H. Brandt Ayers: Good for poor Russia
Feb 16, 2014 | 4749 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova carries the torch during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Photo: The Associated Press
Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova carries the torch during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Photo: The Associated Press
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Good for poor, old Russia. The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics was impressive; the electric horses cavorting in midair inspired a childlike (how do they do that) sense of wonder.

The advanced technology, which conjured the glistening stallions and the whole opening tableaux, was a rare non-ideological, non-combative appeal directly to the heart and senses. Even Putin smiled.

Ahhhhh Russia, so rich in the arts, so poor in spirit. You are so vast (nine time zones) in size, so small in generosity. You have been so abused by a hard history and in turn have been an abuser yourself.

We Americans so relatively secure between our two oceans and at peace with non-aggressive neighbors, Canada and Mexico, can’t imagine what it is like for 500 years to be constantly at war with close and distant neighbors.

When the invading “golden horde” of the Mongols was finally thrown out, their rule was not replaced by peace. For century after century, Russia has won and lost in wars with Poland, Sweden, Lithuania, Finland, Norway, Austria, France, Germany and others.

Such an experience has crafted character traits of isolation, distrust and hair-trigger sensitivity to the scorn of other nations — feelings familiar to the sensibilities of people in the American South.

Those feelings were evident in my first trip to the then-Soviet Union in 1975. I explained to a pretty, young writer for Soviet Life that Southerners knew what it was like to be isolated, poor, suspicious of strangers, over-sensitive to criticism and, worst of all, to be looked down on by luckier regions.

Her eyes flashed with anger as she said, “That’s right. Some people speak about us as if we aren’t even human beings.” I could have hugged her because she was the first person on that trip to express a genuine human emotion. Our “minders” on that trip knew only one language — the phony, ideological Sovietspeak as if they had no mothers, sweethearts or intimate friends who were created by the union of the spaceship Lenin with the planet Marx.

Maybe such a hard history has so toughened Russians that they have switched off some human responses such as their matter-of-fact answer to my question, “Did you lose anyone in the war?” After a few days I quit asking that question. They all had.

Military and civilian deaths in World War II from all causes was 20 million.

On that 1975 trip as part of a delegation of young political and journalist leaders, we attended a city council meeting in Leningrad (now restored to its old name, St. Petersburg) and were surprised to find at the top of the agenda: “Problem of Stale Bread.”

We were puzzled that the main political body in a large city would concern itself with stale bread. We later got a grisly explanation. Visiting the city’s solemn underground War Museum, we found in one display case a humble but eloquent symbol of suffering in the wartime siege of the city — a scrap of stale bread.

One million and 500,000 died in the city — most from starvation.

On every subsequent trip to the city I have returned to that melancholy museum out of respect for human endurance and a silent prayer that my country never has to bear what those Russian people did.

A barely (to Americans) perceptible thaw had been introduced by Leonid Brezhnev’s criticism of Stalinist purges before the Communist Party Central Committee, and he attempted to banish Stalin’s ghost by removing him from display in Red Square.

That final heresy against the old order earned Brezhnev powerful enemies, which led to maneuvering in the central committee favorable to a young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev hastened reforms with his policies of Glasnost (economic reforms) and Perestroika (loosening media regulations.)

It was fun visiting Russia in those days when journalists could talk freely, even critically, about the government, but Gorbachev’s economic reforms didn’t work, which created a vacuum for rule by a strong hand.

Putin’s free-market dictatorship spurred the economy, filled the stores with Western goods and filled the defensive Russian soul with national pride.

It is good for a nation so thoroughly battered by history to enjoy its Olympic party, but nationalism has a dangerous side. Putin could whip patriotism to a frenzy by his ambition to stride the world inspiring universal fear and envy.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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