Russia thinks positive, but with realism

These opinions are being written as I bump along the waters of Lake Onega, in Russia, of all places. Over several weeks I am touring by riverboat, traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow. (Disclosure: all at my own expense and under my own sponsorship.) The guides have told me pointedly and with evident pride on several occasions that this lake is the second largest freshwater lake in Europe. Night before last, I traversed Lake Lagoda, a water body the guides declared with even greater self-satisfaction to be the largest lake in Europe. I decided to share these superlatives with a wider audience because Russians, like Texans, seem to want the world to know that things are still big here. I like that. Self-esteem is essential to a healthy body politic, and Russians still have it, and for good reason. There’s a lot to feel good about here.

But a healthy political outlook also requires realistic perceptions of your strengths and weakness. While Texans sometimes have problems with this part of the equation, Russians are striking an admirable balance between esteem and realism. Most of the guides with whom I have spent time are deft in their assessments of the progress of the Russian transformation. Some things are better. Other things need improvement. A few things might even have been better under the old regime. Sound familiar? Does to me. It’s just like the good old USA. Our country and Russia are both works in progress. But ordinary people here in Russia probably have a better sense that things are moving in the right direction. Optimism is good for a nation. I’m glad it exists in Russia. We could learn from it.

It’s not that everything is necessarily great here. I am told there are many areas where unemployment is higher than anywhere in America. Smaller towns with a single factory that has closed down have been hit hardest, causing extreme unemployment there. This is driving many residents of those communities to leave their native regions to seek employment in St. Petersburg, or, particularly, Moscow. This is creating all the challenges of urbanization that confront American cities, but making both places exciting metropolises for the next generation of Russians. Frankly, the new Russians are going to be much more like residents of European and American cities when this is all over. And the world will probably be a more peaceful and congenial place because of it.

It is dangerous to be a tourist and draw too many conclusions about ordinary life and culture in a country you are visiting. The guides are not necessarily always going to be candid in the opinions they share. The places you visit might detour around “real-world” areas that ordinary citizens, like Russians, encounter daily. The tourist also spends more time immersed in the history and culture of a country than a local might. But in Russia, I’d imagine that it’s hard to be a historical and cultural know-nothing, even for the casual citizen. There are so many visible reminders of the past that one is ever aware that this nation’s timeline is long and varied. The past is especially evident in the churches that still dominate architecturally in most cities and villages. I would have thought them all long gone, but they are still here. Sadly, many are now just museums. But they tell anyone that this was once a Christian Orthodox nation. 

The empty and abandoned factories also tell a story of change, as they do in some American cities. Statutes and other historical attractions like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg routinely remind Russians that various hierarchies have come and gone. Today’s Russians will write a new chapter in the history of their people. They have my best wishes for much success.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.