Monday, August 17, 2009


Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

-Winston Churchill

I was there for all of two weeks, and from that limited exposure to a tiny fraction of the country, I find Winston’s puzzlement still as true today as it was when he said those famous words. Russia is hard to get a handle on. Dynamic and backward, corrupt and direct, capitalist to the core, while pining for the old easy Soviet life.

We visited Kiev, now the capital of the vast new country of Ukraine, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Helsinki. The best part of the trip was the thousand mile journey by river and canal from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

As we cruised north, few roads or settlements interrupt what is still a vast northern forest. Unbroken conifers and white birch crowd the banks. Occasionally an old wooden church came into view, usually in ruins. The air was cool, even on the sunniest of days, hinting at the savagery of winter here in one of the coldest places on earth.

I was listening to a podcast earlier today in which a professor at Berkeley made the point that all societies on earth have now made the transition from a traditional society, which may be very different from other traditional societies, to a modern society, which is like all other modern societies. In that sense Russia has made that transition completely. Its cities look like cities anywhere; its people behave like people anywhere, with a couple of exceptions.

One of those has to do with history. The average kid in the US has managed to remain blissfully ignorant of any real knowledge of history. He or she could not tell you anything about what happened in World War II except in the most general terms. Not surprisingly his teacher and parents know little more. Not so in Russia.

Every Russian and every Russian kid has seared into his or her brain two cataclysms in detail – the tyranny of Stalin and the devastation of World War II. Twenty million dead and the country destroyed. Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, half were Russian citizens.

Long before the fall of the Soviet Union, doing whatever is necessary to prevent recurrence is the highest priority. We cannot understand, I think, the intensity of these feelings. That insensitivity came very close to getting us all killed in a nuclear exchange.

It’s still all mulling, and maybe I will have some more thoughts when I get back from rafting the Salmon River in a week.

Six Russian Haiku

Basel’s onion domes ,

Guard the ancient Kremlin walls,

Waiting for the Tsar.

Mirrored Russian lake,

Angry gulls screetch overhead,

Soon the ice will rule.

Mother Russia lives,

Deep within the silent trees,

Waiting for the call.

Birches line the shore,

Volga flows on evermore,

Russian summer comes.

Russia’s soul runs deep,

Only Vodka plumbs the depths,

Truth comes glass by glass.

Bells ring clear and far,

Onion domes of red and blue,

Paint the Russian sky.