Letter From Moscow: Back in the USSR

You can't rely on the official media to learn much of what's going on in Russia. The government owns all Russian TV stations, on which never is heard a discouraging word. Jon Stewart-style political satire has disappeared from the airwaves. Those pundits who dared to challenge government policy haven't been banned, because this is an open democratic society. For some inexplicable reason, they've simply all chosen to stay off the air. Call it a mystery of the East.

For real intel, you have to go street Blogs, i.e. cab drivers. The guy shuttling me this week from Sheremetyevo Airport to the northeast suburb of Ismailovsky Park said he didn't vote in the last presidential election on March 2, which put Vladimir Putin's young, appointed heir, Dmitry Medvedev, in the president's throne. The cabby said he didn't know anybody who bothered to vote.

“The results were all arranged,” he said.

A theater director in the former Soviet Union once told me prophetically, as Boris Yeltsin was ascending to power, “Russia can never be a democracy. It's a joke. It's just not in our genes. This has nothing to do with the communists; our hunger for strong authority goes back thousands of years.”

To sidestep term limits, Putin ran virtually unchallenged for the lesser post of Prime Minister.

Yesterday, a friend told me a joke that's going around Moscow.

“I'm so pissed off about my taxes, I'm going to the president. And if that doesn't work, I'm going all the way up to the prime minister.”

Next month, a new Energy Ministry will take over the Unified Energy Systems (also a government ministry, headed by Anatoly Chubais) allowing some private investment in Russia's Siberian oil reserves, after years of reforms. This oil has literally fueled the Russian economy's return from the communist wasteland. Vladimir Putin was on hand at the Energy Ministry last week, arguing for rate stability and warning some of the private investors against gouging Russia's middle-class.

"As far as irresponsible behavior is concerned, I will tell you directly, and maybe a bit rudely: I will take [the profits] from your stomach and distribute them among the poor."

You only have to look to comments like this to understand Putin's soaring popularity here, compared to our oil family president, who takes precisely the opposite approach, opposing taxes on windfall oil profits.

When I first came here in 1991, the ruble was so worthless, a pack of Marlboros would pay for a cab ride anywhere in Moscow. A dollar bill bought four loaves of black (market) bread and slabs of fresh butter – ostensibly not in the shops, but held in reserve in back rooms. The sight of an American person brought waves of intense curiosity and amazement, fueled largely by Hollywood-generated images of the United States.

Today, the tiny, once barren Soviet-era apartments of my friends here have all been remodeled with furniture from Ikea, including lavish tile work, flat screen TVs and notebook computers. The children of my friends, now in their 20s, have landed jobs with local companies that have them working 14 hours a day. For culture, their parents went to the theater, the symphony and the opera. For culture, the kids go to the mall and buy designer clothes, mocking those who lack labels as “kristianni (peasants).” I was lobbied by one of them to bring in four new iPhones – which can't be purchased legally in Russia – but they weren't yet in American stores before I left the U.S.

This week, I was bracing for the anti-American sentiment that I heard permeated Russia, but I've seen little evidence of it. The drunks on the streets are as friendly as ever. Store clerks are just as exhausted. What I sense now is apathy towards us. They despise Bush, but they don't despise Americans. To be honest, Russians don't think much about America at all – with two exceptions: They want us nowhere near their oil and they want our military bases nowhere near Eastern Europe.

To the Russians I'm speaking with, America is just another country far away that talks nonsense about freedom and democracy to prop up its declining currency. (One U.S. dollar bought 26 rubles when I left. Eighteen months later, it buys 23.45.) Russian magazines advertise vacations to Turkey and Spain. The New York Times reports that Russians are vacationing overseas in unprecedented numbers – a sign of Russia's thriving economy. At Passport Control inside Sheremetyevo Airport, I stood in front of a large Russian family, all donned in maroon T-shirts bearing a golden crescent moon and the word, “Turkeye.” My Russian friends have traveled to Britain and much of Europe, but never to the U.S., where comparatively rigid entry requirements act as a deterrent to Russian vacationers.

“They just laugh at us,” my travel agent explained.

I spoke with a Muscovite businessman who was perplexed by how, in a democracy like America, people didn't take to the streets after the transparent fraud of the U.S. presidential election of 2000.

“Where was your free press discussing the obviously illegal invasion of Iraq?” he asked. “Where were the protests against torture sanctioned by the government, or against government wiretapping of American households, or against the hobbled investigations into any of these scandals?

Where is your democracy?” he asked. “You Americans are behaving just like us.”

I told him about Barack Obama and the tectonic political shift underway in the U.S.

He shrugged and quoted a line from Joseph Stalin: “Those who cast the votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything.”

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