"Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"
Most of us know a bit about the Tsars (Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Empress Catherine), the Revolution, Lenin,
Communism, Stalin, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and now Putin. But it's still a strange place: caught between East and West, a
modern, technological society deeply rooted in its peasant past and a long and turbulent history which inflicted enormous suffering and death on millions.
was first mentioned in print in 1147 during the reign of Prince Yuri of Suzdal a.k.a. "Dologorukiy" (meaning "long-armed" for his habit of grabbing land
form others). It was perfectly situated at the crossroads of East-West and North-South trade routes. Unsurprisingly this lured the Tartars (or Mongols) - the
"Golden Horde" - in the Eastern steppes, who repeatedly invaded to pillage and loot Moscow (the Mongols have had a lot of bad press in the course of history; to correct that view check out the story of the Mongol Hordes, the first Iron Curtain, Lost Opportunities, Inflation and Gutenberg’s Real Motives!
). Grand Prince Ivan a.k.a. "Moneybags" (early 14th century) paid off the Tartar hordes and ensured the prosperity of Moscow, allowing the principality to grow, and finally Ivan the
Great (1462-1505) defeated the Mongols. He also built the Kremlin. More architectural marvels were instigated by Ivan the Terrible (1533-84), who was the
first Russian ruler who claimed the Imperial title of Tsar (Caesar). A bloodthirsty tyrant, he founded the first secret police (whose many incarnations include the
NKVD, KGB and now the FSB), and murdered lots of people, including his son in a fit of rage.
Skipping forward a bit (there were famines, civil wars, peasant revolts, Polish and Swedish invasions), the Romanoff dynasty started in 1613. Peter the Great
(1682-1725) was the first tsar to look westwards, and travel. He westernised his court, developed many industries and reformed the currency, calendar and alphabet. Not that the masses were content
since they - as usual - got taxed rather a lot and ended up as "cannon fodder". In keeping with tradition, he also killed his
son. Most know him as the founder of St. Petersburg, the
"window on the west" designed by foreign architects. The foundation of St. Petersburg apparently includes the bones of its c. 20.000 builders, and later it became his new capital.
Catherine the Great (1762-96), most famous for her huge sexual appetites (20+ lovers) was actually very smart and is responsible for the extension of the Russian empire (Lithuania,
Eastern Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Crimea). Despite all this progress, the peasants - actually serfs - were repressed and exploited, resulting more civil turbulence.
Fast forward to Napoleon, whose Grande Armée succeeded in getting as far as the Kremlin (1812). However, a huge fire
destroyed most of Moscow and since the French were running short of food (armies march on their bellies), they had to
retreat into the arms of the Russian winter (which also later wrecked Hitler's plans somewhat) and utter defeat. More civil
unrest, demonstrations and insurrections followed over the years. Fast forward again to WW I, the final straw for the
oppressed masses due to horrendous casualties, extreme food shortages (tales of cannibalism abound), etc. In early 1917, Nicholas I was forced to sign away 300 years of Romanoff dynasty. The 1917
October Revolution started the Communist state (Lenin's invention). More civil war resulted in Nicholas I and his entire family being executed. Thereafter,
Stalin ("Man of Steel", real name Joseph Vissarinonovich Dzhugashvili, 1922-53), created the Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics. His planned economy, collectivised farming and massive industrialisation programmes are well known (we
have visited factories still using antiquated equipment). His secret police instigated the Great Purge (1930s) where
millions were imprisoned (to the "gulags"), exiled or executed. Another c. 20 million died in WW II. Historians estimate
that the Stalin killed up to 60 million in total - a figure somewhat disputed by the Russian government.
Thereafter the Cold War era began, with it the Iron Curtain became reality. Corruption, nepotism and repression were endemic. Mikhail Gorbachev instituted perestoika
(restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in 1985, leading to first national election in 1989. Communist regimes in Eastern Europe tumbled and in 1991 the USSR was dissolved. The
Yeltsin era which started so well became known for its corruption, mishandled privatisation (vast natural resources ended
up in Oligarchs hands, "oligarchs" being some super-rich entrepreneurs a.k.a. tycoons) and the growth of criminal
activities. Unfortunately the masses still suffer (elderly, peasants) and the rest have to cope with the realities of "Wild East" Capitalism. (This is also true in independent Ukraine
). As we Western Consultants found, many Russians are
friendly and hospitable folk, but the disparity between rich and poor is shocking. Designer clothes, roses at USD 200
each (yes, two hundred, not a typo), gold Rolexes, fancy 4W-drives with tinted windows and lots of armed guards are
available to the privileged few, whilst pensioners try to sell their last plastic bag in the middle of Red Square. Giving a few
dollars to these wretchedly poor old ladies may well result in them falling to their knees in thanks. Even worse, they have
to hand over a percentage of their meagre takings to the local Mafia. According to various media the problem of
alcoholism is rampant, in particular amongst dispossessed children (often also addicts) roaming the back streets and
tunnels. Life expectancy has actually decreased since 1989. Reports suggest that the current President Putin is taking a stronger tack on some of the endemic problems.
Sources: The Economist, Wall Street Journal, various west European newspapers, Berlitz, own experiences and observations
A highly recommended source for a more businesslike assessment of Russia is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Country
Did you know where the name “Russia” itself came from? The Vikings
were not only busy raping and pillaging but
actually quite good traders, too. Thus they made their way down South the various waterways (to, among others, sell
slaves captured in Russia to the Muslims). The locals used to call them “Rus” - which was their term for Northern, red
-haired foreigners. A few historical ironic turns later, the country itself became known as “Rus”. A variation of this holds that the name derives from Old Norse Rothsmenn, meaning seafarers, from rothr, “to row”.
The usual sights of Moscow are also well known, so I won’t put up any more here. This, however, is a Moscow street away from the touristy bits:
Income disparities are huge, of course. The majority of Russians (as in most of the former Soviet Union) associate democracy and private enterprise quite negatively - they see a dramatic
decline in living standards and a much more obvious level of corruption and outright theft).
If you’re really lucky (or clever) you get a job as doorman at one of the really nice, and really expensive Moscow hotels. Tips from Western businessmen alone are a multiple of a
usual salary. The grin is evidently directly correlated to the said tips.
Unfortunately, the sight of begging children, as here in St. Petersburg, is all too common.
These folk here are not street artists - they’re real, actual peasants.