The news over the weekend that Russia is rearing its head in the Crimea to challenge Ukrainian authority, coupled with recent rumblings of Russian military revisits to the Caucasus, makes the words of Winston Churchill describing Russia more than 60 years ago ring more accurately than ever: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
To this assessment, I would add one more descriptor after a trip to Russia this summer: In its current state of wide polarities, with Vladimir Putin's abundantly publicized machismo, the tightrope walking between democracy and oligarchy and the chaos of dissent meeting the hard edge of authority, Russia is like a dizzying three-ring circus.
I was in Russia to document the 20th anniversary of the first high school exchange program that Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev established. Here in Columbia back in 1989, we were thrilled to participate in a program that seemed to signal the beginning of new freedoms and opportunities between the two countries. Flush with the thrill of new democracy and glasnost, a new era had dawned for Russians. Now, 20 years later, I am frightened for my Russian friends at the specter of loss of some of their freedom and the price they might have to pay for Putin's sense of nationalism.
With an economy predicted to shrink by 8.5 percent in 2009, epidemic-level AIDS, negative population growth and a schizophrenic political power structure, Russia is a land of significant problems and wildly divergent messages. One message that came through loud and clear during my visit was that Putin is still the man of the hour. Long known as a cult-of-personality country, from the mythos around Lenin to the current fascination with Putin, Russia seems focused on the idea that the strength of the leader (contrived or otherwise) is completely synonymous with the strength of the nation.
Each evening on Russian state television, I watched scenes of Putin's vacation in Siberia and got to see him engaged in a succession of manly activities - doing some fierce judo moves, diving to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-sub, riding bare-chested on a horse across the Siberian steppe - all the while being lauded by the news commentator for his strength and bravery. My very favorite Putin-is-almost-god moment came the evening he was caught on camera swimming a mad butterfly stroke in a Siberian river. The next day, the official Russian state newspaper reported that "The river was fast-flowing and full of rapids, but this didn't scare Vladimir Putin one little bit."
Although Putin is now prime minister, there is no doubt in the minds of most Russians that President Dmitri Medvedev is simply Putin's surrogate on the throne, dutifully holding Putin's place until he can run again in 2012. From taxi drivers to longtime Russian friends, I heard a consensus that Medvedev is the puppet prez. Typical was a driver who was taking me to the airport in Moscow. He asked how I liked the new U.S. president; I responded, and then asked how he liked the new Russian leader. He turned in the seat, looked right at me and said: "What new president? We haven't got a new president, just a mouthpiece for the old one."
Such freely expressed political beliefs are refreshing to find in Russia, but after this last trip, I am worried that the days may be numbered for any sort of expression that runs counter to Putin. In power in one form or another now for a decade, Vladimir Putin is credited with restoring national pride after succeeding Boris Yeltsin, but he also has eliminated many of Yeltsin's democratic reforms and stifled dissent.
Putin has abolished the direct election of regional governors, greatly increased state control of media and intimidated independent media outlets into submission. (A recent count shows 16 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, all of whom had voiced opposition to the government.) The last day I was in Moscow, a group called The Other Russia gathered to protest human rights violations; 47 of the 100 protesters were arrested for giving interviews to the press.
The political situation is both fascinating and disturbing. While most people seem to appreciate Putin's aggressive foreign policy, they may be oblivious to the government's return to the old Soviet system of historical fabrications. According to Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's journal: "What the Kremlin has been after in recent years is the boosting of the sense of Russia's greatness and the infallibility of its leaders in the national mindset.... The official outlook on recent history is focused on the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany."
With this focus comes the disturbing return of Joseph Stalin. Long purged from the public consciousness as the cruel despot he was, Stalin is now emerging as a national hero, the symbol of Russia's strength in World War II. You can purchase books of Stalin's speeches from street vendors in Moscow and even pose for pictures in Red Square with an actor dressed just like old Joe himself. The implications are staggering.