From Russia, with frustration

I’m back in Irkutsk after three days of not diving Lake Baikal. The dry suit was too big, the weather too poor, the dive shop too disorganized. Thwarted by Russia once again!

Since my delightful detour into Tuva, which felt like I left Russia for a week, it seems my ambivalence about Russia has not changed. I escaped the shaman in Abakan (I can’t stop saying that – it’s too funny), only to I find myself back in plain old dour Russia. I think I’ve found a big reason for my ambivalence, however: Russians are also ambivalent about themselves, about their country.

Over my 8 weeks here I have spoken with businessmen (as opposed to Russian biznesmen, who are closer to mafiosos than entrepreneurs), administrators at nonprofit organizations, educators, university and high school students, tour operators, lawyers, retirees, and dozens of others. They come from all over Russia – Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, northern Siberia, eastern Siberia, Tuva. As you’d expect from such an enormous country, I’ve gotten dozens of different impressions about the state of Russia, and what it needs. The one unifying thread is that things are not going well, that the people are struggling to find a good way – a Russian way – to live; the whole country is searching for a Russian identity. Dilyara Sharikova, the head of a private business school Kazan, was eloquent and remarkably blunt: “I am not optimistic about Russia. It needs a very long time – not even money – to find our own way of living. Now we are living half in the Soviet system, half in the US/European way. We need to find a synthesis. We have American, Asian, Soviet, Communist concepts. We need our own, new concepts. This will take a long time – 100 years. Our mentality is very conservative. Too conservative.”

For 70 years Russians were told that they are a world superpower. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, they were suddenly left staring at the shriveled old man behind the curtain instead of the Great and Powerful Oz. While they rubbed their eyes in bewilderment, oligarchs stole much of the country’s riches and deposited the profits in offshore accounts while the same old politicians donned masks of democracy yet continued to rule as before. And most people I’ve spoken with don’t really believe in democracy, or don’t understand or feel the power it may give them. They view voting as a joke – they already know who will win an election before it happens.

The people I’ve spoken with are angry and frustrated at the loss of the only positive aspects of the Soviet times – full employment, free health care, good education. They’ve been left with no safety net, and no rules or examples for how to make a life. Most Russians I’ve met live in the shade on either side of the fence between legal and illegal. Honest entrepreneurs from Moscow to Irkutsk make daily choices between doing business legally – standing in absurdly long lines for a rubber stamp on an absurdly long form, paying exorbitant random fees for basic banking transactions, and so on – and spending time actually running a profitable business. Parents “bribe” their kids’ teachers for good grades or a passing mark on an entrance exam; they have to, because there are limited spots and teachers have no choice but to supplement their meager incomes to survive.

In the meantime, Moscow spends the Federation’s money on show projects – Olympic facilities in Socchi; a bridge to nowhere in Vladivostok, in advance of the Asean Summit to be held there; Special Economic Zones, where in the name of innovation and entrepreneurship a few hand-picked companies get huge tax breaks and other benefits in closed office park-like facilities.

It’s all quite depressing. As I write this, it occurs to me that I haven’t met a single happy, contented or optimistic Russian. It’s a country running scared, covering up their emotions with stoicism, maliciousness or heavy drinking.
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I write all this with a giant caveat: I’ve only been here 8 weeks, for god’s sake. Anton the hike guide was right when he said my fellow tourists and I would never understand Russia. This is true of any country I visit, but I think it’s even more true here. First of all, as I said Russians themselves don’t know what they are. But also there are at least two Russias, and probably more: European Russia and then Asian Russia, what most people incorrectly lump into Siberia.

In my travels I keep thinking that Lonely Planet needs to make many different guides for Russia – there is too much to see, too much convoluted history, too little tourist information in every oblast or independent federation or other section of Russia to fit into one 800-page guidebook.

As I travel east I find people’s perceptions about themselves as Russians are as complex and varied as each section of Russia. I wonder what it’ll be like in China – another huge country split into a rich, powerful section (the east coast) and a poorer, neglected section (the west).

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