THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 195, October 21, 2002
ARE WE PLAYING IN PEORIA?
You'll Neva Know
Special to TLE
Recently, on my way to England from Australia, I spent about ten weeks in the former Soviet Union - seven weeks in Russia, and three weeks in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I also spent time in Korea and Sweden. It was an exhilarating trip, at times painfully frustrating and bewildering, always entertaining, and ultimately very enlightening.
Russia is a mad country to say the least. It's full of extremes, often contradictory. In a way, it was how I imagined, but in another way, it never failed to surprise.
Moscow, and to a lesser extent, other large cities, reminded me of any western city (save the architecture, Cyrillic and heavy military presence). There's wealth there (although like the west, extreme poverty also), an abundance of consumer products and an overwhelming level of advertising. It's kind of amusingly ironic that Muscovites are lapping up American products since they are so anti-American.
The further away from Moscow one travels, the more it's like stepping into the past, or into some bleak novel. Generally speaking, the provincial areas of Russia have not made a successful transition from communism at all. Many are little more than industrial ghost towns.
Latvia and Lithuania have made something of a transition, but there is still strong evidence of Soviet times. Estonia totally blew me away. It's hard to believe it was once part of the Soviet Union. In almost all respects, it might as well be Scandinavian. (People often call it "cheap Finland".) Of course, Estonia is one of the countries at the top of the list for joining that great socialistic juggernaut known as the EU, but that's another matter.
I think Estonia will continue to prosper, and Latvia and Lithuania also to a lesser extent. However, I really can't see Russia digging itself out of its mess any time soon, which is a shame, because the young people were wonderful and want things to change.
In order to understand Russia's problems, one needs to understand a couple of things about the Russian psyche. The first is that Russians are very, very complex people, and it's very difficult to draw out different aspects of their lives and society. I think all of the following points I am going to discuss are intricately interwoven.
Russians are fundamentally irrational, fear personal responsibility and have a great aversion to freedom. This was really hard for me to accept. It's even more bizarre when you consider there have been so many amazing Russian chess players and that Russians idolise their writers - people who were generally all for individual freedom and responsibility.
Russian history is all about latching onto any absurd ideology that comes its way. This is true of politics as well as religion. The political systems speak for themselves (including the current mix of extreme authoritarianism and complete lawlessness). I may be coming from a strong bias, but Orthodoxy is completely unfathomable to me. It's downright medieval in fact. I actually found it really disturbing to watch. It was like watching an intellectual and existential suicide.
However, in a leap that may be too harsh for some, I can understand now why Russia has had such a ridiculous political history. Any people who are willing to subvert their wills to such an absurd concept as Orthodoxy, that is so Dis-empowering for individuals, to such an extent, were perfectly prepared at a psychological level to accept an equally evil and absurd political system such as communism.
This also manifests itself in current politics. Russians whine about the political system, being so corrupt and so on. However, they do absolutely nothing to change the system, or even get rid of it. Rather, they either work around it, or actually work in it!
I could tell a dozen mad stories about dealing with Russian bureaucracy, but one in particular stands out in my mind. I was in a place called Kazan, and trying to leave (since I couldn't get accommodation). I'd just had a frustrating experience with a ticket lady at a railway station. Unlike most countries I've been to, I actually knew a decent amount of the language in Russia (which is why I pitied people who couldn't even read Cyrillic, let alone say a few words). That's not enough though, and people in the misnamed "service" industry will either flatly ignore you, or assume that by screaming at you, you'll suddenly become fluent! Don't expect that they'll try to help you out as a foreigner, even if what you requested was in perfect Russian. (Actually, the ticket lady picked up her computer monitor and started waving at a woman in front of me while screaming, so maybe they do it to locals too.)
Anyhow, the net result was along with about fifty other people, I was going to have to sleep in the station that night.
At 4:30am, I was awoken by a lady prodding me with a mop. She had to mop the floor. What really annoyed me though was that she made this big song and dance about waking up some little girl who was quite sick and trying to sleep. She then did the same to everyone else in the whole place. The irony of the situation, and something I think is fairly indicative of Russian bureaucracy in general, was that she was so completely inflexible about the whole thing, and slavishly enforced the rules, yet still did a really pathetic job and left several patches un-mopped.
Trying to get anything done in Russia is a combination of cunning and pure luck in your attempts to get it done promptly and successfully, whilst avoiding the authorities. I was lucky in that I wasn't shaken down by the corrupt street police once, but virtually everyone else I met had some sort of encounter. There are so many ridiculous rules (try getting an invitation to get a visa for instance, and then don't forget to "register" it within three days for each city you visit) and as is to be expected, there is an enormous black market.
A lot of this comes down to the contradiction that Russians really distrust authority, yet are also incredibly conservative and fear upsetting the status quo.
Mostly though, I think most of Russia's problems can be explained by looking at the micro level, and how individuals deal with one another.
Perhaps as a survival mechanism, Russians live by a system of favours and network of friends. Again, they complain about the mafia and the way it operates, yet in my average dealings with Russians, I soon learnt that there is always a catch. People are always trying to get you in their pocket or rip you off. Most Russians are wannabe mobsters, but don't have the smarts or the balls.
There is a distinct lack of courtesy in Russia. People are extremely rude and think only of themselves. Now, that's okay in a libertarian framework to an extent (and I'm certainly not advocating socialism). However, people fail to realise that if they all act like irresponsible animals, and there is no courtesy or order involved, in the end, nothing gets done, or it gets done much less efficiently. Russians are completely incapable of queuing, and whenever you're buying a ticket, there are always people cutting in from other queues, "reserving" a place for someone who is in another queue, or waving documents and money at the ticket officer while you're trying to pay for yours. Add to all this random closing times and tea breaks, and what should be a simple process becomes a major undertaking. This never failed to happen.
Another example, and probably the most absurd thing I have ever seen was when I was walking down the street in Moscow one day. Red lights are a mere inconvenience for most Muscovite motorists. So too, apparently, are ambulances. An ambulance (with sirens and flashing lights) was trying to get onto a main road. No one would let it in. One of the paramedics alighted and tried to stop the oncoming traffic. He was almost run over and had to retreat to the ambulance. A few minutes later, after fighting to do so, the ambulance joined the main flow of traffic. It then had to fight its way through a bottle neck. That's the most extreme example I witnessed, but fairly indicative.
In almost all stores, all the products are behind the counter. In some cases, to get what you want, you go to one counter, make your request, get a receipt, go to the next counter, pay for it, go back to the original counter and pick it up. This completely baffled me as it is obviously grossly inefficient. Eventually, I considered five possible reasons for this:
The thing I found about Russia was that to get along in the country, I had to consider every irrational and paranoid possibility as not only a distinct option, but most likely THE option. In a way, it's kind of amusing. At times, I found myself laughing a lot, because it was like being in a comedy sketch. It was really hard to imagine people could function like this, and that things were once worse! At other times, I found myself frustrated, depressed, and generally disillusioned with the entire human race.
It was certainly hard work in Russia, which is perhaps why I was so relieved when I got to Estonia. I am sure I was suffering some post traumatic stress disorder. In a way though, it was quite an adventure.
The youth in Russia are generally a lot better than anyone who grew up under communism. They are more humourous, adventurous, and have a greater lust for life (and the women are absolutely gorgeous). Whilst I still think that people ultimately have control over their lives, I think communism left an indelible mark on the Russian people, and it may take a long time yet for them to recover from the hangover. Anyone who thinks that communism was, or could be, a good thing need only go to Russia or learn about its history.
I certainly had a great time in Russia, but even if I hadn't, I would consider it a valuable experience. I am convinced more than ever that freedom and responsibility are fundamental to humanity. Russians are like caged animals that had the cage door opened and are now savagely devouring one another.
Rather than smugly claim that we are so much better in the west (which we are to a degree), I would take Russia (in its present and past forms) as an example. Anyone who thinks that could, or will, never happen in countries like Australia, America or England is naive. It already is happening. Sure, we have more freedom and wealth than Russians or the Soviet Union, but I think we're already sliding down the slippery slope, and having seen two conclusions (one past and one present) of the lack of freedom and responsibility among people, the west currently scares me more than ever.