Rethinking Russia’s role on the global stage

I spent the first half of January in the little stanitsa (a village large enough to have a church) of Ust Khopiorskya, deep in the Cossack region of southwestern Russia. Ten of us – five Americans and five Russians – traveled the 20 hours by train from Moscow to participate in the Orthodox Christmas/New Year’s celebrations, record folk music and collect stories and oral histories from the villagers.

I’ve been making similar trips for the last eight years, a new twist to my 20 years of exploring the former Soviet Union. I had no particular interest in folk music, but it was the only way I could find to spend time in remote villages. One will never understand a country and its people if she only visits a few big cities.

Lena, the head of the folklore department at the Russian Academy of Science, and Andrei, the country’s top ethno-musicologist from the Moscow Conservatory, have shown me a side of Russia that few Americans are privileged to experience. I always come home thankful and humbled by how much we have in America (and tempted to build a small shrine to indoor plumbing). On the endless flight home, I read Marshall Goldman’s new book, “Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia.” Marshall was a young economics professor at Wellesley when I attended college there in the 1950s. Today he is one of our top Sovietologists.  His book recounts how Russia, now the world’s largest petroleum producer, has become an energy superpower with influence that exceeds its Cold War military power. He also questions Putin’s commitment to being a dependable supplier of oil and natural gas, a prescient observation given the recent cutoff of natural gas supplies to the Ukraine and Europe during a bitter cold January.

Russia is feeling the impact of the global recession and declining energy prices. The granddaughter of one of our singers, visiting from Volgograd for the holidays, told us she’d lost her clerical job at Mitsubishi; my friend in Moscow was laid off from her job teaching English to executives at a large Russian company there; one of our Russian students, a composer who works in television and the theater, said contracts for new commercials and productions this spring have been canceled.

Russia is a one-industry economy and is reeling from the impact of $40 per barrel oil.  The ruble declined by almost 10 percent against the dollar during the time I was there.  Greed and the lack of a moral infrastructure, what Goldman calls the “Russian disease,” are exacerbating the problems.

It is difficult for us here in America to realize how important “face” is to Russia. The loss of superpower status in the 1990s was devastating, and we did many foolish things that made it worse. In 1994, when President Clinton made the decision not to invite Russia to the D-Day celebrations in Europe, hurting and insulting them, I wrote: Russia is not a defeated nation over which we have the right to assert cultural, economic and political hegemony. Both countries must recognize their common interest in a peaceful future of open exchange and shared prosperity. It boggles the mind to try to imagine what will occur when both countries devote the resources once spent on mutually assured destruction to peaceful causes. But we will be able to do this only if we cultivate mutual respect for each other as two of the world’s great superpowers.

I worry about what lies ahead as falling energy prices erode Russia’s newly won position of influence. Putin is clearly running the country and is likely to continue to do so. I fear that his carefully crafted plan to eliminate the independent media and renationalize strategic industries will accelerate, with little resistance from a population worried about the details of day-to-day existence.

Belligerence toward any entity that resists (Georgia, Chechnya and the Ukraine, to name a few) is likely to increase. I hope our new administration will be more sensitive to what is important to Russia and will work with her, not against her, to promote a peaceful, prosperous world.

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