From Moscow, a reader writes:
Your serial posts on studying in the USSR in the 60s were very interesting to me. By the time I got there, the ice was beginning to melt, & my overall experience was not as frosty as yours. I guess in regard to the debates that go on between you & Holman on scb, I'd be in the middle somewhere. One thing I find rather startling is the prevailing negative attitude to Russia visible in much of the material on your blog. Some of it is on point, but some of it isn't. For instance, I found the piece by Albats that you posted quite ridiculous. For the record, I've never had any trouble registering my visa here (& while requiring you to register your visa may be a bureaucratic pain, it's not a human rights violation). I also have dark hair & have yet to be beaten up.
While I agree that Putin is probably an authoritarian at heart, he is also a realist who understands that the kind of control that existed in the USSR is impossible now. What's more, Russians are connected to the outside world, & to independent sources of information, in a way they have never been before, & it would be virtually impossible to close that window now. As for freedom of expression: In October I was in St. Petersburg, & stopped at a newsstand outside Gostiny Dvor. There were papers ranging from communist to fascist, all being sold openly. In Soviet times, this whole display would have lasted about 5 minutes before the KGB closed it down. In short, there's a difference between presenting critical information about Russia (& Lord knows there's plenty to criticize here) and the reflexive Russia-bashing I see in so much of the Western press.
And from Adelaide, Australia, another reader's comments:
I think that our views on that fascinating and annoying people would be similar, but I am curious – now that the Kremlin is raising the drawbridge somewhat, will you ever be able to go back? I have not publicised my views like you have yours (on the ‘net) but I was mesmerised by recent events in Ukraina...
I have continued watching events in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately the decisive electoral victory of Yushenko is (in my view) definitely not the end of that story – there will be no “living happily ever after” there, and that is because of a combination of Putin and features of the Russian culture which produced him and which he reflects.
Putin is an imperialist, a continuation of their long line of imperialistic rulers. He has not changed aspects of his Soviet mind-set and will not change. Before the first and second elections he manipulated outrageously and arrogantly the electoral process of what he refuses to recognise as an independent state. Then he most belatedly “congratulated” Yushenko on his final victory, saying that he hoped that Yushenko would not appoint any “anti-Russian” ministers to the new Govt. That is Putin-speak for asserting a veto over the choice of Ministers in another country. The recent news that Yulia Timoshenko (persona non grata in the Kremlin because she is nationalistic and not pro-Russian) was appointed PM in Kiev was followed at once by the announcement that the prosecution of her by Russia for some bribery charge from 1996 (talk about the irony in that - Russia is one of the most bribery-ridden countries in the world) would be continued and so she would be arrested should she dare to set foot in Russia. Putin’s abuse of the Russian “legal” procedures is notorious – Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 on similar charges of economic misbehaviour and is still in pre-trial detention, with no trial date in sight. But again this sort of thing is traditional as the infamous and nauseating Vyshinsky show-trials of the 1930s remind us.
Servility, acceptance of cruel mistreatment and a fierce nationalistic pride are too deeply ingrained in Russian Culture for there to be any realistic hope of imminent change. Putin has shown in Chechnya that he will not stop. So the Ukrainians are in for a long, long struggle against determined and persistent and unscrupulous adversaries bolstered by oil revenues. No wonder they are as anxious now to enter the EU and NATO as the three Baltic countries were, and for the same reasons. The Poles understand the Ukrainian predicament all too well and have incurred Putin’s wrath and his tame media’s invective by supporting Yushenko.
We don’t know how lucky we are!