I have been fascinated with Russia for many years. My grandmother was a Jew that was smuggled out of Russia on a boat during the early communist years. According to family stories that are largely unconfirmed, her Jewish family was communist and heavily involved in the persecution of Russian Jews. (Sadly, Lenin and Stalin killed far more Jews than Hitler could have imagined, though few talk about it.)
This is off the beaten path for me but I am in Russia at the moment so want to talk about Russian history a bit. If you want to boil Russian history down to one sentence, it would be this: they have had it rough.
I am in St. Petersburg which is the former capital of early Russia, the scene of the tsars (emperors of Russia before the revolution), and early communism before the capital moved to Moscow. Getting around in Russia is still not so easy. If you don’t have escorts, you go anywhere at your own peril. And the escorts (“tour guides”) tend to show the things that you may not want to see, or at least that I am not as interested in seeing. It is like they have mental blocks in place. There are certain questions you can ask that will just draw blank stares if not resistance. I will talk about that in a second as well.
What they want to show you are the opulent palaces of the tsars. For me, I have seen enough palaces and castles and such to last a lifetime. I despise monarchies because traditionally, kings and queens live like kings and queens and treat the common people like animals. That has happened about everywhere in Europe, but it is especially true in Russia.
Even the French did not waste as much money on palaces as the Russian tsars did. Their palaces are just beyond belief really and some tsars had dozens of them. It makes me want to puke when you think about the fact that people on the outside of those palaces were mostly cold, starving people trying to survive another day. (When I say cold, I mean cold; St. Petersburg is as far north as Alaska.) The tsars were cruel and violent with their subjects for the most part, probably at least equal to the communists that followed them. They might not have executed systemized plans like the communists but don’t think that they did not murder millions of people. They absolutely did.
The tsars were also for the most part incompetent fools who kept the country well behind the rest of the world in every area except palace building. As world war enthusiasts know, Russia was a joke during WWI in particular. They were far behind their opponents in technology and such, and got slaughtered. They eventually prevailed because Germany was distracted on the Western front, and because of the sheer size of their army; but it was touch and go. Even in WWII, Russia only managed to prevail because of the weather and their numbers. In general, Russia has come a long long way since then but they are still trailing the world by a large margin in many areas.
From my perspective (which is obviously not precise because I am neither a true historian nor was I around during that time), as bad as it was, communism was an improvement on the tsar system. Communism was a reaction to tsar abuse when the people finally got tired of starving while the tsars partied, and Lenin was able to execute his revolution. By the way, Lenin was a secret weapon of the Germans who wanted him to start a revolution because they knew the conflict would weaken that front during WWI. They sent him from exile in Zurich (I recently saw his house there) on a secret train back to Russia. Their plan worked remarkably well. Lenin was certainly a remarkable man in many ways.
Communism of course was a disaster, too. Its underlying ideas of equality and such sound good and noble. The only problem is those ideas just don’t work very well in real life plus the implementation was by very evil men. However, if you want to see a major difference between tsars and communists very quickly, go to a Russian subway. (Or visit this link.) Russians are very proud of their subway and for good reason. The stations are basically palaces. I was in a few stations yesterday and was just awestruck at the beauty (still embossed with hammer and sickle) of the communist labor. Here is a picture of a station in Moscow that is very similar to one I was in yesterday. Those columns are covered with crystals.
Why did communists build palaces for subway stations? They were trying to make a point: everyone was a winner under communism, not just tsars. Everyone had access to a palace. In fact, in spite of the fact that they were murdering tsar family members as quickly as they could find them, they left up the tsar palaces as an illustration of the same point. They wanted people to see the past royalty’s opulence and hate them for it. That works for me and I am not even Russian.
One of the things that I have always found curious is that people that lived in the communist USSR often speak kindly of it, or at least in more nuanced terms than you would think. Here in the US, those of us that grew up in the Cold War were taught to hate communism. We saw it in black and white. We heard about the KGB and the murders and corruption and all of that is true.
Communism had a lot of evil in it but nuance is in order because there is another story, too. You have to pry a little to get it from Russians. I was in a Russian cafe the other day and I was attempting to get a Russian to talk about communism and sort of failed. They don’t want to talk too much about it for various reasons. However, I hear a few things over and over: first of all, they saw communism as at least a step in the right direction over the tsars. Secondly, they liked the community that was fostered by socialism. Many of us that live in our suburbs where you only know your neighbor’s business by their garage door going up and down might envy what they had. Third, they liked the financial security (education, health care, pension, etc.). No, they did not have a lot but they had enough (sort of).
That brings me to today. The government of Russia is still not good. I don’t like Putin a bit and the US would be foolish to trust him or the Russian government. There are lots and lots of things you see in Russia that would make any American wince. Russians are still susceptible to Putin’s propaganda. (I had one Russian tell me that the Russian invasion of Georgia a decade ago was a “military mistake.”)
On the flip side, the older people in Russia like Putin for the same reason that past generations liked communism: they see it as an improvement to what they had. Putin is corrupt for sure. Though he has to be more discreet, I am quite sure that like his predecessors, he is quick to murder his political opponents. However, there is not much question that he has been good for Russia from an economic perspective. He is not good for the USA of course. He hates the USA; but I can’t deny that he has moved Russia in a healthier direction. He is a very interesting and complex person to be honest.
Here is the thing though. You can’t change a civilization in a day. Russia started too far back in the pack. Russia is Russia because the people have been conditioned to think in certain ways. I will give you an example: I was talking to a charming Russian woman about my age a few days ago. She eventually asked me what I thought of Trump (this is a common overseas question these days). When I told her a few things I don’t like about Trump (he acts like a petulant child and has no respect for truth), she gave me a strange look and said this: “He is a powerful, rich oligarch. That is how those people act. Why are you surprised?” I could have explained that I expect our presidents to act like adults and tell the truth but I just smiled and moved on. There is too wide of a gulf between us.
I have thought about that conversation a lot over the past few days. The blessing of the USA is that we as a rule don’t accept tyranny and corruption. We have generally been optimistic about our government and willing to believe we can change things. The typical fatalistic view of Russians is that they accept that they have little choice in their government and are just grateful for any progress they see at all. They can’t fathom a two party system and really think that they have to have a strong leader like Putin, even if he is corrupt and brutal. That thinking is ingrained by centuries of tyrants.
Overall, I see hope for Russia. The younger generation is fed up with Putin and they want to see faster progress. Eventually they will, I think. The mindset that holds back Russia will melt over time and probably faster as time goes on.
There is a lot that I want to write, but this is too long already. I want to write about the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity, and I want to write about the great entrepreneurship that I noticed. However, it is time to stop so I guess I will.