Like Bilbo Baggins and his unexpected journey, my wife and I did not specifically plan to visit Russia, the country of our unhappy lives until we migrated to Australia. In my travel diary of years ago, I finished the Russian chapter by saying we were departing “with the heavy heart, knowing full well that we will not return.” At the time I wrote those words we were grieving the sudden loss of life-long friends who shunned us at best, abused us just as often. It was a shock to discover when we announced that we had been approved to leave the barely suppressed hostility and poisonous envy where friendship and laughter once prevailed.
The unforeseen visit to St. Petersburg I am about to describe was a stop on the Baltic cruise we took. The limited time we spent there cannot be regarded as the only source and foundation for this article, as the thoughts contained in it were forming for some time. My recent visit served to crystallise them. The identities of the people with whom we spoke will not be revealed for obvious reasons.
Avoiding foreign ‘contamination’.
All foreign cruise ships are docked in the farthest corner of the port, at a considerable distance from the city. This separation from the ‘corrupting’ Western influence is augmented by elaborate checkpoints for visa and passport control, unique among other states in the region.
Traditionally, Russian governments have been determined to stop Western influence contaminating the purity of the Russian mind without sacrificing the very much needed tourist dollar. It is a fine balancing act, which the Russian elite has maintained in order to isolate, or at least to distance, the masses from the rest of the world. Abominable standards in the teaching of foreign languages also help.
The days spent in the Russian Federation were, to put it mildly, instructive. We were able to speak to local people, much to the displeasure of our tour guides, who warned each other that some Russian speakers were in the group and they should therefore be extraordinarily careful in their off the cuff comments.
The overall impression of St Petersburg was one of shabbiness, with crumbling facades, a general grubbiness and an oversupply of police. Except for the very center of the city, with its famous monuments and palaces, the rest of the metropolis left an impression of neglected maintenance and a general lack of care.
People were dressed better than I recalled from memories of Soviet days, especially the young. Equally, there were all kinds of uniforms, including a granny in semi-military garb who occupied a glassed-in booth at the bottom of the Metro escalator. She appeared to do bugger all but keep a sharp eye on those going up and down — a sensible job, perhaps, in light of the Metro system’s recent terror bombings. Elsewhere and everywhere there are so many uniforms to be seen the town seemed like a heavily armed convention of boy scouts and girl guides.
There were many attractive young faces on the streets of St Petersburg and the so-called ‘Landau Index’ was somewhere between six and seven. Never heard of the landau Index? Let me explain this unit of measurement, which seeks to calibrate female attractiveness. It was invented by the legendary Soviet nuclear physicist Lev Landau, who was an equally legendary connoisseur of a female beauty. Upon arrival in a strange town he would take up station on a main thoroughfare and appraise the first ten women of reproductive age. The number of pretty faces was his eponymous index. Three fetching faces would be a low rating, five medium and seven considered to be high. This measure was jokingly accepted by the USSR’s male populace and, by my entirely subjective reckoning, St Petersburg rates very high on the scale.
In a city church we visited the publicly demonstrated piety of worshippers astonished me — a man raised in the atheist USSR, where religion, any religion, was not only frowned upon but actively discouraged and adherents persecuted.
Inside the church, women wearing hijab-like headscarves caressed the little rails in front of icons, kissing those barriers, crying over them, muttering endearments and heartfelt pleas to Heaven. They surrendered their positions only when the crush of the insistently prayerful behind forced them from their supplications. I found it difficult to watch such unrestrained emotional outpourings. I felt too much like a voyeur observing another’s passionate yearning.
Men were not that far behind in their devotion. Young men, somewhere within the 30 to 40 years’ age bracket, were crossing themselves ostentatiously, bowing in front of icons, whispering prayers, endlessly crossing and bowing, immersed in their very personal conversations with the Divine, demonstratively lost in their devotions and oblivious to the world at that moment, yet acutely aware of its presence. It was a weekday, the middle of the working week. Instead of earning the daily bread by the sweat of their brows, these young men of productive age were whiling their day in prayer. An atmosphere of exalted expectation, of investing all hope in the expectation of imminent miracles, was a near-tangible presence. The candle-scented atmosphere of unhappiness was palpable and contagious, so I left. Stepping outside under the grey St. Petersburg sky I felt better.
Food and jealousy
The town market, abundant with varieties of food unthinkable in the old USSR, was almost empty of shoppers. The prices were clearly out of reach for many and the sight of the foreign tourists buying food samples and taking photos provoked some locals to an angry muttering which escalated to an indignant outburst. Being able to understand Russian, I understood the local woman who screaming at my fellow-tourists, “Do you think that speaking English and having money gives you the right to buy everything!’ As though embarrassed and by way of making amends, a market vendor offered an astonished tourist a free sample of her wares. Our tour guide pointedly did not interfere. The same situation of a well-supplied population was apparent in the several other food shops and supermarkets, barely distinguishable from any run-of-the-mill Western supermarket or department store.
The rest of the article is based on a variety of sources, none of which I am at liberty to disclose.
Russians, like many other nations, appear to be divided. However, the issues, dividing liberal democratic nations are about the future development and the way the movement into the future these societies should take. The recent demonstrations of the Russian youths, harshly suppressed, were about a future stolen from them by graft and systemic corruption, general lawlessness and the absence of freedom.
The Russian society’s divisions could be traced along the nationalist-messianic and integrative-universalist fault lines, with the former considerably outweighing the latter. This societal polarization struck me as far from benign, a view shared by locals with whom I spoke. Their fear is of an eventual explosion, of the tearing of the national fabric and dissolution of the glue and memes that have long constituted the prevailing mythology: the sacrifices that purchased victory in the Second World War, which Russians call the Great Patriotic War; Russian ‘specialness’ and the country’s mission in the world. When it comes, that rending will be loud and quite likely convulsive.
Government propaganda openly facilitates the view that the never-ending difficulties of the Russian Federation are the result of the Western malevolence and perpetual conspiracies. This irrational and baseless opinion is widely spread and overwhelmingly subscribed, inspiring the popular perception that the West does not wish Russia to be strong and independent. This naive estimation of Western omnipotence and ubiquitous mischief generates a curious mixture: at the same time Russians long for what the West has and they do not, they also scorn it.
State TV has an almost complete monopoly on information delivery, with near-total market saturation, especially in the provinces. The world and the domestic picture, which to the Russian eye pits the fluffy and pure Motherland against the dark forces of the perfidious West, which is thought intent on taking over the country and pillaging its resources. To this end, the popular perception paints the West as a spigot of lies and slanders directed against the virginally innocent Russia and its quest for world peace, justice and love. It might sound trite and unkind but, alas, most of the Russians really do regard the world that way. No amount of evidence to the contrary will convince them that they are in the grip of delusion.
Worse than that fostered misconception is the fact that the Russian mindset sees the country as an axis around which the rest of he world rotates. The thought that Russia is of a peripheral significance to the rest of the world, except as an unreliable supplier of raw materials and the controller of a nuclear arsenal, just does not occur to them. There is a term, specifically invented to counter proven international accusations of unfair play, aggression or cheating by Russia: Russophobia. Anyone critical of the Russian actions or conduct, be it an Olympic doping scandal, Crimea’s annexation, aggression against Ukraine or alleged interference in the recent US or European elections is routinely dismissed a label ‘Russophobe’.
The favorite bogies seen on Russian TV is NATO and Americans, who are blamed for everything – from the malodorous residential lifts in high-rise housing to the savage cuts made to a deteriorating health-care system. Russia, notorious for its latent anti-Semitism, has so far refrained from adding Jews to its roster of propaganda villains. How long this restraint will endure, who knows?
Moscow finances such toxic news outlets as Russia Today and Sputnik, which disseminate government-approved propaganda abroad, manipulating its “news” coverage to an extent unseen since the Cold War. This propaganda saturation works on two levels.
First, it strives to present the news from an official Russian point of view to the non-Russian speaking populations of other lands. Such broadcasting often incurs the displeasure of the foreign governments, with Russian media outlets regularly accused of interference in the internal affairs of the various countries. Needless to say, these actions lead to the further deterioration of Russia’s relationships with the liberal democracies of the world.
Second, and even more dangerous in my view, such broadcasts succeed in influencing expatriate Russian-speaking communities to remain separate from their host communities by appealing to their sense of the ethnic pride and the common cultural identity. As a result there are many in such communities around the world who support Moscow’s actions no matter how aggressive and malevolent they may be. Needless to say, the consequences, especially for the countries with a sizeable Russian-speaking population, and here I think of Estonia, Latvia etc., could prove dire.
Russian citizens inside the country who disagree with the official line entertain not a sinle doubt that they and their families would be in grave and physical danger should the domestic situation deteriorate. Dissenting Russians justify this concern by citing the recent history of political assassinations, especially of critical journalists. The leading opposition figure, Vladimir Nemtsov, recently was gunned down in broad daylight within a stone’s throw of the Kremlin. This brazen murder happened in an intensively patrolled precinct infested with plain-clothes police and under 24/7 video surveillance.
There remain, however, a significant number of Russians who don’t accept Crimea’s annexation and their country’s aggression against Ukraine. I was told that these people clandestinely gather in each other’s apartments, unfurl the Ukrainian flags and sing Ukrainian songs behind drawn curtains. Those who beg to differ, those who fear for lives, safety and future, quite naturally think of emigrating. This is both a protest and a survival strategy. What it means is that those whose voices might serve as a brake on the worst of their countrymen’s impulses and fixations are removed from the contest of ideas, ceding the battlefield to the peddlers and adherents of absurdly exaggerated patriotism, of which ‘look at me’ Orthodox piety is an element, and a cloying, tear-stained devotion to the sacred concept of ‘Russianness’.
Internationally and domestically, Russia found itself in a predicament of its own making: the time of the high prices for hydrocarbons has passed and the reduced revenues to be extracted from oil and gas is causing significant budget difficulties. Every single nation on the Russian periphery is suspicious of Moscow’s intentions and seeks closer affiliation with NATO or the US. Should the Kremlin need a distraction from its woes, they know they will be the designated targets and scapegoats.
Here I think once again of what is, to my mind, the most daunting problem Russia now faces: the loss of confidence in the future and the understandable desire of the young and brightest people to vote with their feet. Emigration is on the rise again and the brain drain inexorably increasing.
When such people feel that their futures lie elsewhere, the prospects of the country they are leaving is grim indeed.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978