Maybe Bullwinkle J. Moose taught me everything I need to know about Russia. I was a child when Khrushchev and Kennedy nearly blew me up and I didn’t understand the air raid sirens that were regularly tested in my hometown. But I understood that Bullwinkle and Rocky were the good guys and that Boris and Natasha, those nasty Russian spies, were no good at all.
We were good and they were bad and that is all we needed to know. But then, as always happens and always will, things changed. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, the son of poor peasant farmers, became Russia’s leader. He realized that a country can have guns or butter but not both. The Americans are still trying, by the way, but ask them about their debt and deficit.
His revolution began with glasnost – openness. He slowly ended the brutal totalitarian control that had been created by Lenin and cemented in place by Stalin. The media was afforded more freedom and the arts encouraged to embrace criticism and satire and to, oh my goodness, have fun for fun’s sake.
It continued with perestroika – restructuring. Multi-candidate, secret ballot elections were held for the first time in history in municipalities and then to create a new parliament. The party and the state began surrendering its iron grip on the economy as Gorbachev introduced free market and land reforms.
The Cold War warmed as Gorbachev scrapped hundreds of nuclear weapons. Rather than dispatching tanks as his predecessors had done in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, he allowed Polish protests to play out. He ended Russia’s withering Afghanistan war and began withdrawing troops from Eastern European satellites.
It was about then that I arrived in Moscow. I was among a group of teachers escorting 96 teenagers for a week in March, 1989. These are the seven lessons I learned:
Bureaucracy Can Be Crazy: On our bus from the airport I asked Svetlana, our guide, about the soldiers perched in glass fishbowl stations at major intersections. I was told they worked the traffic lights. When I quipped that it must be a boring job at three in the morning she said that at night the lights are switched to work automatically. Before I could ask the next and obvious question Svetlana whispered, “In Russia, everybody works.”
People Are Resilient: I waited in a long, silent line to purchase a ticket, then in another line to present the ticket, and then in a third line to finally pick up a half dozen bagels. There were long lines everywhere and for everything. People lined up to buy the red rubber boots that we saw on every child. They lined up for meat, for clothes, and for toilet paper. At the giant GUM department store across Red Square from the Kremlin we found empty shelves and empty stores. But people carried on. Nearly all had a look – a Russian look. It was in the eyes. The eyes betrayed people who had been worked too hard for too long for too little; people who were too tired for too long and had been too long lied to and lied about. But there they were every day lining up, going to school and to work, families together in parks, teenagers in love, old folks holding hands, and all just carrying on as best they could.
Arts Should Be Accessible: We attended a performance of the Bolshoi ballet. Established in 1776, the company is world renowned and performs regularly in an enormous and gorgeous theatre. The place was packed. A ticket cost the equivalent of about 25 cents. The circus was cheap. Theatre was cheap. Like Washington’s Smithsonians, the museums were free. Even as the government struggled to reform a sputtering economy it funnelled tax dollars into the arts – the voice and spirit of the nation – to keep them accessible in both senses of the word not just for the privileged few but for all.
There is Such a Thing as Evil: The siege of Leningrad began in 1941 and lasted for 900 horrifying days. Over 600,000 Russians died with 4000 starving to death. You can still see bullet and shell marks in many buildings. No one can visit Piskariovskoye Cemetery without tears. We walked past the monument of a grieving mother to stand in awe before the 186 mounds vanishing beyond our view, beneath which lay over half a million people in mass graves. Not one of them deserved to die. Not one of us should forget the price Russians paid while living within one evil, to defeat another that was visited upon them.
There is Beauty Everywhere: It is not called Red Square because of the bricks or communist party but rather because the Russian word krasnaya can mean either red or beautiful. The square witnessed too many testosterone-riddled displays of phallic missiles but it remains beautiful indeed. St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end and Kazan Cathedral at the other are stunning. The Hermitage Museum’s artifacts and architecture are breathtaking. But there was also beauty in the little boy who stood alone beneath a Leningrad bridge with his fishing pole and a look of patient concentration but who smiled for my camera. There was beauty in the young mother who gently picked up her crying baby and rocked him to sleep amid the bustle of the city and her busy day. Like at all airports, there was beauty in the Russian families welcoming tired travellers with hugs and smiles.
We Can Never Judge a People by Their Government: As we toured and wandered and met more people, I thought of the many Canadians who at that moment were disavowing everything Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was back home doing and saying. He was not me and I would have shuddered to be judged according to everything he said and did, or by everything Mr. Trudeau said and did before him. We know this about ourselves and others. We know that it is especially true when considering people whose governments are not democratic; but we sometimes forget.
There Are Good People Everywhere: Another teacher and I were enjoying some free time by exploring the justifiably famous Moscow subway. A gentleman in a business suit noticed our Canadian flag pins and through heavily accented English offered to show us some of the more celebrated stations. We saw spotless, gleaming subway platforms that more closely resembled churches, museums, galleries or shrines. We toured for over an hour and a half with our new friend waving off his afternoon appointments. With our goodbyes we gave him some Canada pins and he said, “When I thought of Canada I always thought of hockey but now I’ll think of Paul and John.” I replied, “And from now on when I think of Russia, I’ll think of Pavel.”
Today, for the first time in a long while, I again thought of Pavel. I had read about those who thought Gorbachev was going too fast and others who insisted he was moving too slowly. I had read of the coup and sadly followed the years of Yeltsin’s chaos. I had thought of Pavel when former KGB chief Vladimir Putin began reversing Gorbachev’s reforms by closing all that had been opening. I thought of Svetlana who said that we could measure Russia’s progress by the degree to which Lenin became accepted as a bad leader. I wonder what she thinks now that Mr. Putin has clearly established himself as an heir not to Gorbachev but Lenin.
Today, as Russia moves forward by moving backward in its application of history’s wrong lessons, I wonder about Pavel and Svetlana, and the little fisherman and the young mother. I wonder if the Russian look is returning to too many eyes.