Vast traffic jams on the way from Domododevo airport to central Moscow, so that travelling 35 kilometers takes two and a half hours. Almost all the cars one sees are foreign made (though some may be locally assembled): Fords, Toyotas, Opels, Audis, and all the rest. A very occasional Volga and an occasional Lada. The latter is the offspring of the Fiat 124 and thus based on technology that is fifty years old.
The historic center of Moscow is also jammed. How anybody can ever find a parking place there is a mystery, given that there are no parking houses as in any Western city.
The hotel, the Akvarel, is a small one located in a small mew a few hundred yards from the Red Square and the Kremlin. I would give it three stars, though the tourist guide says it has four. The staff speak reasonable English and are quite helpful. The room is clean and in good repair. Only the breakfast is not as good as one would expect from a place that comes at $ 250 a night.
Not far away there is a small park. Walking there in the evening, I watched the members of an amateur folk-dancing club, men and women (more women than men, so that some of them were left without partners) being put through their paces. Very relaxed and very cheerful. Seeing me watch them, they invite me to join. But alas, with my three left legs I am no dancer…
Right next door is a pedestrian shopping street with some of the most renowned brand names in the world. Louis Vuiton. Tagheur. Cartier. Van Cleef and Arpels. And others such. Some of the shops are closed.
With my friend Marina, whom I met during my last visit, I visit the Historic Museum. It has a show dealing with the way Lenin and Stalin were presented to the Soviet public. Lenin’s coat and hat, Stalin’s uniform and boots. Photographs of their families. Paintings, statues, all in strict conformity with “socialist realism.” Movies of the two men’s funerals. Nikita Khruschev standing on Lenin’s grave reading an obituary to Stalin; a mere three years later, in his Secret Speech, he was to tear his former master to pieces. Yet the cult of personality did not die at once. Marina tells me that, aged 17, she and her classmates wept at Brezhnev’s death. Stalin at least is occasionally shown with something like the hint of a smile. Lenin is always seriousness itself, looking as if he would swallow all capitalists alive if he only could.
The strangest part of the exhibition consists of the objects the two leaders were presented by ordinary people. Pictures made of all kinds of improbable materials: shells, grain, various kinds of rope, and what not. We know that Hitler, accompanied by his chief architect Albert Speer, used to go over the mountains of gifts he received and make fun of them. How did Lenin and Stalin react?
In the evening I lecture to about 120 young students. The location: a cavernous, altogether bare concrete building that I am told used to serve as a warehouse for the post office. Nowadays it is populated, rather thinly, by young people who sit at tables or on arms chairs that look and feel as if they were made of rags. Each and every one of them has a laptop or handheld computer. The subject: The Rise and Decline of the State, a book of mine that has been translated into Russian and enjoys some success there.
I speak in English with the help of a simultaneous translator. He must be doing a good job, for the lecture goes on longer than planned and nobody leaves. Then question after question after question. These students are marvelous; very well educated, inquisitive, and polite. Above all, while they have heard of political correctness, that blight which is destroying free thought in the West, they do not subscribe to its tenets. One can talk to them without having to worry that they will take offense at every word. No speaker could wish for a better audience.
Yet talking to people, one quickly realizes that this is a society under pressure. In less than 48 hours, at least two people told me their business was suffering from the sanctions lately imposed by the West following the annexation of the Crimea. One of them runs a Russian Formula 1 racing team—he tells me they were doing not at all badly—but has now been brought to a halt by the lack of imported spare parts. The other is a lawyer who specializes in foreign investment of which, at the moment, there is none. Both men are still fairly optimistic about the future. However, supposing the sanctions last one would not be surprised if they turned bitter—at the West, at Putin, or both.
More information comes from the Moscow Times, an English-language daily that is mildly critical of Putin but obviously does not dare go too far in saying so. I learn that the economy is in a mess. Production is declining. Capital is leaving the country in spite of all attempts to prevent it from doing so. The number of entrepreneurs is falling. A survey shows that the middle classes are quite happy with their lot. But the institute which did the polling admits that a growing number of them are state employees rather than independents.
Facing international pressure, the state is trying to retrench. It has compelled foreign credit card companies to set up local subsidiaries’ presumably with the intention of enabling them to take over one day. It is putting pressure on people not to seek medical treatment abroad for themselves and their children, a measure that may result in some of them being condemned to death. There is talk of making those with dual nationalities declare their foreign passports, though how and whether this can be enforced is another question. The annexation of the Crimea has badly hurt the tourist industry there; so the authorities call upon people head south for their vacations.
The problems also have an international side. Still judging by the Times, the Russians deeply resent their exclusion from the G-8, now the G-7. President Putin’s visit to Normandy to commemorate the battle that took place there sixty years ago only goes so far to make up for this. By way of compensation, Moscow is seeking closer ties with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Pyongyang, and, which is much more important, Beijing.
Yet things are no longer what they were. Starting in the mid-18th century, in their relations with China the Russians were always the stronger party and called the shots. During the 19th century this led to the annexation by Russia of huge pieces of China. The same situation prevailed from the October Revolution until about 1990.
Since then, given the disintegration of the Soviet Union and China’s prodigious growth, the tables have been turned. Now China is the colossus, Russia very much the junior partner with a much smaller GDP and industrial base. Indeed I have heard Russia called, not without reason, a Saudi Arabia with an arms industry.
And that is where the dog is buried, as we Israelis say. Why has Russia, a large, old country blessed with endless natural resources and a people as capable as any on earth, never succeeded in developing a civil society independent of the state? Why are all quality consumer goods, from clothes to laptops, made abroad? Why has nobody ever seen any Russian consumer goods being put on display and sold in any country outside Russia? Why is the state as powerful, and often as dictatorial as it is? Is the state preventing the growth of civil society, or is there something in the national character that obstructs the creation of such a society and allows the state to become what it is? These are questions to which only you, my Russian friends, can provide an answer.
Until you do, the dog will remain buried.