin to be an advisor. Putin was hesitant for two related reasons: First, Sobchak had said some pretty nasty things about the KGB. Was he sure he wanted a KGB officer to advise him? Second, what would the KGB think of Putin advising Sobchak? Sobchak assured Putin there was no problem. With KGB approval, Putin became an advisor to the democratic Sobchak while continuing his other work with the KGB.

That situation would soon change, however. The KGB backed a coup attempt on Gorbachev in August of 1991. As soon as Putin learned of it, he resigned his KGB appointment in a rather quiet protest. Fortunately, the coup failed. Sobchak offered Putin a full-time position, and Putin accepted. With all his charisma and insight, Sobchak preferred to leave the administrative work to former government workers.

Some question how it is that Putin could work for someone who had been so vocal in his opposition to Communism and the KGB. As I mentioned in my last blog, Putin was a man of the 70s, a part of a generation consisting of many who never felt a great affection for or devotion to Communism. A former colleague in Dresden has recounted the negative things Putin said about the Communist leaders of that time. After he returned to Russia and saw how bad things had become for the people there, his feelings grew even stronger. He saw the economy no longer worked. Good, hard working people had nothing. The military was a shadow of its former self. The health care system was in horrible shape. He no longer believed in Communism at all.

The significant point that we Westerners often miss is that Putin and many others, e.g., Sobchak himself, distinguished between Communism and the USSR. They wanted to replace Communism with democracy—a “Soviet” democracy. That does not mean they wanted the dissolution of the USSR. The Soviet Union was a UNION of 15 interdependent republics. In the USSR they did not function individually. Some readers may recall that I said Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s “Man in Moscow,” stated in a recent interview that he and others did not want to see the dissolution of the USSR. The republics, they feared, were totally unprepared and would fall into the hands of a few tyrants. The question we cannot answer is what would a democratic Soviet Union have “looked like” or how would it have functioned. We will never know.

One of the interesting questions that some scholars have investigated is how is it that the Soviet Union fell apart so quickly. If there were “true believers” in charge in Moscow, how did the break up come so abruptly? What happened is exactly what Matlock, and others within Russia, feared. Leaders, like Yeltsin and others who had no commitment to the greater good of all, came to power. Corruption became rampant throughout the former republics, which were now nations on their own. The former leaders and others with financial resources exploited the resources as best they could. They didn’t mind dissolving the USSR because they became extremely rich. The truth is that the dissolution of the nation into 15 nations was not by the “guiding hands of an enlightened NATO” as Joe Biden would have us believe. It was a massive power grab. The collapse of the USSR was a horrible catastrophe for millions of people. They descended into an economic and existential nightmare. Twenty-five million Russians were now living outside their own country. Again, the important point is that many like Putin did not want Communism to continue, but they did want the USSR to continue. He commends Gorbachev for recognizing the need for drastic change, but he does not believe Gorbachev had the skills to carry out the change in the right way.

Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation in June of 1991. At first he had a working relationship with Sobchak for whom Putin still worked. Putin, as in his days with the KGB, earned the reputation of a hard worker who was not afraid to take on tasks requiring a great deal of meticulous work. He also had to be decisive in handling very different groups. Many still adhered to the old Communist system and ideology. At one point a number of Communists, who worked in one of the newer government buildings in Leningrad, flew the old Hammer and Sickle flag of the Communist days over their building. Putin sent workers to take the flag down. The next day, a new Hammer and Sickle went up. Putin again ordered his workers to take it down. The same thing happened the next day. Putin ordered his workers to go with a crane and cut down the flag pole. It’s a rather humorous anecdote, but it showed the kinds of things Putin did to show his determination.

Sobchak was a different leader, however, after he had power. The corrupt practice of accumulating personal wealth proved to be too great a temptation. Crime ruled in St. Petersburg. (The official name change to St. Petersburg when Sobchak was elected.) The economy was going horribly across the country, and St. Petersburg was suffering as well. The city council tried to get rid of Sobchak in 1993, but Yeltsin came to his rescue and dissolved the council. Still, investigations began into Sobchak’s financial matters. He was widely seen as dishonest. He was defeated in a run-off in May of 1996, despite the fact Bill Clinton came to town in support of Sobchak. Putin was now out of a job. He hung around his office for a few days, but then was told very sternly it was time to clear out.

Putin was extremely disappointed at the loss. He had been named with Sobchak in some of the corruption charges but nothing was ever proved against him. He was charged publicly for corruption, but countersued for libel and won. Now he had no job, however, and his loyalty to Sobchak left him with no options to continue in government work. He and his wife invited his former secretary and her husband over to their dacha to relax and have a meal. Putin referred to it as a “wake” over his lost work. His assistant’s husband and Putin went out to the banya, a steam room located adjacent to the house (very common in Russia). After the steam bath the two men went for a swim in the nearby pond. Suddenly they saw smoke. Putin ran back toward the house. There had been a spark from or small explosion in the furnace of the banya, and the fire reached the house. Putin rushed in the dark house, which was filled with smoke, and lowered his two young daughters to safety. Then he went upstairs to retrieve a briefcase containing their life savings. Firemen arrived quickly, but they had no water. Putin told them to get the water from the lake. They replied they had no hose. Everything burned to the ground.

After the fire they found the money was unharmed. It was $5,000. Putin’s friend later said he was shocked that Putin had been a bureaucrat for so many years and only had $5,000. People at much lower levels in city government had accumulated far more personal wealth than that. The other surprise was for Putin. The fireman sifted through the rubble, but only found one thing unharmed. When Putin had gone with Sobchak back in 1993 to Jerusalem, his mother had given him a small aluminum cross to have blessed at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Putin marvelled that the little aluminum cross had withstood the heat and flames of the buildings burning to the ground. He took it as a sign of hope and committed to wearing it every day.

Putin’s glimmer of hope was quickly realized in the form of certain people who worked in the Yeltsin administration and knew him (Putin) from his work under Sobchak. Sobchak and Yeltsin were no longer allies, but earlier when Yeltsin was running for re-election Putin had worked with people from his re-election campaign in St. Petersburg. Three days after the dacha fire Yeltsin’s Prime Minster appointed a cabinet which consisted of a former city council member from St. Petersburg. Eventually someone convinced him to reach out to Putin as someone who could work in legal matters. So Putin and his family moved to Moscow, he began work in the Yeltsin administration. His wife came to love living in Moscow, but Putin flew back to Petersburg every Friday to visit his parents as long as they lived.

Putin settled in to the task of dealing with corruption. That was a very messy business, because there was a LOT of corruption, and Putin had to be careful not to “ruffle the wrong feathers.” It was a horrible time for Russia. The Russian stock market collapsed in 1998. Russia could not process oil cheap enough to make any profit from sales. The outlook was bleak.

Putin went through three jobs in the Yeltsin administration in three years. He did not know Yeltsin when he moved to Moscow. As he had everywhere he had worked Putin gained a reputation for doing jobs that were difficult and required long hours. On July 27, 1998 he became the Director of the FSB, which was essentially the Russian Federation version of the KGB. Again, he set about to combat corruption and streamline the system. Then, in another surprise move, on August 9, 1999 Putin was appointed Prime Minister and approved on August 16. He was the fifth Prime Minister appointed by Yeltsin in the last 15 months. He was a political unknown, and almost no one believed he would last any longer than the others. Yeltsin had decided, however, he would resign the Presidency. He told Putin he wanted to appoint him President for the New Year. He would have to run for election within three months. Putin initially told him he did not think he was ready or qualified to be president. Eventually, after more conversations, he agreed to Yeltsin’s plan.

Why did Boris Yeltsin choose to turn over the presidency of the Russian Federation to Vladimir Putin, a man he did not really know that well? Yeltsin’s later reflections indicate two main reasons.

First, Putin’s old boss, Anatoly Sobchak was linked with more corruption charges which had, oddly enough, originated in the middle of Yeltsin’s anti-corruption campaign. Virtually no one came to Sobchak’s defense, and he and Yeltsin no longer got along at all. In October 1997 armed guards showed up and brought him in as a material witness in a big corruption case. He was being questioned in the prosecutor’s office when he complained of chest pains. He was taken to the hospital and his wife reported he had had a heart attack, though some doubted her story. He remained in the hospital for a month. Putin heard of his old boss’s dilemma. He arranged funds, papers, and an airplane to fly Sobchak to Finland to a hospital there. Putin called on old friends in law enforcement to get him to the airport and on the plane. Technically, Sobchak had the proper documents, e.g., passport, etc., to leave the country. He was officially under investigation, however. It was not clear if Putin had broken the law or not. What impressed Yeltsin was that Putin was willing to risk his career to help his old boss. That was a degree of loyalty he rarely—if ever—had seen. He admitted to being deeply impressed.

Second, Yeltsin had originally thought Putin was distant or rather cool in his manner. He was impressed with Putin’s work, but Putin always relayed the pertinent information and nothing more. Over time, Yeltsin began to see what others had seen. Putin was not a careerist. He did not try to endear himself to the boss. He would stand or fall on the merits of his work. Putin did not play political games. He was forthright and spoke what he saw as the truth. Putin was what Allen Lynch called a “first rate second rate man.” He saw his job as helping his superiors look good. When he was given orders either by Sobchak or Yeltsin, he carried out his orders without drawing attention to himself. When I was in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 70s we had a saying: “Ours is not to reason why, but simply to do or die.” I get the impression Putin carried much the same motto.

Did his loyalty ever bleed over into joining in the corruption? Some said yes, but even the chair of one committee who investigated Putin said she thought Putin must have been corrupt, but she could find no proof of it. Obviously the ethical waters were very murky. Corruption abounded in the 90s in Russia. I doubt it was possible to be completely separate from it. I’ve worked in relatively pure waters and still found complete honesty was often a very “fuzzy” thing. One man who became a later opponent of Putin was Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky had worked with Sobchak, but went on to head Aeroflot and other businesses. Berezovsky said one time he wanted to start a new car dealership quickly and without questions in St. Petersburg. He did what he always did: offered a bribe to the official in charge. Putin was the man. Berezovsky said, “He was the first bureaucrat not to take bribes…Seriously, it made a huge impression on me.”

Both Yeltsin and Putin kept their “deal” about Putin becoming President a secret until the last day of the year. Yeltsin taped his New Years Eve midnight speech privately and no one saw it other than those who taped it until it was shown on TV. Even Putin’s wife did not know about it. When someone called to congratulate her, she thought it was just a New Years day greeting. So as January 1, 2000 dawned on Russia, the country had for a new president a man who had never run for office.

putin and elcin

VLADIMIR PUTIN: THE EARLY YEARS

In my last two posts I responded to an article in Foreign Affairs (hereafter, FA) by Joseph Biden, Jr. and Michael Carpenter on why and how we should stand up to the Kremlin. I will continue my response this week, but it will be a different kind of response. It is a difficult article to rebut, but not for the usual reasons. The usual reasons have to do with debating someone who has command of the facts, presents the hard evience and his or her interpretation of that evidence cogently, and gives further support with appeals to others whose knowledge of the area has been demonstrated. None of those things apply to the article in FA. I try to read as much as I can on both sides of the disagreements over Russia. Obviously some are more convincing and present more insights than others. This article, however, is without question the worst I’ve ever read on the issues concerning Russian/American relationships. To respond to the errors, inaccuracies, distortions and fabrications would mean responding to most every paragraph. Thus, while I still intend to address later specific claims made about the so-called invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and the alleged murders of Putin’s enemies, I decided to go about things in a different way for now.

One of the main—if not the main – underlying accepted dogmas of the anti-Russia brigade is the demonization of Vladimir Putin. Even among my acquaintances and friends who grant that I may have some valid points when I indicate positive things about Russia, they usually feel compelled to voice their disapproval of Putin. When I ask why they think this way of him I almost always get vague responses about him murdering opponents, attacking other countries, longing for a return to Communism, and a few other assorted but unsupported “facts.” I then press for details in order to discuss. The responses are usually sighs or eye-rolls of amazement that I could even hint that Putin is not guilty of a litany of international sins. It’s an accepted part of their confession of faith. It’s in their creed. One doesn’t need to know details to know what a dangerous person he is to freedom and democracy. The unstated conclusion is you cannot be a patriotic American (or a responsible scholar) and say good things about Putin.

I find Putin very interesting. My American friends usually interpret that to mean I like Putin. I don’t know enough to make such a statement. I like his foreign policy, and I believe it is quite misunderstood by most in the West. I study it as closely as possible. But, as an American, there are other details of his leadership and domestic policies with which I am not familiar. Putin’s opponent in the upcoming election from the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, indicated Putin doesn’t care about the common people in Russia, and many of his advisers would be in prison in any other country. I don’t know enough about his cronies to know if they are “dirty” or not. I know there are still poor people struggling in Russia, but I am not familiar enough with domestic policy to know if that is Putin’s fault.

American accusations against Putin are often either vague allusions to motives or name calling. They allude to his KGB past and the associated stereotypes. They allude to secret bank accounts or plans to restore Communism to Eastern Europe. In other words, Putin longs for the good old days of mystery and intrigue like in his KGB days. On the CBS news program Face the Nation in December of 2016 John McCain said, “Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent.” In April of that year Hillary Clinton referred to him as Hitler, although clarifying the next day that his going into Crimea and maybe Eastern Ukraine was the same thing as the Nazis did in the late 1930s. You sense that Putin is like the leopard who will not and cannot change his spots. When I suggest something otherwise, I have been told I don’t understand Putin or Russia by people who have never been here and by others who have not been here since he became president in 2000. So what can we know of the real Vladimir Putin?

I decided to start with a survey of his early life and examine what events or persons shaped Vladimir Putin. Although it is too early for a biography of Putin, many books have been written that have a lot of biographical information about him. Unfortunately many in the West still remain fairly uninformed of many of the significant issues of Putin’s early years. Perhaps a small blog like mine will be read by those who have not read the more substantial works available. In addition to what I have learned from the books on my shelf, I hear other tidbits from folks I am around here in Russia. The news, of course, but also the perspectives from my doctor who chats politics for 40 minutes each week as he works on the bad disc in my neck; and, not least, the reports I get from my Russian father-in-law who is a certifiable “newsaholic.”

Everyone who writes has a “target” audience in mind. My target audience is the Westerner who has heard many bad things—and maybe a few good ones—about Vladimir Putin, but is still open to learning more. If so, maybe the next couple of blogs will be helpful. If not, I again recall the words of G.K. Chesterton, whom I quoted in my last blog. Chesterton once wrote at the beginning of one of his literary arguments, “After this, I began to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me.” I’ll wait and see if my sketch of Putin’s life interests anyone but me.

Vladimir Putin’s father’s name was Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, and his mother’s birth name was Maria Ivanovna Shelomova. Like most men in the Soviet Union of his age, Putin’s father served in the Soviet military fighting the Nazis. The most significant event of his service came in November of 1941. The Nazis had invaded Russia in June of that year in what was called “Operation Barbarossa.” They beseiged Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg) September 8, 1941. The siege would last until January 27, 1944. In November of 1941 Putin was sent with a comrade with orders that looked a lot like a suicide mission. They were to capture any German soldier they met so the Soviets could interrogate him. They did find a German soldier, but they were caught off guard when they happened upon him. He was able to throw a grenade which killed Putin’s comrade and left Putin with severe leg and hip injuries. He lay there for hours believing he would die, but his company found him and returned him to the regiment. A former neighbor happened to see him and literally carried him on his shoulders across the frozen Neva river to a hospital where he began a long process of recuperation. He was left with a severe and at times painful limp for the rest of his life.

Maria Putin had fled to Leningrad when the word of the Nazi invasion came. The long siege was horrible, and many died of starvation and disease. At one point Maria herself was placed outside in the street among those believed to be dead. While in the morgue (which was in the open air) she moaned, and that saved her life. Vladimir and Maria had had one son, Oleg, who had died in infancy. Their second son, Victor, died from diphtheria he got during the seige. Children were kept separately during the seige for their protection, but this meant that no family was present when he died. In June of 1942 he was buried in a mass grave. His parents never knew when or where he was buried. It was only in recent years when someone traced the records through Putin’s father’s name, that the site was discovered, and President Putin was able to visit it. The war took quite a toll on the older Vladimir and his wife. Maria’s mother died on the front lines, and her brother “disappeared” after being convicted of dereliction of duty. Vladimir Spiridonovich had two brothers killed by the Germans.

After the war the couple remained in Leningrad. They lived in a small communal apartment where their third son—and future president—was born. When I was a boy our teachers inspired us with the story of Abraham Lincoln, who was born in log cabin, but eventually went on to be president of the United States. I’ve been in a log cabin much like the one in which it is believed Lincoln was born. I’ve been in communal apartments in St. Petersburg. I would, without hesitation, much prefer the log cabin. The Putins had one room of their own (180 sq ft). They shared a kitchen and bathroom with an elderly couple and also a Jewish couple and their daughter. The bathroom was actually a closet turned into a bathroom. There was no hot water and no bath tub. Young Vladimir formed close relationships with both families apparently. He called the older lady “Baba” (endearing term for “grandmother”) and later in life spoke out strongly against anyone who voiced anti-Jewish feelings in his presence.

Putin’s parents had a strong marriage, which is remarkable considering their significant philosophical differences. Putin’s father was active in the Communist Party, and he became the Party spokesman for the local factory where he worked as an engineer. He was not a high ranking officer obviously, but it did show his dedication to Party affairs. Putin’s mother worked a number of menial jobs. She worked mostly at night so she could spend more time at home with her son during the day. She was a devout Orthodox Christian. When little Vladimir was seven weeks old, she and the older lady in their apartment sneaked off to Transfiguration Cathedral in Leningrad and had him baptized. She was careful never to embarrass her husband or to do anything that would hurt his reputation with the Party. At the same time she remained very strong in her faith during a time when being a devout Christian was certainly not acceptable.

As a young boy Putin was not a good student. He neither applied himself academically, nor exhibited good conduct. His teacher visited the parents more than once concerning his behavior and his lack of academic motivation. She recalls that at one point his father said in sarcastic exasperation, “What should I do? Kill him?” She says that in the home they did not display affection or coddle him, but at the same time it was clear they were quite protective of their only living child. When he became old enough he was not asked to join the Pioneers. Pioneers was a very important organization for children during the Soviet period. Sort of like the Scouts when I was growing up, although a child had to be asked to join. First, one had to have good study habits and do well in school. My wife, who was in the Pioneers, has told me also of the good deeds they would do for the elderly. They would also help clean up the city or do other duties that would teach them to be good students and good citizens. Putin’s behavior and lack of academic discipline meant he was not invited. Putin harbors no hard feelings about not being asked to join: “I was a hooligan, not a Pioneer.”

The change in young Vladimir’s life came neither through the ideals of his father’s Communism nor the Christianity of his mother. Against his mother’s wishes, when he was in the fifth grade he joined the Trud Club. (Trud is a Russian word meaning labor or something difficult.) He took Judo and eventually the Russian martial arts/self-defense sport called Sambo. (The full description was “Самооборона без оружия, ” i. e., “self-defense without a weapon”.) He went on to compete in various places in the Soviet Union and was quite successful in the judo competitions. The discipline he learned in martial arts gave him inspiration and devotion in other areas. Martial arts literally changed his life. In addition to exercise, he also became more devoted to his studies and improving his behavior. After observing the changes in him, the authorities invited him to join the Pioneers, and he eventually became one of the official leaders of that group.

The other inspiration in his life were the “spy”movies of the era. Some believe that the movie, “Щит и Меч” (“Shield and Sword”) had a particularly strong influence on him when he was 16 years old. The film, which lasted over five hours, was based on a very well-known book that had been out for about three years. The main character was a Soviet spy, Major Belov, living in Germany. The plot focused on his various exploits and adventures as a secret agent who was very clever and also fluent in German. As a teenager Putin found it fascinating and inspiring. He decided that one day he would become a spy. He even started studying German at school. He went to the KGB building in Leningrad and asked how he could become a spy. One agent told him he needed to get an education and, if possible, study law. Putin eventually went on to study Law at Leningrad State University.

After receiving his degree in law, Putin was assigned to the Leningrad office of the KGB. His own comments indicate he thought it was a coincidence he got the appointment he wanted. Others think maybe the KGB had been following his progress without him knowing it. Either way, in 1975 he joined the KGB and received his training. He did not become a field agent, however. He was placed in administration, starting out as a junior bureaucrat at the central office in Leningrad. After some time he was put in the counterintelligence area. The function of this section was to keep an eye on Russian KGB agents and make sure they did not “cross over.” Putin still lived with his parents. They were able to get a better (non-communal) apartment. Finally, when he was 25 years old and a member of the KGB, Vladimir Putin got a room of his own for the first time in his parents apartment.

In March 1980 he met Lyudmila Shkrebneva, a flight attendant with Aeroflot. They were married in 1983 and moved into a two room apartment. He had not told her that he was in the KGB. They had two daughters together. They were married for 30 years before announcing their divorce. Of course, rumors spread he had had an affair, the main one focusing on an Olympic gymnast. Nothing substantial was ever forthcoming, however, and it remains speculation for those who enjoy such things. What we do know is that Lyudmila could have only friends that were approved. Her husband had to do background checks on potential friends, and he chose her friends for her. While she confided in a couple of them about how much pressure she felt, she could not open up with the whole truth of his KGB status. Further, her friends knew what long hours her husband worked. He usually got home very late and left very early. She endured this schedule for years.

He was promoted to Major and transferred to Dresden, Germany in August 1985. Just like the character Major Belov in the movie, Putin was sent to Germany as a KGB agent. It was not like the movies, however. He was a case officer who never went undercover. Berlin was the real center for KGB work there. The Dresden office was a small office with 6-8 officers. Again, the bulk of the work was administrative and sometimes he had to do work which would normally have been below his rank, like arranging hotel rooms and travel for visiting dignitaries. One colleague joked that the most dangerous weapon used in the Dresden office was the hole puncher used for the reams of useless reports they sent to Moscow. Putin would work in that office for the next four and a half years.

His evaluations by superiors both in Leningrad and in Germany were similar. He was known as a hard and determined worker. He was commended for staying with a task until the job was completed no matter how meticulous the details. Throughout his KGB career his superiors wrote in his records about the admirable fact that Putin was not a “careerist” (almost a slur in Russian) who wanted to outshine his superiors. He accepted his role and did his job without trying to get notoriety. On the negative side, in earlier evaluations, while he was in the Leningrad office, he was evaluated as being “non-communicative” and even withdrawn at times. He was more sociable in Germany, but was never one for small talk or office banter.

It was, of course, during his time there that the USSR was going into a steep decline. Brezhnev had died in 1982. Even before that his last years were marked by his inability to communicate even the simplest points. Many could hear someone whispering the lines he was supposed to say from the side when meeting with reporters. He was surrounded by many from his generation who were still in power. They lacked, however, the zeal they had once had. Gone were the fiery days of Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe or promising the great expansionist days ahead for Communism and the Soviet Union. After Brezhnev died, Yuri Andropov’s ascension to power raised the hopes of some, but he died suddenly fifteen months later. Konstantine Chernenko replaced Andropov, but he died 13 months later. I recall hearing Ronald Reagan’s response to a reporter’s question about why he didn’t meet with the Soviet leaders: “They keep dying on me.”

Putin and his colleagues realized that the end was coming for the USSR, although it does not appear that they thought it would come as quickly as it did. There were things all along that led Putin to express admiration for men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, who were dissidents. He also thought the USSR should hold elections for for their leaders. According to a colleague in Germany Putin called the Soviet’s participation in the war in Afghanistan “senseless and in fact criminal.” One Russian commentator I read some time ago, whose name I cannot recall, referred to Putin as a семидесятник (“semidesyatnik”). The term means, “person of the 70s,” that is, the generation that came of age in the 1970s. While of course there were exceptions, individuals of that generation were known for reaching young adulthood at the time the USSR was turning into an ineffective regime run by tired, old men. Hence, they were very patriotic in so far as their relationship to their country, but they had no strong ideological commitment to Communism or the Party. Chernobyl, the war in Afghanistan, and the declining standard of living combined to make them distrust, at least to some degree, the value of the Communist system.

At the end of his career in Germany, Putin is known for one final act of valor. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. The dividing line between the two “Berlins” was no more. Rioting and rabble rousing continued after the wall came down. On December 5 a large crowd of “rebels,” many of whom were armed, flooded the area of the East German secret intelligence compound, and it appeared they were doing a lot of damage. Some were screaming they were torturing people. The KGB office and yard was located in the same compound. Around midnight a fraction of the large crowd broke off and headed toward the KGB office. Putin’s superiors had already left for the evening, and he was in charge. He had been monitoring the situation all evening and expected the rioters would come. He had phoned Moscow several times for counsel or orders. After all attempts failed, he realized Moscow was not going to respond. He was on his own. He later admitted to his own shock that no one in his home country would advise him or even talk to him. He said, “At that moment I had the feeling that the country was no more.” He must have sensed more strongly than ever that it was the twilight not only of the USSR, the country in which he had been raised, it was also the end of the Communism he had been taught from a child, and eventually it was the twilight of his own KGB career as well.

 

 

There are several varying accounts of what happened next. Some more fantastic than others. I will stick with the basics, although I am sure if one had been there that night it would not have looked like a calm event on anyone’s recollection. Putin stopped the telephone calls to Moscow and put on his uniform. Some say he carried a side arm, but others say he left his weapon in the office. As the crowd approached Putin calmly walked out and confronted them alone. He addressed their leader in a normal tone. The German would say later he was taken aback at first because he had never heard a Russian speak such fluent German. Putin informed them the building was guarded. His men were armed, and he had already given them the orders that if anyone entered the yard they were to open fire. There was probably more said than that. Putin indicated that whatever they did to him, his men had already received their orders. He clearly gave the impression that “his men” had more firepower than they actually had. At that point he calmly turned and walked back toward the building—not knowing if they would let him live to complete that walk or not. The crowd had gathered to harrass and harm the German security. They decided they did not want to risk their lives taking on the Russians. For all his KGB career Putin had been an administrator who worked on case files, wrote, reviewed and sent reports. At that moment, on that night, however, I think he would have made Major Belov quite proud.

A RESPONSE TO JOSEPH BIDEN, JR. AND MICHAEL CARPENTER IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS, PART 2

I discussed the background of Russian-American election interference in part 1 of this section of my blog. Apparently wanting to appeal to the casual reader, the authors give the distinct impression that NATO, the EU, and, of course, the United States (although not specifically mentioned) wanted to help along our Eastern European neighbors after they had “seen the light” and wanted democracy. The enlightened guidance of the West would lead them to prosperous times ahead. I tried to show that their “history” is far from how things really were. Now I would like to address some other inaccuracies (that is a euphemism) in the article describing the present state of things in Russia. I will focus now primarily on the economy and demographics. I will address the issues of Georgia, Ukraine, and the mistreatment (or murder) of opponents to the current Kremlin leadership in another blog.

In contrast to the Soviet Union, however, contemporary Russia offers no clear ideological alternative to Western democracy. Russian leaders invoke nationalist, populist, and statist slogans or themes, but the Kremlin propaganda machine shies away from directly challenging the core precepts of Western democracy: competitive elections, accountability for those in power, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the  rule of law. Instead, the Kremlin carefully cultivates a democratic facade, paying lip service to those principles even as it subverts them.  Thus, it grants nominal opposition parties representation in the Russian parliament but thoroughly co-opts and controls them. It allows independent media to operate (although not in broadcast television), but journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes beaten or killed if they report on taboo subjects. It permits civil society groups to exist but brands them as “foreign agents” and crushes them if they demonstrate political independence. It oversees a vast repressive apparatus—recently augmented by the creation of a new National Guard force of around 350,000 members—to deter and respond to dissent. In short, Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content. 

The simple response is that for the authors to offer such a negative assesment of democracy in Russia they ought at least to provide some evidence. Of course, the presupposition is that the only ideal democracy is Western democracy, specifically American democracy. That is, if Russia does not set up its democracy just like America does, then it is not a true democracy. They assume that we should, without actual evidence, accept their simple assertions that Russia is corrupt and, behind the facade, violent and threatening. Surely no such corruption exist in American politics! Let me offer an alternative view based on what I have actually seen and heard here.

I live in Russia. I have spent almost five years of my life here. Last year, even though I could not vote, I went in the local polling station just to see what it was like. It was pretty much like what I would see in Greer, S.C. People having their documents and registration checked, finding the right (private) booths, voting in private, etc. There was no one there harrassing anyone and no one even carrying signs. I came with my in-laws; they voted, and we left. In the weeks prior to that I had watched various candidates appear on TV; I saw the billboards on the streets and the commercials on T.V. with each candidate vying for votes. I don’t know what Biden and Carpenter mean by their accusation that competitive elections here are being subverted since they content themselves with launching a general broadside. It is hard to discuss their evidence when they don’t present any. The impression, at least as I understand them, is that Putin silences all opposition. Western observers have been here many times for Russian elections. Polls are done repeatedly by such reputable organizations as Levada and Gallup. Election results, of course, always vary somewhat from polls, but nothing here as dramatic as the Trump victory—even as Rachel Maddow proclaimed all day on election day there was no way Trump could win. United Russia did a bit better than what most had predicted, but nothing like the drama that went on in the U.S.

Almost two years ago Putin nominated Ella Pamfilova as head of the Russian Electoral Commission. She has a long record of arguing for human rights and is a vocal critic of any abuses. The fact Putin supported her was widely seen as him choosing someone who people here know is not “in Putin’s pocket.” She was quite outspoken about whatever changes and improvements needed to be made. Also, let me give other differences from the American system, of which Biden and Carpenter seem unaware or at least choose not to mention.

First, the opposing candidates for president are not just seen around election time. A popular form of news cast here is to have several people of different perspectives discuss the news of the day, rather than one talking head reading from a teleprompter or interviewing one or two people at a time. Frequently I see Zhironovsky, the Liberal Democrat on these programs. Also, I’ve seen Zyuganov, the consistent Communist opponent as well. There are other Russian analysts with various areas of expertise. Then there are foreigners, like the American Michael Bohm, who usually gives the pro-American position on issues. His view is sometimes called the “CIA’s perspective.” Some say Russians “love to hate him,” but I have Russian friends who say they respect him. They told me that they would never hold it against an American for being pro-American. Also, Gilbert Doctorow sometimes appears to give a different “American” perspective than Bohm. In other words, you see Putin’s opponents on TV on a regular basis. Here you hear more in-depth analysis of events from different perspectives. It isn’t like Putin’s opponents show up on a billboard just when there is an election and are then quietly escorted away. The persistent idea that Putin is never criticized here is completely false. It rarely gets shrill, and I have not seen it devolve into personal attacks. Criticism here usually stays on the issues. Apparently some American observers think if there is no name calling, then it really isn’t criticism.

The other “candidates” appear in other venues than the news. This New Years night we were watching the holiday entertainment on Russian TV, and Zhironovsky came out and chatted for a bit. He was funny (rather than a bit wild as he can be), and ended by humorously telling people to vote for him, and he would make sure all their wishes came true in the new year.

Contrast that with the past presidential election in America. Debates turned into ad hominem attacks which often had little to do with the issues. In addition to attacking the personal life of the opponent, both candidates also attacked different media outlets for being unfair. I think it was in the last debate that Donald Trump even suggested that he did not trust the process and would have doubts about the election results. He was roundly condemned in the press and by his opponent for that remark. Yet, after he won, it was his opponent who has still to this day condemned the election because Trump allegedly colluded with the Russians. Her “fans” continue to insist the results were not valid, as does Joe Biden. And now we have been treated to a line of Washington politicians and well known celebrity figures we have learned have been living lives of consistent sexual harassment, abuse and even rape. And Biden and Carpenter condemn Russian democracy for not being like enlightened American democracy? Who in his or her right mind would want to emulate American politics? They say that Russia doesn’t have free and fair elections. That is what many Americans–both Democrats and Republicans–are saying about American elections! 

The Russian economy is utterly  dependent on hydrocarbon exports  [11], so its health is tied to the price of oil and gas; as those prices have plummeted in recent years, the state-owned gas giant Gazprom market capitalization has shrunk, from about $368 billion in 2008 to around $52 billion today.

Since Russia has some of the largest reserves of gas and oil in the world, then obviously its economy is affected by the price of energy. In the past it was true that it was almost solely dependent on those prices. Since the sanctions, however, the Russian economy has diversified. Much of that credit has to go to Putin’s leadership, although I personally think it has been the results of quite a team of sharp planners. The sanctions had the reverse impact from what the West planned. Russia had always been able to import agricultural products easily so the motivation for development was simply not there. Further, the collective farms of the Communist days never worked. I think the same could be said about a number of other kinds of products. The situation has changed, however, and Biden and Carpenter are being either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Due to government incentives last year Russia had the largest grain production in one hundred years. It exported more grain and wheat than any country in the world. (See this article in Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/422a8252-2443-11e7-8691-d5f7e0cd0a16). Financial Times is not some off beat publication. Are Biden, Carpenter and the “Team” at Foreign Affairs ignorant of what has been reported in numerous financial journals? Russian exports of “sugar beet sugar” also surpassed perennial leader France in exports as well. Agricultural production of dairy and meat, as well as fish, were all up. The sale of military weaponry was up this year for Russia. The sale of agricultural products, however, exceeded the sales of arms.

That doesn’t mean energy supply isn’t still in the economic mix in Russia, of course. They have just completed the Yamal project which will supply gas to China and other countries. The agreement with China is for $300 billion in energy over the next 20 years. Further, they will not be using the traditional petrodollar. They will trade in Yuan/ruble. Russia, not Saudi Arabia, is now China’s largest supplier of energy.

Imports, on the other hand, are down. Many see these as evidence of decline in Russia. They believe the sanctions are having the desired effect. It is not how many see things here, however. Putin wants Russia to be self-sufficient by 2020. He wants imports low. The last I checked, Russia is sixth from the bottom in the list of national imports. At 7.2% of the GDP it is the lowest of all major countries. There has been a “Buy Russian” campaign that has worked well. When I first came here in 2002, and even when I was here in 2005-2008, Russians tended to see the West as the producers of the best in products like clothes and personal commodities. That attitude is changing dramatically. The government convinced producers to focus on quality, and Russia does not need the West like it once did.

In trade BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) is making progress and trade between the countries appears to be very solid. Everyone knows China is a very big player in the global economy, and it is clear that China and Russia are much closer diplomatically and in terms of trade than they were in the old days of the USSR. Clearly Russia is much closer than the U.S. to China in terms of diplomacy and trade.

The Russian people were drawn together by the sanctions in a way the West did not anticipate. The plan was to divide Russia and make them unhappy with what they have. As Barack Obama said in 2014, “Russia doesn’t make anything.” John McCain said Russia was “a gas station masquerading as a country.” (See Forbes magazine response and rebuttal https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2017/07/06/sorry-senator-mccain-russia-no-longer-just-a-gas-station-masquerading-as-a-country/#b87fc5022f09) Clearly they were wrong. The economy (GDP) will probably grow around 2% for 2017. Russia has half the population of the United States, but it is the sixth largest economy in the world now in terms of exports. Its GDP will exceed four trillion for the first time ever.

While Russia’s economy may still look small to some in the U.S., it is clearly moving up and the statement it is “utterly dependent on hydrocarbons” is not accurate. Things are not perfect, to be sure. I think wages are still too low, just from my anecdotal knowledge. Also the purchasing power of the ruble is still extremely low. Inflation jumped when the sanctions were first imposed, but probably when the final figures are in, inflation for 2017 will be less than half of what it was in 2013-2014. Things are cheaper overall than in America, I can tell you that from living in both countries. As far as availability, I can buy pretty much any product I need at a reasonable price in the small city where we live. That was not true ten years ago.

Meanwhile, long-term demographic decline is sapping Russian society; the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration has projected a 20 percent decrease in the population by 2050. According to the CIA  World Factbook, life expectancy in Russia ranks 153rd in the world, far below the world’s developed democracies and lower even than developing countries such as Nicaragua and Uzbekistan.

Russia has struggled with low life-expectancy since the collapse of the 90s. Life expectancy fell off tremendously during that decade. The “de-modernization,” poverty, hopelessness, and terribly underfunded healthcare system led to the devastation of the health of many Russians. Of course, that was the decade America was making sure the man responsible for those conditions stayed in office. In other words, we did our best to manipulate Russian politics so a loser would stay in office, and now Biden and Carpenter seem proud of the consequences of our actions.

Further, the birth rate was low throughout the Communist period. Lenin wanted women working in factories, not home raising children. Biden, Carpenter and many others also fail to recognize the dramatic impact WW2 had on the Russian population. Over nineteen MILLION Russians died in that war. By comparison, the United States lost just under 500,000. I have stated before my purpose is not to demean the loss of those brave Americans. But when one is writing an article on the demographics of Russia a number of over 19 million lives lost in just one war should be at least mentioned.

I don’t know what year the ranking of Russia at 153 in life expectancy that they are using came from, but Russis has moved up to 110 now. The government is very conscious this is still a problem, however. Life expectancy is increasing here, as is the birth rate. Russia led all European countries in terms of birth rate last year at 1.8 million. The goal is 2 million. The birth rate has increased by 100,000 births annually in recent years. The government provides maternal capital to the families with a second child, which is very generous. We are taking advantage of that! I was surprised, however, to see polls that indicate that only 6% of parents list the maternal capital as a reason they wanted to have more than one child. They simply like the trend of life in Russia and believe it is a good place to raise children. Russians in general have a very high view of the traditional family. To maintain the population at the current level there needs to be 2 births per woman. Right now it is at 1.8. So there are demographic problems in Russia, but Biden and Carpenter take a “snapshot” (and an outdated one at that) and draw conclusions without looking at the trends over recent years.

I have to admit I hated all these statistics. I’m of the “figures don’t lie, but liars figure” mentality. There are enough statistics involved in studying Russia that anyone can twist them and make whatever point they would like. What bothers me most about the article by Biden and Carpenter is the heartless hubris of it. It paints Russia as evil, and nothing in the article seems to stem from a concern for its people, and, from my perspective as one who lives here, no concern for an accurate description of life here. If all I knew about Russia came from this article (and others like it) I would come away with a completely distorted picture of life here. I realize my tone has been quite strident and angry. I have grown tired of writers and pundits who do not live here telling me what life is like here. I will go further and say that if all I knew of Russia was what I got when I came here early in the first decade of this century (2002, 2003) then I would know little of what Russia is like now. Russia has changed a lot–for the better. Of course, it has more work to be done, but the trend is in the right direction.

I remember a Russian friend visiting me in America back in 2003. We were walking across the campus of the university where I taught and passed the flag pole. He commented on how many flags he saw flying in America—from storefronts to front yards. I told him that since 09/11 there had been a surge in patriotism in our country. He sadly lamented, “I wish so much this were true of my country. No one waves the Russian flag there. We don’t even know the words to our new national anthem.” Things are different now. I see a lot of Russian flags flying here now. They sing of their country with gusto. In America millionaire football players refuse even to stand for the national anthem. I spoke on the phone with an old friend in America this week. He is a financial advisor and had called to chat about my retirement funds. We got to talking about politics. I do not know who he voted for and did not ask. After we chatted a bit he simply sighed and said, “Hal, it has gotten so mean here. People no longer respect each other.”

My favorite author is G.K. Chesterton. This week, after the conversation I just mentioned, I was re-reading “Heretics” for the third time (I think). Chesterton referred to “Jingo” politics in the United Kingdom at that time. “Jingo politics” was an anti-Russian attitude from a line in a song from the supporters of the British belligerent policy toward Russia in their 1878 dispute. The line was, “We don’t want a fight, but by Jingo! if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and the money too!” Chesterton observed, “It is one of the deadly fallacies of Jingo politics that a nation is stronger for despising other nations.” He went on to advise his reader to follow the example of those nations who “sit at the feet of the foreigner and learn everything from him.” As I read the news from America I am deeply saddened and worried at the popularity of our own modern version of “Jingo politics.” I can only hope and pray that others will find what I have found. I have learned much from sitting at the feet of the foreigner.

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A RESPONSE TO JOSEPH BIDEN, JR. AND MICHAEL CARPENTER’S ARTICLE IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MAGAZINE, PART I

The first week in December I received an e-mail from Foreign Affairs magazine with a featured article attached, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” by Joseph Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter. “The Team” at Foreign Affairs [FA] told me to enjoy it and please share it. I began reading it, but pretty soon it looked a lot like a typical anti-Russian propaganda piece, and I lost interest. Then when I checked my Facebook page I was greeted with a post from a FB friend on my “wall” with this same article attached asking me to please write a blog in response. Since the “friend” was my wife, I decided to at least post back a brief response to a few of the “misleading” points in the article and gave a vague promise to perhaps respond at some point with a blog. A couple of other “friends” joined in with comments assuring me I needed to give a full response. I don’t really enjoy writing political blogs as much as I do the personal ones. For one thing it takes more work to dig up specific references. I often make notes on small cards to myself while reading such things, but I’m not very disciplined about where I keep these. So my “research” is actually searching every nook for where I put my notes. Second, as I have indicated before, my time in the academic world was not in contemporary politics or Russian history. It is my avocation, but my vocation as an academic was in another field. Then I received another e-mail from FA the next week, however, proclaiming how proud they were of this “breakout” piece. Furthermore, if I wanted to read more by their “brilliant writers” I could subscribe now at a reduced rate. I decided to respond to this breakout piece. (To read the article go to https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin?cid=nlc-emc-fa_paywall_free_joebiden_jf2017-20171206)

First, the article sets forth the transition from the Communism of the USSR in a very positive—even glowing—manner. I will give the full quote here:

After the Cold War, Western democracy became the model of choice for postcommunist countries in central and eastern Europe. Guided by the enlightened hands of  NATO  [5]  and the EU, many of those countries boldly embarked on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Remarkably, most succeeded. Post-Soviet Russia also had an opportunity to reinvent itself. Many in Europe and the United States hoped that by integrating Russia into international organizations (such as the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), they could help Russia become a responsible member of the rules-based international order and develop a domestic constituency for democratic reforms. Many Russians also dreamed of creating a democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia. But that dream is now more distant than at any time since the Cold War ended.

I understand wanting to be positive about the end of the Cold War, but I think if you look at the situation in many of these former Republics you discover the transition was not as rosy as the authors indicate. I will forego examining what this transition looked like “guided by the enlightened hands” of NATO and the EU in the other Republics, however, and focus on Russia.

When Biden and Carpenter claim the “dream” of an enlightened, stable, and prosperous democracy is more distant now than ever in Russia, the authors demonstrate that they are struck with the same willful historical amnesia that many other Neocons and Liberal Interventionists have concerning the first decade after the dissolution of the USSR. The first decade of democracy in Russia was not “enlightened, stable, or prosperous.” Post Soviet Russia’s economy collapsed when democracy was implemented. The economy, according to some, fell by 80%. Readers of my blog know that I read and follow Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton University and New York University. Cohen lived in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia for many years and was there during this time. He described it as, “The first nation ever to undergo actual de-modernization in peacetime.” Seventy-five percent of the population lived below the poverty line. There have been plenty of analyses done by economists who validate the points Cohen makes in his book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, although economists differ over the exact percentages . (See also, Failed Crusade by the same author.)

My sources are not just economists, however. I have often listened to my wife and Russian family and friends describe to me what life was like then. For them, as bad as the poverty was, it wasn’t the main battle. They simply could not get enough food or clothes. My wife tells of how they had a stash of money in a linen drawer. They would keep an eye out for a supply truck carrying any kind of goods—food, clothing, household wares—to any store in town. When such a truck appeared—day or night—a line quickly formed of people in desperate need of products and food. They were able to scrape up money, but even then there was just nothing on the shelves. For Biden and other wealthy westerners, this is simply a decade we need not mention or remember. For Russians, it can’t be forgotten.

Scholars and analysts—both from Russia and other countries—trace the blame for this economic horror to the first “democratically” elected president, Boris Yeltsin. (From the United States, for example, see the Congressional Research Service 98-725.) Yeltsin was a chronic alcoholic and also had other severe health problems, especially his heart condition. Thus, he was often absent from public view for extended periods of time.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton and the government of the United States really liked Yeltsin. Yeltsin did their bidding, and the Russian Federation was in a subservient position to the United States of America. The fortunes of the overwhelming majority of the Russian people did not matter to them. As one wag put it, Clinton believed a drunk Yeltsin was better for us than a sober anyone else. He did the bidding of the American government. For all Yeltsin’s past bravado in Russia, he “came to heel” for the Americans.

When it was time for Yeltsin to run for re-election in the summer of 1996, however, the Clinton Administration realized there was a severe problem. Polls across the board showed his approval ratings in the single digits. The best they saw was around 6%. This was not the time for the guiding hands of “enlightened” NATO or the EU. This was time for the heavy hand of American politics to take over. A well-known article in Time magazine (July 15, 1996) entitled, “Rescuing Boris,” describes how President Clinton sent a team of “advisors” to Russia to make sure Boris was re-elected. They were paid $250,000 plus expenses. They were provided a driver, bodyguards and an interpreter on call at all times. While they misrepresented themselves to the Russians in the street, posing as Americans selling American TV antennas, their identity was pretty clearly known to insiders. Cohen has said that he was there during that time and he and most everyone knew that they were there and why they were there. They stayed in the President Hotel in Moscow, which is far above what anyone could expect in Russia at the time. It was equipped with all the security and gadgetry needed. According to them, they had to teach the Russian advisors how to use public opinion research to craft speeches and other presentations. Find out what people “in the street” want and then write Yeltsin’s speeches to promise to address their problems and provide for their wants.

There was also another side to the plan. They had to teach the Russians the art of political misdirection, deceit and confusion. The primary advisor they directed was Tatiana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter who was in her mid-thirties at the time. It took quite a while for them to teach her and others the “dirty tricks” of politics. Tatiana seemed somewhat taken aback that this is how democracy is supposed to work. Eventually she and the others caught on. In addition to getting Yeltsin to craft his speeches to say what the people wanted to hear, they published false dates for opposition rallies and conferences, falsified documents supposedly from the Communist opponent Zyuganov, and most people here believe on election day they used bribery, false documentation of votes and good old ballot box stuffing. In addition to these efforts on the ground in Russia, President Bill Clinton had convinced the International Monetary Fund to grant Russia $10.2 million dollars for an “emergency infusion.” With the influx of the cash, Yeltsin could make it appear that financial problems were over.

Now, some Russians involved with the campaign disagree that it was the American leadership that tipped the election for Yeltsin. They believe the egotistical Americans claimed far more of the credit by a long shot than they deserved. The point here, however, is not who was most responsible for Yeltsin’s 13 point victory that year. What needs to be reiterated is the pride the Americans took in controlling and manipulating the Russian election. As Time concluded, “Democracy triumphed—and along with it came the tools of modern campaigns, including the trickery and slickery Americans know so well.” (See also the LA Times, “Americans Claim Role in Yeltsin Win,” July 09, 1996.) So when Americans of privilege and political contacts like Joseph Biden, Jr. cry foul and whine incessantly about the Russians and their president supposedly tampering with the American election, it rings hollow with many Russians and not a few Americans who remember how far our meddling went. Hypocrisy is alive and well in this piece of which Foreign Affairs is so proud.

I and others, however, are not so willing to grant the presupposition of Biden and Carpenter (not to mention a HOST of others) that the evidence is clear that the Russians tampered with our election anyway. They still offer no concrete evidence of Trump “colluding” with the Russians or that there was any hacking done under the direction of Vladimir Putin. First, we still read in many publications of the “conclusions” of the Intelligence agencies which have been long used by the main stream media, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post. They state this as if it is fact, apparently believing the adage that if you tell a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth—in fact the one telling it may even begin to accept it as truth. The bases for such claims have been severely distorted. It was not 17 intelligence agencies as was reported for many months. James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, reluctantly admitted it was “hand picked analysts” from the FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency. In other words, it was only three agencies, but it really was not the full power of those agencies. The “investigators” were agents who already believed the Russians did it, and that is why they were picked. Yet even the conclusions of their report are also distorted in the MSM. The analysts do give reasons that it is possible the Russians did it and why they think they did, but they conclude, “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be fact.” The report itself states that they have nothing evidentiary. Further, William Binney, former National Security Agency Technical Director, did further research and gives technical reasons why he concludes with certainty it was not a Russian hack. His main reason is that the download speed was such that it had to be a USB download, not a “hack” from the outside. He actually investigates the specifics of what happened and states clearly from his research the Russians had nothing to do with it. As far as I can tell the bulk of the MSM did not report any of his findings.

Second, Biden’s whining about the Russians tampering with our elections is sheer hypocrisy given the bold claims of the United States in using every trick in the proverbial book to keep an unhealthy, alcoholic President in office in Russia even though everyone involved knew the devastation his leadership had brought and would continue to bring on the Russian people. The plight of the Russian people are of absolutely no concern to the authors, and they should drop the pretense of “enlightened” NATO. Foreign Affairs magazine is supposed to be an academically oriented and responsible publication. Yet they promote this wonderful article as a reason I should subscribe?

I started with the history and background which Biden and Carpenter omit because the history of international relations is important. American analysts trying to reach a certain level of popularity like to start at whatever historical point suits the conclusions they have already determined they will reach. So it is not uncommon to find omissions of the real background to how democracy came to Russia and how much effort and money we put into keeping the Russian people as far from prosperity and stability as possible. Now that I’ve given a brief historical review of what Biden and Carpenter chose to omit (and smooth over with that talk of the guidance of the “enlightened hands” of NATO and EU), in Part 2 of my blog I will point to factual errors made and misleading conclusions drawn by Biden and Carpenter in their description of the conditions in Russia at the present time. As one who lives here, and actually watches and reads what really does go on here, my evaluation is quite different.

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HOLIDAY REFLECTIONS FROM RUSSIA

BF6175A4-1B51-4D90-8EDB-D1F0A345695BToday is one of those days I am more aware of the practical differences in my two worlds than usual. I thought it may be interesting to some readers to learn more of the differences in the American and Russian cultures at this wonderful time of year. As I write this blog entry it is the day before Christmas Eve in my home country. Given that it is also a Saturday, I am quite sure when the day dawns over my world eight time zones away that there will be much busy-ness. Some cooking; some cleaning; some shopping—no, a LOT of shopping! No doubt folks are getting ready for the day that for many over there is the biggest day of the year. My unofficial, but highly scientific, research, i.e., looking at my friends’ Facebook posts, indicates that while some are glad for the relatively warm weather predicted, the majority of people in South Carolina are lamenting another non-white Christmas. I remember all those times growing up wherein it seemed every Christmas movie showed it magically snowing just in time for Christmas. Every year I kept looking. The Russians have a saying which would be an appropriate description of my annual scanning of the southern skies in my homeland for any indication of just a few falling flakes: “Надежда умирает последней” [“Hope dies last”].

Here in my other world the snow is already a reality. There is plenty on the ground and more significant snow predicted this evening. The chance of a white Christmas is very high—except Monday is not Christmas in this world. Come Monday (as Jimmy Buffett would say), I will be teaching a class. By the time most children in America will wake up Monday with great joy in the anticipation of what they will find under the tree, our nine year old Gabriel will have already completed a full day of classes at School #5.

One of my responsibilities as the “English Consultant” at our school is to give presentations to several classes on what Christmas is like in America. It is supposed to help them linguistically and also to enable them to be more “culturally aware” of life in the West. They already have some general ideas gained largely from movies they have seen from Hollywood. Of course, they’ve watched them in Russian so they don’t know the specific terms we use for some things. Further, their knowledge is fragmentary. So this week I’ve tried to bring together in some kind of meaningful narrative the elements of Christmas like baby Jesus, Santa Claus, gifts, shopping, reindeer, shepherds, and then explaining what a stable is because I couldn’t remember the Russian word. I also try to explain the extreme importance of decorations and lights to Americans, as parodied in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” It wasn’t easy. I decided not to bring up the fact that in our former neighborhood the leadership committee actually gives an award to the family with the official “Best Decorated Yard.”

I’m not sure my explanations were clear, partly because the kids didn’t speak much or ask questions at the end. Did they not ask questions because they understood everything or because they understood nothing? On the other hand, since I don’t teach these students regularly it could be the normal reluctance to risk speaking to a native English speaker. When I started the first class I asked them how they were, and a young lady in the front row said, “We’re scared!” But several thanked me when leaving and the regular teacher seemed pleased, so I’m hopeful they left more culturally and linguistically informed than when we started.

On the other hand, I want to communicate to my American readers the fact that Russia still has great holidays, and New Years Day is probably the biggest one. Seventy years of Communism took a toll on the celebration of Рождество [Christmas] in Russia. The transition was slow and mistakes were made, but the Communists were eventually largely successful in transferring many of the traditions of Christmas to New Years. So we have a New Years Tree here. We also have Santa’s “cousin,” Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). There is also the sharing of gifts of various sorts, although here in Luga the atmosphere in the streets is nothing like the madhouse the parking lot at a Mall in Greenville, S.C. could, and usually did, become.

New Years is also a time when families and close friends get together and share a meal. There are usually numerous salads and then several courses of foods. One difference in these special meals is that whereas in America everything is put on the table at once, in Russia the hostess usually brings in the separate courses as the meal progresses. More than once I just knew the meal was over, and then Oksana’s mom would bring out another meat and vegetable plate. Then at midnight we watch the President’s speech on TV. For Oksana’s family it is always an important time. It’s a bit like a “State of the Union” speech an American president gives from time to time, although I never remember an American president giving a speech on New Years night. Then there are fireworks and a general feeling of celebration just like in America. Further, schools are out and many folks have off from work until after January 9.

Russian Christmas is January 7. Before Communism Russia was on the Julian Calendar, which was observed at the time of Jesus. After Pope Gregory XIII introduced what became known as the Gregorian calendar in 1582 the process of changing over began all over the world. Russia did not adopt the “new calendar” until 1918, which was much later than Western countries. Even the Orthodox Church in America celebrates Christmas on December 25. The Russian Orthodox Church still observes the “old style” calendar, which is about 13 days “behind” the new style. Thus, since Christmas is a religious holiday, it is observed on what would be Christmas under the Julian calendar. New Years Eve would be January 13 according the old calendar, but since that is not a religious holiday it essentially makes no difference here. So by the time it is Christmas in Russia all the shopping has been done, and the gifts have been put away.

So what does our family do? Last year was our first Christmas away from America. Since it was on a Sunday, the boys did not have to go to school anyway, we observed it the best we could. This year Roman has classes in St. Petersburg and, as I said, Gabriel will have to go to school. Sadly, there comes a time to let go of the “old life.” We still sing a few Christmas carols, and we try to keep the memory of Christmas in America alive for the kids. The truth is, however, we really have little desire to try to “recreate” an American Christmas experience here. It just seems a bit hollow. We will participate in the festivities of New Years with our Russian family and friends. We’ll enjoy the meal with Oksana’s parents, and the fireworks. Then on the evening of January 6 we will go to our Russian Orthodox Church for the Vigil celebrating the Incarnation.

We will greatly miss our family and friends in South Carolina Monday. We’ll see photos and Facebook posts of so many getting together, and we will remember our years there and the big meals, the presents, and the good laughter of those times. Somehow, however, we all have become more accustomed to our life here. We will have opportunity to spend more time together as a family. I hope to have time to get some more reading and research done for a serious political blog I’m hoping to write. Our three children will get to spend more time with each other. And we hope to make a trip to St. Petersburg for at least a couple of days. We’ve celebrated these holidays in both of our “worlds,” and we are thankful for all the tradtions that have helped us become the family we are.

RUSSIFICATION: A CONCLUSION

In the previous post I dealt with “russification,” or the ways in which we as a family have become more a part of our Russian culture and surroundings. Unfortunately, I ran out of time and my own self-imposed space limitations for a conclusion. So I wanted to write a brief “wrap-up,” summarizing what russification looks like personally here in our world of small town Russia.

First, in the simple practical aspects of life it means watching my little boy’s eyes light up when he sees a big bowl of fresh fruit in the winter, and being truly grateful for it as he picks one variety and then another. It’s the simple pleasure of putting cold sour cream over a smoking hot plate of pelmeni. On the other hand, it is walking up five flights of stairs with two large containers of water with a backpack filled with four bottles of milk on your back, determined not to show weakness by stopping and resting. It is distracting yourself on the ascent by thinking and wondering about the person who built those steps. What was life like then? Did they believe that as they finished those steps they were helping build a better industrialized and communal life? Did they see the labor of their hands as contributing to the realization of Lenin’s dream? Or were they just trying to get through the day and get home safely?

In relationships and social settings russification is learning to talk about things that matter. It’s forgoing the small talk until you know a person well enough to talk about the things that are truly meaningful. It’s reading Russian history and of those who suffered in this country for “opening up” to the wrong person—and paying the price. Then when you want to chat casually with Russian people you do not really know, you understand the “history of their silence” and you are far less likely to dismiss them simply as “unfriendly.” And that makes you all the more appreciative of Russian friends who honor you—an AMERICAN—by telling you about their lives, their personal histories and aspirations. They have “verified,” and now they trust you.

You also find yourself both defending and cursing Russia. So many reports, articles, and news clips day after day portraying life here in such a negative way. And you know from the content the authors are completely ignorant of what life really is like here. The political reports on this place—the place you and your family live—demonize Putin, Russia, the whole society here in order to achieve a political goal in America. Russia is just a political football in their “more significant” Western world. They aren’t trying to understand Russia; their villification is from a darker place. Strangely, you feel offended by their lies, like they have attacked you and your family. One of “my worlds” wants to destroy the other. But then you have to walk to the market on a sheet of ice, and being from South Carolina, it is not your finest hour. You fear the shame of being the American whose feet went flying. You now feel Russia itself is against you, and “the Russians” are all waiting for your moment of humiliation. Reading of the experiences of Napoleon’s army or the Nazis I should’ve realized – Russia is not always hospitable to foreigners in winter. Foolhardy perhaps, but I continue to press—or slide—on.

In matters of faith russification is standing in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small village, which has a beauty that defies its drab, cold, grey surroundings outside. Standing there (never sitting!), listening to beautiful singing with no instruments to guide the melody. There is no hype, no drama, no performances. It is worship stripped bare of the barnacles of modernity. Then we say the “Symbol of Faith.” All the voices expressing the historic confession of faith from hundreds of years ago. All of those voices are in Church Slavonic—except yours. You quietly say the English, under your breath, while you are listening carefully to the Slavonic so you are speaking with them. You want to say what they are saying, but of necessity “in a foreign tongue.” It means a lot of pauses. Slavonic takes longer than English. In the “mystery of faith,” you realize what is going on here is not about me; and it’s not limited to any people or country or any language. It is worship. Russification means you don’t feel so much like an outsider in those moments.

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