Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In Search Of The Real Fake News

My first direct exposure to Russia was in 1982.  Back then the only way that you could visit the Soviet Union without prepaying and complicatedly arranging a prepaid tour was if you booked a flight from point A to point B which had a layover in Moscow for a day or two.  Since I was in New Delhi when I did that, I then had to spend a couple of days going all around the city arranging a transit visa.

But I was glad that I did that.  Because once we were in Moscow at the horrible Soviet transit hotel, all the other people were locked in there with horrible Soviet pickled cold cuts to eat and a horrid, loud Soviet bar/disco to hang out in.  Whereas I, and my wife of the time, got to flash our transit visas, walk out into the cold Moscow January air, take a bus to the Metro, take the Metro to Red Square, and... voila.

Now it was hard to make a comprehensive survey of Soviet life in one day.  But I've also found that one hour of actually being in a truly foreign place is worth a world of just reading up on the subject.  And one thing that really surprised me was that the Muscovite women, instead of wearing drab clothes and drab coats, as I had always been led to believe by our propaganda, instead were all dressed to the nines.  And almost every one of them was wearing a fabulous Russian fur coat.  Granted it was a Sunday and they were no doubt wearing their best.  But still...

Anyway, as foreigners me and my wife of the time would have stood out like sore thumbs in any event.  But in this instance my hirsuteness was properly covered up by a wool cap.  Since we had been traveling through the tropics, though, all that she had to wear was a huge, funky handmade wool sweater that she had bought in Nepal.  And every single Russian woman glared at her with contempt, as if she had been a vile, unwashed Gypsy who had shown up at a wedding.

And, since said wife of the time divorced me in a very ugly way not long afterwards, those contemptuous glares have always remained a treasured memory of mine.

The next time I found myself in Russia was for three weeks during the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992.  A night at the Bolshoi cost around $1.  Old pensioners formed a gauntlet in the cold on one of the main streets, desperately trying to sell their meager possessions.  The most pathetic instance was someone attempting to sell one old shoe.  There was now one McDonald's and one Pizza Hut, but still no stores.  I spent an entire day fruitlessly going all over Moscow attempting to find a plug converter.

In Saint Petersburg I stayed with a 55 year old guy in one of those ugly Soviet apartment towers.  The elevator didn't work, so you had to climb up ten flights to the putrid stench of cat urine.  He owned an old car with almost comically bald tires, and when I bought him a towing rope for $6 hard currency at a new Finnish gas station he broke down in tears.  A grown man who couldn't even afford a piece of rope.

The new Baltic countries hadn't figured out yet if or how they were going to have borders.  'Mafia' types in absurd track suits at new fancy restaurants were starting to appear.

In '06 I took the Transsiberian from Mongolia to Moscow, the specifics of which can be read if you scroll all the way back to the beginning of this blog.  Suffice it to say that the rest of the country was still pretty shabby, but that Moscow had spiffed itself up considerably.  Gone was an eight lane road which had separated Red Square from the rest of the city.  Now there was a flower filled park.  Most civilians were still closed and grumpy, but not so much the young people.  Prices were a little higher; it took great effort to find a couch I could sleep on for $45.

Now it is twelve years later.  And time to go find out what's really been going on since then.

Because this is a travel blog, not a political one.  But to understand Russia you need to first understand that Russians have been paranoid going on many centuries now.  And to a certain extent with good cause.

Specifically, more recently, when the Soviet Union broke up (to a large degree from the instigation of the U.S.), the U.S.  sent over these neoliberal economists.  And they had the bright idea of privatizing all of the Soviet Union's natural resources, and then giving shares to each citizen.  Of course, after 70 years of socialism no citizen had the foggiest idea of what a 'share' was.  And a few clever people bought up all those shares for nothing and became billionaire oligarchs.

Then the U.S. totally manipulated the first real elections in 1996 and Boris Yeltsin, who went into it with an approval rating of 13%, somehow won.  Of course, immediately afterwards his approval rating went down to 6%.

Finally, back in 1989 the elder Bush specifically promised Gorbachev that if he didn't object to the reunification of Germany then NATO would never expand eastwards.  Then NATO proceeded to expand eastward, eventually taking in those Baltic countries, which for the vast majority of the previous 200 years had been integral parts of Russia.

So that when Putin arrived on the scene in 2001 he was seen as the Lone Ranger riding to the rescue. And it doesn't hurt that since then he has increased average wages by 600%.  So he doesn't need propaganda to have an 80% approval rating.  And we may see his cold eyes, but the Russians by and large see a guy who isn't going to be pushed around any more.

So why our current demonization of Russians?  And why our particular demonization of Putin?  After all, if you look carefully, he's never even said anything threatening towards the West.  And yet our media vilifies him more than it did Josef Stalin 80 years earlier.

May I suggest that it has something to do with religion.

You see, for 75 years the Russians had atheism forced upon them.  And then when that was lifted they were presented with the West's current moral menu of gay sex, drugs, and rock and roll  So it shouldn't be surprising that there's been a great backlash to all of that, and that both old time religion and old time morality have made a big comeback there.

So now the script has flipped.  In the 50s they were the Godless Materialists.  Now, by and large, we are.  And we don't like them even implicitly wagging their moral fingers at us.  Especially since, unlike the Chinese, they kind of look like us.  So we turn them into bogeymen.

Although, like I said, this is a travel blog, not a political one.  And I really can't say for sure what's going on at ground level there these days.  Which, of course, is a large reason why this trip is taking place.  So I'll be leaving here hopefully without any illusions one way or another.  And kindly bear with me as I go over there and find out.