Russia Discovering Freedom
by Michael McGinnis
I traveled to Russia this summer, but that country has excited my imagination for a long time. The first time I heard of Russia I was five years old, and a voice on the radio was very excited about something called "sputnik", the world's first flight into space. Over the years I picked up some of the western attitude about the Soviet Union as an enemy of the West, but I had deeper feelings about the country than that. The main feeling I had was a sense of wonder about the paradoxical nature of the people: on one hand the wonderful achievements in science, technology and the arts, and on the other hand horrible wars, spies, persecutions, pogroms, and bureaucratic incompetence and inertia. The land too was daunting: I have some idea of the size of Canada; how could anyone grasp the extent of Russia?
Before this decade I was intrigued with Russia, but the communist system did not make me feel that it would be a good place to visit. However, since the fall of communism, the old horror stories about poor service in stores are out of date. I found the people are open to visitors, pleasant in stores, and have taken initiative in providing for themselves. The number of small businesses has skyrocketed as the secure government jobs of the past have disappeared. The average wage in Russia is still very low by our standards, but with native Russian energy and intelligence, combined with foreign investment capital, there should be steady improvements in the standard of living over the next few years.
When I was in Russia this summer, I did not have a feeling of confinement or lack of freedom. No one asked what I was doing, nor did I sense that the military or police were abusing their power. People seem eager to get on with the business of making a better life for themselves, and they have (mostly) discounted the communist system without abandoning a strong sense of Russian nationalism.
It is hard for people in Canada to realize in the heart, not just in the head, what the Russian people have been through ... and put themselves through. For example, just one city, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in World War II lost 600 000 people to starvation during the Siege of Leningrad when the Germans attacked. I visited the cemetery from this period: many acres of mass graves; each grave with about 10 000 people in it. It is the shared experiences of people, many of whom have likely incarnated repeatedly in Russia, that have developed that Russian nationalism of today.
As a tourist destination, Russia is reasonably safe (but care is necessary - I was robbed!) Prices range from cheap (if you travel like most Russians) for modest accommodations and Russian food, to expensive if you can't do without high quality hotels. St. Petersburg, in particular, is very much less visited than it should be. That city is rated 8th in the world for things to see and do (I was there for 2 weeks and there was still much more I could have done), but is only rated 300th by the number of visitors it receives. The cost of entertainment is a genuine bargain by our standards also. A ticket for an opera or ballet costs about $5. Russia is a land that deserves greater attention and more visitors. People who visit Russia are making a vote of confidence that will help to improve the Russian economy, while increased contact between Russians and people from the West encourages Russia on a future path of self-reliance, prosperity and peace.