Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Packing Knowledge

Do you keep a travel list of what to pack and things to do before leaving home? My packing begins long before a trip with a reading list related to my destination. Travel in conjunction with reading provides a way to explore a region or related topic.  Usually I discover how little I knew.

I recently returned from my first trip to Russia and for all the reading that I did about Russian history, I realized that I didn’t learn enough about today’s Russia. My expectations were woefully out of date, more tied to the Soviet era than the present. Because this trip was sponsored by the Museum of Russian Art, we had the good fortune of having quite a bit of expertise on board. That included authors and historians, people conducting business in Russia and one traveler who grew up in Russia. Several wore more than one of those hats.

We had several evenings set aside where we explored the questions that arose as we confronted the Russia of today. Those who had the opportunity to observe the development of Russia throughout time noted that in the past it largely focused on Lenin, the Bolsheviks and revolution. There is a renewed interest in the Romanovs and the theme of imperial power, something perhaps that Putin hopes to benefit from.  The question is what do you do now with the unsavory aspects of Soviet history? One solution has been to re-define the Soviet experience as being about World War II when the USSR played a critical role in the war as well as suffered great losses. There have also been efforts to commemorate those who lost their lives under the despotic Soviet regime. The Last Address Project places a plaque commemorating that history at the former home of a victim of repression, much like the stumbling stones that commemorate where Holocaust victims once lived.

I’ve spent the past year reading extensively about Russian history beginning with the czars, moving into Soviet times and more recently into today’s Russia.  I am struck by a theme of totalitarianism that runs throughout. Initially it was an imperial society run by the Tzar with support from the class of nobility. A very significant portion of the population was comprised of serfs and peasants, creating an inherently unstable society. After the revolution the nobility was uprooted and often executed. The players changed, but oppression through fear remained a constant. 

So why this recurring theme? One theory that intrigued me was to look at it through the lens of slavery. The United States' Civil War was over 150 years ago and yet we are still dealing with the aftermath of slavery. Russia had its own form of slavery in the serfs who represented a third of the population, 20 million people when serfdom was abolished in 1861. By contrast, in the US at that time slaves represented 4 million people. Serfs were Russians by birth and of the same race and religion and yet were viewed through an entirely different lens than other classes of Russian society. They were Other. Studies of Russia have found that a history of involuntary servitude results in lower economic and educational achievement many generations later. In the US this underlying inequity resulted in a civil war and a painfully slow correction which is still ongoing. In Russia it created an environment which fostered totalitarianism. Despite attempts to move to a more open society it continues to rear its head. Censorship was lifted under Gorbachev and Yeltsen tried capitalism, but economic disarray followed and the 1990s were described as a jungle run by thugs. Putin was viewed by many Russians as a stabilizing force who reasserted Russian identity even as he consolidated control.

So, are Russians better off today than during the Soviet regime? Our guides shared their experiences from the past which varied widely depending upon where their parents were positioned. They seemed to feel comfortable speaking about their experience which at one time would have been highly unwise. Having said that, it was also evident that there remained issues that were deeply felt and not discussed. Now they can travel, something that would not have been possible before. Food is available in grocery stores without the queues of the past. With some of the benefits of capitalism also comes greater insecurity and fewer guarantees.

I started with reading so let me end with some recommendations. As I move my attention to the Russia of today, I have found two books helpful in finding greater understanding. Red Notice by Bill Browder filled me in on today’s economic environment, the corruption within Russia and the power of the oligarchs. It also explains the underlying story of the Magnitsky Act and why Russia is so eager to get that lifted. This non-fiction book reads like a gripping novel. The other book that I would recommend is The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. This National Book Award winner follows the lives of several families through time giving us a perspective on the Soviet times and the progression to today. As someone who grew up in Russia and has since left, Gessen offers an inside perspective on the country of her birth. 

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