Will the Old Russia allow a New Russia to emerge?

Russian cadets join the crowds in a museum. (photo courtesy of the author) Russian cadets join the crowds in a museum. (photo courtesy of the author)

I went to Russia this summer mostly to visit Lenin’s tomb—not because I admired the man, but because I had earlier seen the preserved remains of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Mao Zedong in Beijing, all mummified symbols of Communist ideology displayed, like Christian saints, for public inspiration. So we descended into the pitch-dark mausoleum, nestled on the edge of Red Square, among the ancient collection of government buildings, cathedrals and museums, known as the Kremlin.

Although we are told that the corpse has been preserved, since his death in 1924, by an annual chemical bath, he could pass for 25, dressed in black garments with red lining, his little beard clipped, his right hand clenched in a fist and his left with fingers extended. For a while Stalin slept nearby, but when Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia visited, he covered one eye so he could pay his respects without acknowledging Stalin, who was soon removed. Today some argue that the new Russia can also do without Lenin, but as Lenin statues have been toppled throughout the ex-Communist world, President Vladimir Putin deems Lenin relevant to the identity he wishes to form.

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Our group is made up of seven enjoyable, considerate and well-informed men and women on a tour led by Serge Schmemann, the long-time Moscow correspondent for the The New York Times and son of Alexander Schmemann, a famous Orthodox priest theologian. We emerge into the sunlight of Red Square, a parade ground teeming with citizen tourists, as if it were Central Park. Young Russians swarm around a book fair; a newly married Japanese couple pose for pictures; and a platoon of cavalry on horseback trots through the crowd. Still within the Kremlin, the Armory Chamber museum (1806) displays the boots of Peter the Great, who was 6 ft. 9 inches; the helmet of Prince Ivan, son of Ivan the Terrible, who killed his son in a fit of anger; and the coronation dress (1762) of Catherine the Great, who, as I pointed out to my traveling companions, saved the Society of Jesus by protecting it during part of the Suppression (1773-1814).

Moscow, as we see it, is a lovely city. Uncluttered by skyscrapers, the center is full of three-story homes and businesses, painted white, yellow or light tan to brighten the atmosphere on dark, cold winter days. The Moscow River, ferry boats chugging, winds in from the south and bends out to the southeast. The first sign we saw that Russia shared some American social problems (there is no trash on the sidewalks, and I saw only one person begging) was a story in The Moscow Times (6/2-8), “The Fast and the Privileged,” about young spoiled members of the “golden generation” from millionaire families, who see themselves as playboys above the law. One rich boy led six police cars on a five-hour chase as he rocketed around town returning from a nightclub, driving through crosswalks, jumping sidewalks and making harrowing U-turns. He received a $75 fine and laughed it off. Subsequent media coverage led to stiffer enforcement.

Half-way through the week our express train zipped through the wide, flat, green countryside on its four-hour journey to St. Petersburg, as we talked politics with Serge. He outlined for us the intimate connection between Russia’s present and past, which cannot be understood without appreciating the religious history that permeates the culture, the corruption that has always eaten away at the political system and the face-to-face connections among the ruling bureaucracy, where bribery is not in cash but in favoritism. The train rolled through forests interrupted by clusters of dachas—country homes, some no bigger than a car garage, with backyard gardens where most of the population, not just the rich, escape the tensions of city work-life.

Peter the Great completed St. Petersburg, named after himself, in 1703, believing that Russia would identify itself with the Western world, armed with a great navy with its canals feeding into the Neva River, which leads to the Baltic Sea. Renamed Leningrad in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the city endured a 900-day siege by the German Army in World War II. The capital had moved to Moscow in 1918, and Soviet Russia struggled through the Cold War in pursuit of a modern, high-cultured secular identity, with religion tolerated but not widely practiced.

Evidence that Russia has now emerged as a leading cultural center is the Hermitage, which welcomes eight million visitors a year. There the most stared-at and photographed masterpiece is Rembrandt’s rendering of “The Prodigal Son’s Return.” At the Peter and Paul Fortress, opened in 1704, we visited a row of prison cells, about the size of a three-man college dorm room, for political prisoners. On the lawn, a statue of Peter the Great sits, an overweight man with a tiny bald head. Visitors touch his hands for good luck, as if visiting a saint. A few yards away, in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, built between 1712 and 1933, the whole Romanov family lies buried beneath the floor throughout the church, each grave marked by a marble coffin.

The Real Russia

But to what degree do the cathedrals, castles and museums reveal the total Russia? Not enough. With crumbling infrastructure and falling oil prices, Russia is suffering the longest recession since Vladimir Putin took over in 1999: 14.2 percent of the population is below the poverty level. Turn to the recently published Putin Country, A Journey Into the Real Russia, by the NPR correspondent Anne Garrels. She reports that she returned many times to the city of Chelyabinsk, a thousand miles east of Moscow, and measured the economic effects of the collapse of the old Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when countries in the eastern bloc broke away and declared their independence, and then various republics of the U.S.S.R. demanded autonomy.

These were also the years in which the new, freer Russia emerged. “The new era offered the chance to make money and right old and new wrongs,” she writes. The first question you asked anyone was “What have you read?” With pirated DVDs and television, with Mexican soap operas and British detective series, the floodgates of new culture were opened. But these were years of “inside deals, scams, street crime, and the rise of a privileged mega-wealthy group of oligarchs armed with hidden Communist Party funds.”

Men and Women

In 1999 Vladimir Putin became president, but he did not accelerate what had become a steady march toward democracy. He declared war on graft but seemed to arrest mainly those outside the “system.” Russians, says Garrels, “are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into the world.” Putin’s answer, some argue, is to find enemies abroad to cover up the failures at home. So he annexed the Crimea and began sending troops and weapons to support the Russian speakers in Ukraine’s industrial east who wanted more autonomy. She introduces us to Kolya, a cab driver, whose mother had to steal to survive while her husband traded in illegal vodka. Kolya, gone on drugs, robbed a safe, went to prison, returned to his drug habit and was sent to a penal colony. Released, he joined a Baptist church and married Anna, and they had a baby girl. But Kolya ended up H.I.V.-positive. In many ways their struggle represents Russian family life. On the other hand, Chelyabinsk’s well-heeled families who succeeded in business have moved to the United States.

The Russian population of 142 million is shrinking by a million a year. Many educated Russian women are reluctant to marry; they build careers and wait for wealthy decent men to step forward. Alcoholism among both men and women raises the divorce rate, now the highest in the world. While Russians now live a little longer, 25 percent of men die before the age of 55. The life expectancy for males is 65 years. In the bathhouses, says Garrels, “the naked women talk freely among themselves, and few have much good to say about Russian men.” Russian men, we are told, are cursed by the belief they should make a quick million or do nothing at all.

The Professions

Medicine, teaching and the military have a long way to go. Medical education has deteriorated as students buy their way in and out of medical schools. The sharp rise in H.I.V. was triggered by a widespread heroin usage without adequate treatment options for addiction. Free education was once Russia’s pride. Now secondary schools teach only four basic subjects for no cost; students must pay for extra courses and activities. University education is now free for only a few, and those who pay are supported by administrators who accept bribes and direct the professor to favor the “cash cows.”

The military draws from a small pool of draft-age young men; those called to service can pay doctors or bribe the draft board thousands of dollars to escape service. Of the 11,000 people drafted into the air force in 2011, more than 30 percent were mentally unstable and 50 percent suffered from alcohol or drug abuse or were malnourished. In 1990 a movement of mothers of soldiers who had been hazed and brutalized claimed that 15,000 noncombatant soldiers had died during the preceding four years.

What about the church? And the journalism profession? Today the Orthodox Church is in bed with the government. Garrels reports that according to polls two thirds say they are Orthodox believers, but many say they do not believe in God. Only 5 percent to 10 percent attend services. Putin made it clear to media owners that he wanted loyalty and obedience, no satire or investigative reporting. The six national TV stations came under government control. In 2012 members of a female rock group Pussy Riot, who used Moscow’s Christ Savior Church to protest Putin’s Ukraine policy and the relationship between Putin and the church, were sentenced to two years in prison.

Gorbachev's Battle

The day I left for Russia The New York Times published a long interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been a leader in the Communist Party and eventually president from 1985-91, who had just turned 85 and published a new book, The New Russia. More than anyone else he had ended the Cold War and introduced two terms—glasnost, which means openness, and perestroika, or the restructuring of society based on universal values—which express his vision for a future democracy. Some Russians have never forgiven him for the changes; others see him as a secular saint for his determination to solve international problems by honest dialogue. His book, which begins with his resignation as president in 1991, is a combination of narrative, documentation, interviews, letters, photos, evaluations of other leaders and political argumentation; but it is also in the genre of spiritual writing, reflections on human nature and the place of personal character in creating a more just society.

In his book Gorbachev praises Nikita Khrushchev’s exceptional courage in striking the first blow against the totalitarian system. A 22-year old writes to thank him for making it possible to “think freely in our society.” He meets with Putin to resolve the problems in health care and education not by a “market” policy but to insure that basic health care and education are available to everybody, especially the old. He adds later that to deny these services, which are rights in the constitution, is “irresponsible and immoral.” Russia, he says, is no more than half way in its transition to democracy; and his opponents oppose it because democracy rigorously demands the turnover of rulers and observance of the law and allows no one the monopoly on power. By no means, he says, should Putin be elected president again in 2018. He strongly criticizes the United States for using force against Yugoslavia, expanding NATO missile strikes against Iraq in the late 1990s, as if the United States intends to handle security issues by a unilateral use of force. And finally, he says, we must rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Fallout Shelter

Since our visit to Moscow, the tension between the United States and Russia has risen. I remembered the years when Americans built bomb shelters in their back yards, and my mind raced back to Moscow and our visit to the little-known underground bomb shelter built during the Cold War in anticipation of a nuclear attack by the United States. The bunker is a series of three parallel, subway tubes of concrete and gray steel three stories underground. It could hold 600 selected people convinced that the United States was willing to kill them all in one mighty blast. In a horrifying documentary on the making of “the bomb” by both countries, we viewed a long series of nuclear explosions sending mushroom clouds ballooning up into the universe. One can imagine the Russian reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, on the last day of our visit, the tourist sight, along with Lenin’s tomb, that had long drawn me to St. Petersburg was a little upstairs room in the apartment where for the last two years of his life Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat at his desk by candlelight writing The Brothers Karamazov. For me it seemed a place more sacred than some of the cathedrals we toured every day. One room, a gallery mostly of historical photos, featured an unusual painting, a realistic side view of the corpse of Jesus stretched out in his tomb. Clearly one of the two greatest writers in history found this a source of inspiration. Perhaps the image of Jesus is also that of contemporary Russia itself. The body of Russia, like the body of Christ, has suffered greatly. We await its resurrection.

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