It’s late September in Russia, and Muscovites are already placing wagers on when the first snow will come. The weather has simply been too good to be true; the sun has been shining and the temperatures mild, which, to the Russian mind at least, is a bad sign. The Russians have never trusted good fortune or happiness, and they naturally suspect that the pleasant weather is simply serpentine fate toying with them, instilling uncharacteristic optimism in Russia’s heart, while waiting to turn on her eventually, striking like a stealthy adder. In Russia, life and history are merely a series of disasters broken up by brief periods of quiet.
Some Russians have already been reminded of their cruel fate. The fire at the gigantic Ostankino TV tower, which temporarily knocked out Russian television; the Kursk tragedy (as well as the clumsy cover-up by the usual bureaucratic suspects); the endless war in Chechnya; and the bombing in the pedestrian tunnel at Moscow’s Pushkin Square have killed the hope some Russians had for their future. The “system,” they believe, has outlived the series of rogues and fools who have occupied the Kremlin, and it will inevitably defeat any attempts to change it. For many others, however, hope—tempered by foreboding—remains. For the first time in anyone’s memory, a man who appears to be generally competent sits in the Kremlin. By Russian standards, he is even relatively clean, probably having stolen no more than his rank allowed on his climb to the top. Even his loyalty to the Yeltsin “family” may be a good sign, since betrayal is the usual currency of Russian politics. The Russians who remain hopeful don’t blame Vladimir Putin for the recent spate of disasters—at least, not yet. Give him time, they say; maybe things will get better. But the doubts remain.
On a bright, sunny day at a park overlooking the Moscow River, with the walls of a 16th-century church towering above the trees, I share a drink with a friend, and we speak of Russia and the Russians. In the past, he has identified himself with the “democrats,” but he has become increasingly patriotic, his hopes for “democracy” tailing, perhaps, just as his faith in the West did. He is hopeful: True, Putin has not gone after certain oligarchs who appear to be untouchable, but maybe he is biding his time, waiting for the right moment. Putin might be able to combine elements of Westernization with patriotism, something most Russians seem to want. I express my doubts about Putin, who was brought to power by the “family,” riding a wave of public anger after last year’s terrorist bombings, which the Kremlin blamed on the Chechens. Circumstantial evidence suggests, however, that the Kremlin had a hand in the affair. The special services did not attempt to stop the Chechens, and the Russian military appears to have had foreknowledge of the Chechen plan to reignite the war in the Caucasus. My friend lights a smoke and says that I have very high standards; Russians expect lies and political games. In any event, it may all come to nothing: Russians have never had a strong work ethic, and many now make their livings by selling vodka and candy bars in the markets. Flow can Putin, whose admiration for Peter the Great and German culture is well known, make Germans out of them? My friend gazes at the river, wondering if it is too late for Russia.
Everywhere there is hope and disappointment, and the suspicion that all good signs are harbingers of disaster. A “patriot” friend, who voted for national communist Gennadi Zyuganov in the last election, is also hopeful: Putin is standing up to the West; the days of groveling under that drunkard Yeltsin are over. Putin will destroy the oligarchs and finish off the Chechen rebels. At least, he might.
Another patriotic acquaintance, however, is less optimistic. Yes, Putin has more or less subsumed the patriotic movement and is giving them some of what they want—but not all. He suspects that Putin is too dependent on Western aid and is merely using the patriots. Putin acknowledges Russia’s demographic problem (the population is declining by nearly a million people a year), but he does not appear to understand the depth of Russia’s crisis, which is more one of spirit than of economics or polities. “We only have one generation to save ourselves,” my acquaintance sighs. He is one of the few patriots who opposes the war in Chechnya. Russia cannot afford to lose her young men, but the patriotic movement on the whole supports the war, and he has no alternative but to work within it.
I walk down Tverskaya Ulitsa from the Kremlin to Pushkin Square and pause before entering the pedestrian tunnel. Officially, the authorities say that the Pushkin Square bombing, which killed and injured dozens of people, was part of a struggle between mafia groups for control over the tunnel kiosk trade in everything from TV sets to vodka and cigarettes. Most Muscovites, however, are certain it was the work of Chechens. A crowd has gathered in front of a makeshift memorial to the victims of the bombing. The people pray, light candles, and gather to read the poems posted on the walls of the tunnel. They are lamentations, cries for retribution, yearnings for order, and, in a very few cases, pleas for Russia not to give in to despair and hatred. One is sad:
You see I’m crying again
My tears flow freely.
They’ve stolen my friends from me
Another is angry:
I long for the Iron Curtain,
When traitors were punished
And Moscow was not torn apart
Another laments Russian impotence:
Nash your teeth Russia
They are betraying us once more.
One even calls for an end to the war in Chechnya:
The killing must stop
Do we need this war?
An old man complains to me that his son is lazy and only comes home when he is hungry. The thieves run everything, he says, and Putin’s attempts at restoring order appear halfhearted. What Russia needs is another Stalin. I can only sigh. A rich, poor, sad, lively, foreboding, hospitable country. What would Russia be without poetry?
I leave the window open in my hotel room and sit down to read the newspapers. The stories are about oligarch/Kremlin machinations and the good fortune Russia enjoys in high oil prices; about the debate over whether the Kursk will be raised or left as a sailor’s grave; about contract murders; about an illiterate old peasant who walks from village to village, reciting his poetry from memory and entertaining passersby. He is happy in his own way, a latter-day holy fool, loved by his neighbors. Poetry again.
I turn on the TV. Another paradox: Putin has met with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Some of the great writer’s friends are shocked by the meeting of the ex-KGB operative and the former exile/dissident, but I detect in Solzhenitsyn’s comments some of the same hope expressed by other Russians since Yeltsin’s departure: Somehow, Russia will beat the odds and survive. Although critical of some of Putin’s policies, he wants to keep the door open to the Kremlin. I suspect Solzhenitsyn is aware that he is being used by Putin to deflect criticism of threats to the freedoms gained since the fall of the Soviet empire.
The news is over. The weather report saws that the sunny days will end soon. The Russians are expecting snow.
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