Saturday, May 2, 2015

Impressions of Russia

The Battle for Sevastopol, now showing in Russian theatres
The young man shook his head. “No, I can’t say I’m pro-Putin. There’s too much corruption in Russia, with too much money going to the wrong people. We should become more Western. Instead, we’re moving in the other direction.”

Finally, I thought, a liberal critic of Putin. The young man continued. “Here it’s not too bad, but in Moscow you can see the change. They’re all over. Please, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate anyone, but I feel uncomfortable when there are so many of them. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’m still in Russia.”


Much had changed since my last visit ten years ago. Driving into the city of Voronezh from the airport, I could see entirely new neighborhoods, supermarkets, office buildings, and the like. In 2003, there was only one shopping mall in the whole city, and it was nothing special. Now, there were malls as huge as any in Toronto. Things had likewise improved for some of our old friends and acquaintances. A few had moved up into the growing middle class, including one couple who showed us their new palatial home on the outskirts.

Yet the bulk of the population seemed no better off, and in some ways worse off. Ten years ago, jobs were there for the taking. The pay may have been lousy, but it was money. Now, the competition is intense even for those jobs. An unemployed man told me: “It’s hard to find work now. Employers will hire immigrants because they work for much less and won’t complain. And there are a lot of them now, mainly from Central Asia, but also from places all over.”

Sour grapes? Perhaps. But it’s consistent with what a Quebec building contractor had told me earlier. “I no longer bother with Russian construction projects because there’s always a Russian company that will put in an absurdly low bid. The only way he can stay within budget is by hiring illegal immigrants. Everyone knows it, but nothing is ever done to stop it.”


I wasn’t surprised to see Ukrainian refugees in a big city like Voronezh, but it was surprising to see so many in remote farming villages. And each refugee family had a horror story to tell. It’s one thing to hear these stories from professional journalists; it’s another to hear them from ordinary people who aren’t being paid to say what they say. This is an underappreciated factor in the growing anger among Russians against the Ukrainian government.

After all that’s happened, I don’t see how eastern Ukraine will ever accept being ruled by Kiev. It’s like a marriage that has crossed the line between verbal abuse and physical violence.


We were standing outside a fast food kiosk. “I just don’t get it,” said my wife. “Prices are almost as high here as in Canada, yet the wages are a lot lower. How do people manage to survive?”

A young man overheard her. “The people who don’t survive are the ones you don’t get to see.”


Postwar housing projects cover most of the city. They are now aging badly, and North Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call them “slums.” We like to think that slums cause crime, broken homes, and stunted mental development. Yet, here, you can walk up about in safety, families are usually intact, and the children are studying hard to become engineers, scientists, ballet dancers, or what have you.


We were sitting in a restaurant with two young Russians, a lawyer and a university teacher. “Will there be war?” said one, looking worried. I tried to be reassuring, saying no one wanted war. But I wasn’t sure myself.

There was another question. “But do the Americans know what they’re getting into?” I shook my head. Few people in the West know much about Russia, and what little they do is worse than useless.


Hitler said it would be like kicking in the door of a rotten building. That’s how it seemed at first. And then the war dragged on and on, grinding down one German division after another. If—God forbid—war happens another time, we’ll probably see the same pattern. Without a higher purpose, the average Russian man often retreats into indolence, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior. Give him that purpose, and he will fight for it with almost superhuman power.

One of my professors ascribed it to the yearly cycle of traditional farm life. For most of the year, the muzhik slept a lot and whiled away his days in aimlessness. But when it came time to plough the fields or bring in the harvest, he had to pull out all stops and work continuously from dawn to dusk.


It’s the 70th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, and reminders can be seen everywhere. There has been a spate of new war movies, including one about the Battle for Sevastopol. It’s hard not to see references to the current conflict.