If you want a quick illustration of how Russia has thawed since the end of the Cold War, look at the accompanying photo, the one of the rotund Russian soldier glaring at me.
I snapped his picture recently in Moscow when I was touring the Kremlin, that vast walled fortress which encloses the Presidential Palace, museums and churches where the Romanovs were crowned.
During the Cold War, the Kremlin was mostly off-limits to foreigners. And cameras? If I’d snapped the picture of soldiers, my camera might have been seized.
Welcome to the New Russia, a land where capitalism thrives, where billionaires abound (Moscow has more than any city in the world) and where freedom — well, sort of, rings.
Which brings me to Vladimir Putin, the former president of Russia, who now occupies the nominally lesser job of prime minister but remains the power behind the throne.
In the West, Putin is regarded as an autocrat; in Russia he is regarded by millions as a hero who has delivered economic stability. During the Gorbachev/Yeltsin era (1985 through the 1990s), the transition to capitalism was chaotic. Salaries and pensions went unpaid; currency was devalued; life savings were wiped out; store shelves were empty; breadlines were long.
A Russian guide remembers that her father, a well-paid surgeon by Soviet standards, lost his life savings and lapsed into depression.
Another said her father, an engineer, has never recovered from those “crazy” years. Still another Russian summed up that era in three words: “It was hell.”
Putin, the grim-faced former KGB agent, whom Yeltsin handpicked to succeed him in 2000, is credited with bringing stability to Russia.
Putin is a native of St. Petersburg and a graduate of St. Petersburg University. An American friend recalls her guide saying she attended the university with him. “I didn’t like Putin then and I don’t like him now. But isn’t it great that I’m free to say that!”
Russia’s version of freedom is not ours. And Putin is no democrat. He has shut down most of the independent media that criticized him. He has imprisoned millionaires who became too powerful. He may have approved the assassination of a prominent Russian journalist. He handpicked his presidential successor, Dimitry Medvedev, on condition that Medvedev name him prime minister.
Human rights activists and the Western media wring their hands about Putin’s strong-armed tactics, but opinion polls find him highly popular. Russians are willing to trade certain freedoms for “stability,” a word I heard repeatedly during my two weeks in Russia.
“It is logical for Putin to have himself appointed prime minister so that he can finish what he started as president,” said one Putin fan. Said another: “Putin should have shut down those newspapers because they were printing lies about him.”
In Putin’s Russia, the economy is making a notable comeback. Stores are well-stocked and cars clog city streets. The English-language St. Petersburg Times reports that “Russia is becoming the most important automobile market in the world.” I spotted Honda, Jeep and Toyota billboards all over Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Disparity between the have’s and have-nots, however, is huge. Prosperous-looking St. Petersburg and gritty Yaroslav, a town on the Volga River, are worlds apart. Even so, Russia’s oil-fueled economy has trickled down to the masses. Unemployment has declined to less than 6 percent; inflation is 9 percent, compared to 36 percent in 2000.
Russia also praises Putin for putting their country back on the world map. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world lost interest in Russia. When Putin became president, he spent his first term visiting foreign countries to remind world leaders that Russia still existed. He also barked at the West, especially about enlarging NATO. Russians liked it; he was no toady.
“He has restored our pride,” a Russian told me. “The world had forgotten us, but Putin showed that Russia is back.”
Not that Russia or its military muscle ever vanished. It still has a massive nuclear arsenal, a massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and a massive supply of oil (second only to Saudi Arabia).
At the moment, the world’s eyes are focused on China, an economic powerhouse hosting the Olympic Games. But it’s wise to keep another eye on Russia. It is making a comeback on the world stage, and Putin is its iron-fisted stage director.
Next week: Final thoughts about Russia.
Rosemary Roberts writes a Friday column. E-mail: email@example.com.