I’ve just returned from a week in Russia, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg 26 years after my first visit in 1990. At that time I was on a tour organised by Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review, to visit the Russian authors’ houses and discuss Russian literature, which I had loved since I was a teenager. I was travelling alone, part of a group of some 20 people all with an interest in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, among other authors who could not then be mentioned. We met for the first time at Moscow Airport and were greeted by a country at the very depths of economic austerity. There were no lemons or oranges in Leningrad (as it was then) or Moscow and there were lines of drab-looking people outside the food stores, queuing to find a chicken, loaf of bread or a half-dozen eggs for their family.
The food we ate on that tour was disgusting – weak chicken stock with a few pieces of pasta or an egg, indeterminate meat or fish. So our group spent the next ten days supplementing our diet with black market caviar and vodka. These were sold on the street by young boys or by hotel waiters, who charged us $5 for any purchase, although at that time it was illegal for them to possess American dollars. So we had to wrap our dollars in napkins or newspapers. One day the caviar was brought to us in a teapot, another time I bought a bottle of champagne from the attendant in the ladies loo and wrapped the $5 in a paper towel.
During the day we stimulated our minds with Russian literature and at night we drank vodka into the early hours of the morning, opening tins of caviar with nail scissors and talking about life. We were like a bunch of teenagers let out of school, albeit we happened all to be over 40! Being in Russia was a heady experience.
But for the population of Russia at that time Gorbachev’s era was a difficult one and he was an unpopular leader due to the food shortages. Perspectives of leadership are always interesting: whilst the West saw him as a good influence and key to ending the Cold War, the Russian people were, quite literally, starving. They were also conceptually unable to understand that they could, in a capitalist world, get loans and start their own businesses to work their way out of poverty. Years of rule under Tsars and Communists had taken away their ability to perceive creative options. The Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall had come down the year before in 1989 but the average resident of Moscow found it difficult to see beyond survival.
And what a difference 26 years makes! Our visit this time started in Moscow where we oldies were very competently chaperoned by the 21 year old daughter of our friend. She was on secondment to Moscow University, studying Russian. She was impressively fluent and also able to gain the respect of waiters and to ensure that even the most scary-looking taxi drivers did her bidding. The latter would drive at 100 kpm along multi-laned city streets – like Lewis Hamilton on a suicide mission. I just shut my eyes and sighed with relief whenever we got caught in the huge traffic jams we encountered both in Moscow and St Petersburg. Although the drivers still constantly switched lanes at least we weren’t going quite so fast.
Today’s Russia is flourishing in comparison to 1990. Trams and buses go on time and the high-speed train from Moscow to St Petersburg travels at 220kpm and feels as smooth as silk in comparison to the trundling and juddering of the overnight train we took 26 years ago. There has been investment on infrastructure, the hotels and restaurants are buzzing, young and old are well dressed and there are French and Italian designer boutiques in the GUM department store and elsewhere. With organic and health food cafés on almost every corner one could easily be in L.A. The museums, chapels and the Hermitage have been restored and there is a sense that the Russians are way better off than they were before.
And so it is easier to understand, from actually visiting the country, how Russians perceive President Putin to be a good thing. Contrary to 1990 where the West saw Gorbachev as an ally but the Russian people disliked him; today the Russian people seem (from our short glimpse) to be happy with what he has done for their country on the inside but the West views Putin with trepidation.
With May 9th coming up we witnessed the build-up of troops and tanks in preparation for what they coyly called the “theatrical celebrations” of the end of World War II. Red Square was transformed with banners of hammer and sickle; the square outside the Hermitage filled with thousands of marching soldiers and the narrow road outside our hotel became blocked with tanks, missiles and warheads. When I sent photos of these scenes to others and mentioned my concern, one response was “OH come on! What’s menacing about a few nuclear missiles and nerve gas weapons in the hands of a psychotic? Don’t be pathetic…!” and another : “show me a stable democracy that still feels they have to parade military equipment to the rest of the world”. Further East, of course, Kim Jong Un is also rattling his sabre and blasting his nukes to deepen our disquiet.
But I got the feeling that there is still some fear beneath the surface. When discussing press freedom with our guide he looked, for the first time, uncomfortable and told us of how his mother, raised in the Stalin era of “fear-in-the-blood” berated him for talking too much. “Be careful” she would tell him. And yet, he said, the young can’t really imagine what life was like in previous eras and history is buried, along with the records of Chernobyl.
When we chatted to some young girls wanting to practice their English they were aware that it is illegal for them to download English movies and therefore have to log in with an IP address registered in the Netherlands. “Perhaps one day the authorities will find us” they said, giggling nervously. And security is everywhere – in the detail required for a Russian visitor’s visa, which includes secondary schools and the birth place and date of ex-spouses even if long-divorced; the x-ray machines as you exit airports, enter railway stations, museums and shopping malls. This made me think that we may not be protecting our own department stores and galleries adequately from IS terrorism. Yet we saw no sign of multi-culturalism: no blacks, Asians, hijabs or saris; just one-colour cities of white Russians and tourists.
The streets were clean and there are now no boys selling caviar, vodka or fur hats on the corners for dollars. There is over-employment, which results in no litter and good service. However, the cottages we saw in the countryside were tumble-down and I saw not a single animal – no cows, sheep, horses. Not even a chicken in the back garden, which seemed strange.
I hear that Putin has been reading Stalin’s records and documents and, in idle moments, I wondered whether he had also been reading Machiavelli’s Prince – the effective ruler needing to be “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves.” Machiavelli’s rule that when seizing a principality or state “the usurper should be quick to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke” triggers images of Crimea. Putin is strategic in seeking the approval of his populous, it not being wise for a leader to become hated for fear of premature death or rebellion.
The oligarchs and new leaders of businesses in Russia also seem to have taken a leaf out of Machiavelli’s book in discovering how to play the dance of power between ruler, powerful elites and the general population. Leadership is a balance between strategy and action for the benefit of a business or country but can require tough decisions I came away with the distinct sense that Putin does not shy from such toughness.
When I left St Petersburg in 1990 I left with the impression of leaving an inefficient country. Banks ran out of money; Post Offices had no stamps; restaurants had no food, wine or vodka; our coach driver lost his way between Tula and Orel because he had no map. On our last day, as we sat on the runway waiting to take off, the BA pilot explained that we had been delayed because the Russian Air Traffic controller had removed his earphones and was looking the other way. The pilot had tried waving to get clearance. Eventually someone else in the tower saw him wave and alerted the controller, who allowed us to take off. I remember thinking it a fitting farewell to a disorganised region.
The same is not true today. We took off on the dot and there were plenty of lemons in St Petersburg. But, with Putin in the Kremlin, I am not sure that makes me sleep any better at night!