By Jonathan Power*
I’m on the 250 km/hour train hurtling from Moscow to St Petersburg when it suddenly clicks in my mind. My apologies for being so stupid, but despite regular trips to Russia over many years I have only suddenly got it – I too have been brainwashed about Russia by Western politicians, media and authors, like nearly everyone else.
What I noticed in Moscow and what I’ve seen in St Petersburg on previous trips is that, yes, I am, indeed I am, in a normal Western big city environment. Both cities are grand in different ways. St Petersburg, with its museums, palaces, great churches, canals and river, its rich store of art (probably second only to the Louvre) and its musical life (the Marriinsky theatre is the epicenter of world ballet) is arguably the most beautiful and imposing of all the world’s cities.
Moscow has the Kremlin, the most majestic seat of government in the world. Although beset by too much traffic despite a dense metro system built by the orders of Stalin using near-slave labour, which made mini palaces of major stations, it’s full of little parks, good old architecture and interesting streets.
In both cities the people are well dressed, the shops stacked with goods, the multitude of cafés and restaurants full, the galleries packed and the trains above ground and below running all the time. Where is the Western embargo hitting, I asked my companion on the trip, a senior current affairs producer in Ren Television, a nation-wide broadcaster? “Out in the countryside, in the poorer parts, people are suffering from inflation and find it increasingly difficult to buy the essentials of life”, she replied.
At this point I realised, sort of belatedly, there are two very distinct Russians – the Western European part and the rest, which crosses six time zones.
We’re told that Russia’s national income is way down the world’s league table. It is if you take the average income of this country of 140 million. But this gives a false impression of the modern powerhouse that is the heart of Russia. (Yes, the heart beats on the left.)
The average income of 45 million people in the West when added to the 100 million elsewhere, then divided by two, makes the 45 million look much poorer than they are, and measures like the nation-wide infant mortality rate and longevity lopsided and misleading.
We’re told that incomes are down, unemployment is up, pensioners suffer, health services are bereft of sufficient drugs. This is true, but it’s mainly true among the 100 million, not among the 45 million.
We get Russia wrong. The drumbeat of negative news over decades has got into nearly all our brains. Only in rocketry and weapons, are we told, are the Russians on a level with us. For the rest they are an impenetrable bunch – “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, said Churchill. No, Russia isn’t if you look.
Likewise, we get the politics of Russia wrong. President Vladimir Putin, and the vast majority of Russians, aren’t interested in territorial aggrandizement but they are interested in Russia not being threatened.
Going into Crimea and then conducting an over hasty referendum did break international law, as the students I interviewed at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations agreed, but it was understandable. Crimea had been part of Russia for centuries and is the home of Russia’s important Black Sea fleet. But a Scotland-type settlement would have been better.
Russia has no interest in seizing another time zone. The Baltic states and Swedes who are bothered by such an eventuality are hyping a zero possibility.
Russia does not want to expand, but it does believe it has a legitimate reason for insisting on being the primary influence in the former Soviet states.
It’s the West that, by means of NATO, has been hell bent on expansion.
The Soviet Union’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, joint author of the end of the Cold War along with President Ronald Reagan, believed he had an understanding with President George H.W. Bush along with the German foreign minister, Hans Genscher, that in return for allowing Germany to be re-united and for a united Germany to be a NATO member there would never be an expansion of NATO eastward.
Indeed, at one point there was serious talk about Russia becoming a member of NATO and Russia joining the “European House”, as Gorbachev expressed it, as did Putin.
But President Bill Clinton busted this understanding wide open and against the advice of such foreign policy intellectuals as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger and George Kennan, started the expansion of NATO. George W. Bush continued it. And so did Barack Obama and now Donald Trump.
The trouble with Western politicians is that they’re unaware of the facts. They don’t know the truth and having rarely, if at all, read history or roamed the streets of Russia, don’t know what they are talking about.
*Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.