Riva Enteen reports on a recent citizens’ delegation to Russia and the chance to consider the country and its recent turbulent history from the vantage point of people living there.
By Riva Enteen
I just came home to California from a 50-person citizen diplomacy delegation to Russia to ponder my neighbor’s bumper sticker that says “Just pretend it’s all OK.” That’s the American state of mind, but it doesn’t extend to Russians, who are painfully aware of war and its death and destruction. The still pervasive images of wheat in the cities and towns reflect the necessity of feeding the people. The U.S. unapologetically operates on the principle that war is good for business. Russians know war too deeply to accept that premise.
Russians call WWII the Great Patriotic War because of all the allies, they lost the most people (27 million) by a wide margin and fought the longest to defeat the Nazis. The siege of Leningrad lasted an almost incomprehensible 900 days. There is a visceral understanding of war in Russia, while in the U.S. war is so sanitized that the corporate media is forbidden to show coffins draped in American flags.
Though some Soviet accomplishments have been erased, many remain. Subways, designed by the Soviets to be underground “Palaces of the People,” are filled with exquisite art. People told us that in the Soviet era, the collective and state farms, a major feature of the U.S.S.R.’s socialist economy, worked well, ending a thousand years of frequent famines in the Russian empire. In a short time, Russia became one of the most educated, and well-read countries in the world. And Russians are well aware that Stalin led the U.S.S.R. in the defeat of the Nazis.
In Moscow, a number of scholars and specialists in economics, history, media and political science spoke to us and answered questions. One, a young political scientist, asked the group a critical question: “Why didn’t the U.S.befriend the Russians when the Cold War ended?”
Nobody responded, so I asked 83-year old Sharon Tennison, the founding and continuing torch of the 32-year old Center for Citizen Initiatives, why. She said: “It’s because the U.S.went back on its word and took advantage of Russia’s goodwill, and underneath had the Wolfowitz Doctrine in mind. [Leaked to The New York Times in 1992, the Wolfowitz Doctrine was a policy of unilateralism and pre-emptive military action to suppress potential threats from other nations and prevent any other nation from rising to superpower status.] This was their chance to get Russia’s resources, and not live up to their word. It went from bad to worse after that! The Russians know this better than Americans.”
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Vladimir Kozin, a distinguished expert in military and strategic sciences, delivered a terrifying report of the state of nuclear disarmament. He spoke chillingly of the death of arms control, while we are in “Cold War 2.0.” Of the 13 arms control treaties, the U.S. has withdrawn from, violated, or refused to debate all of them. Differences between offensive and defensive weapons are being watered down. Russia has destroyed all of its chemical weapons; the U.S. has not.
Afraid of Nuclear War
Kozin is surprised that Americans are not afraid of nuclear war. Fifty two percent of Russians are afraid of nuclear war, and 74 percent of those think the U.S. will attack them. He said instead of promoting MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), we need to promote MAS (Mutually Assured Security), but that stability and security talks haven’t even begun.
Vladamir Pozner, Russia’s top TV journalist, spoke of the Russian people’s disillusionment with the promise of nuclear disarmament. They wonder if it was just a pipe dream when Kruschev spoke of total global disarmament and when Gorbachev proposed a Zero Use policy for nuclear weapons.
There was much talk about the effect of the sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia; first for its reunification with Crimea, then for the charge – since disproven – that Russia colluded with Donald Trump.
The sanctions are hurting Russia, but they have also stimulated a better business climate. They are focused on national security priorities, including improving agricultural production. Everybody expects more sanctions to come soon, which many people believe benefits China. Some from the Gorbachev era apparently think it’s better for Russia to align with the U.S. and NATO than China, but the success of the Belt and Road Initiative shows that cooperation among Asian countries is increasing. The unipolar world of U.S. exceptionalism — a rogue state, where the rules don’t apply — is being challenged.
Financial analyst Chris Weafer said the Russian state controls 60 percent of the GDP and 75 percent of the banking system. Several of the state-owned banks forbid speculative lending. Because so much of the banking system is in the public sector, the government has capital to work with, much of it going to domestic needs. He reported that Russia has an excellent balance sheet, with the world’s sixth lowest debt and the fifth highest in reserves.
Weafer described Putin’s proposed National Projects, which is a five-year plan using 22 percent of the GDP, with 30 percent funding for economic infrastructure and 30percent funding for social improvements, such as subsidies for housing and childcare. The government is also allocating significant funds for health care generally, as well as cancer research specifically. A major National Projects goal is energy development — for the country to be less reliant on fossil fuels, so less vulnerable to volatile oil prices. Weafer believes the National Projects are “concrete, beneficial and likely to succeed,” though it’s expected to take a bit longer than five years to achieve.
He said that Putin, upon coming to power, told the oligarchs (the ultra-rich who use their money for political power) that if they pay their taxes and stay out of politics, he wouldn’t prosecute them. Apparently he was true to his word and prosecuted only those who violated that policy. He told the oligarchs that they got rich off the state, so it’s not all their assets, and some of it must go to the state as taxes to use for the people. After the recent fires in Russia, Putin declared that no business could increase their prices, so nobody benefits off the tragedy. There are still civil servants from the Soviet period who influence such policies.
Annexation of Crimea
Dmitri Babich is known to those who watch “Crosstalk” on Russia Today. He is a 25-year journalist with stints at the Moscow News and Sputnik International, and is a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN. “Currently there is only a small group of Western critical journalists,” Babich said. “If journalists are against the mainstream position, they are called Putin-sympathizers.” He called the annexation of Crimea an “act of ultimate justice,” as they all speak Russian, and asserted that the “modern media can operate without facts, just the power of illusion.”
As to the power of illusion, Andrei Nekrasov, a dissident filmmaker, spoke of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Russia to the Third Reich and Putin to Hitler. Such vilification impedes progress towards a peaceful resolution of disputes, to say the least, which the Russians are quite aware of.
After over 300 years of being part of Russia, in 1954 Khrushchev “gave” Crimea to Ukraine. For 23 years (from the breakup of the Soviet Union to the vote for reunification, 1991-2014), Ukraine provided no support or help, economically and culturally. The Commission for the 2014 referendum to reunify with Russia declared that final results showed 96.8 percent of voters were in favor of joining Russia, and that they had not registered a single complaint about the vote. However, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia for accepting Crimea into the Russian Federation, including visa bans and asset freezes. Putin told Obama the vote was “fully consistent with the norms of international law and the UN charter” under the principle of self-determination. Agreeing with Putin, in 2015, Consortium News’ founder Robert Parry asserted:
“The West’s insistence that Russia must return Crimea to Ukraine would mean violating the age-old U.S. principle of a people’s right of self-determination. It would force the largely ethnic Russian population of Crimea to submit to a Ukrainian government that many Crimeans view as illegitimate, the result of a violent U.S.-backed coup on Feb. 22, 2014, that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych.”
Our delegates who went to Crimea said it has benefitted from the reunification, though it’s been hardest hit by the sanctions. Russia has invested significant money there — in roads, airports, a new train link. But Crimeans feel like there is a wall around them, and they want to be part of the world community.
Several speakers described the better conditions under the Soviets. These included a more stable currency, controlled prices, no unemployment, less crime, police as a moral authority and better health care for all, including the elderly. Putin’s government knows that the popular demands of pension, housing, health care, transportation, job security and infrastructure are only ignored at its peril, since Russians know what is possible. In the U.S., we’ve been held down for such a long time, we are like the fabled frog that was so slowly boiled, it didn’t perceive the danger, and was cooked to death.
After getting an overview in Moscow, the delegation broke into groups to visit 20 smaller towns in six time zones. Three of us visited the small (pop. 60,000) town of Kungur on the west side of the Ural Mountains. Their coat of arms is a cornucopia facing down, spilling out the food, to express fertility, generosity and abundance, rather than an upright cornucopia, which would represent a selfish lack of sharing.
We visited schools in Kungur and in an outlying settlement. Many said that schools are not as strong as they were under the Soviets. However, as a retired San Francisco social worker, I was struck by how the students were neatly dressed, respectful, curious, attentive and calmer than the pervasive ADHD cacophony of students in the U.S. They seemed pleased to be students and took it seriously, with much respect given to their teachers.
A settlement is a village for the indigenous of the area, with somewhat more autonomy. Russia is a country of 180 nationalities and 40 indigenous, or nomadic, peoples. The Tatar are the predominant people of the settlement we visited. The school doesn’t experience truancy, gun violence, gangs, bullying, or an opioid crisis. After school, many of the students walk a few blocks to the library or dance school. The settlement is proud of its most famous library of the district, with 1500 registered children readers. They spoke of the many holidays that the Russian Orthodox, Muslim and Jew share together. People in the settlement talked freely about the Soviet period. The Soviets converted a Tsar-era school for wealthy boys into an administration building, and built 88 new coed schools in the district. The former priest’s house is now the post office. The center of the settlement holds a memorial dedicated to the mothers of those lost in the Patriotic War.
Perm, the biggest city of the district, houses the university that trains teachers, called the “noble profession.” (Although called the “noble profession,” none of the teachers we spoke to could afford to own a car.) We spoke to the senior class of English teachers-in-training, who were very aware of the non-stop anti-Russia coverage in U.S.-corporate media. One said he fears that dystopian books are coming to life. After I spoke about the need for the U.S. to cut its military budget in order to address its domestic needs (as per MLK), the professor said the best proof of that assertion is that after WWII, Japan wasn’t allowed to have a military, so their education and technology soared. The U.S. government will spend $2.7 billion per day next year to prop up the military and the more than 800 bases it maintains in over 70 countries.
Ann Wright, the most prominent member of the delegation, served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves, was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and resigned from the U.S. government in March 2003 in opposition to President George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. She visited Siberia and titled her article about the visit with the words of the leader of an organization for mothers of military veterans in Yakutsk, Siberia: “Our planet is so small that we must live in peace.” Although the Russian economy has dramatically improved under Putin, Wright frequently heard that “pensioners and those in rural areas with limited income have found life more difficult. Many wish for the days of the Soviet Union where they feel they were more secure economically with state assistance.”
Our trip ended in St. Petersburg, where delegation members described similar conversations in the smaller towns we visited. One member, who visited Russia twice before, 21 and 18 years ago, writes: “Overall, prosperity has improved, dramatically. The apparent quality of life and material standard of living are evident everywhere. Even in some of the rural areas I’ve visited. Of course, cities in Crimea have slipped a bit due to the sanctions, but I’ve seen the results even there because federal spending is so evident on the roads, bridges, a mosque, hospitals, dwellings for residences, public works, and other projects not yet allocated.”
Another member of the delegation compiled this summary of his conversations about the Soviet period:
- A poor couple living in the countryside felt things were much better back then. “We had more money for food, for the things we need.”
- A scientist: “Everyone had a job under Communism, my son has been looking for work for two years now and has not found one.”
- A teacher: “My grandfather was arrested in the’30s and died in prison. But healthcare was free, education was free, housing was free.”
- Another teacher: “The Soviet education system was maybe the best in the world, now it is collapsing. There is no money.”
- A wealthy company owner: “Are things better today? You must ask for whom? For me, yes, things are much better, but for most people, no, I don’t think so. No one talks about the lack of freedom or the lack of democracy under Communism. And most think that in the old days things were better economically for most people.”
- One noted “We wanted socialism with a human face, but we got [long pause] very harsh capitalism.”
St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of the country, where I attended an opera in an ornate theater for $12. The pedestrian bridge over the river Neva shines with repeating metal images of wheat and a five-pointed star, everlasting symbols of the revolution. I was blessed to experience the women’s bath house on Dostoevsky Street. Since ancient times, the banya has been considered an important bonding place in Russian culture, used by all social classes within Russian society. A woman there, with very limited English, asked my name. When I said “Riva,” she asked if it’s a “Yiddish name.” I said yes, that my grandmother was from Minsk. She excitedly told the other women in the room where my “bubbie” was from. I felt warmed by the soul, and pride, of the Russian people.
Pride does not mean the exceptionalism of U.S. foreign policy — our way or the highway, sometimes in the guise of a “humanitarian intervention.” The people of Russia, with such an ancient culture, have much to be proud of, but they are not trying to impose their will on anybody else. They just want to live in peace. As the woman in Siberia said, “Our planet is so small that we must live in peace.”
A short film about the delegation was produced: “Russia is not our Enemy.”
Riva Enteen edited the book “Follow the Money,” interviews by Flashpoints producer Dennis J. Bernstein. She can be reached at [email protected] Read other articles by Riva.
This article is from Dissident Voice.
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Thanks for this article. Good to hear something nice about Russia for a change.
The lies and smears of the Mainstream Media against this great country with nice and friendly people and a President who can be called a peacemaker are sometimes unbearable.
It wasn’t the first time, nor the last one either, that the US has gone back on it’s word. I’ll never understand why so many people continue in awe of this country.
Nor will I understand why so many people migrate to the USA, a country that has no paid maternity leave or universal healthcare and isn’t on the metric system like every other country in the world not named the UK or Liberia. Countries like Canada and Australia even have 1- and 2-dollar coins.
Commentator Fran Macadam at an American Conservative article “I Went Looking for Trouble in Berlin” Americans are legends in our own minds, and Hollywood sells the narcissistic propaganda to millions around the globe causing them to be desperate to come and be homeless on our streets of fools’ gold.
Neither have I understood how they can cope with the name ‘America’ already referring to the landmasses of North and South America; at least Canada, Mexico and Brazil have relatively original names.
Likewise, I will never understand why people (i.e. in countries that were never part of the British Empire or the USA) even bother learning English (assuming they’re not going to visit any English-speaking country, let alone the Five Eyes, anytime soon.) English spelling is so inconsistent and clunky in that words aren’t spelled the way they’re pronounced like they are in languages such as Spanish, German and Russian. Case in point: the ough in words like thought, tough, cough, though and through are each pronounced differently.
TL;DR: USian military power,
the proliferation of English (aside from Spanish in the US, what languages are students in the Five Eyes taught?)
and the worldwide distribution of Hollywood (how many European animated films land on USian cinemas compared with the USian animated films that get released in Europe?)
have not only established English as the international language, but also created the rose-tinted view of the US as some bastion of freedom and democracy. Thanks to the proliferation of the US dollar, the S-shaped dollar sign has since become a symbol for money in general even in countries whose currencies aren’t dollars or pesos.
Thanks for this essay. It’s refreshing to read an informative piece that illustrates how much propaganda our ostensibly free press dishes out in order to maintain the conceit that the “one indispensable nation” is always and forever a force for good. When in fact, the truth is that, certainly since the end of WW2, almost always we’ve been the opposite: just a partial list (that readers of this site are quite aware of):the arms race/Cold War, Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Honduras, Ukraine, Yemen. Who’s next?
Thanks for this honest report of Russian attitudes. Yes, things were better for most in the Soviet Union. More Americans should be exposed to the real history and realities of Socialism and the necessity for it if we are to be free of corporate dictatorships and if we are to survive into the next century
Good article. It would have been even better if the Russians were willing to admit at least a tiny bit of culpability for the Gulags, the repression, the purges, the killing of dissidents, the ethnic cleansing, the decades long occupation of Eastern Europe, Molotov-Ribbentrop… Forgive me for losing patience with people waxing nostalgic for the glories of the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly some Russians were better off under the USSR. Others, not so much.
They do. Putin was a major force behind a new Gulag Museum in Moscow. The US has yet to have such a memorial to slavery. My article was about pride, not mistakes.
I had similar thoughts as well. While the Soviet Union did put an end to Nazism in Europe, increased the literacy of its people and ended the frequent famines, it also persecuted millions of its own Orthodox Christians, leading to over seven decades of apostasy, and banished political dissidents into gulags. It’s thanks to this that I’m torn between the USSR and the USA as to which one was the lesser of two evils throughout the Cold War. (while the USA hasn’t persecuted Christians throughout its history, it did commit its own share of atrocities such as described in the American Conservative article “Meet American Empire’s Dr. Death.”
“After over 300 years of being part of Russia, in 1954 Khrushchev “gave” Crimea to Ukraine. ”
Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1787. It consisted of the peninsula and a strip of land adjacent to what is now Black Sea shore of Ukraine. Sparsely populated region was settled by incomers from Russia and various countries in the region (including what is now Ukraine). Like in USA, Argentina, Brazil etc., the official language became the common spoken and written language of the population.
It is also important to understand that internal borders within Soviet Union were not very meaningful, increasingly urbanized population was quite freely moving around for education and jobs, which was still the case for at least 10 years after the fall of the Union. However, the combination of much faster economic growth in Russia with tepid to none in Ukraine and extreme nationalistic trends in Ukraine made the preposition of staying in Ukraine loosing any sense to Crimeans, and probably to most of inhabitants of “New Russia” as the lands of the former Khanates were known.
The question that western (and some Russian) liberals do not ask is: do the opinions of the population matter, or only so-called territorial integrity? In which cases the opinions matter (Kosovo?), and in which they do not (Golan Heights?). What are the rules? Sadly, the “rules” are that first we (democratic (C) West) decide who is friend and who is foe, and only then what rule is picked as pertinent to the case.
Maybe, I believe this because I want to but maybe I believe it because I know in my heart that people are the same everywhere and corruption needs to be fought everywhere.
Thank you CN and Ms. Enteen for this piece. It wouldn’t matter if this planet were twice the size that it is; we would eventually populate it to the same degree as our current trajectory, and it too would seem “small.” The inevitable conclusion is that we must eventually live in peace or we will cease to live at all. But, as Caitlin pointed out, too many psychopaths in too many positions of power.
(For those of a physicist’s scientific bent, please try to ignore the fact that a planet twice this size would change completely the physical and probably mental aspects of who “we” are. I was just making a philosophical point.)
Good article, with a political perspective about Russia that makes a WHOLE LOT more sense than the prevailing POV here in the US. And even IF there was some ‘staging’ going on during this visit (as there is in virtually ALL such international exchanges —- I’ve never read about US tours taking foreign visitors to the slums of large US cities, or to their homeless tent encampments or the Rescue Missions, etc), there are undoubtedly a LOT of Russians who support Putin. I would hope that a lot of the US militaristic types learned (and are STILL learning) the apparently hard-to-grasp lesson demonstrated in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq that foreign invaders are rarely embraced by the majority of the local populace, so IF we somehow invaded Russia and overthrew the Russian government, we would NOT be treated as ‘saviors’, contrary to the militaristic propaganda we’re constantly exposed to.
Well, that’s a relief.
I’ve seen at least one (or two?) news articles on the Russian versions of RT and Yandex News with at least one comment talking bad about Putin. To the best of my memory, in an article on Yandex discussing relations with Africa, one comment accused Putin of being a traitor for “selling Russia out” and got more upvotes than downvotes. As I do not speak Russian (yet), I struggled to use Google Translate on my phone and Yandex Translate on my PC with varying levels of success to make out what the commentators were saying. Neither have I looked far and wide to see negative sentiment of Putin on RT or Yandex News; I’m only sharing what I’ve observed.
Rest assured that the readership of a govt.-sponsored outlet like RT is not representative of the entire Russian population any more than the readership of the New York Times or Washington Post is representative of the whole USian population. The largest country in the world is inhabited by over 145 million people, and opinions of a certain topic will vary far and wide.
It’d be interesting to know what’s the beef of the anti-Putin crowd and why they dislike Putin even after all the obvious improvements he made throughout his 19-year tenure. Then again, the fact that criticism of Putin is present in Russia at all should put to rest the notion that one can be arrested for criticizing Putin. Heck, it’d be just as interesting to know what’s up with these rumors of journalists in Russia “disappearing” for criticizing Putin. Anyone?
The Soviet Union was invaded over 1,000 miles deep, and liberated in battles fought tooth and nail every inch of the way back. That’s basically the distance from New York to St. Louis, 1/3 of the country.
Americans have no concept of the harsh reality of war. Reference ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’, by Svetlana Alexievich, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The last war fought on USian soil was the Civil War in the early 1860s. And as long as the continent of North America is separated from the rest of (Western) civilization by two whole oceans, it will stay that way. It more or less means the US can get away with destabilizing whole countries and not get physically punished for it, as victims of US aggression in the Middle East fleeing to Europe* can attest.
* the participation of European countries in America’s wars is a mixed bag. One example is France and Germany opposing the 2003 Iraq War and the Netherlands and Denmark supporting it.
Hillary and John Brennan will have these Russian Assets imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay soon.
Unfortunately, the US is hell bent on global hegemony. Until we give that up, nothing will get better. Equally unfortunately, the US isn’t going to give up the goal of global hegemony until we are defeated and hegemony isn’t an option. And that is most likely to take war.
Most excellent essay. Thanks.