Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Making sense of Russia

One of the things I try and do in this blog is make sense of the world around me. In fact, I think most of what most of do in life is to try to make sense of the world around us. Making sense of the world is a driver to learning and change.

I spent all of last week in Russia - I won’t go into why, those who know me know why, those who don’t, well....

A couple of days in Moscow then on to Siberia, Novosibirsk and Akademgorodok to be exact. And before you ask, no it wasn’t cold, it was hot actually, 30C a lot of the time.

So, I spent the week trying to make sense of Russia. It is tempting to try and understand Russia as America. Two old adversaries have a lot in common, the vastness of the countries being the most obvious but Russia is not another America and it doesn’t make sense to try and understand it as such.

Its also tempting to compare Russia with European like France, Germany, Britain. Indeed, Russia is a European country, and it shares a common history with Europe, it was Russia that defeated Germany and before that France - on both occasions allied to Britain. True, many Russians, maybe most, consider themselves Europeans but Russia is also different from other European countries - no other European country has a Pacific coast.

Russia has always been different to European and American nations. And in the twentieth century it cut itself off from many developments there. While the forces of markets and standardisation mean that Germany, France and Britain increasing look alike, an in turn look like America, Russia was cut off from this. Consequently it is different.

And as an outside it is always tempting to view a country as “wrong” or broken. Supposedly one of the signs of culture shock is thinking things are broken. Each country has its own forces and priorities. Russia may be different but sometimes these are for the better.

Take for example airport screening. Same metal detectors, same procedure, but there are two baskets for your belongings. This confused me but is actually better. One is just for shoes. After all, shoes are dirty things, why put them in the same basket as a coat?

From a technology point of view Russia is really interesting. It industrialised later and then cut itself off from development and created its own versions of technology o we have Tupolev instead of Boeings. That makes it interesting; some technology is better, some not so good.

It is only 15 short years since Russia re-engaged but in places it looks very, well Western. I think it was William Gibson who said “The future has arrived, its just unevenly spread around.” You could say something similar of Russia. Some places, some shops, restaurants, houses wouldn’t look out of place in London, New York or Paris. But its not consistent, elsewhere you find stark evidence of old-Russia. I think Russia will always look different to western eyes, if only because they use a different alphabet.

On the whole I’m hopeful for Russia. It has its problems - not least the current Government. To be fair, they have a difficult job to do, what worries me is not so much what this Government does but that it is laying foundations that a future administration could abuse.

Still I had a couple of positive experiences. Twice I encountered Russian officialdom. If you believe the press then bribes should have been exchanges. On one occasion the official was reasonable, played by the rules and the situation was resolved as well as it could be and now bribes were asked for or paid. On the second the person concerned stood up to an official who was over stepping the mark and who then backed down.

Perhaps Russia has turned a corner here, or perhaps the western press are just wrong.

Finally, nobody I was with and nobody I saw drank vodka. At least among the people I was with, young, successful - the new middle class - beer was the drink of choice.

I’ve made a little bit of progress in understanding Russia but like the country itself there is much more to explore and make sense of.

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