“It was no use assuming that Russian plans worked out well for Russians: they did nothing of the kind; Russians made failures of everything and reveled in failure.”
—Bernard Pares, My Russian Memoirs
Speaking of his 1839 trip to Russia, the Marquis de Custine wrote:
“Whenever you are unhappy, go to Russia. Anyone who has come to understand that country will be content to live anywhere else.”
The Marquis clearly knew his subject well. Unfortunately, it was time for us to head to the country the Marquis so loathed. Russia certainly isn’t a contender for the title of World’s Greatest Country. Trust me, I have been there many times. Even so, it was an essential stop on our tour because it is the mother of all socialist states. And with this year marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I could think of no better time to do it.
Now a month into our Around the World in 80 Days journey, I have become a bit numb to the constant long-haul air travel and hotel rooms. Airline check-in notifications appear in my in-box every few days and have piled-up unopened. But this one caught my attention:
Aeroflot: Delhi to Moscow
I have made a lifelong point of avoiding Russia’s infamous airline Aeroflot. How did this booking happen? I’d sooner ride the wing of a biplane naked than fly on this old Soviet-era deathtrap.
“What’s the difference between a SCUD missile and Aeroflot?” begins a Russian joke.
“I don’t know,” comes the reply.
“Aeroflot has killed more people.”
Such cynical jokes exist for a reason. The Soviet government, which owned the airline, wasn’t particularly concerned with the central component of airline profitability: safety. According to the Airline Crashes Record Office, 8,231 passengers have died on Aeroflot flights. Air France, another government-owned airline, is a distant second with 1,783. Of course, the Soviets didn’t need to be concerned with safety since Aeroflot was the only airline for the whole of the Soviet Union. If you were an unfortunate citizen of that country who needed to travel from, say, Leningrad to Moscow, none of your options were reassuring.
You could drive, but only an idiot would do that. Soviet era cars were legendarily bad. Consider this Russian joke:
“How do you double the value of a Russian car?”
“Fill-up the tank.”
Or this one:
“What do you call a Russian car on a hill?”
This is to say nothing of Russian roads. Given the choice of being beaten with hammers or driving for hours on Russian roads, choose the beating with hammers. You’ll have fewer bruises.
You could make the journey by train. This was the safest option, but unless you were one of the Communist Party bosses or a member of one of their families, your conditions were scarcely better than that of illegal immigrants sealed in cargo containers and shipped across the south Texas border midsummer. The railcars often had women whose job, it seemed, was to ensure that it was miserable. They watched you and barked at you for perceived offenses. And nothing was more offensive than the restrooms on these trains. One look at them and you wanted to yell at her. Trying to hit the toilet from a standing position while the train jerked and swayed—Soviet trains were never smooth—took skill. The urine sloshing on the floor around your shoes was proof that few possessed such skill. My advice? Wear boots. Worse, the toilets, when flushed, emptied directly onto the tracks. Imagine the surprise of poor innocents out for a walk who were suddenly bespattered by 60 mph projectiles.
That left flying, which meant, by an evil monopolistic design, Aeroflot. Begin to see the problem?
26 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I still wasn’t keen on flying the airline whose planes Nikita Khrushchev had called “embarrassing insects” when compared to those used by Dwight Eisenhower. But with neither automobile nor train as realistic options, I was committed. So it was with surprise that I read how Aeroflot has become one of the safest airlines in the world. More amazing still was seeing their fleet of sleek, new Airbuses parked neatly in a row. If the old products issued from this part of the world were symbolic of the failure of socialism—and they were—these sparkling planes, non-Russian though they were, gave strong indication of the New Russia I was about to enter.
After a pleasant six-hour non-fatal flight, Zachary and I collected our luggage and hailed a taxi. The freshly built boulevard between Sheremetyevo International Airport and Moscow was a further indication of change. And our hotel, near Red Square, only reinforced the growing impression that Russia was different. Newly renovated like everything else in central Moscow, the service was good, efficient, and friendly. This alone was enough to make me wonder if the Russians had been supplanted by a people who were not Russians, but who nonetheless looked very much like them. Most unRussian of all, everything in the hotel room actually worked. (Okay, maybe not everything. The Wi-Fi was hit-and-miss.)
Shortly after check-in, I took Zachary for a walk to show him around, explaining bits and pieces of history as we went. I was struck by the extraordinary changes since I was last here a decade ago—Audis, BMWs, Chevys, Fords, Lexuses could all be seen, not just the crap from the Soviet period. More remarkably, drivers seemed to stay in their own lanes. The GUM, the famous shopping mall that once hawked bad Soviet products, now has Chanel, Prada, Breitling, Rolex, Louis Vuitton and similar things that I neither can afford, nor want. (Except for a Breitling. Yes, I’d like one of those.) And for the proletarians, there are KFC, Starbucks, Subway and, my personal favorite, Krispy Kreme.
Even Comrade Lenin, whose dead body lies like a medical school cadaver near the Kremlin Wall only a couple of ICBMs away from these bourgeois enterprises, looked less like the roadkill I saw on previous visits. As if to mock his memory still further, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin impersonators worked the tourists nearby. They’ve been doing it since the nineties. Strictly capitalists, these guys will, if you’re a savvy negotiator, pose for photographs for 100 rubles ($1.75) per shot. While I cannot be certain of it, I thought I saw Lenin turn over in his coffin beneath the glass of the macabre display case that houses him—or what is left of him.
But it is all a Potemkin Village, to use a good Russian term. It’s not exactly fraudulent. The changes in Russia are real. Russia is, like China, abandoning socialism and is, finally, embracing capitalism, and they are doing it in a very big way. But, like the Chinese, they are endeavoring to combine it with totalitarianism. And by every other meaningful measure, the New Russia is a lot like the Old Russia—they just have better stuff. More alarmingly, there is a growing nostalgia for the iron-fisted days of the Soviet Union.
“What is your opinion of Lenin?” a 26-year-old Muscovite asked me.
“You should be glad he’s dead.”
He looked annoyed. “Lenin and Stalin did some good things, though, don’t you agree?”
I shook my head. “No. No, I don’t.”
He thought for a moment, a troubled look on his face. “Our current regime is becoming a lot like it was in Soviet times in that you must be careful once again what you say. [Putin] says we have enemies. But freedom isn’t everything. Security matters, too.” With that conversational flourish, all was right with the world and he was chipper once again.
This sort of reasoning is much more typical than you might think. Russia, neither fully Western nor fully Eastern, has, throughout its history, been schizophrenic, oscillating between Western liberal reforms and what Marx called “Oriental despotism.” Russia never had a Renaissance, a Reformation, an Enlightenment, a Scientific Revolution, and it barely had an Industrial Revolution. The Mongols, who ruled Russia for two-hundred years, had greater influence on Russia’s development than the West ever had.
Consequently, Russia has been characterized by a perpetual backwardness. Furthermore, they have shown a remarkable tolerance—bordering on indifference—for regimes that are corrupt, deny civil liberties, grant few political freedoms, and make a habit of killing a lot of people. In this respect, Putin is just the latest iteration of a longstanding Russian tradition. Like those before him, he has gradually consolidated power, has become Russia’s longest ruling leader since Stalin, and is rapidly building the cult of his own personality. Meanwhile, Lenin is still on display and many Russians still show up to venerate him. They’d do better offering their respects to Jack the Ripper or Lizzy Borden. At least they killed several million fewer people.
Returning to my Moscow hotel one evening, I was jarringly reminded of how little this country has really changed. Entering the lobby, it soon became clear the place was full of prostitutes hoping to snag Western businessmen. Even if it isn’t the oldest profession, it seems to be the oldest, and most prevalent, in Russia. Indeed, I have never stayed in a Russian hotel where this was not the case, be it a hotel of the 2 or the 5 star variety. It’s part of Russia’s vast “black economy,” that is, those activities that are off-the-books, but where everyone profits: the pimps, the security and police who look the other way, and the hotels that lend the women rooms for their transactions.
All of this—the despotism, the genocides committed by successive socialist regimes, the suppression of dissenting voices, backwardness, the mind-blowing corruption, and the ongoing exploitation of women—can be attributed to the fact that Russia has never been truly Christian. That will be the subject of the next two articles of this series.
Till then, I leave you with one more Russian joke. Superficially, it’s funny, until you understand the dark reality that provoked such humor:
“How does every Russian joke begin?”
“By looking over your shoulder.”