I'm sitting at a McDonald's, drinking cappuccino and eating a delicious croissant with a spectacular view of one of the most famous monasteries in the city, and probably in the country. This situation would not be unusual except that it takes place in St. Petersburg and the monastery is not a common one but the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, named in honor of the most important and admired hero in Russian history. Nor is it common that two countries’ icons are facing each other. A commercial icon, represented by the
McDonald's, here called Mac KaΦé, and an historical icon, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. In the monastery are buried prestigious Russian writers, musicians and artists. In addition, the croissant is a French culinary icon and the cashier at Mac KaΦé doesn’t look Russian but rather she looks as if she is a native of one of the former Soviet republics. This scene is one more example of the scope of globalization and how it affects the world today.
The Impact of Communism
The years of communism have left their mark on the character of many Russians. They seem introspective and disillusioned, perhaps due to lack of certain freedoms at the time of the Soviet Union, a situation I also observed in Armenia several years ago. As some young Armenians told me at the time, and as I was also told by several Russian friends, during the years of the Soviet Union, although their basic needs were covered, there was enormous pressure not to be different and creative, thus giving the people a sense of oppression that eventually influenced their character. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia went through a period of great ferment.
Angela Sem (not her real name), a young Russian who now lives in New York, said, “After the destruction of the Soviet Union there was a period of confusion, of lack of rules and lack of business ethics where people with strong personal initiative took advantage of the situation to start building huge fortunes. Those people close to power were obviously the most favored.” The result is that today Russia is developing as a “bipolar” society, where a small minority has enormous wealth and the vast majority of the population lives with lower middle class standards. According to some economists, the middle class will grow steadily in the coming years, and so will its demands for greater political freedom and fair elections.
The Historical Meaning of Moscow
Moscow has great historical and political significance. The consolidation of Russia as a world power accelerated between 1800 and 1830, although it had lost several battles against the French forces. Even today, the Russians seem to remember with relish the invasion of Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812 and its subsequent defeat. At that time, Napoleon was at the height of his power, and no European country dared to confront him. For Russians, the victory over Napoleon and the defeat of Germany in the Second World War helped forge their national identity, the pride of knowing that they could overcome any external threat and become victorious.
The Louse That Defeated Napoleon
Although it is generally accepted that the combination of Russian forces, hunger and the harsh winter were the main factors in the defeat of Napoleon, a new hypothesis emerged in recent years to explain it. According to French researchers led by Dr. Didier Raoult of the University of Marseille, more than half of the French deaths were probably due to an epidemic of typhus, transmitted by the vulgar louse called Pediculus humanus corporis. Although epidemics of this type are now rare, they still occur in times of war, natural disasters or also in prisons, where people live in conditions devoid of basic hygiene.
Researchers led by Dr. Didier recovered dental pulp, pieces of bones and fragments of military uniforms in a tomb in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which was at that time part of the Russian Empire. Examination of the dental pulp revealed Rickettsia prowazekii, the causative agent of epidemic typhus. When the DNA of the pathogen is in the dental pulp, it is likely that the agent is responsible for the death of their hosts, according to the researchers. The hypothesis of Dr. Didier serves to review and reinterpret history. Moreover, that a humble microbe contributed to defeat the strongest army in Europe at that time, is cause for serious reflection.
The Allure of Exile
The lack of opportunities and growing economic difficulties entice many young people (among them many artists) to emigrate, particularly to Europe and to the United States. Those that emigrate are all those young people who want to broaden their horizons and have better opportunities and who see them now curtailed by the prevailing climate of corruption in the country. For example, those merchants who refuse to pay bribes are visited by fire inspectors, tax auditors or the police until they give up and pay the bribe demanded of them or have their business closed. It is estimated that between 2008 and 2011 more than 1,250,000 Russians emigrated, an even greater number than those who emigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A survey conducted in 2010, for example, found that 21 percent of Russians want to emigrate, compared with 5 percent who wanted to do so in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.
I walk through a suburb of Moscow where, despite good weather, I find few people walking on the streets. Suddenly I feel disoriented, unable to find the entrance to the subway I was looking for. I stop a woman walking with her young daughter and ask her, in my basic Russian, for directions. She quickly replies in Russian. When I asked her to speak more slowly she tells me, now in perfect English, where the subway entry is. We have a brief chat and I ask her for her view on the current situation in Russia and she explains the difficulties faced by young people who want to have a job and a salary that allows them to live well. According to the government, she tells me, Russia has a very good economic situation. And then she says, in a tone of irritation and almost of despair in her voice, "If we are so rich, why then are we so poor?" She also complains about the great immigration from the former Soviet republics to major Russian cities. "Pretty much we are being crowded out," she says sadly. She was responding politely to what many Russians seem to be intolerant to: the growing immigration of people from neighboring countries. Russian authorities are particularly concerned about Chinese immigrants which they see as part of “Chinese infiltration” into Russia and which they try to counter with very restrictive immigration policies.
Racism in Russia Today
I had an inkling of continuing anti-semitism in Russia after talking to my guide in St. Petersburg. He was an older man of Jewish descent, very knowledgeable about Russia, and particularly St. Petersburg’s history. When I asked him if there was anti-Semitism in Russia he told me that there wasn’t any. My question made him feel uneasy and his eyes told me otherwise.
Antagonism in Russia, however, is not limited to people of Jewish descent. It includes practically all foreigners, particularly those that, for whatever reason Russians see as affecting their interests and those people who are not considered ethnic Russians. This is particularly the case of people from the Caucasus, who increasingly flock to Russia’s main cities in search of better work opportunities. They are faced, however, with intolerance and outright violence, incidents of which seem to be increasing in recent years.
In 2006, Amnesty International stated that racism in Russia was ‘out of control’ and in 2008 estimated the number of Russian neo-Nazis at around 85,000. According to Galina Kozhevnikova, from the SOVA Center in Russia, an organization devoted to information and analysis on racism and xenophobia, in 2009 there was a manifest reduction in the number of victims of racist and neo-Nazi motivated violence, which she ascribes to the suppression of the largest and most aggressive ultra-right groups by law enforcement agencies.
During the past two decades, an aging demographic and its effect on Russian society has been the focus of debate. There is now universal agreement that unless Russia resolves this serious problem, its status as a world power will be seriously compromised. Russia has recently experienced a phenomenon similar to that of several developed countries, a rapidly aging population with steadily declining birth rates. However, while people living in most industrialized countries have increased life expectancy, in Russia this is seriously compromised by the relatively low health status of its population.
Nicholas Eberstadt, an American demographer says, "Post-Soviet Russia has become a net mortality society, steadily registering more deaths than births." These factors, in addition to restrictive immigration policies and low fertility rates, have led Russia to a constant process of depopulation. It is estimated that between 1993 and 2010 the population in Russia was reduced from approximately 149 to 142 million people. If current trends continue, Russia's population in 2050 will be between 100-107 million, which would be a disaster for such a big country.
In 2000, Putin tried to counter this decline, giving priority housing and a special allowance of 7,000 rubles (about $ 250) per month per child to families with more than three children. He also tried to implement policies to encourage immigration, particularly of Russian-speaking people from the former Soviet republics. These policies did not produce the expected results. In 2008, a United Nations report, "Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action", highlighted that the main causes for low fertility are the financial difficulties experienced by young families, associated with the perception that conditions in the country are not the most conducive to raising children. This situation is exacerbated by the poor health support services, and widespread abortions and infertility.
The Public Health Crisis
In 2010, Putin acknowledged that Russia needed to reform its health system on a large scale, and pledged to allocate $10 billion in the next two years to modernize medical institutions in the country. Serious health problems among Russians are the result of high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, as well as high numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS. It is now estimated that more than two million men are HIV positive, and the epidemic doesn’t show any signs of abating.
According to the World Health Organization, heart disease, aggravated by alcohol and tobacco, is responsible for over 1.2 million deaths each year. HIV/AIDS is a growing concern, especially because 80 percent of those infected with HIV are under 30, and the epidemic is closely associated with high levels of intravenous drug use. In addition, many experts believe that Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world. Programs to reduce damage caused by this infection have not been able to control the epidemic.
Russia as an Economic Power
The Russian economy is the ninth in the world, and it is considered the sixth largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). It is estimated that the country holds 40 percent of natural resources worldwide. The Ural Mountains are full of minerals, gas and oil reserves, and there is plenty of coal and timber in Siberia and Russia’s Far East. However, most of these reserves are located in remote, harsh weather regions far from Russian ports, a situation that makes their exploitation very expensive and demands large capital investment. In addition, widespread corruption and lack of investment in infrastructure negatively affects the economy.
Following an economic recession in late 2008 and early 2009 Russia is experiencing continuous growth. In 2011, its GDP grew by 4.2 percent, one of the highest among the world’s leading economies. Oil and gas continue to be the country’s main exports, which makes Russia highly vulnerable to world energy prices.
Growing state capitalism is having a negative effect on Russia’s economic development. Government-owned companies are eliminating private enterprise. This is the case of Rosneft, the state-controlled oil giant and Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, which became two of the largest energy companies in the world after eating up private energy companies, per Michael Schuman, a TIME magazine correspondent in Moscow.
The Reaches of the Kremlin
The Kremlin represents the mythical heart of Russia, a series of palaces, armories and churches, and a crucial stage of the once magnificent and tragic history of the czars. Even more than in Soviet times, power in Russia is concentrated in President Vladimir Putin and his friends. According to Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist who lives in Moscow, at the time of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and the KGB competed for leadership of the country. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, and Putin’s subsequent rise to power, Russia is probably the first case in the world of a country led by its secret police.
After his initial encounter with the Russian president, former U.S. President George W. Bush said he could intimately understand Putin and establish good contact with him just by looking into his eyes. Bush’s comments caused great hilarity around the world, particularly in Russia, since it reflected his limited understanding of the Russian character, particularly Putin’s.
An Enigma called Putin
In the nineteenth century, Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev, considered one of the last three Russian romantic poets wrote:
Who would grasp Russia with the mind?
For her no yardstick was created:
Her soul is of a special kind
By faith alone appreciated.
This difficulty in understanding applies particularly to Russia’s Putin, one of its most enigmatic personalities. In Russia, words and symbols are more important than reality. Putin, either as President or as Prime Minister has repeatedly tried to use symbols to rally support for its policies. One of these symbols has been the idea of Russia as an isolated fortress, surrounded by powerful enemies, particularly the United States. However, despite the use of these symbols, I have noticed a great deal of antagonism against Putin, particularly among young people and intellectuals of all ages. Many people believe that although there has always been corruption in Russia, it has never been as great as now. This is compounded by Putin's maneuvers to stay in power indefinitely, which causes tremendous concern among Russians.
The Future of Russia
Proud of their past, the Russians are more anxious than ever to express freely their political desires, and to grow and thrive in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility, something not possible with Putin in office. Since taking power, Putin has exacerbated the negative aspects of his regime: consolidation of power, strict control of the media and the economy, electoral manipulation, and persecution of political opponents and of industrialists and merchants who oppose his regime.
According to Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, there are five areas which will be Putin’s undoing in the next six years: electoral fraud and manipulation, corruption, judicial and police abuse, censorship and propaganda in the state-controlled media and destruction of historical sites. I was able to test the veracity of this assessment during my recent trip to Russia, and I believe that it touches upon the main issues confronting the government.
At the same time, the public seems less willing to endure government abuse, and protests against the current regime are constant, despite the huge fines set by the government for any kind of popular demonstration. And there is no doubt that Putin will face increasing criticism of his iron-hand polices. Given these circumstances, it is impossible to predict with certainty the direction events will take. It is clear, however, that Russian leaders face a wide and complex range of problems. How they respond to these challenges will determine the kind of country that Russia will become.
Dr. Cesar Chelala writes extensively on foreign policy and human rights issues. He is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.