January 01, 1999

The Russian Conundrum

The Russian Conundrum

Written for Fodor's guide to Moscow and St. Petersburg (1999)

"You cannot understand Russia with your mind. You can't measure it with universal dimensions. Russia has something special. In Russia you must simply believe." This simple stanza, written by the 19th-century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, has calmed many a tortured Western soul seeking to comprehend Russia or Russians by "rational" criteria. Indeed, this vast country with its complex, ancient history seems inordinately difficult for an outsider to understand by any means, rational or otherwise.

How was it that one of the most isolated, illiterate societies in Europe produced, in the 19th century, so many giants of literature, science, music, and the arts? Why is it that such a conservative, deeply religious, and agrarian-feudalist society so eagerly embraced the revolutionary, atheistic, and industrial ideology of Communism -- and then, 80 years later, with equal vigor, cast this ideology aside in favor of the previously despised "bourgeois capitalism"? Why has Russia so often embraced dictators and so readily destroyed its geniuses? How is it that Russians, who in friendship will bare their souls and willingly and warmly offer aid, are such masters of obfuscation and obduracy in public and official life?

No Easy Answers

There are no easy answers. And that is what fascinates so many people -- often for a lifetime. For once you have visited Russia, have tasted its rich history and culture, there is no turning back. Russia will be with you forever, setting up its myriad paradoxes, posing unanswerable questions, and beckoning you to return.

The Russia of a decade ago, under Communism, offered the mystique and flavor of a Le Carré novel. Experiencing today's Russia is no less intoxicating, for the country is undergoing a host of concurrent social, political, and economic upheavals that would crush a less hardy society. In the past 10 years, Russia has cast off an ideology that permeated and dictated all aspects of everyday life; demolished a centrally planned economy built up over six decades; destroyed the world's largest and most oppressive internal, secret police organization, along with a massive system of internal labor camps; carried out the largest-ever sell-off of state assets in the history of the world; dismantled the last empire on earth; created from scratch free-market systems for banking, stock markets, international, and retail trade; developed, again from scratch (and certainly in need of improvement), democratic political structures and the laws necessary to support them. Needless to say, the remarkable extent of these changes is often overlooked by "observers" quick to point out how much further Russia still has to go.

Russia's course in the past decade can be likened to that of a rusted, sinking supertanker that is being turned around in a very narrow space, while at the same time -- without aid of a dry dock -- being completely overhauled as a modern cruise liner. Sure, there are plenty of leaks and systems that aren't yet working up to code, but one can't help but marvel at the speed and extent of the transformation so far.

This is evident everywhere. The crew-cut biznesmen in the sharkskin suit wielding a $400 digital cell phone, the audacious street-corner bookseller, the 19-year-old securities trader, the publisher of an independent political newsweekly, the teenager racing around a central square on in-line skates, the politician speaking out for restoration of the monarchy -- all these "new" Russians, whose activities seem so normal to the Western eye, are engaged in things that a decade ago were illegal or impossible.

New Freedoms

New freedoms and opportunities have set off an almost palpable exuberance and energy, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. After a period of fascination with things Western, Russians are rebuilding, restoring, and reinvesting in their own culture and history with a renewed vigor. With the departure of the sickle, the scepter is making a comeback: Ancient Imperial monuments are being dusted off and repaired to reflect their former glory. The Russian Orthodox Church is slowly, discreetly regaining a modicum of its prerevolutionary power and moral influence. New office buildings, restaurants, and service establishments are brightening up previously unused corners of the cities, while old buildings are being given a fresh coat of paint or a restored facade.

Of course, not all is as yet as it should be. In the free-market Russia, new liberties have all too often been interpreted as unrestrained license. Pornography is rampant now that there is freedom to publish what you will; alcoholism is at an all-time high (and life expectancy at an all-time low) because the state no longer monopolizes vodka production; organized crime permeates the entertainment, advertising, sports, natural resource, and other lucrative sectors, because there is no money to enforce laws properly; common public-sector services such as education, health care, and prisons are seriously underfunded; military conscripts suffer through inhumane hazing and a lack of proper housing and clothing; the economy is unpredictable, largely "controlled" by about a half dozen powerful oligarchs.

While visitors marvel at the paradox of huge, superficial changes coupled with such ongoing problems, the Russian people must live in such a world. They must come to grips with a world turned upside-down in the space of half a generation. Not so long ago, the government guaranteed security of employment, education, and health and welfare from cradle to grave, at the cost of servility to warped political and economic theories. Now, the government guarantees essentially nothing -- even pensions and student stipends do not offer sustainable incomes -- and so, loyalty and civility are at all-time lows. When store shelves were nearly bare, the average Russian stood in line up to three hours a day to buy food and consumer goods. Now, anything can be bought in the shops, but prices are frequently beyond the average citizen's means. Before, Russians could draw comfort from the fact that, although things were bad, everyone (except the political elite) was equally straitened. Now, wealth seems to correlate with dishonesty and unscrupulous behavior, and there is a growing gap between rich and poor.

Indomitable Spirit

And yet, the indomitable Russian spirit marches on. The natives like to recall the old saying, "Russia is always defeated, but never beaten." The spirit that impassioned the Russian forces to beat back Napoleon and Hitler, each of whom conquered nearly every other nation he engaged in battle on the European continent -- the spirit that asked the Russian people to endure over 30 years of international and civil war from 1914 to 1945, and seven decades of the gulags - the spirit that kept artistic creativity alive despite centuries of censorship, imprisonment, exile, servitude, and death -- it is this spirit that is Russia's greatest hope and its deepest pride. If you are lucky, and travel through this country with an open mind, you will find a glimmer of this spirit in a conversation shared over vodka and pickles on a train; in a golden summer day spent at a banya (sauna) or dacha (country house); in a winter evening spent at the Bolshoi Opera; or an afternoon spent at the Tretyakov Gallery.

After Russian people themselves, the land of Russia will most amaze you. The "two capitals" -- Moscow, a sprawling, teeming beehive of a metropolis, and St. Petersburg, an aristocratic, almost Scandinavian city -- are both quite distinctive and worthy of several lengthy visits. The smaller towns of the Golden Ring, with their medieval monasteries and provincial, riverfront kremlins, preserved like chrysalises in amber, are in warm and welcome contrast to the capital cities. And yet, these locales are only a mere introduction, only a reflection of a country so vast that it spans 11 time zones and two continents. There is the endless expanse of Siberia -- a name that evokes a hundred images. There are the slumbering volcanoes of Kamchatka, the barren eastern island of Sakhalin, the hidden realm of Tuva, the bottomless waters of Lake Baikal, the forbidding Arctic sea, and the broad, welcoming Volga. And, of course there is the Trans-Siberian Railroad, whose seven-day journey across the breadth of Russia offers perhaps the greatest illustration of the immensity of this 1,000-year-old land.

A Few Other Surprises

To connoisseurs, Russian food is one of the world's most unheralded, original, even great cuisines. Whereas just a few years ago traveling in Russia meant facing shamefully unappetizing hotel meals masquerading as authentic national fare, today the secrets of great Russian cuisine are being rediscovered. And what better introduction to Russian culture could there be than a steaming dish of beef pelmeni (dumplings) alongside a mound of black caviar? Or a piping-hot bowl of borshch, with onions glimmering in a deep purple broth? Or breaded kotlety po-tsarsky (cutlets à la tsar) lathered with a rich brown sauce? Or the fantastical "bird's milk" torte? Yes, Russian cuisine is built on starches and creams, but it is also, when prepared properly, replete with fresh vegetables, fresh fish, copious amounts of healthy herbs and garlic, and, possibly, some of the best mushrooms you may ever taste.

Many pleasant surprises -- not the least of which is this new cuisine -- await the visitor to Russia. There is the gawking astonishment as you climb the incline into Red Square and see for the first time the marvelous, multicolored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral and the imposing walls of the Kremlin. There is the colorful splendor of the golden fountains at Peterhof, or the reflection of the sky-blue facade of the Hermitage shimmering in puddles after a morning shower. There is the impressive strength and beauty of the Suzdal Kremlin holding forth above the Kamenka river. There is the gleaming stand of arrow-straight, white birch trees next to an endless expanse of tilled black earth. There is the smile of a train conductress as she offers you, unbidden, a cup of morning coffee. There is the invigorating plunge into a snowbank after a midwinter steam in a banya.

Every trip to Russia is full of such surprises. Without a doubt, you will meet some interesting people. If you are well prepared, you will visit some fascinating historical sites, attend fine cultural events, and savor one of the world's most overlooked cuisines. And, like many visitors to Russia, while you will leave Russia, Russia will never leave you. Long after your trip is over, your personal experience of Russia will continue to evoke an interest in things Russian, in the myriad riddles of Russia and its people. And while, à la Tyutchev, you may never be able to fully understand Russia, as any traveler knows, there is joy in the attempt.

© Fodors, reprinted with permission.

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