I have just arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where the national government doesn’t care what one of the little people says about Russia to the folks back home. And if anyone actually cared, I don’t have much to say that would get me In Trouble. The American media is saying it way better than I could. But you never know. Steven Colbert just left Moscow so there could be a heightened sense of indignation about sardonic Americans. Overall, it was a great privilege to visit Russia and it is a wonderful place to visit. World class art, excellent food, the beautiful Russian countryside and amazing cities.
But what made the biggest impression on me were the buildings. They are everywhere! Ha ha. But that’s not all. They dominated the feeling of Russia for me.
I knew shortly after arriving that something about the buildings was significant but it took me three weeks to develop a theory about it. I have concluded that buildings represent what Russians want. And that, according to my sources, is stability. Buildings withstand empires and wars and changing economies. They represent stability.
And here is why Russians want stability. The dissolution of the USSR in 1991 was the beginning of a new, more open economy. But the transition was harsh and national politics were unpredictable. Local mafia controlled local economies. Many Russians lost their jobs, their houses, everything. They lost their communist philosophy, which provided a sense of community purpose. In its place, they were asked to accept money-making as a national philosophy while the Russian elite plundered the country’s wealth for personal benefit.
In the last several years, things have gotten better for most Russians. Vladimir Putin is credited with restoring economic and political stability — just as he has restored thousands of historic buildings. The cities seem to be thriving and there is a sense of hope. Russian identity, which was all but wiped out during the Soviet era, is back. There is a feeling of pride in Russia’s art, literature and place in the world.
Of course, there are trade-offs. With Russian nationalism comes a type of racism and a national tolerance for military aggression (and more subtle forms of interfering in other nations’ internal affairs). Corruption is institutionalized. Russia remains a country of extreme economic inequality.
And there is that other thing that happens when stability is valued more highly than messier democratic principles. For example, this morning, a Russian jury began deliberations in the trial for the murder of Boris Nemstov, a progressive leader in the opposition. He was shot on a bridge overlooking the buildings of the Kremlin. There have been others.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, one of the most important events in Russian history. The revolution resulted in freedom of speech and the press, women’s suffrage and an explosion of intellectual expression. Putin has decided the state will not officially celebrate it. In an era of stability, that narrative would probably be just too complicated. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/04/russia-putin-revolution-lenin-nicholas-1917/521571/
But I do love the buildings.
Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma — Winston Churchill