Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thoughts on Russia

I don't know what it was, but something spurred in me the memory of a decade or so back, when I was doing a project out in St Louis.  As was often the case, there was a Russian programmer at the client site, and I struck up a conversation with him in Russian, in the never-ending quest to keep my Russian skills from disappearing forever off into the mists of forgetting (as they will one day, for sure, but I will forestall it as long as possible).

Sergei, I think his name was, was typically delighted and amazed to meet an American who spoke some Russian, and invited me out to his home to meet his wife in the evening after work.  When I got to their house, a perfectly respectable if nondescript ranch somewhere in some subdivision, there was one small problem:  their dog.  Not that he was a nasty dog, quite the contrary, he was a lovely dog, the friendliest ever, perhaps.  An Irish Setter, I thinnk. You would have thought I was his long-lost chum from kindergarten.  No sooner than I had come in the house, then he lept all over me and wanted to kiss and lick and cuddle.  He was absolutely irrepressible.

I can't recall if I had told Sergei I didn't drink before I went over there, at any case, at some point in time it became clear that the best activity for the two of us was to play ping pong. So we played some ping pong, and spoke some Russian, and then to leave I had to pass through the kitchen again, where they had tried to isolate their hyperpup.  More jumping and kissing.  Though I could have done without some of the puppy love, this was a reminder of the extreme hospitality one often finds amongst the Russians.

These days almost everything we read about Russia is negative.  Putin taking back Crimea, waging a proxy war in Ukraine.  Russians attacking gays and lesbians.  Parliament passing crazily restrictive laws on media. Zhirinovsky threatening use of tactical nuclear weapons in Poland or the "dwarf states" of the Baltic.

I was up at Columbia University for a memorial service in honor of one of my professors, Robert Belknap, this Friday.  At the reception afterwards, I was talking to other faculty from Columbia, Princeton, and elsewhere, and they were basically arguing that -- despite Putin's huge approval numbers -- things weren't as bad in Russia in general as they are made out to be.  That life is better, that people are not as nasty as our mass media make them out to be, that the real solution is for Putin to be gotten rid of, somehow.  And that Putin's control is not as absolute as it is made out to be.

It's hard for me to know.  I haven't been back to Russia since '98.  But it is hard for me to believe that they are all fascists.  They have suffered, yes.  There is homophobia, and racism, yes, but we've got that too.

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