Nancy and I just got back from a great two week adventure in Russia.
I’d gone with a mental image of the Russia I knew back in the days of Nikita Khrushchev and the Cold War. As far as I was concerned, Russia was a cold, sterile place whose leaders were crude and calculating, bent on world domination. What I actually saw was anything but sterile or cold. In fact, it was refreshingly beautiful and vibrant.
World travel is a great gift. To that end, Nancy and I have been very fortunate to see that the world is indeed much different when it’s experienced directly rather than vicariously. As Saint Augustine observed, "The world is a great book, and none study this book so much as a traveler. They that never stir from their home read only one page of this book.”
What did we see? We saw Saint Petersburg and the Hermitage. We spent an incredible morning at Peterhof Palace, Russia’s response to Versailles. In the days after we left Saint Petersburg, we meandered down the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that eventually took us to Moscow. We were treated to some incredible music from three Russian Orthodox priests on Kizhi Island. We sampled the beauties of Yaroslavl, including one Russian Orthodox Church dedicated to the prophet Elijah and another called the Cathedral of the Assumption, which was dedicated to Yaroslavl the Wise, the city’s founder.
We spent part of a day in a small village. For me, the most memorable part of that day was getting to interact with young school children in a facility that was small and Spartan by our standards. But, the children’s enthusiasm for learning more than compensated for the lack of amenities. In between villages we saw Russian families camping along the banks of the rivers, some fishing, some swimming and some sitting around campfires singing. They appeared to be enjoying life.
By the time I got to Moscow I thought the Cold War realities I’d been accustomed to for years would once again come into focus. I was wrong!
Moscow is far from being drab and cold. It’s a vibrant city. Red Square is incredibly beautiful. There are vestiges to the old times. Lenin still lies in state, as cold as ice. All the Russians I met told me it was well past the time to take the carcass out and bury it. About the only people who visit the site are American tourists. The Russians make them pay for the privilege. The Russians, after all, are now capitalists.
The signs of economic growth are omnipresent. As you scan the Moscow horizon you can see construction cranes and high rise office buildings and apartments everywhere. Traffic jams have become part of everyday life in Moscow. At one point one of our guides had a bit of fun at our expense while we were making our way through some major congestion. "If your president is looking for Edward Snowden, please tell him that he’s stuck in a traffic jam with the rest of us.”
Russians are very proud of the fact that their middle class is expanding by leaps and bounds. Incomes are increasing. They’re energy independent and resource rich, with huge reserves of oil and natural gas in Siberia.
I came home with some enduring perceptions. First, Russia is on the rise, economically, politically, and socially. I’m not sure we can say the same thing. Second, the world’s political tides seem to be turning. We seem to be operating out of the na�ve belief that this is a unipolar world and we are the world’s boss. The Russians insist that it’s not. Third, they want to cooperate with us, but they feel that we’re locked into the old mentality that says Russia is bad and America is always right. Edward Lozansky, professor of world politics at Moscow State University put it this way: "The U.S. political establishment stubbornly sticks to this position, blindly ignoring the disastrous failures of color revolutions in several former Soviet republics and the equally disastrous results of the "Arab Spring.” The prevailing attitude in Washington is: The democracy show must go on and damn the realities.”
We’re renewing our daily routines. Thankfully, things are quiet here in Emporia. Ominously, though, the geopolitical tug-of-war between Barack Obama, Syria and Vladimir Putin has the world’s attention. America may soon be raining cruise missiles down on Syria. If, or when, that happens� we may indeed find out who really is the boss of the world.