Crisis of Identity?

Soviet symbolism is everywhere in Russia today, but the Soviet Union is gone. The more official monuments we visited, the more I became aware of the challenge this poses for national identity. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs down the street from our Moscow apartment is decorated all over with hammer and sickle medallions and stars — no one is scraping them off or covering them. Some of the stars on the Kremlin have been… Read More

Moscow is not Russia, Part II

The 400-mile train journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg was beautiful, but astonishingly empty. We passed through villages and a few towns, but nothing that would qualify as a city (at least not to the west of the train, where I was sitting!). We saw unpaved streets, tiny houses, abandoned factories. We also saw very little cultivated land along the railroad. On the outskirts of Moscow people were gardening at their dachas… Read More

Moscow is not Russia, Part I

The purpose of this trip is to learn new things, not to confirm what we think we know. Nonetheless, the visible prosperity in Moscow was starting to freak me out. A political scientist wants to think she knows a few basic facts about the world’s major countries, and It was hard to square what I saw there with what I thought I knew. Prices in Moscow are very high. Groceries and restaurant… Read More

Bulgakov’s Cowardice

There are  lots of sad stories in Russia, but few sadder, to my mind, than the story of Bulgakov, the modernist writer who was both banned and protected by Stalin and is enjoying a huge renaissance today. Bulgakov sounds like a real rascal — a brilliant writer who was not afraid to tweak the leadership. Stalin loved his work — he saw one of Bulgakov’s plays 16 times, and he always enquired… Read More

Not all authoritarianism is Stalinism

In the US we enjoy drawing parallels between different political eras. We love to find echoes of the past in the present, so commentators often compare President Vladimir Putin to past Russian leaders, both Soviet and pre-Soviet.  But after visiting the Museum of Russian Political History (formerly the Museum of Revolution) I find such parallels facile and unhelpful. The Soviet Communist Party was not just another in a long line of authoritarian regimes…. Read More

Visiting the Cemetery

I’ve always liked cemeteries, so I was game to visit Novodevichy, the last stop for  famous Russians. What I like about cemeteries is their peaceful greenness and the combination of pathos and information carved into the tombstones, so I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy one in a language I can’t read. As it turned out, Novodevichy exceeded my expectations on both counts. The cemetery is enclosed in high brick walls that… Read More

Workers, peasants and soldiers

I’m sure my companions are tired of hearing about it, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons between what we are seeing in Russia and what I know of China. I’m also mindful of the old chestnut that after a month in China, one wants to write a book, after a year in China one feels qualified to write an article, and after 5 years in China it is impossible to write… Read More

T-shirts and opinions

If our guides can be trusted, Russia is no democracy, but it’s fine to say so out loud. Everyone we’ve talked to seemed quite happy to fill us in on their political views, and the range of opinion is wide. Walking through our neighborhood on our first evening we saw, in quick succession, t-shirts picturing Che Guevara, a Guy Fawkes mask colorized to resemble the famous Hope ‘n Change Obama logo, and… Read More