Putin: In the eyes of Common Russians
‘Putin is heading us back to the dark days of cold war, he is a dictocrat, upto needless aggression, etc.’ are the impressions I carried.
And the experience at immigration during my recent visit to the country seemed to confirm such misgivings. The lady passenger ahead of me took close to 7-8 minutes to clear – she was the first in my queue and me the second. She looked around bored and tired. From where i was i could see nothing but a covered enclosure with transparent glass only on the passenger side well above the waist level. I thought there must have been something wrong in her Visa or something which was upto close scrutiny and hoped that it would not otherwise take more than 2 – 3 minutes.
The lady immigration officer asked me to remove my specs and had a close look at my eyes like an eye doctor doing retinal examination. Then she took out a hand held lens and started peering into my eyes in the Visa and then the Passport first page. She must have carried on some other verification for the next 2-3 minutes. Then a colleague of hers dropped into her cabin … i thought she must have been taking too much time and he was there to expedite. She told him something and he pretty much repeated the procedure. He had his own lens, which looked larger. I thought he would say that it was OK to proceed. But after a couple of minutes more their supervisor came. She briefed him. He motioned me to take off my specs in a stern way. I did. By that time i was feeling nervousness creeping in on me. He had a different device – perhaps a miniature microscope. Peered into my eyes in the visa and the PP but said nothing before going out. I started apprehending some action perhaps being taken aside for some serious questioning or … like they do sometimes in Hong Kong airport (if you travel in a group they would pick one and take them aside for 1-2 hours interrogation without giving any information to the others who will be made to wait it out patiently. Well it has happened to me twice… but it may be wrong to generalise). But luckily she started Xeroxing the Passport which brought some relief. I would not have minded 70-80 minutes if the lady had peered into my eyes directly using the tiny lens. But no such luck. After 8-9 minutes of intense silent interrogation, Kumaroa4wsky or Kumarachev was let into Russia.
Some insights or conclusions
What follows is based on my in depth talk with just 4 of them – the tourist guide (who was with us for 3 ½ days (and whatever small small but serious conversations, i had with her), the cheerful and handsome doorman of the hotel who spoke flawless English (he had studied English in school and worked for sometime in Thailand and Egypt before taking up his job in St Petersburg although he himself is from a place called Rastafarin (hope i have recalled the name correctly – some 200 Km up north of even St Petersburg, I never believed some city could be even north of St P), a Cafe manager and a Girl or a lady corporate professional in mid-20s who helped me in translating my request for Vegetarian to English and i stuck up a conversation of sorts. And some casual conversation with an Andhra Student who is doing his Phd in paediatrics and is employed during evening times in an Indian Restaurant and a couple of locals. So you can dismiss the whole thing as not being representative. It is OK.
I have largely related it as if I was talking to one person – saves me some bother in writing. Excuse.
- I asked one of them which politician they hate the most – past or present and pat came the reply – Gorbachov. G represented an ideal statesman for me. I have grown up worshipping his style of ‘perestroika’ and had always imagined that his was the boldness we lacked and should emulate for quicker economic progress. For me it was like a big dampener. And who is the second one …’Yeltsin’. ‘What is about them that you hate?’ I ask. They could not deliver – there was chaos all around. The public sector employees were not getting their salaries paid for six-seven months and Russia was largely Public sector at that time. They did not have a clue on how to handle it. In such a chaotic state corruption was rampant. Disastrous their regime was.
- ‘Putin?’ I asked‘. He has brought order back to Russia. It is functional again. He promised to pay the salaries on time and re-start pension to pensioners and he did deliver on his promise.I ask her who amongst the Soviet socialist time they liked best. There was some vague facial expression/gesture as if she doubted if there some such period like ‘Socialist, who?’…as if the period did not matter. I prompted her with some names … Gromykov, Krushchev, Brushnev, etc. There was only disinterest, although she was middle age and sure have lived through their regime. Whether it is collective amnesia or selective amnesia (of the 5/6 i asked) i do not know. ‘We all knew that the previous scheme of things (referring to the order before 1990s) was not sustainable and would one day collapse … yet G and to a lesser extent Y were disasters.
- I ask one of them ‘which one thing they would like to change in their society or desire their politicians to do’. After some deep thought, ‘Would like lesser corruption’. Has it come down of late. ‘Yes it has. But still when i have to bribe some officials or approach someone in authority through someone to get some papers or permissions, it hurts me to feel that I have to do it on my own soil’.
- Another one said that Putin stands for the Russian people. He connects with us and tries to deliver what is in our best interest. He is trying to re-introduce religion again. Russians were always peace loving people and God fearing. We had our Russian Orthodox Church. I don’t know whether we believe in God strongly, but attending Church has become fashionable once again. We may quarrel within the country, regionally but when it comes to an external enemy we all stand up together … and thats where this man scores. He stands up for our country. (Another fellow traveller recalled Putins recent remark … ‘it is not for me to decide whether to punish the terrorists or not. It is the Gods duty. It is my duty to send them to Him’).
- They all respect the Chinese. ‘China has done a lot for the Siberian/Asian side of Russia by infrastructure development. You know Russia does not have that much money these days and the economy is in a bit of problem… so their help is very much admired. Never mind their habits as tourists but they are there in large numbers.’ Earlier I learnt from one of the tourist guides that when the Chinese come, 4-5 of them crowd around the exhibits in the museums or monuments and spend endless time in photos excluding everyone else including their own group members. Even as a guide it is difficult since at any point of time you can address only the 4-5 nearest to you. They are completely oblivious to others’ conveniences and sensitivities’.
- I saw it first hand during the concert of Russian folk dances in their main theatre hall. Our group made up the majority, came first and were seated in the centre part of the audience from where we had the best view of the performances. There was a 20 minutes break during which some wine and snacks were served in the adjacent hall. When we came back all our seats were gone. Every single seat in the central part first 3-4 rows of seats had been taken by them. Any jackets, Russian Topis etc left behind on our seats found themselves deposited in the back rows. And a few front seats which were vacant were also reserved with bags and Hankys for their friends or folks who were still relishing their Champagne in the adjacent hall. Siege of sorts or ouster. Distasteful it felt. This notwithstanding there is unanimous appreciation for the Chinese by Russians. Chinese were the largest contingent of visitors last year – of the 6 million visitors last year they were 2 million.
- Jobs are not in plenty. They may be difficult to find. But things are far more organised. There has been no pronounced increase in Divorce rates… looked like status quo maintained. Surprisingly none of them seemed to mind the Russian period of Czars and Czarinas (pre 1917) and talk of most of them in awe, respect and admiration. (I thought that they were hated figures for their excessive wealth and highly opulent lifestyle and not caring for the common people like a communist government would have… but I could not find much success in unearthing the reason behind what looked counter intuitive to me).
- I had a long chat about marriage, girl friends and divorce rates with the doorman on a cold night with stiff breeze. He had a permanent smile plastered on his face … one of juvenile or young adult optimism. He was full of banter. I asked him about his marriage. Not married. Girl Friends?. Two but one now. Why not two I ask, cheekily. Only one boy or girl friend at a time allowed. Why I ask. There is a rule that we can have only one at a time. ‘Oh! Is there a law like that?’ ‘No. Not if you are a Muslim. Their religion allows multiple marriages’. ‘Even in Russia?, I ask. ‘Yes, there is nothing against it’. ‘How come then only for Russians a different restriction.’ I understood that the rule of one for one and only one at a time is more of a custom, religion and society matter and not one of Law.
- I could sense some animosity towards Nazi Germans and the way they destroyed many of their monuments and starved more than a million people to death during their 900 day siege of St Petersburg in the 2nd World war. Surprisingly there is no animosity towards Catherine the Great who was of German origin. And if I heard it right, within six months of coming over to Russia as wife of Peter the III, (from Peter the Great lineage) had an affair with one of the Guards and had (reportedly) her husband killed and then ruled Russia for 34 years on the trot. She did wonderful work. I pointedly asked the lady about the paradox… of admiration for one who killed one of their kings from the founding and the most admired ruler families. ‘She had the courage to stand up, rule firmly although she was new to the place, she took fate and future in her hand although she had no way of knowing what and how strong the reaction will be … and then delivered over 3 decades of peace and progress. So why should we not admire her’. I thought there was a tinge of chauvinism in her argument – a kind of I am a woman first (so I will admire the one who could stand up for her conviction), a Russian next.
- I asked about the recent skirmishes and conflicts in Turkey, Crimea, Syria, etc. ‘Our constitution permits help to any nation who asks for help. The Syrian President had asked for help and so it is justified for Russia to help him in whatever way we could. About the other two there are many day-to-day issues since lots of families are split between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. We have relatives and friends living in there and very difficult to reach help to distressed, care for old age parents who may be there, parents to send money to jobless children, etc.’
- I asked about the impact on travel and tourism due to recent events. ‘We were bracing up for the worst. We were anticipating a significant drop. As against 20 tour groups my company would have hosted for American tourist groups on an average between May to November in a normal year, our company has had just 6 this year. I have heard that the US has issued advisories telling their people not to travel, that we will be put to a lot of unwanted hassles in immigration, their passports taken away etc. (don’t know if any such thing has been issued by US). Usually late November and December are leisure times for us Guides… we have holidays and not much workload in the cold weather. But this year I am still working and there are two more rounds to go and the next 20 days are tight. The French and Chinese have made up in large numbers. For the French, Russia seems like a weekend outpost. They come at all times – Christmas, New Year, Weddings, just merriment, etc.
- On the final day I could not resist asking of my frightful experience at the incoming immigration and if that was the most effective way of promoting tourism and inviting guests. What followed was a lengthy justification. ‘We are a peace loving people. But we are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In 2006 we lost many children in bomb attack in Moscow. So our President is very watchful and has initiated tough measures to ensure your safety and our safety. Would you like your safety and security to be compromised while you are here. Would you even care to visit our country if there were frequents incidents. I hear that you face similar problem in Kashmir and on your border with Pakistan? Wouldn’t you like to deal with your problem resolutely and with tough measures?She set me on a thought train…her resolute defence (almost chiding me) and our own inability to deal with our problems in stiff and decisive ways. After her admonition (should I call it), I could not but feel sheepish… may be stupid. There is a surprising oneness of opinions about most things amongst Russians. We debate each and everything ad nauseum. May be that is the hallmark of a democracy. But at least on matters of terrorism, wish we spoke as one. Like the Russians. ‘I think a few minutes more wait at the airport is justified to ensure such safety. The authorities have a problem with your names. So they have to spend extra time to decoding letter by letter. And you also came in through Dubai which does not have strict controls. So it is easy for anyone to use it as a transit point. We welcome these measures and feel safer for them. But you would have noticed once you are in the city it is safe … there is no intrusion or policemen watching you or following you. You can walk around at midnight without fear’.
On balance Putin seems would win 4.5 votes out of 5 – and straight from the heart. One of my friends reasoned that Putin is from St P which explained his popularity. Me thinks that how much a politician is hated is an inverse function of the distance … people in Assam and Punjab may not hate Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi as much as Tamilians with the possible exception of Laloo who is ‘hatedmired’ all over India…so the admiration for Putin is counter intuitive.
I thought Russians would be stiff, uncommunicative, not so helpful, English would be a problem and many such hangovers from the socialist days and what one heard of such days. But there was warmth all around, there were plenty of people who spoke English… when i asked for directions they were willing to walk some way to put me onto the right track, when i ask for a specific shop to pick some item, the hotel receptionists didn’t just stop at giving directions but suggested other alternatives (things to shop as well as stores), I could feel safe enough to go for my morning walks at 6 am in the cold weather when not many are in the streets, (in Winter the Sun does not seem to be up before 10-11 am till which time street lights are on), found them humorous and ready for banter… may be the immigration were doing their job alright.