My St Petersburg students ask me during our last class: What do you think of Russia? What can I answer except that I have not “seen” Russia having been in St Petersburg, Moscow and Kaliningrad, and in the last two cities only for a few days? They readily agree. Yet I have spent three and half months in Russia. So what do I think even if my response can only be provisory and limited? I do not want to duck the question although thinking something about a country sounds so much like judgment, and this I want to avoid. So I bring up a few queries and reflections rather than any conclusion.
As I walk the streets of Saint Petersburg, at times I sense something like a dark cloud hanging over us, me and the other harried passersby. This is not about meteorology under the beautiful misty sky, and I feel very safe physically. So what is it? I wonder. Is it fear about the political future? Memories from the Soviet times? Disappointments after the 1991 aborted revolution? Or simply mourning too private to utter in public? I cannot know. What I know is that Russia is a tough country, which has demanded and still demands well developed survival skills from its citizens.
It reminds me of the US in some respects. Saint Petersburg is a busy city whose air is polluted by too many cars. There is little time to invite anyone not part of the inner family circle to one’s home. And long conversations around the kitchen table are long gone, I am told. Employees of the service industry work too hard, most stores and coffee places are open every day of the week until 11 pm. A simple cappuccino coffee easily costs 120 rubles (4 dollars) whereas I pay 9 dollars for a taxi ride that may last 30 minutes. Under my window immigrant workers replace water lines at great speed; others clean the streets. I observe late on Saturday nights yet others repairing some of the splendid government and private buildings left from the Tsarist era. How much they remind me of the Latin American roofers employed in my Saint Paul, Minnesota, affluent neighborhood who work similar hours. Schoolteachers, college instructors and even some professors, are paid less than a living wage. And medical care of quality is not universally guaranteed; it is available if one can pay for private medical services also.
I watch President Putin on TV giving his yearly State of the Union speech in front of a respectful and mostly male audience, with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill sitting in the front row. This ceremony’s deferential trappings are visually so US-like. I am surprised also by the militaristic tone of TV channel Russia Today’s documentary, which celebrates the heroism of the Russian Special Forces deployed in the Caucasus, and which is shown several days in a row. Interviews about Soviet and post-Soviet identity in Svetlana Alexievitch’s last book, Vremia second hand (konets krasnovo tcheloveka) confirm that some former Soviet Union’s citizens, including Russians, believe in war’s positive role in strengthening national identity, like some Americans.
Other things are very different. I observe from the windows both of the beautifully looked after and comfortable Sapsan high-speed train from St Petersburg to Moscow and the slow intercity train near Kaliningrad, deserted countryside and dilapidated dachas. I worry about the future of Chechnya and Dagestan republics, which are still part of the Russian Federation and far from being at peace. War is contagious.
The dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 has meant that new borders rose between people who used to be fellow citizens and spoke the same tongue; now they belong to different sovereign states and are “foreigners” to each other; and this is partly making immigration issues more acute in Russia. It strikes me that the dismantling of border controls within the European Union (EU), a process, which started in 1985 and is still ongoing, provokes similar reactions of rejection, but in this case against those who have morphed from “foreigners” whose identity must be checked into fellow EU citizens with full freedom of movement. The frozen borders of the Cold War times, whose disappearance I do not regret within the EU, seemed easier to handle.
Most of the well-educated Russian women I speak with (born between late 1940s-late 1960s) have had one child or none. As a result several find themselves today supporting aging and handicapped husbands and they will keep working as late as possible, i.e. well into their sixties or even seventies. Others in their forties, are more optimistic, but express a sense of limited opportunities. University graduates who got their degrees in the chaotic 1990s (marred by ill-conceived liberalization programs) have often not found work corresponding to their qualifications.
On the other hand, the students I meet in four academic institutions in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Kaliningrad, are very much like those I taught in France, the Netherlands and the US: full of energy, dreams and curiosity, mostly eager to learn and to achieve. I learn much from them as I teach and give lectures.
Many questions remain pending for me as I depart, and, much more challengingly, for Russians. Graduate students present their primary research at a fascinating seminar on civil society at European University Saint Petersburg. The protests of 2011 and 2012 against rigged electoral processes have instilled new hope that Russians can create a working democracy. Weeks later I meet an election observer of the 2011 and 2012 federal elections in quite a different venue. This activist insists on civic responsibility, which must be met regardless of the costs, and yet she remembers the fate of the 1920s émigrés who had to start life all over again in foreign lands. So, in case politics go wrong, my interlocutor bought a little house in a Baltic republic a few years ago, a pleasant get away for now, but also a potential safe haven. Just in case…