Russia, A Nation Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

Reply Wed 11 Jan, 2012 10:04 am
Russia, A Nation Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

Seven time zones and thousands of miles separate Russia's capital, Moscow, from the port city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. NPR journalists traveled the full length of the Trans-Siberian railroad and report on how Russia's history has shaped its people, and where, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians want their country to go.

First of three parts

Two decades after the collapse of communist rule, just where is Russia headed? Scholars, diplomats and poets are spending careers contemplating the question.

In my two years as NPR's Moscow-based correspondent, I traveled widely in Russia and talked to wealthy businessmen, powerful politicians and poor pensioners. And before returning to Washington, in one last reporting trip, I hoped to make my most ambitious effort yet at tapping the mood of the country and its people.

I knew it would be impossible to capture the essence of a country in one journey. But I wanted to try; so I took the train across Russia. The timing was right. Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been challenged by street protests that hint at dissatisfaction and dissent.

The train journey was a chance not only to see the country and explore its history, but also to gauge the sentiment of Russians far from prosperous Moscow.

My route — the nearly 6,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian railroad — is a pathway that's loomed large in Russia's history.

Anna Konstantinovna, the lively woman who directs a Moscow museum devoted to transportation and the train, explained to me how the Trans-Siberian moved soldiers to the front lines of Russian wars, helped Russians maintain their holdings in the Far East, and improved trade throughout the country.

There was a darker side, as well: The train carried exiles and political prisoners to forced labor camps and prisons during both tsarist and Soviet times.

Today, the railway is an important form of transportation in a country where air travel is too expensive for many. Most people aboard the Trans-Siberian are Russians, traveling to visit family members scattered across this huge country. During the long rides, passengers sit, read, chat and welcome visitors. Friendships are formed over food.

In the first hour of our journey, a woman in the compartment next door had already offered us chunks of her Belarussian sausage, along with homemade horseradish with sour cream. All food is accompanied by steaming hot tea, Russia's proudest addiction.
Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

The Trans-Siberian is epic, colorful and fascinating — but it can also be a bit of an ordeal, as can much of life in Russia.

Russians are very well-acquainted with ordeals. Millions were enslaved as serfs under the tsars. They were repressed during Soviet times. Over the past two decades, Russians have felt more personal freedom, but there's also much poverty in the country, and political upheaval. Tragedy and hardship always seem to shape Russia's character.

We were reminded of that by one passenger, Sergei Yovlev, a middle-aged man sharply dressed in a navy blue pinstriped suit.

His hometown, Yaroslavl — located just a few hours northeast of the Russian capital — was in the news last summer, when nearly every member of the hockey-loving city's professional team, Lokomotiv, was killed after the team plane crashed on takeoff.

Yovlev, who works for the Russian railroad, just stared blankly when we asked him about the accident. Then, he began reciting names.

"I can name all of them," he said of the team members. "What happened was a true tragedy. But we'll survive."

Living through tragedy, he said, is a quality that is "built into a Russian person's soul."

Russians do survive. That's apparent in Yaroslavl, where despite the tragedy, hockey is alive and well, in part thanks to a youth training program.

At a hockey arena on the outskirts of the city, some 20 or so 11-year-olds chased pucks and skated in drills as their coach, Ivan Dobryakov, looked on.

He takes his job — developing this next generation of players — very seriously. The Lokomotiv tragedy took a toll on him and his players.

"We lost something that is impossible to get back," he explained. "We do have a feeling of emptiness. Yet, as long as this hockey school works, we will have a future."

'Progress Makes A Person Weak'

There is something especially stoic about the way Russians accept tragedy. A year ago, I covered a suicide bombing at Moscow's main airport, where 35 people were killed.

In the U.S., that airport might have been shut down for days. In Moscow, planes were taking off and landing again right away. And people went right back to work, as though nothing had happened. The cab driver who drove me home had been splattered with blood in the bombing and was back behind the wheel of his cab, having never changed clothes.

Inside Yaroslavl's small city museum, photos hanging on the wall are of local residents who died in dictator Josef Stalin's gulags. The curator at the museum, Ella Stroganova, told us she proudly puts Russia's pain on display. It's what has defined this country's older generation.

"They always ready to meet difficulties," Stroganova said. "Maybe because the practice of their lives showed revolution, civil war, World War II — always difficulties, tragedies, and everything like that."

Her concern is that the comparative ease of modern life in Russia may actually cause the younger generation to lose what it means to be Russian.

"My personal opinion is that progress makes a person absolutely weak. He loses his strength because he doesn't need to think how to survive," Stroganova said.

Hardship, it seems, is a way of life that makes Russians stronger. And, given that mentality, it explains the relationship Russians have traditionally had with their leaders.

Putin and those who governed before him have rarely taken the blame for difficult times, since they're accepted as reality in Russian life. But as we spoke with citizens around the country, we began to sense a desire for change.


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Reply Thu 12 Jan, 2012 11:49 am
In Russia, Modern 'Revolution' Comes At Its Own Pace

Russia had one of the world's most famous revolutions nearly a century ago, in 1917. Yet for centuries, the country has seemed to prefer strong leaders who promised stability rather than revolutionary change. On a trip across Russia today on the Trans-Siberian railroad, NPR's David Greene found many Russians who expressed disappointment with their current government. But most said they wanted changes to be gradual, and were not looking for a major upheaval.

Second of three parts

In 1941, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin carried out his plan to build a reservoir along the Volga River. Thousands of people were ordered to move their homes or face being submerged. One of the towns that faced flooding was Mologa, where some villagers took their homes apart, log by log, piled them on rafts, and moved them to safer locations.

Among the former residents of Mologa was Maria Kuvshinnikova. She was 20 in 1941 and remembers people helping each other dismantle their homes, piling belongings onto rafts, and moving to higher ground.

"When taking the houses apart, they marked each log," she says. "They had everything on these rafts — utensils, domestic animals, cows."

Kuvshinnikova is now 91 and lives in a typical Soviet-style apartment building with her daughter in the nearby town of Rybinsk. But she says she still thinks back on what a nice town Mologa had been, and all that she was forced to leave behind.

"I was sorry for Mologa — it was such a nice town with big rivers," she says.

Then, her eyes well up.

"My mother is still in Mologa. She died in 1934. My father is here, I could go to the cemetery. But there, even if it was long ago, a mother is a mother," she says.

Nikolai Novotelnov was also forced from his home in Mologa. When he was 16, he and his mother took apart their wooden house and moved it to Rybinsk. Now 86, Novotelnov continues to live in the same house with his wife.

"I still have memories of the churches, the tombstones," he says about Mologa. "There was just a simple command: Move it all, and start living in a new place."

While Novotelnov rebuilt his home and his life, his father was in a gulag, serving a six-year sentence for telling a joke about Soviet leaders. He died before being released.

But despite all this tragedy, Novotelnov proudly served his country. He was a truck driver in the Red Army, fighting his way to Berlin in 1945. He still hangs Red Army and Communist Party posters on the walls of his living room.

Today, though, under the current leadership, that pride is faltering.

"The country is divided into rich and poor," Novotelnov says. "Money has become the most important thing. Nothing good has happened in Russia during Putin's time in office. I am his opponent."

Ready For Change

The 86-year-old may not seem like a poster child for change. But if there is a fair election in Russia in March — and that's a big "if" — Novetelnov's vote will be counted against Putin.

The anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia last month were some of the biggest in the 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the capital, Moscow, thousands of people marched on the streets, demanding fair elections. Many were younger, educated, middle-class Russians.

They are not representative of the country as a whole — the majority of Russian citizens are older and much less well-off. Nor are many of them ready for wholesale revolution, along the lines of the Arab Spring.

But during our travels across Russia, we heard more and more voices that are ready for change. The village of Sagra is a case in point.

As with so many Russian villages, visiting Sagra is like taking a step back in time. Dilapidated wood houses are set along snow-covered dirt streets. Geese wander around, honking at passing trains. Many residents have outhouses and heat their homes using wood-fired stoves. And, with a population of only about 130, there is no local police force.

Last summer, Sagra residents became caught up in something resembling an inner-city turf battle. A criminal gang was heading to Sagra one night, and residents called the police from another community. Help arrived too late, though, long after the gang did. Villagers, including 56-year-old Viktor Gorodilov, fought the criminals off themselves, swinging pitchforks and firing hunting rifles.

In a twist of justice not uncommon in Russia, the government charged Sagra's residents with hooliganism. It would have been a familiar story in Russia — the authorities decide who to blame, the courts agree, case closed.

But Gorodilov and others in Sagra found a lawyer, and a local nonprofit, to fight for them. They got their message out on the Internet, insisting they had been neglected by the police and let down by the government. They want something different — but not revolution.

Viktor's 39-year-old son, Andrei, is a third-year graduate student in economics. He would seem to be the right demographic for joining the protests in Moscow. But, he says, they scare him. He lived through political upheaval in the early 1990s, and he's not in a hurry to repeat the experience.

"I can see what's happening in Libya," he says. "That was our path in 1991 [with the dissolution of the Soviet Union]. The Libyan people will live much worse than they used to live. They had social programs, they got apartments for free. Now this will stop. I already lived through those kinds of changes."

Andrei wants more from his government, but he's patient. He was pleased to play a role in defending his father and other villagers against criminal charges.

"I have become an annoyance to our local government," he explains. "We are each struggling as much as we can, each at our own pace."

Collapse From Within

That pace is slow, but the momentum is growing. Yekaterina Stepanova is a professor of philosophy and law in Yekaterinburg, the closest city to Sagra. People out in Russia's far-flung regions, she says, are unlikely to join a large-scale movement to oust a government. But Russia as it's governed today isn't sustainable.

Putin will become less popular and less relevant in places like Sagra. And sometime soon, Stepanova says, there will be new leaders who will figure out how to take Russia into the modern day. She calls it a collapse from within. But collapse is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Collapse," she says, "is what has to come because what we have now is not the history of this new Russia. It's still the history of the Soviet Union."

She has a point. Russia, as we know it now, is only 20 years old — a young country with a long history that is hard to shake. But as the younger generation — a generation that has grown up without Soviet influence — comes to power, some kind of change is inevitable.
Reply Fri 13 Jan, 2012 12:23 pm
In Russia's Far East, A Frayed Link To Moscow
by David Greene - Morning Edition
January 13, 2012

The last of three stories

After a train journey of nearly 6,000 miles from Moscow, the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok can feel like a different country. The people and the language are still Russian, but the strong Asian influence is undeniable. And many residents say the bond to the rest of Russia has been growing weaker, while the ties to Asia have been growing stronger since the Soviet breakup two decades ago. NPR's David Greene has this report as he wraps up his journey on the Trans-Siberian railway.

"Russia, where are you going?" The question was posed nearly two centuries ago by novelist Nikolai Gogol.

Last month, Russians I spoke with during my journey aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad can't fully address that question, or predict their country's future. And after traveling across all of Russia, I can see why.

This is a country in transition, just two decades removed from the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union and still coping with rapid changes. It is a country in search of an identity — no longer a communist state, but not a democracy either.

And the farther east I traveled, the more apparent it became that there's not much holding the country together. In the U.S., if you asked someone what it means to be an American, most people would have an answer, even if it's not always positive. But you'd likely hear phrases such as "freedom," "democracy" or "land of opportunity."

Many Russians don't seem to have a sense of what defines them as a nation. The former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has overseen a system that has made a few people very wealthy with a national economy based on energy and minerals. But much of Russia feels no connection to that; in fact, they feel little sense of pride or identity about their country at all.

That sense of detachment is strong in Siberia, a vast frontier of wilderness, industrial towns, timber and mining production, and tragic history. For most people, Siberia conjures an image of an icy wasteland where exiles and political prisoners were sent to live out their days during tsarist and Soviet times.

The view out the train windows confirms the bleak view: the same repeated scene, a snow-covered landscape with the occasional village whirring by. On the short whistle-stops made by the train, conductors chop accumulated ice off the bottom of the rail cars.

A Land Of Exiles

Deep in Siberia, north of the border with Mongolia, the Lake Baikal region is an important landmark in Russian history. People were exiled here — political activists, dissidents, religious minorities. They would stop at the shore and wait for the dead of winter for the water to freeze, so they could cross the lake on horseback.

I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth. We do not have a replacement, [there's] no worthy replacement for us.

- Inna Khariv, a 62-year-old Russian woman, on the country's need for a stronger national identity

It's a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, especially in winter, and it binds the residents.

"Here, it's very cold. And they have to help each other," says Alisa Sukneva, one of many descendants of Soviet-era exiles still living in the area. Her grandmother's family was forced to start over in this region in the 1930s.

Sukneva works as a tour guide here. Asked about her thoughts of Moscow and the people running Russia, she says: "I'm not really sure the connection with Moscow is very close."

Lyudmila Nazarova is a member of a religious community whose forebears were exiled here in the 1600s, when they broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. Her feelings on Moscow echoed Alisa's.

"Moscow is just a city," she told me. "It's just a capital, but that's about it."

It wasn't always this way, though. During Soviet times, for better or worse, there was an identity.

Nostalgia For Soviet Times

On a brief stop on the train platform in the city of Amazar, I met a fellow passenger, 62-year-old Inna Khariv. She worked on a mink farm in Soviet times, and now lives on a pension of $300 a month. She is one of many Russians who feel nostalgia about the Soviet era, when many Russians felt a common national purpose, and a welfare state provided employment and health care, however modest compared with Western standards.

"You can argue with me, but this is what we had — we lived with it — we had one faith, one goal," she says. Today, "nothing holds us together." She doesn't like Putin, and she's also disappointed that no other inspiring political figure has emerged.

"I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth," she explains. "We do not have a replacement, [there's] no worthy replacement for us."

Looking To Asia

As their trust in the government has faltered, Russians have begun looking away from their country for opportunities elsewhere — especially in Russia's Far East, where Tokyo and Beijing are literally much closer than Moscow. In this region, Asia is a logical choice.

In Russia's eastern port city of Vladivostok — home to almost 600,000 people and the Russian Pacific fleet — cars have steering wheels on the right-hand side and come from Japan and South Korea. There are almost no Russian-made cars on the roads.

China, especially, has become a huge source of wealth and opportunity.

As one professor put it, "China is our everything." But there's a feeling that some of those opportunities are being missed. For many, the Russian government's historic distrust of China is holding this region back.

Dmitry Granovsky and his wife, Olga, both 37, live in Vladivostok with their four children. They see Russia as too centralized and express hope that a new political system might develop — a federation of states, or something resembling the European Union or the United States.

They don't fear their government, as Russian citizens in the past have, but they are disappointed in how little the government does to provide opportunities for its citizens.

The couple see leaders in Moscow as clinging to the carcass of Soviet times, trying to make it work in a modern era. They express a sense that the current system will collapse.

"Our society is sick," says Olga. "It's ill. It's not healthy. We have no society."

The two of them dream of taking their family to another country, to live and work somewhere that's not so hard. Like so many Russians, they're disappointed with their country, and they're ready for change. But their patience seems as long as the train trip from Moscow to Vladivostok. They are willing to wait for the better system they want so much.

On Vladivostok's Golden Horn Bay, two huge bridges are being built. They are supposed to be finished in time for Vladivostok to host the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The structures under construction are awe-inspiring, but they're still incomplete. They seem to be a metaphor for a country that has spent the past 20 years, since the end of Soviet times, trying to build something new — but not quite getting there yet.
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