Travel Report: Russia during the Crimean Crisis
When the Maydan revolt started, I published a blog applauding the revolt and called for the impeachment, if not imprisonment, of the corrupt president.
This blog went viral in Ukraine. Subsequently, translated into Russian, it went viral in Russia.
I received e-mails from American friends telling me they were worried about my safety, particularly if I visited Russia now. My support for the revolution was against the official line of the Russian government, and my friends felt my dissention will put me in danger if I go.
I made the trip anyway.
Upon arrival, I found Moscow busy as usual. No evidence of stress due to the Crimea crisis. The Russian opposition was dissenting and the political climate was not much different from my previous visits.
During the course of my lectures in Russia, I met over 300 executives. I was not only in Moscow, but also in Samara, a city two hours away by air. So, I had exposure to more than just the Muscovites.
What did I learn?
The Russians are concerned about what the world thinks of their country. The questions constantly repeated to me were: “What do you think of Crimea? Will the world isolate us? How long do you think this criticism of us will last?”
People throughout Russia do not want to be ostracized and do not want to be perceived in the way that they were during the Soviet era. Rather, they wish to be members of the world community. And, they are very much concerned about their economy.
Some young people I talked toeven participated in a march against the annexation of Crimea. They felt all this nationalistic talk was anachronistic; they did not consider it a big deal if Russians were part of Ukraine.
Overall, the common denominator was that rank and file Russians were now more concerned about their material well-being and their standing in the world community (they fear they will need now more visas to travel than they had to secure before) than about political convictions.
But, pride is still a major force.
It is pride that drove Putin to annex Crimea. He even said it in his speech: Russia would not lower its head in shame and abandon the Russian population of Crimea if Ukraine chose to join the EU. And that pride itself played a major role was indicated by the polls which showed that his actions were supported by more than seventy percent of the Russian population.
Crimea annexation was not meant as primarily restoring the Soviet territory back to Russia. I find Russia not interested in geographic expansion. Russia has enough trouble with the territories it already has. It is also big enough. It was a reaction to what the Ukrainian government did. They forced Putin’s hand. He had no choice but to act the way he did.
Because the Crimean Russians would not join the west and NATO against their homeland. And Putin, for his part, could not abandon them. It is a matter of Russian pride; of Russians unwilling to be humiliated.
If the new government of Ukraine would have announced that Ukraine would not join the EU, there would not have been a Crimean crisis. I am convinced of this. The Maydan revolution was against Yanukovich, not against Russia. And, the Ukrainian government should have said this.
It is water under the bridge now, and the confrontation is in full swing. The west is sanctioning Russia and western politicians are full with condemnation of the Russia move.
Why this attack on Russia by the West? Is it for breaking international law? Violating territorial integrity? This certainly did not prevent Western powers from encouraging the breakdown of Yugoslavia. It did not discourage the recognition of the separation of Kosovo.
Ah, history is written by the winners… And, here the powers, the Western powers, dictate which disruptions of international law are acceptable and which are not…
I attribute the Western reaction to Crimea as a remnant of the fear dating back to the Soviet era. It is a lingering anxiety that is related to the past, a time when Soviet communism threatened to bury us, and when its political leaders had the zeal to destroy our way of living. Old memories do not die easily.
Americans and Europeans still equate Russia with the Soviet Union, although most of the Russian populace tries to shed as much of that past as possible. They want to disassociate from it. Expanding the communist credo is for them passé. However, the warmongers in the west miss the excitement of the cold war. And, they recognize that it is easier to harvest votes when they drum on old fears.
It is time the world realizes Russia and the Soviet Union are not one and the same. I myself made this mistake as well. As a child in Yugoslavia, I learned many what I thought were Russian songs (Yugoslavia at that time was aligned with the Soviet Union). When I first came to Russia, I offered my hosts to sing some of them. They froze. They showed they were not too happy. I wondered why, “These are Soviet songs they said, not Russian.”
Overall, I think that there is a peculiar imbalance in the relationship between Russia and the United States.
Russians neither reject nor fear America, but Americans still remain hostile to Russia. In Russia, I find everyone is eager to learn English. Business schools that copy American business education are appearing everywhere, just like mushrooms after the rain. American music dominates the urban environment, blaring away in every restaurant. American culture is everywhere. American movies show on multiple channels on TV. Stores carry American products and young people follow American fashion.
In addition, today’s Russia recognizes private property and has a stock market. Everyone is chasing opportunities to earn more. I find Russia culturally more capitalistic than USA; the eagerness to gain materialistically is overwhelming. True, the economy is dominated by several major holding companies; economic concentration is high, but the same was true for the United States during its era of industrialization. It will be a passing period for Russia too. And, the corruption everyone talks about will pass as well. I find there is a correlation between corruption and change. Any country experiencing disruptive, major change, has some degree of corruption. It is present today in China, India and Brazil. So, it is in Russia and so too was corruption ever-present in the United States at the beginning of its industrialization in the nineteenth century. It will pass for Russia as it did mostly for the USA (Why change and corruption are correlated calls for another blog. Look out for it soon).
Culturally then, and in terms of market mechanisms, America’s system has won. This Americanization will spread to the political arena too. Just give it time.
What then is so un-American about Russia that makes it “the enemy?”
True, people are not free to criticize the government too much, but it is not that different from Singapore where one party dominates the scene and criticism is not welcome. Nor is China much different.
Is it the authoritarian regime of Putin? But, Russia has been authoritarian throughout its history. It will take some time for the Russian bear to change. But a very long period of time? I doubt it. Today’s Russian yuppies were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a different generation from those who were fed communist slogans and principles. Russia’s young people do not even recognize songs from the Soviet era. And now a new generation changes not every thirty, but every ten years. So give Russia ten, max twenty, more years and within two more generations this authoritarian culture will change. It has to. The TV, the movies, the media, the Internet will see to it: a democratic culture will spread.
So, we are back to the puzzle of rejection (of Russia) by America and Americans. Why? An authoritarian regime in Russia? This does not seem to stand up either, for the rejection or the fear. Has not America supported other totalitarian leaders? So, why single out Russia so much?
Perhaps, it is the human rights violation record. But let us be honest. How good is the American human rights record with Guantanamo prison still active? And, has the USA not supported regimes that had a terrible human rights record anyway? How about Chile during the Pinochet regime?
So, where is this anti-Russian sentiment coming from? Why single out Russia as the devil incarnate?
Is it that Russia does not always support American interests and has its own political interests? Syria and Iran would be two examples.
But, is it not some kind of arrogance to insist that we can follow our interests but others cannot? That whoever does not vote with us is against us? And even that does not hold as a convincing argument. China does not vote with the United States all the time at the Security Council and neither does France. But, they are not viewed with the same scorn or animosity as Russia.
I truly believe it is the old Western fears of communism that stand in our way. Fears have a way of becoming internalized, and in the process, shape our attitudes and drive our behavior even though the reasons for those fears have disappeared.
Annexation, or should I say unification of Crimea, had to happen because of the way the Maydan revolution unfolded. The American rejection of Russia because of a past that is not relevant anymore only delays it becoming a democratic society governed by the rule of law (I will eat my hat if Russia expands more).
Bottom line, being in Russia during the Crimea crisis was not as exciting as one would expect. It was bloody cold in Moscow. Below zero. And my knees do not react positively to changes in weather. So, I did suffer on this trip; but I also discovered a delight I did not expect. I found a better cuisine than the French or Italian and, to my surprise, better than even the Turkish cuisine, which is my favorite. It is the Georgian, Gruzinian cuisine. It is so tasteful that it defies description. Full with tasty spices. Healthy food. Lots of vegetables. Strongly, strongly recommended.
I am now on my way to the USA for my surgery… and then on to Mexico City for more work.
Be well, and hasta la vista!
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes