That is not to say that life in Russia is perfect or that Moscow is necessarily indicative of the rest of the country. Indeed, in rural areas of the country, people have been affected to a much larger degree by the economic decline than in Moscow, and yet, over 80% of the population supports the course taken by President Putin. Indeed, those who take issue with Putin, and advocate that Russia bend backwards to please the US, are generally part of a small, affluent, but politically irrelevant liberal minority, one which resides in the large cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
In a trip to Moscow prior to this one, taken at the end of April 2015, I was left with a different impression. The mass suffering and destruction I witnessed in Donetsk seemed to escape the notice or attention of many Muscovites, who seemed more interested in living a luxurious life style than in the pain and suffering taking place next door. It was almost as if residents of this great metropole were hoping to escape, ignore or evade the news from Ukraine, more concerned about remaining unaffected in their artificial bubble. Indeed, the assumption driving the Western approach to Russia has been that following the collapse of the USSR – and the fact that Russia is forbidden by following a particular ideology in its new constitution – most Russians under Putin wish to live a comfortable and affluent life, and if faced by sanctions they’ll withdraw their support from “bad guy” Putin.
Perhaps it was the lovely late summer weather that caused the many Muscovites who were out in the parks and streets to be in high spirits, but my impression was that a deeper phenomenon was in play. Museums and churches were packed with people. Residents enjoyed each other’s company in parks, even while spending less. And people did not seem subdued or concerned, but rather, more determined and proud of their identity and country.
What may explain this resilience and inner strength, seemingly oblivious to the demands of the so-called “international community” and to the massive campaign of disinformation and hate launched by the Western corporate media, replete with horror stories on “Putin’s Russia” that leave one with the impression that Muscovites are depressed, living under tyranny, and devoid of life and joy?
It appears that the Western approach to Russia failed to take into account several basic facts, of which those familiar with Russian history and culture would be aware.
First, Russians no longer need the approval of the West to be happy or confident. Russians remember well that during the Yeltsin years, when they were supposedly enjoying the fruits of Western democracy and a time of prosperity following seventy years of the Soviet Union’s existence. In reality the country was privatized by the order of economists sent by Western-dominated financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, and massive hunger ensued as the country was subject to new dictates imposed the Washington Consensus. Russia was “loved” by the world then, but that did not help Muscovites who needed bread to survive the night. Now that Putin is being demonized by the major Western countries, who also supported a violent coup led by neo-Nazi groups in Kiev and aid Islamist groups bringing total destruction to Syria, many Russians must realize that the alternative the West envisions for Russia is not a prosperous state, but a subdued and subjugated colony. With the difficult 1990s serving as a precious lesson, most Russians now realize that they no longer need to seek the West’s affirmation to exist happily, and that as long as they live by the moral standards they set themselves, they can appreciate the gift of inner peace, knowing that they are forging the right path regardless of international criticism.
Secondly, many Russians have come to understand that as Washington does not accept basic decency among countries as a value. The Euro-Atlantic powers have supported the rehabilitation of Nazism in Ukraine while voting in the UN along with Canada against a resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism, betraying the common legacy shared with the Soviet Union in the common struggle against Hitler. We witness the “indispensable nation” violating the basic norms of human decency, but now its information campaigns, threats and hostile actions are not greeted with fear, but with even greater resilience.
Thirdly, Russians have proven to themselves, perhaps with some degree of surprise following several decades of a loss of ideology, that they actually do have an internal reservoir of untapped strength and that there are certain values they hold dear, values for which they are willing to sacrifice. Russians, who are not strangers to sufferings endued by hardships when being confronted by Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, for example, rediscovered a pleasure in realizing that there are still values worthy of struggle. In other words, Russians have essentially seen that there are certain essential Russian values – such as basic decency, opposition to blind chauvinism and senseless killings, love for one’s neighbor and justice – to which they still adhere. Hardships that expose these values within them are to be welcomed rather than feared. Russians know that the post-USSR Russian Federation has not been an aggressive country on the international stage and has not bombed countries into submission for the sake of controlling their markets as the US, UK and France, have done. Therefore, since they realized that they behaved rather decently, they are prepared to bear the burden of indecent behavior or retribution by the West.
Fourthly, Russians have turned back to communal values, a spiritual and religious outlook of life, and a reliance on one’s intuition and mystical knowledge rather than the split between the heart and mind common to the West, as evidenced by the revival of Orthodox Christianity. Many Russian citizens have turned to their native faith – whether Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, or Islam – and returned to traditional values such as the importance of family and community rather than adopting European post-modern values guided by atheism. These spiritual traditions, suppressed for decades and now reemerging, emphasize to present-day Russians that they are part of a long and glorious history spanning centuries, and that their own traditions contain spiritual and emotional riches which can provide their lives with meaning and spiritual knowledge. Russians now better realize that they are not empty slots but have roots. Now revived in a religious and cultural rebirth which seems to be taking place, they are more powerful than the pain endured by financial losses, as they remind Russians that life has meaning, that the wisdom of the heart is stronger than the heartless rationality of productivity and “progress,” and that they can rightly be confident and proud of their own heritage and history. Russians have discovered, in other words, that they are not just a country, but a civilization, and that they can be confident in their own identity.
This joy of rediscovery of one’s strength outweighs most other difficulties, not that these difficulties should be underestimated.
Doubtless not all Russians share the view outlined above. Some, a majority of whom belong to a pro-Western middle class working in sectors related to the global circulation of capital, have an idealistic view of the West and seek to be part of it. They do not wish to stand apart from the West and do not wish to undergo economic difficulties. Some of their criticism may be justified, while other aspects may be downright childish and naive. To praise the West as perfect while turning a blind eye to Wall Street’s imperial wars, or to condemn the inauguration of a major mosque in the capital while viewing themselves as part of liberal, multicultural Europe, reveals a certain lack of sound reasoning, wishful thinking, and a needless inferiority complex. The debate between Westernizers who saw Russia as part of the West and Slavophiles who viewed Russia as a civilization in its own right harks back at least a century ago to the points raised by Herzen, Kireevsky, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Today a majority of Russians would appear to hold the Slavophile position, proud of their identity and culture and determined to continue on their own civilizational path.
For these reasons, I left Russia more optimistic than several months ago. Russians have, in my opinion, demonstrated not only that they are determined to stray strong despite attempts at isolation and “containment,” thereby paving the way for a future multipolar world, but have also done so with a new-found joy and surprise at the discovery of values demanding righteous sacrifice. They have a rich and glorious civilization of which they must be proud, rather than ashamed, and which is strong enough to deflect efforts to subjugate it or destroy it. While it has been said long ago that Russians tend to adapt quickly to times of crisis, it also appears that this time they are also invigorated by the realization of inner strength. There are unique virtues and traditions which are not simply abstractions, and through struggle they reveal a spirit that exists within us.