In the weeks prior to our trip to Russia, the political crisis in Ukraine was front page news. US coverage of the tensions between Russia and the Ukraine led me to believe that:
- Most Ukrainians desired independence from Russia.
- Aside from right-wing hard-liners, most Russians were (secretly) aghast at Putin’s despotic machinations (even if they are afraid to admit it publicly).
- Russians were as preoccupied with the East-West conflict as we were, if not more anxious and dismayed.
Now that I’ve been in Moscow for a few days, I get the sense that the Russians aren’t nearly as concerned about the US as the US is about the Russia, and they fear chaos much more than they fear Putin.
We first met with Russian businessman who is a Davidson alum. When we asked his opinion on the Ukraine situation, he said,
Look, there’s no right or wrong in this situation. Everybody’s wrong.
In his view, political situations always complicate business transactions, and business is always political. The current crisis was no more critical than any other. The important thing was getting the deal done.
Later, on our tour of the Kremlin, our guide explained the four party system in Russia, explaining that two of them exist to create the illusion of democracy. “But we don’t have democracy in Russia,” she said cheerfully.
We’ve also encountered evidence that plenty of Russians are quite content with the situation. A dean at the university we visited (MGIMO) shrugged off our concerns, saying, “Everyone knows Crimea has always been a part of Russia.” In the theater district, next to the theater once famed for its political radicalism, was a huge billboard celebrating “Crimea and Russia, Together Forever.” Meanwhile, cars and busses sped by, and people passed without a glance.
Wherever we go and whomever we talk to, I get the sense of “business as usual.” The locals are aware of what is going on politically, but not particularly concerned, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the business of their lives. Irina and Amanda explain that Russians remember all too well the economic collapse and deprivations after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. No one wants to return to that kind of “free state,” in which no one can afford anything. A strong ruler like Putin is preferable, even if “we don’t have democracy in Russia.”
Today we toured the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art. Our tour guide displayed the same cheerful cynicism, as he linked the habits of former rulers like Ivan the Terrible to more recent heads of state. Even though Ivan the Terrible didn’t have the nationalist vocabulary, our guide said, he was the first to commission blatantly self-serving political propaganda. Our guide then directed our attention to an “impudent” painting depicting Ivan and his troops being welcomed into the gates of heaven (the panoramic scene naturally omitted any reference to the roughly 20% of the population Ivan had killed during his rule).
Later, in the 19th century wing, the guide directed our attention to a painting by Perov (aka Nikita Pustosvyat), called “Dispute About Faith.” The painting depicts the Schism between the old believers and the new believers in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The queen-like figure on the upper left who looks fearful and aghast is Sophia, the sister of Peter the Great. Neither she nor the other aristocratic figures on the left side of the painting look very sympathetic. Their stern faces and elegant clothing hardly make them seem like noble keepers of the faith. But the bearded rebel in the center of the painting, presumably the radical reformer, looks pretty crazy–not like a prophet I’d want to stand behind. And the people on his side don’t look very comfortable there either.
As I studied this painting, trying to figure out whose side Perov was on, it occurred to me that maybe he’s not worried about who is right and who is wrong, because he knows “everybody’s wrong.” Americans (like me) look for heroes and villains in history, but maybe Russians adopt a different perspective, in which the divisions aren’t so stark. Maybe for them, the greatest danger is neither the ruler nor the reformer, but the chaos that can come between them.