Russia Is Exotic, Neither East Nor West

Foreign journalists discuss their lives in Russia

Why would anyone in their right mind willingly leave the West with all of its conveniences to live in a country such as Russia? Why would successful college educated journalists subject themselves to police harassment, a lower standard of living, an incredible language barrier, horrible winters and potholes the size of Pajeros? Because they find this country fascinating, with a history and culture like nowhere else in the world, a people who can be as warm and friendly as any and because they are a special kind of reporter willing to be adventurous.

Living here has me on an “emotional roller coaster,” said Ben Aris, a British correspondent with the Daily Telegraph. “I miss Russia when I’m not here.” “It’s a place that drains you,” Mark Franchetti, an Italian reporter with the Sunday Times said. “It’s a country with a lot of misery.” Russia is “fascinating,” remarked a Canadian correspondent Fred Weir of the Canadian Press. “The country is neither East nor West, it’s exotic.” “The metro runs better than in London,” quipped Nick Paton Walsh, a British journalist with the Guardian and the Observer. These are but a few of the comments I heard during recent interviews with foreign journalists.

I spoke with them in order to get their impressions of life in Russia and Moscow in particular. They were all Westerners with varying backgrounds and educations. For some it’s the first time they have been outside of their own country, for others Russia is but one of many countries they have visited, and for a few Russia has become their adopted home.

Mr. Weir from Toronto has been living in Moscow for 16 years and has seen many changes come to this country. “Russia is Exotic, it is neither East nor West.” Working here is always interesting, the politics are volatile and it is if government corruption has run amuck, he said.

Complaints about the huge government bureaucracy and difficulty in getting simple tasks completed such as obtaining event passes was on everyone’s mind. “Government corruption is worse now than under the Soviets,” the Canadian said. This problem is not unique to Russia and the journalists were quick to point this out. Another nearly universal complaint was that of being hassled by the traffic police because they have a foreign designation on their car’s license plate, or having to pay more for goods simply because they are not Russian.

Professionally there was a feeling the Russian government is less open to journalists since President Putin took office. “People are more careful about what they say,” Mr. Franchetti said. “Foreign journalists are less important now.” On the other hand, Mr. Aris, who has lived in Russia for 15 years felt journalists here could really make a difference in people’s lives.

Nearly all agreed however, that the Putin Administration has had a definite stabilizing effect on many aspects of the country. For this reason it was felt as time goes by there will be less worldwide interest in Russian news stories. As one journalist pointed out this may already be happening. Foreign bureaus have begun reducing their staff and some have closed completely. Helene Popovic, a French correspondent with the third largest newspaper in France Liberation remarked, “The country is becoming more stable, political life is not as interesting.” “The parties are weak, the President is strong,” she said. “There is no meaningful debate.”

Everyone seemed to have a certain inexplicable feeling about being in Russia. The rich history and culture fascinated those I spoke with. It is partly why I wanted to come to this beautiful country. “The Western world’s perception of Russia is six months to two years behind,” Mr. Aris said. He has seen many changes in Russian society during his 15 years here. “People believe they have a futurenow,” he said. “They plan, they are more aware of the need for a steady income.” Life here is an “emotional roller coaster,” Mr. Aris said. “The winters are depressing.” On the other hand some felt the unpredictability of life here made being in Russia very interesting.

“Russia is fascinating, it’s a country trying to begin again, a new start,” remarked Mr. Paton Walsh, a Brit who has been living here for six months. “I asked to come here for 18 months, I find the people and the country very alluring.”

Something I found interesting was the lack of formal education concerning this country these journalists came here with. Most could not speak or read Russian when they arrived. One in particular knew nothing about the Russian language or culture; he just knew he wanted to be here. Now it’s nearly six years later, he speaks Russian and says he feels right at home here.

Growing up in the West, and in my case America during the Cold War we were taught from a very young age that Russia was the enemy, the people were evil and wanted to destroy the world. In elementary school we were shown films of what would happen to us during a nuclear attack. We had evacuation drills and air raid sirens sounded warnings of potential nuclear devastation; it was all very frightening for a youngster, it was frightening for everyone.

When I was old enough I joined the military, in part to fight Communism and win the Cold War and in part to get an education. After joining we were once again taught that Russia was enemy number one and the communist’s intentions were nothing short of world domination. To a certain extent I believe this was true. As it turned out the West did win the Cold War, I did receive an education and somewhere along the way I came to believe the average Russian citizen no more wanted World War III than did the average American.

I found this in common with another of the journalists I spoke with. He had also grown up during the height of the Cold War and had been taught to fear Russia. One day he came face to face with his fears while in East Germany, in the form of a Russian soldier who was working at one of the many checkpoints between East and West Berlin. “I had been taught they were our enemy and I was scared when I saw this Russian soldier with his AK 47 approach our car,” he said. “But once I saw his face I realized he was as nervous as I was. He looked the same as me and to be about my age. I felt better after that.” He realized as I did that governments are not people and we have more in common with each other than we think.

One of the many changes witnessed by these journalists has been the emergence of the middle class and with it an improvement in entertainment opportunities, restaurants and better living conditions. “The standard of living has gone up,” “Moscow is cleaner now” and “The metro runs better than in London” were comments I heard from various journalists. Overall, the people I spoke with were impressed with Russia and its people. The bond between friends and family is especially remarkable. The diversity of cultures, beliefs and lifestyles throughout Russia is almost without compare. That’s the real beauty of this county.

What’s the future hold for Russia? For some it was hard to say given this country’s history. Others were optimistic. They see a more open press, increased personal freedoms, a growing economy and a resourceful people. “Since 1991 people here have gained personal freedom for the first time in history,” Mr. Aris said. “It’s a democracy because people have the vote, but they don’t understand the power of that vote yet.” As long as there remains a relatively stable government in Russia, the economy and foreign investment will improve was the overall feeling. Russia may indeed experience a 21st century “Wirtschaftswunder.”

David Misselt PRAVDA.Ru trainee from University of Wisconsin, River Falls, USA

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