To say that Russia and the ex-Soviet space is complicated (think war journalist Arkady Babchenko, whose back-from-the-dead story unfolded during our spring 2018 trip here) is something of an understatement.
As we’ve travelled (not by bike this time), we’ve of course been aware and on occasion reminded of unpleasant undercurrents that remain, both Soviet and quintessentially Russian.
But revisiting this old-new country where Jutta and I first met 44 years ago, we’ve found much more than we expected that’s unambiguously good, fun, normal and human.
There are enough impressions to fill a book. Given however (knowing my dislike for long writing projects) that won’t get written very soon, for the record here some thoughts (and, when I get back to a computer with more oomph than the one I brought on the trip, perhaps some pictures) that have come to us on our three-week journey.
We’ve been to Moscow, the Golden Ring (Vladimir, Suzdal, Plyos, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov-the-Great, Pereslavl-Zalesky, Sergiev Posad plus Abramtsevo), Novgorod-the-Great, St Petersburg and the extraordinary wooden-church island of Kizhi rather closer to the Arctic.
Knowing both the Soviet past (which Jutta and I experienced at length during our separate times in Moscow in the early-to mid-70s and which has, in our shared observation, very little indeed to redeem it), and aware of my own tendency to overstatement, I know I need to be careful not to overdo the euphoric relief.
In the present political climate, positive comments about Russia also risk being misunderstood, rather as Moscow copy in the 70s and early 80s that fell outside the main narrative of the time (dissidents, refuseniks, nasty government, repression, etc) could end up on the newsroom spike.
But a bit like never being able to imagine, when we were there in those Cold War days the Berlin Wall no longer being in place, and rejoicing now at Germany’s normality, it’s hard not to feel a profound joy over the distance Russia has travelled in the past three decades towards her own new, consistently surprising and often delightful ordinariness.
Especially, it seems, since I was last here in 2007.
WiFi, English, Smartphones (yes, смартфоны) everywhere.
Fabulous cuisine (who’d have ever thought, remembering terrible Soviet catering).
Coffee shops. Beautiful young people hanging out and being cool. Excellent and contactless shopping. Joined up, easy-to-use public transport.
And – sometimes needing first to get beyond a familiar initial unsmiling face – much more spontaneous politeness and even outright kindness than ever we’ve experienced in Russia before.
A small but powerful indicator of deeper attitudinal change? Drivers now routinely stop at pedestrian crossings to let people pass. For anyone who knew Soviet road culture, that’s sensational.
Russia feels so much more comfortable with itself than in Soviet times, during the traumatic upheavals of the perestroika years in the 90s, or in the first decade of Putin’s rule.
Yes, in the absence of the old unifying Leninist ideology, this new Russia overdoses on the heroism and sacrifice of the WW2 fight against Nazism.
It also invests in a way that can border on the cloying in Russia’s ancient (how about more than 1000 years of continuity) Orthodox identity.
Putin is a canny and at times brutal operator.
And although all of these things do make sense in the Russian historical, psychological and political context (another blog), there’s no glossing over the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the shooting down of flight MH17, the international-rules-based-order-busting seizure of Crimea, the corruption and outright lying, the murders and poisonings, the fake news, the social media manipulation, the worsening suppression of dissent and so much else.
A pretty damning list…
And, I’m as aware as any observer of Russia of this country’s official and ingrained “whataboutism” response to external critics, as in, How dare you condemn us! What about you!
But as Jutta and I travel, we do find ourselves (obsessively!) thinking (and reading) of Brexit, and of Britain’s own (to me as the son of two colonial-born parents, deeply unpleasant) obsession with the last world war and standing proud against Johnny Foreigner.
And let’s not go into Britain’s previous colonial past, or how we fought the air war against Germany (Dresden, anyone, where Jutta’s father’s first wife died in the February 1945 fire bombing?), or Iraq 2003, and rather more besides.
We all have our histories. And we all indulge in national myths.
Thankfully on this Russia trip, speaking (in my case) and understanding (in Jutta’s) reasonably fluent Russian, we’ve been able to enjoy dozens of conversations with ordinary, individual Russians from many backgrounds.
The Uzbek taxi driver in Moscow who, like many others, thought Putin was at last bringing an appropriate order and prosperity to Russia after the chaotic Yeltsin years.
The (also now taxi-driving) ex-army officer and retired policeman in Novgorod who acknowledged that while it was now possible again to feel proud of Russia on the international stage, it was unacceptable (his language was more colourful) that Putin and the central Russian government were failing to honour promises of generous financial support for military veterans.
Of his mother’s 9000 rouble-a-month pension, 8000 went on rent. “How can one live on that kind of money.”
Or the also ex-army man with whom we stayed (no sense at all any more, by the way, of the old Soviet-days fear of consorting with foreigners) who’s done very well indeed out of the new order, and waxed brutally critical of pretty much everything the West has done in relation to Russia for a good 100 years.
Lovely chap, if conspiracy theorist to his bones, he was confident that as things collapse globally, it will be Russia that emerges prosperous from the ruins.
Again, he says, thanks to Putin…
Or the old friends and intellectuals in Moscow who are now just so completely European, and travelling, and open, and delighted at our visit, while also very worried about the under- (and over-) currents of repression that mark Putin’s era.
So, as we approach the end of our nostalgia tour 2018, what are the two of us primarily left with?
Above all, this. Russia when visited in person feels and looks and acts more normal and mainstream European/international than we ever believed might be possible when we lived and worked here nearly a half century ago.
I recall thinking then how, when the Soviet Union eventually emerged from the catastrophe unleashed by its 1917 Bolshevik revolution (as most of us knew it would, though very few foresaw that the whole USSR would fall apart), Soviet communism would be seen as a massive historical wrong-turning, leaving Russians one day trying to pick up where they left off in 1917.
Which is what they now give every sense of trying to do – though what’s also surprised both of us is how much of a pre-1917 capacity for individual enterprise, attention to quality, hard work and care has survived, and resurfaced in the collective culture.
That this was possible in China after Mao makes sense, with what was after all just a one-generation hiatus during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
I never thought it could happen so (relatively ) soon in Russia, with a three-generation gap from the consolidation of Stalin’s power in the mid-20s to Gorbachev’s late 1980s perestroika.
After three weeks here, I find myself less bothered than I was (when we were cycling through Kaliningrad last year, for example) by how, after the horrors, violence, neglect, invasions, turbulence and ideologies of their past century, Russians are now finding respite in older and more consistent Orthodox and national identities.
Or that, again as a collective, Russia is choosing to pay as little attention as it can get away with to its 70-year-plus miserable, self-inflicted, unambiguously dreadful years of Soviet rule.
Many Soviet street names remain, especially outside Moscow and St Petersburg, and we’ve found most cities holding on to their central, quietly crumbling and bird-dropping-stained statues of Lenin.
But in most signage, explanatory texts in museums, tour group commentaries and public spaces, not to speak of the media, shockingly bland in coverage of anything domestically political, the Soviet era is quite astonishingly absent – reminding me of how, in the Germany I first got to know in the 60s and 70s, there was almost no discussion of the Nazi years.
Reluctant directly to address or explore responsibility for the terrible crimes committed in their name (as Germany has both had to and chosen to do), perhaps Russians need time still to take stock of where they now find themselves, for a while to be a lot less political, and just be ordinary and get on with daily life with as little further political change as possible.
Perhaps indeed we, together with the Russians in all their warmth and contradictory confusion, can hope that, a bit like Germany, this extraordinary, great nation might in future decades find the space to engage more honestly and with humility with what it has inflicted on itself and others over the past century.
(OK, misery on a different scale, but speaking of national myth-making, perhaps with Brexit, Britain too might with time begin to think of itself with more maturity and insight. Another story, on which I’m not holding my breath.)
In the meantime, therefore, how do we in the West – post Skripal, post Crimea, post Syria and the rest – engage with Russia?
Let’s think psychotherapeutically.
Switching over the years from reporting international relations to working with clients, I’ve come to the view that nations, ultimately, are best understood as individuals writ large.
In therapy, we know that however dysfunctional our clients’ acting out (addictions, relationships, general self-destructive mess), in the end it’s the relationship that gets them through, whatever our therapeutic approach.
And yes, a cliche perhaps but no less true for it, the Russians (like all of us) really, really, want (and need) to be loved, and to be securely connected, validated, witnessed.
Successful therapy, or for that matter teaching where bad behaviour has consequences, also of course needs very clear and firm boundaries.
But as Carl Rogers distilled it down when he broke with the rigidities of psychoanalysis in the 1950s, what works to help people heal their emotional wounds are the three simple and universal principles of empathy, congruence, and, yes, unconditional positive regard.
That latter one is a difficult concept in international relations. But if any party to a conflict (think couples therapy or Northern Ireland) feels fundamentally judged and rejected for who they are rather than for what they do, then neither therapy nor mediation will work.
Goodness me, there’s enough that needs to change in how Russia engages with the world. But ultimately, all of us need connection, engagement and relationship.
It works in therapy.
With Russia too, it’s the only thing that, ultimately, will work.
So, in sum? To our very great surprise, we’ve absolutely loved being back. Do come and explore your own relationship with Russia, and see if what I’ve tried to capture here makes any sense for you.