After a year and a half of conducting research on Russia, the world’s largest country, mostly for a book I co-authored on the history of post-Soviet U.S.-Russia relations and its context for the Ukraine conflict, it was time for me to finally go see this beautiful, fascinating and complex nation in person and to meet its people on their own terms and territory.
On this maiden voyage to Russia, I visited six cities in two weeks: Moscow, Simferopol, Yalta, Sevastopol, Krasnodar and St. Petersburg. In each city, I talked to a cross-section of people, from cab drivers and bus riders to civil society workers, professionals, and entrepreneurs of small- to medium-sized businesses.
I even had an opportunity to hear what teenagers had to say in two of those cities as my travel mate and I participated in a Q&A session with students of a private high school in St. Petersburg and teens who were part of various youth clubs in Krasnodar. Their questions reflected a thoughtful engagement with the world as they led to discussions on environmental sustainability, socially responsible economics and how to promote initiative, goodwill and peaceful conflict resolution.
Many of the adults were no less thoughtful during the formal interviews and informal conversations I had with them. Admittedly, I wondered how I would be received as an American during one of the most acrimonious periods of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.
It helped that my travel mate has been going in and out of Russia since the 1980s, lives part-time in St. Petersburg, and has developed good relations with many Russians across the country. Once most Russians realized that I came in goodwill and did not approach them or their country with a superiority complex, they usually responded with some combination of curiosity, honesty and hospitality.
Below is a summary of what Russians that I spoke to thought about a range of issues, from their leader to their economy to the Ukraine war, Western media’s portrayal of them and what they wanted to say to Americans.
What Russians Think About Putin
In every place I visited in Russia, there was a consistent attitude among the people on a number of significant issues. First of all, there was consensus that the Yeltsin era in the 1990s was an unmitigated disaster for Russia, resulting in massive poverty, an explosion in crime, the theft of the Soviet Union’s resources and assets by a small number of well-connected Russians who went on to become the oligarchs, and the worst mortality crisis since World War II.
As Victor Kramarenko, an engineer and foreign trade relations specialist during the Soviet period and, more recently, a years-long executive with a major American corporation in Moscow, explained the Yeltsin era: “The Russian economy was devastated. We went from being an industrial power that defeated the Nazis, showed resilience, rebuilt quickly, and had great achievements in aviation and space to a place where morale collapsed and a lack of trust and a pirate mentality emerged.”
I learned from my interviews that Russians credit Vladimir Putin with taking the helm of a nation that was on the verge of collapse in 2000 and restoring order, increasing living standards five-fold, investing in infrastructure, and taking the first steps toward reigning in the oligarchy. Many stated that they wished Putin would do more to decrease corruption.
A couple of people I spoke to said they believed that Putin would like to do more on this front but has to work within certain limitations at the top. However, according to a recent report by Russian news magazine, Expert, Putin may be initiating a serious anti-corruption drive using a secret Russian police unit that is outsmarting corrupt officials who are used to evading investigation and accountability. Time will tell how successful and far-reaching this turns out to be.
Russians also think Putin has been a good role model in certain respects. As Natasha Ivanova told me over lunch at an Uzbek restaurant in Krasnodar, “He’s fit and doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke. Now you see young people more interested in sports and fitness and not smoking and drinking.”
After the mortality crisis of the 1990s when millions of Russians died premature deaths from heart problems and complications from alcoholism, this development is celebrated. Natasha Ivanova’s friend, Anna, chimed in, “Putin’s also orderly and has common sense.”
Natasha Shidlovskaia, an ethnic Russian who grew up in western Ukraine and now lives in St. Petersburg, admires Putin’s sharp mind: “He’s very smart. His speech is very structured and organized. When a person speaks, you know how he thinks.”
Jacek Popiel, a writer and consultant with first-hand experience in Russia and the former Soviet Union, has commented on the Russian historical experience of constant invasions and periodic famines and how it has shaped their view of government and leadership: “Russians will readily accept an authoritarian government because such is needed when national survival is at stake — which, in Russia’s history, has been a recurring situation.”
But Russian acceptance of powerful central authority also includes a check on it. This is the concept of Pravda. The literal translation of this word is “truth,” but it has a deeper and wider significance — something like “justice” or “the right order of things.” This means that while accepting authority and its demands, Russians nevertheless require that such authority be guided by moral principle. If authority fails to demonstrate this they will, in time, rise against it or remove it.
A group of professionals in Krasnodar echoed this when they insisted during a discussion one evening that a strong leader was needed to get things done, but the leader needed to be responsible to the people and their needs. Most believed that Putin successfully met this criteria as is confirmed by his nearly 90 percent approval rating. Moreover, when the subject of freedom and its definition was raised, one participant asked, “Does freedom presuppose a framework of rules and order? Or does it just mean that everyone does whatever they want?”
One criticism I heard from two women in Krasnodar was disappointment that Putin had divorced, particularly in the same time frame as when he’d declared “The Year of the Family.”
Another four women, who were involved in civil society work, were upset that some authentic Russian non-governmental organizations (or NGO’s) were getting caught in the dragnet of the foreign agents law — legislation they understood was motivated by a desire to crack down on provocateurs associated with the National Endowment for Democracy.
But, due to the effects it was having on genuine NGO’s in the country, they believe the law is ultimately a mistake. Three of the four were prepared to continue their work, including reform of the law’s implementation, while the fourth was considering leaving Russia.
Russians acknowledge that they are in a recession and attribute it to a combination of sanctions, low oil prices and lack of economic diversity and access to credit. But they generally do not blame Putin and did not express despair, or resentment that money was being invested in Crimea. Instead, they are putting their heads down, adapting and getting through it.
As the participants at the Krasnodar meeting of professionals explained, Russian entrepreneurs were becoming more creative by forming cooperatives to get new ventures off the ground; for example, finding one person in their network who has access to raw materials and another who has needed skills.
Despite what some commentators in the western corporate media have said, Russians are not going hungry. I saw plenty of food in the markets and some Russians told me that there were pretty much the same everyday products on store shelves as before, they just noticed higher prices due to inflation, which has started to come down. That downward trend is expected to continue into 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund.
We ate out frequently during our stay and most restaurants were doing decent business while some were very busy, including during non-rush hours. I did not notice any significant number of vacant or shuttered buildings, although many were under renovation. Russians in every city I visited were as well dressed as people in American cities and suburbs and looked as healthy (although, I noted fewer overweight people in Russia).
And, alas, the smart phone was nearly as ubiquitous among Russian youth as American.
Ukraine, Crimea and Foreign Policy
Almost everyone I spoke with strongly supported what they view as Putin’s calm but decisive policies of standing up to major provocations from the West, including attempts to exploit historical ethnic and political divisions in Ukraine, resulting in the illegitimate removal of a democratically elected leader.
Kramarenko explained a sentiment I’ve often heard from Russians about the high hopes they had after the end of the Cold War and how Russians have subsequently become disillusioned over the years with the actions of Washington policymakers. It also helps one to understand the more negative attitudes toward the West that the independent polling agency, Levada Center, has reported in recent months:
“’Back to the civilized world.’ That was the motto. Russians were fairly open about wanting to cooperate and integrate [with the West]. But they have gotten three wake-up calls over the years. The first was the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. It was painful and wrong but we figured ‘let bygones be bygones.’ The second wake-up call was the Sochi Olympics. I worked with a sponsor and there was a flood of anti-Russian sentiment, Russia was always in the wrong. Russians asked – why do they characterize us so black when it doesn’t correspond to reality? Ukraine was the third wake-up call. We were under no illusions about Yanukovyich’s corruption, but the turning point came when the [Maidan] protests became violent and the police were attacked. There was a split among Russian intellectuals at that point, but the general people turned against it.”
Volodya Shestakov, a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, agrees:
“Yanukovich was extremely corrupt and ripe for a revolt. The original Maidan protesters wanted to get rid of oligarchy, but they didn’t get less oligarchy. The Ukrainian economy is in very bad shape. Western corporations like Monsanto planned to go in. There are also shale gas deposits. It will be an environmental nightmare. [Current President Petro] Poroshenko is a puppet of Washington.”
The conclusion that Kiev’s current leadership consists of Washington lackeys came up often in conversations with both continental Russians and Crimeans. Tatyana, a professional tour guide from Yalta, a resort city in Crimea, told me:
“No one asked us if we wanted to go along with Maidan. There are Russians as well as people who are a mix of Russian and Ukrainian here. We are not against Ukraine as many of us have relatives there, but Maidan was not simply a spontaneous protest. We are aware of the phone call with Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, we saw the photos of her with Yatsenyuk, Tiagnibok [leader of Svoboda, the neo-fascist group that was condemned by the EU in 2012], and Klitschko on television. We saw the images of her handing out cookies to the protesters.”
Crimeans saw the violence that erupted on the Maidan as well as the slogans being chanted by a segment of the protesters [“Ukraine for Ukrainians”] and became very concerned. The citizens of Sevastopol, a port city in Crimea and longtime home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, had meetings on what they should do if events in Kiev spiraled further out of control, possibly creating dangerous consequences for the majority ethnic Russian population there.
They believe that those dangerous consequences were prevented when Putin intervened and agreed to requests from Crimeans to be reunited with Russia. Crimeans and continental Russians believe that this intervention protected Crimea from those extremist elements that had hijacked the Maidan protests and risen to power in Kiev, threatening Crimeans’ safety and interests.
Moreover, Crimeans that I interviewed who participated in or were witness to events that led up to what is variously referred to as the “Crimean Spring” or the “Third Defense of Sevastopol,” did not expect the Russian government to step in and assist them or to accept their requests for reunification. This was due to the numerous times since the 1990s when Crimeans voted, either directly or through their parliament, for reunification, which Russia had always ignored.
According to Anatoliy Anatolievich Mareta, leader (ataman) of the Black Sea Hundred Cossacks, a turning point came after the Feb. 21, 2014 agreement (in which Yanukovych agreed to reduced powers and early elections) was rejected by armed ultra-nationalists on the Maidan and the Europeans subsequently abandoned their role as guarantors:
“A one-day meeting of anti-Maidan supporters was held in Sevastopol. Thirty thousand Crimeans gathered in the center of the port city to resist and declare that they didn’t recognize the coup government in Kiev and would not pay taxes to it. They then decided to defend Sevastopol and the Crimean isthmus with arms. They chose a people’s mayor, Aleksai Chaly, and checkpoints were set up. After extremist Tatars and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists showed up in Simferopol, throwing bottles, teargas, and beating busloads of ethnic Russians with flag poles, our help was requested.”
As the situation deteriorated further, with a standoff between local residents and local police officials who were beholden to and taking orders from Kiev underway, Mareta admitted that the Cossacks realized that theirs was a revolt that amounted to a suicide mission if Kiev gave the order to put it down with full force. “Their hearts were in it, but their minds knew they might lose,” Mareta said.
This was confirmed by Savitskiy Viktor Vasilievich, a retired Russian naval officer and resident of Crimea who served as an election monitor during the Crimean referendum in Sevastopol. “The Russian military was very cautious and waited for the order to intervene,” he said. “It was an unexpected gift.”
From Feb. 28-29, 2014, Cossacks from parts of continental Russia, including Kuban and Don, began to arrive to reinforce the isthmus after Ukrainian planes were blocked from landing at the local airport as Russian soldiers, stationed legally in Crimea under contract, manned the gates.
Crimeans told me that it was understood at the time that the “little green men” who appeared on the streets in the coming days were Russian soldiers under lease at the naval base who had donned unmarked green uniforms. The people viewed them as protectors who allowed them to peacefully conduct their referendum without interference from Kiev, not invaders.
The population expressed gratitude to the Russian president for protecting them. I saw billboards throughout Crimea with Putin’s image on them, which read: “Crimea. Russia. Forever.” I asked several residents if this represented the general sentiment among the population. They confirmed enthusiastically that it did.
While in country, I attempted to get an interview with a representative of the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority population in which there is reportedly division in terms of support for the reunification with Russia, but was unsuccessful.
But the overall support for reunification with Russia should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Crimea’s history. The Russian naval fleet has been based at Sevastopol since Catherine the Great’s reign in the Eighteen Century. During the Soviet era, Premier Nikita Khrushchev — who was Ukrainian — decided to move Crimea from Russian administration and give it as a gift to Ukraine.
Since both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at the time, the possible future consequences of such a decision were not considered. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea remained in Ukraine as an autonomous region while Russia kept its naval base there as part of a legal agreement (lease) with the Ukrainian government.
Not only is Sevastopol Russia’s only warm water port, it is the place where the Soviet army blocked the Nazi advance for eight months during World War II. By the time, the siege was over, around 90 percent of the city had been devastated.
Kramarenko summed up continental Russians’ view of the reunification: “Most people, both Crimean and Russian, think Crimea is Russian. The referendum, along with the lack of violence, gives it legitimacy.”
Surveys of Crimean and Russian opinion by Pew, Gallup and GfK within a year of the referendum show consistent support for Crimea’s reunification with Russia and the legitimacy of the referendum itself. See here, here and here.
When I asked Russians if they had access to Western media, they all said they did, through both satellite and the Internet. But they did not find the Western media to be accurate or thorough in their coverage of Russia in general and the Ukraine crisis in particular.
Volodya Shestakov told me, “The Western media narrative of Russia is distorted. The corporate media distorts news in its own interests … and to suit politics. Americans are the first target of corporate propaganda.”
Nikolay Viknyanschuk, originally from eastern Ukraine and also a resident of St. Petersburg explained further: “There are certain patterns used [within the Western media] and they prefer to stay within those patterns. What they cannot explain, they cut off or ignore. If Russia is an aggressor, why didn’t it take Kiev?”
He also lamented Western media’s over-reliance on a short news cycle, sound bites and talking heads who lead the audience in what to think, “Commentators and so-called journalists’ interpretations are relied upon instead of presenting primary source material.”
Lack of context was another complaint about the Western media’s presentation of the Ukraine issue. I can personally attest to this as the conversations I had with educated Americans about the Ukraine crisis reflected little to no historical understanding of the country as having been under the control of different political and cultural entities, creating divisions that, combined with poverty and deep corruption, made it vulnerable to instability.
As Shestakov explained: “Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia [Belarus] are ethnically and culturally the same. There are only mild differences. Russia started in Kiev [Kiev Rus] but expanded and the capital moved to Moscow. When Ukraine got independence in 1991, a fictitious narrative was pushed in school textbooks of an independent people who were repressed by Russia. The Ukrainians have been manipulated. Russians don’t hate Ukrainians. There is no hostility on our part. We regret what has happened.”
Vasilievich reiterated these historical points: “There was resentment that Ukraine was always viewed as the ‘little brother’ in the relationship after Russia united to become its own independent nation. Parts of Ukraine were always under the rule of Russia [in the east], Poland or the Austro-Hungarians [in the west]. Ukraine is a vast area with rural villages and there is an ideology of small rural areas with Polish influence in the western most regions. The Americans knew what divisions they were manipulating.”
According to the extensive research of Walter Uhler, president of the Russian-American International Studies Association, there was no historical reference to even a clearly defined, much less independent, territory called Ukraine until the Sixteenth Century when the term was used by Polish sources, but “with the demise of Polish rule, the name Ukraine fell into disuse as a term for a specific territory, and was not revived until the early Nineteenth Century.”
Tatyana confirmed that Western media is freely available online in Crimea as well for those who understand English, but it is often seen as distorted.
Additionally, most Russians find the demonization of their president by Western media and politicians to be childish and a reflection of the observation that Washington policymakers seem to have assigned Russia the role of enemy long ago for their own reasons, regardless of what Russia actually is or does in reality.
As Valery Ivanov, a 25-year old college graduate who earns a living as an emcee and a translator in Krasnodar, said, “The Western media and government portrays Russia as an aggressor because Russia is a strong country and a potential competitor.”
What to Say to Americans
One thing that stood out in my discussions with Russians was how they almost always made a point of differentiating between the American people and the government in Washington. They like and admire the American people for their openness and achievements, but they find Washington policymakers’ penchant for interfering in other parts of the world in which they don’t understand the consequences of their actions to be profoundly misguided and dangerous.
At the end of my interview with each person, I asked them if there was one thing they could say to the American people, what would it be. It was interesting how, even though they all worded it differently, the essence of their answers was identical: we are all the same; we may have minor differences in language, culture and geography that influence us but we all want the same things — peace and a stable, prosperous future for our children and grandchildren.
Several Russians underscored the point that if Russians and Americans got together and related to each other as regular people, there would be no real conflict. Valery Ivanov said, “If we were to meet in a bar for a drink, over American whiskey or Russian vodka, we would become good friends.”
Nikolay Viknyanschuk added, “Let’s be friends on a personal and family level. We should strengthen friendship between San Francisco and St. Petersburg. You are people and we are people. We all have five fingers on each hand.”
Volodya Shestakov offered this insight about his own transformation in how he saw Americans during the Cold War versus how he saw them afterward, when he was able to travel and to meet them: “When I looked at U.S. people, I saw them as alien, like from another planet. When I met American people, I no longer saw them that way. The liquid in our bodies is all from the same ocean.”
They also would like more Americans to come visit Russia and open themselves up to what Russia has to offer. Marina and Irina, two of the civil society activists in Krasnodar emphasized, “Let’s cooperate. Let’s share experience and meet each other. We have a rich history and culture to share and we want to invite Americans to come and meet us.”
Natylie Baldwin, consortiumnews.com