Letter from Moscow: Russia torn between past and future

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 14, 2009 

MOSCOW -- Standing before a massive mosaic of red Soviet flags and flanked by engraved quotations from Marx and Lenin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gazed out at more than a thousand Russian university students and implored them to look to the future.

Clinton, however, spoke not in a fancy rented conference space full of mostly pro-Western graduate business students, as President Barack Obama did in July, but at Moscow State University, in a house that Joseph Stalin built as a monument to Russia's Communist glory.

Moscow State's main hall is in a towering castle-meets-skyscraper landmark of Soviet gothic architecture. It reportedly was constructed by gulag labor as part of Stalin's ruthless quest to remake his capital into a 20th century socialist metropolis.

Eighteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 21st century Russia is still trying to find itself, stomping and stammering its way between hubris and disaster, dictatorship and democracy, and more than anything, between its past and its future.

Clinton's remarks and the students' questions and reactions Wednesday revealed more about the nation's unsettled identity and its ambivalent relations with the West than do the latest Kremlin invective or U.S. analysts opining about the post-Soviet landscape.

People in both the American and Russian governments remain stuck in the suspicion and threats of the Cold War, Clinton said, but it's time to "be smarter than our past."

"They do not believe the United States and Russia can cooperate to this extent," Clinton said. "They do not trust each other, and we have to prove them wrong."

Freshman Pavel Yankovsky was among the first to take the microphone: Nervously, he inquired about the financial crisis and why it started in the U.S. Like all the students who spoke, his English was good and his question seemed well rehearsed.

Clinton walked the audience through an abbreviated history of bad mortgages, derivatives and the false notion that free markets are infallible.

"It all seemed like a great idea at the time," she said, launching into an explanation of how the need for more checks and balances in the economy reminds one of the balance of power in the American government.

Afterward, Yankovsky, a thoughtful 17-year-old in a dark suit, with a bushy haircut threatening to go wild, didn't talk about the details of Clinton's response so much as the feeling he got listening to her. "It was brilliant," he said.

"I think that is the main thing our countries should work on, moving from the past, Cold War era," he said. What about the Soviet propaganda on the stage behind him? Yankovsky flicked his hand in that direction without looking and said: "I think that the past we should leave as the past."

Much of Russia, however, is torn between past and present.

On one hand, there's a push for an open economy, and President Dmitry Medvedev talks of fighting corruption and, perhaps, ensuring greater protection of civil liberties.

On the other, Russia remains an authoritarian state where there's little rule of law, human rights workers are assassinated and the bloody Soviet history has undergone renewed revisions. One telling example: A committee set up earlier this year to "counter attempts to falsify history" -- often meaning efforts to document the terror unleashed by Stalin -- will include intelligence representatives from Russia's domestic and foreign spy services.

The country "is still in the process of searching for its own identity," said Yuri Rogulyov, a professor at Moscow State University who teaches, among other things, American history. "Russia is changing, and it's a very contradictory process."

On Wednesday, the autumn sun glinted off the hammers and sickles that still adorn the university building's facade, and, of course, the Soviet star shining on top.

Inside, Yvgenia Kuzminova, a sophomore in global studies, asked whether the U.S. is focused more on economic or military affairs in its relationship with Russia.

Clinton said that while important, those sorts of topics had for years too narrowly defined the U.S.-Russian conversation.

Asked what she thought of Clinton's remarks, Kuzminova later said that while they were interesting, they were "full of general issues" and lacking any surprises. And the idea of revamping ties between her country and Clinton's?

"There are deep-seeded and bad memories of the Cold War, and it's not an easy thing to move beyond," Kuzminova said. "There will be psychological barriers."

Before Clinton walked into the hall, she'd helped unveil a statue of Walt Whitman on the university campus. At its base is a plaque quoting a letter from Whitman about Russians and Americans seeming to be different, but also being alike in many ways. Most students ignored it, instead clustering in groups between classes.

Alex Lazutkin, an economics instructor, stopped to peer at the new addition and chat.

Americans think they won the Cold War, he said, while Russians remember not defeat, but throwing off the yoke of Communism.

Lazutkin cricked his neck a bit and looked at the statue again.

"It might be that most people don't understand the connection between Walt Whitman and Moscow State University," he said, in a slightly puzzled tone. "I'm afraid that the message might have been lost."

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