Everything Old Is New Again

Everything Old Is New Again

The summer I traveled to Sweden nearly thirty-five years ago the national news there was full of reports of phantom submarines prowling through the Stockholm archipelago and up and down the Swedish coast. One of these submarines was even supposed to have snuck so far into the heart of Stockholm Harbor that it had managed to pass just below the Swedish Royal Palace. There were even rumors that some of the sailors might have come ashore. It was widely assumed at the time that these submarines were Russian and that the Russians had chosen to practice running up close to the rugged Swedish shoreline not because the Soviet Union wanted to threaten Sweden, but because the contours of the Swedish coastline closely resembled those of the Northern Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The other reason they had chosen Sweden was, well, not to put too fine a point on it, the Swedish Royal Navy wasn’t very good at catching them.

“Good to know,” I remember an unamused Swedish man saying to me, “that the Russkies can come over here, park their sub anywhere they feel like it, row in to have a beer at the local pub, and then leave again without us ever being able to find them!”

Five years later, I followed the memories of those phantom submarines across the Baltic to visit the Soviet Union for the first time. Soviet, as it was referred to amongst my university friends in Finland, was still very much a closed country in 1985. I remember towns minus the slightest trace of advertising. I remember nighttime streets completely devoid of cars. I remember people in curiously mismatched outfits that didn’t fit them very well. I remember not being able to spend all the rubles I had had to change. I remember the Russians being reticent and amazed that we, a crowd of Russian-speaking Finns (with one American in tow), had come to their country on a jolly in the dead of a freezing Russian winter.

By the late 1990’s, when I returned to Russia as a teacher for Soros Foundation, thirteen years had wrought enormous changes upon the country. Advertising was everywhere, the streets were full of expensive cars, fashion was king, and it was no problem to spend all your money, fast. The big cities were full of foreigners working for NGO’s, for businesses. There were a lot of missionaries.

In a way we were all missionaries, I suppose, bearing messages from the West, messages of prosperity, of opportunity, messages of cultural and political transformation. Some of us, it needs to be said, however, bore our messages with more humility than others.

I sometimes wonder if we Westerners had gone in there with a little less arrogance, a little less convinced of our superiority, that things might have turned out differently. Perhaps the anti-Western backlash we are now seeing wouldn’t have occurred. Or perhaps it didn’t matter how we behaved. Perhaps the robber baron capitalism let loose upon the former Soviet Union and the financial and social chaos that came with it would have made the Russians nostalgic for the old sureties of centralized state control whether we had come in humility or not. Our know-it-all attitude, however, definitely played into a long tradition of anti-Westernism in Russia. It also exacerbated the age-old contradiction of the Russian national character: a longing for grandeur coupled with the massive inferiority complex of a people who have been invaded and brutalized, who have repeatedly known chaos and tragedy beyond our comprehension.

Fast forward fifteen years and the Russia that was opening up, that was taking her place at the table of the community of nations, the Russia who just after 9/11 was our friend and ally has become a pariah nation once again. Her annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, her bully tactics and support for the Russian Separatists in Ukraine, have put her at odds with the very countries she had finally formed important economic and political ties with. Putin is king. Putin is tsar. The dissenters are in jail or in exile. The news media is almost completely controlled by the government. Next year, all internet companies operating in Russia will have to store the personal data of their Russian users in Russia. Companies that don’t will be heavily fined, their sites potentially blocked. Google moved their Russian users’ data storage out of Russia this week.

Quiet rumors are now flying that it is only a matter of time before travel restrictions will start to be imposed again. All those Russians vacationing on the Costa del Sol or attending high-priced private schools and universities in the United States and Europe might start to dwindle or even disappear.

Everything seems to be headed back to what it was. Did it ever really change, I ask myself? Was it a mirage? Or were the changes only superficial, leaving the age-old impulses of the Russian people untouched?

What certainly never changed were the internal travel restrictions. In the New Russia, you might suddenly have been able to go on a vacation to the South of Spain or to Cyprus if you could afford it, but good luck trying to get permission to move from one city to another, or even more difficult, from a provincial city to one of the capitals.

In view of these restrictions it is perhaps both ironic and inevitable that Russia, a country of people staying put, has also always been a country of fast driving. These days it is cars and trucks that speed down the city thoroughfares and over the provincial highways that connect Russia’s far-flung cities, but it was once the carriage and in winter the troika which carried people from one place to another. The rushing troika, a sleigh pulled by three strong horses that are often hard to control is in fact the national symbol of Russia.

In the last weeks, as the price of oil continues to fall and the hardships of the Western embargo cut ever deeper, it has been impossible not to see that Russia is on the move again. The level of Russian naval and air activity in the Baltic has increased considerably. Russian jets have repeatedly flown into European air space. The Swedes are now searching for those phantom submarines again.

And we who love her shake our heads and ask, what are you doing, Russia, where are you going? But Russia does not turn to speak to us. She rushes on, hooves pounding, bells ringing. Russia gives us no answer.