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Will the Russian Empire Be Reborn?

As Russia’s middle class grows, will it demand greater political freedom and fair elections?

October 27, 2012

Statue of V.I. Lenin. Credit: Aleksandr Kurganov/

I’m sitting at a McDonald’s, drinking cappuccino and eating a croissant with a spectacular view of one of the most famous monasteries in the city, if not the country.

This situation would not be unusual except that it takes place in St. Petersburg, and the monastery is not a common one. It is the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, named in honor of the most important and admired hero in Russian history.

Nor is it common that the two countries’ icons, McDonald’s and the Nevsky Monastery, are facing each other. In the monastery are buried prestigious Russian writers, musicians and artists. The croissant I am eating is a French culinary icon. The cashier at the McDonald’s doesn’t look Russian, but rather looks as if she is a native of one of the former Soviet republics.

This scene is just one more example of the scope of globalization and how it affects the world today.

The impact of communism

The years of communism have left their mark on the character of many Russians. They seem introspective and disillusioned, perhaps due to lack of certain freedoms at the time of the Soviet Union, a situation I also observed in Armenia several years ago.

As some young Armenians told me at the time, and as I was also told by several Russian friends, during the years of the Soviet Union, although their basic needs were covered, there was enormous pressure not to be different and creative, thus giving the people a sense of oppression that eventually influenced their character.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia went through a period of great ferment.

Angela Sem (not her real name), a young Russian who now lives in New York, said, “After the destruction of the Soviet Union there was a period of confusion, of lack of rules and lack of business ethics where people with strong personal initiative took advantage of the situation to start building huge fortunes. Those people close to power were obviously the most favored.”

The result is that today Russia is developing as a “bipolar” society, where a small minority has enormous wealth and the vast majority of the population lives in lower middle class standards.

According to some economists, the middle class will grow steadily in the coming years, and so will its demands for greater political freedom and fair elections.

Reinterpreting past glories

The consolidation of Russia as a world power accelerated between 1800 and 1830, although it had lost several battles against the French. Even today, the Russians seem to remember with relish the invasion of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812 and its subsequent defeat.

At that time, Napoleon was at the height of his power, and no European country dared to confront him. For Russians, the victory over Napoleon — and the defeat of Germany in the Second World War — helped forge their national identity, the pride of knowing that they could overcome any external threat.

Although it is generally accepted that the combination of Russian forces, hunger and the harsh winter were the main factors in the defeat of Napoleon, a new hypothesis has emerged in recent years to explain it.

According to French researchers led by Dr. Didier Raoult of the University of Marseille, more than half of the French deaths were probably due to an epidemic of typhus, transmitted by the vulgar louse called Pediculus humanus corporis.

Although epidemics of this type are now rare, they still occur in times of war, natural disasters or also in prisons, where people live in conditions devoid of basic hygiene.

Dr. Didier and his team recovered dental pulp, pieces of bones and fragments of military uniforms in a tomb in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which was at that time part of the Russian Empire.

Examination of the dental pulp revealed Rickettsia prowazekii, the causative agent of epidemic typhus. When the DNA of the pathogen is in the dental pulp, it is likely that the agent is responsible for the death of their hosts, according to the researchers.

Dr. Didier’s hypothesis is prompting Russians to review and reinterpret their history. That a humble microbe contributed to defeat the strongest army in Europe in the early 1800s is indeed cause for serious reflection.

The allure of exile

The lack of opportunities and growing economic difficulties entice many young people (among them many artists) to emigrate, particularly to Europe and the United States.

Those that emigrate are mostly young people who want to broaden their horizons and have better opportunities. They feel curtailed by the prevailing climate of corruption in the country. For example, merchants who refuse to pay bribes are visited by fire inspectors, tax auditors or the police until they give up and pay — or they have their business closed.

It is estimated that 1.3 million Russians emigrated over the last decade, an even greater number than those who left after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A survey conducted in 2011 found that 21% of Russians want to emigrate, compared with 5% who wanted to in 1991.

I walk through a suburb of Moscow where, despite good weather, I find few people walking on the streets. Suddenly I feel disoriented, unable to find the entrance to the subway I was looking for.

I stop a woman walking with her young daughter and ask her, in my basic Russian, for directions. She quickly replies in Russian. When I asked her to speak more slowly she tells me, now in perfect English, where the subway entry is.

We have a brief chat and I ask her for her view on the current situation in Russia, and she explains the difficulties faced by young people who want to have a job and a salary that allows them to live well.

According to the government, she tells me, Russia has a very good economic situation. And then she says, in a tone of irritation and almost of despair in her voice, “If we are so rich, why then are we so poor?”

She also complains about the great immigration from the former Soviet republics to major Russian cities. “Pretty much we are being crowded out,” she says sadly. She was responding politely to what many Russians seem to be intolerant to: the growing immigration of people from neighboring countries.

Russian authorities are particularly concerned about Chinese immigrants, who they see as part of a “Chinese infiltration” that they must counter with restrictive immigration policies.

Racism in Russia

I had an inkling of continuing anti-Semitism in Russia after talking to my guide in St. Petersburg. He was an older man of Jewish descent, very knowledgeable about Russia, and particularly St. Petersburg’s history.

When I asked him if there was anti-Semitism in Russia today, he told me there wasn’t. But my question clearly made him feel uneasy — and his eyes told me otherwise.

Antagonism in Russia, however, is not limited to people of Jewish descent. It includes practically all foreigners, particularly those that, for whatever reason, Russians see as affecting their interests and those people who are not considered ethnic Russians.

This is particularly the case of people from the Caucasus, who increasingly flock to Russia’s larger cities in search of better work. They are faced, however, with intolerance and outright violence, incidents that seem to be increasing in recent years.

In 2006, Amnesty International stated that racism in Russia was “out of control” and in 2008 estimated the number of Russian neo-Nazis at around 85,000.

According to the late Galina Kozhevnikova of Moscow’s SOVA Center, an organization devoted to information and analysis on racism and xenophobia, in 2009 there was a manifest reduction in the number of victims of racist and neo-Nazi motivated violence. She credited the reduction to the suppression of the largest and most aggressive ultra-right groups by law enforcement agencies.

Demographic threats

During the past two decades, an aging demographic and its effect on Russian society has been the focus of debate. There is now universal agreement that unless Russia resolves this serious problem, its status as a world power will be seriously compromised.

Russia has recently experienced a phenomenon similar to that of several developed countries, a rapidly aging population with steadily declining birth rates. However, while people living in most industrialized countries have seen life expectancy increase, life expectancy in Russia has been seriously compromised by the relatively low health status of its population.

Nicholas Eberstadt, an American demographer, has written that “post-Soviet Russia has become a net mortality society, steadily registering more deaths than births.” These factors, in addition to restrictive immigration policies and low fertility rates, have led Russia to a constant process of depopulation.

It is estimated that, between 1993 and 2010, the population in Russia fell from approximately 149 million to 142 million people. If current trends continue, by 2050 Russia’s population will be between 100 million and 107 million — a disaster for such a big country.

In 2000, President Vladimir Putin tried to reverse this decline by granting priority housing and a special allowance of 7,000 rubles (about $ 250) per month per child to families with more than three children.

He also tried to implement policies to encourage immigration, particularly of Russian-speaking people from the former Soviet republics. These policies did not produce the expected results.

In 2008, a United Nations report highlighted that the main causes for low fertility are the financial difficulties experienced by young families, associated with the perception that conditions in the country are not the most conducive to raising children.

In 2010, Mr. Putin acknowledged that Russia needed to reform its health system on a large scale. He pledged to allocate $10 billion over the following two years to modernize the country’s medical institutions.

Serious health problems among Russians are the result of high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, as well as high numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS. It is now estimated that more than two million men are HIV positive, and the epidemic doesn’t show any signs of abating.

According to the World Health Organization, heart disease, aggravated by alcohol and tobacco, is responsible for over 1.2 million deaths each year. HIV/AIDS is a growing concern, especially because 80% of those infected with HIV are under 30, and the epidemic is closely associated with high levels of intravenous drug use.

In addition, many experts believe that Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world. Programs to reduce damage caused by this infection have not been able to control the epidemic.

Russia as an economic power

The Russian economy is the ninth largest in the world. Its vast territory contains huge amounts of valuable natural resources worldwide. The Ural Mountains are full of minerals, gas and oil reserves, and there is plenty of coal and timber in Siberia and Russia’s Far East.

However, most of these reserves are located in remote, harsh regions far from ports, a situation that makes their exploitation very expensive and demands large capital investment. In addition, widespread corruption and lack of investment in infrastructure negatively affects the economy.

Since an economic recession in late 2008 and early 2009, Russia has experienced continuous growth. In 2011, its GDP grew by 4.2%, one of the highest among the world’s leading economies. Oil and gas continue to be the country’s main exports, which makes Russia highly vulnerable to world energy prices.

Growing state capitalism is having a negative effect on Russia’s economic development. Government-owned companies are eliminating private enterprise. Rosneft, the state-controlled oil giant, and Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, became two of the largest energy companies in the world after eating up private energy companies.

An enigma called Putin

The Kremlin represents the mythical heart of Russia, a series of palaces, armories and churches, and a crucial stage of the once magnificent and tragic history of the czars. Even more than in Soviet times, power in Russia is concentrated in President Vladimir Putin and his friends.

According to Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist who lives in Moscow, at the time of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and the KGB competed for leadership of the country.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, and Putin’s subsequent rise to power, Russia is probably the first case in the world of a country led by its secret police.

After his initial encounter with the Russian president, former U.S. President George W. Bush said he could intimately understand Putin, and establish good contact with him, just by looking into his eyes. Bush’s comments caused great hilarity around the world, particularly in Russia, since it reflected his limited understanding of the Russian character, particularly Putin’s.

In the 19th century, Fyodor Tyutchev, considered one of the last great Russian romantic poets (with Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermentov), wrote:

Who would grasp Russia with the mind?
For her no yardstick was created:
Her soul is of a special kind
By faith alone appreciated.

This difficulty in understanding applies particularly to Vladimir Putin, one of Russia’s most enigmatic personalities.

In Russia, words and symbols are more important than reality. Putin, either as president or as prime minister, has repeatedly tried to use symbols to rally support for his policies. One of these symbols has been the idea of Russia as an isolated fortress, surrounded by powerful enemies, particularly the United States.

Despite the use of these symbols, however, I have noticed a great deal of antagonism directed toward Putin, particularly from young people and intellectuals of all ages.

Many people believe that although there has always been corruption in Russia, it has never been as great as now. This feeling is compounded by Putin’s maneuvers to stay in power indefinitely, which causes tremendous concern among Russians.

Russia’s future

Proud of their past, Russians are more anxious than ever to freely express their political desires, and to grow and thrive in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility, something not possible with Putin in office.

Since taking power, Putin has exacerbated the negative aspects of his regime: consolidation of power, strict control of the media and the economy, electoral manipulation, and persecution of those who oppose his regime.

According to Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, there are five areas that have the potential to be Putin’s undoing in the next several years: electoral fraud and manipulation, corruption, judicial and police abuse, censorship and propaganda in the state-controlled media, and the destruction of historical sites.

I was able to test the veracity of this assessment during my recent trip to Russia, and I believe that it touches upon the main issues confronting the government.

At the same time, the public seems less willing to endure government abuse. Protests against the current regime are constant, despite the huge fines set by the government for any kind of popular demonstration. And there is no doubt that Putin will face increasing criticism of his iron-hand polices.

Given these circumstances, it is impossible to predict with certainty the direction events will take. It is clear, however, that Russian leaders face a wide and complex range of problems. How they respond to these challenges will determine the kind of country that Russia will become.


More than half of the deaths in Napoleon's army may have been due not to Russia's resistance, but to an epidemic of typhus transmitted by lice.

Russian authorities are particularly concerned about Chinese immigrants, who they see as part of a "Chinese infiltration."

An estimated 1.3 million Russians emigrated over the last decade, an even greater number than those who left after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After Vladimir Putin's rise to power, Russia is probably the first case in the world of a country led by its secret police.

Russia's middle class will grow steadily in the coming years, along with its demands for more political freedom and fair elections.