“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Marx. That is to say: Groucho.
Russia has lousy weather. The one time I was there, in the summer, it rained a lot, and of course, Napolean and Hitler can tell you all about the impact Russian winters can have on military invasions. But, you know, you cope. That’s life as a Russian: coping. You carry an umbrella, wear warm shoes, keep a jacket around. Moscow has a fabulous subway system, so you can get around. And when I was there, years before Uber, amateur cab drivers would drive you anywhere, especially if you had American currency.
When I was there, Boris Yeltsin was President, and he was struggling. He was a democracy warrior, but the Russian economy was in a bad way, and Yeltsin’s health was poor, not least because the man enjoyed his vodka. But Russia was a free country. They were proud of that fact, though they didn’t seem to know what it meant. Free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. It was a heady time. For us American visitors too. We thought that having a MacDonald’s across the street from the Moscow Art Theater was impossibly cool.
And I was impressed by their kids. I worked with some of their theatre students, and they were all terrific; energetic, bright, optimistic. Russians are resilient, with a do-it-yourself inventiveness. I was there with an international theatre conference, and they were all excited because the KGB had been forced to open up their files. The week I arrived, there was particular excitement because they had just discovered the KGB files for Meyerhold. Vsevelod Meyerhold, one of the great director/theorists in the history of theatre, murdered by Stalin in 1940. It was incredibly exciting, seeing KGB secret stuff about him, including rehearsals that the police had secretly taped. Reprehensible, of course, but you also got to see this grainy old footage of Meyerhold conducting a rehearsal. It seemed full of portents. Russia: free!
Under Putin, that’s not so much true anymore. No more freedom of the press, not really. No satire TV shows, like The Daily Show or the Samantha Bee/John Oliver shows. They still have satire, of course; they’re Russians, their greatest national play is Gogol’s The Inspector General. But dissent, again, is all underground. There is an emerging 21st century samizdat (that wonderful Soviet term for clandestine publications), critical of Putin and harshly repressed, but circulating nonetheless, especially on social media.
As I understand it, this is Russia now (and I’m certainly no Russian expert, so if I’m wrong, let me know!). Russians today don’t enjoy the political freedoms we Americans took for granted a week ago. Russians can vote, for representatives in the Duma, but their votes don’t really mean anything. You can criticize the government, but you have to be quiet about it, and only talk to people you know you can trust.
Religious freedom does exist, and the Russian Orthodox Church has made a comeback. You can worship, if you belong to the right, officially-approved-of faiths, but not if you’re Muslim or Jewish. And this new Orthodoxy has a distinct downside. Russia has become insanely homophobic. Legally homophobic, culturally hate-filled. Just a horrible place to be gay. And yes, you can listen to the music of their most famous punk band, Pussy Riot, but you risk arrest if you try to see them live.
The economy’s tanking. The Russian stock market crashed recently. But oil prices are rising again, and the economy is bouncing back. Long-term, of course, Russia’s doomed economically. Their continued prosperity, such as it is, depends too much on their oil reserves, and the world is moving towards electric cars. And because they don’t have the political freedom to be open to new ideas. That’s one problem with crony capitalism, corruption and dictatorship. Those aren’t good recipes for growth. They have dazzling computer engineers, and they waste their time working as hackers.
Their housing is undisputably improving. When I was there, everyone crowded into these insanely depressing identical high-rise apartment buildings, made of crappy commie concrete and ugly as sin. Now St. Petersburg is seeing a housing boom, as is Moscow. So if you’re an upwardly mobile urban dweller with some money, you probably have more living space than your parents ever did.
So that’s the point. If you have a job, if you have training, if you have some savings, you can survive in Russia. If you’re straight, and orthodox in your religious beliefs, and willing to keep your mouth shut about politics, you’d be able to handle living there. Consumer goods are available. The long-term outlook isn’t very good, and you’re not really free, not in the way we Americans are used to. And I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should move there. But it’s not a terrible place.
Because I’m very much afraid that’s what we have to look forward to here, in the US. With the Presidency of Donald Trump, that’s what our next four years are likely to look like. Russia. Until the economy tanks; then it’ll get worse. So, for now: Russia. Putin got the President he wanted and worked for: and we get to lose our country, at least for a few years.
Hope we get it back soon.