During the Cold War years I perceived Russia through a Cold War prism—as a land of vast, frozen twilight realms of steppe and forest where a drama was being acted out that involved players of satanic evil or saintly good and doctrines that promised either mankind's salvation or its ruin. I developed a passion for the country, a passion that derived in part from a weighty postulate: that what happened there concerned not only Russians but the rest of the world. In its Soviet incarnation Russia had nuclear weapons and a powerful military, a threatening and subversive ideology, a tendency to invade its neighbors or meddle in their affairs, and the might to wreak havoc on other continents. Russians I came to know spoke of the future of their country as if it would be the fate of humanity, and I agreed with them.
Interviews: "Russia's Other World" (March 10, 1999)
Jeffrey Tayler talks about his new book, Siberian Dawn, which tells the story of his 8,000-mile odyssey through lands rarely visited.
Intrigued by this drama, I set out in 1993, after the Cold War had ended, to cross Russia, journeying more than 8,000 miles from Magadan, a former gulag settlement on the Sea of Okhotsk, to Europe. I wrote a book about the trip. I made Moscow my home. I married a Russian. My life—as much as it can be, given that I carry an American passport—is Russian. But having devoted half my life to this country, and having lived through most of its "transition," I have arrived at a conclusion at odds with what I thought before: Internal contradictions in Russia's thousand-year history have destined it to shrink demographically, weaken economically, and, possibly, disintegrate territorially. The drama is coming to a close, and within a few decades Russia will concern the rest of the world no more than any Third World country with abundant resources, an impoverished people, and a corrupt government. In short, as a Great Power, Russia is finished.
Why this should be so will become apparent during a look back at the past decade and how its events stemmed from Russia's Eastern Orthodox civilization and a decimating, isolating, long-ago invasion whose consequences determine the relation between citizen and state to this day.
Despite the grave images the media show us, the full extent of Russia's weakness is not apparent to most visitors at first. Trains run on time. Stores open on schedule. The obvious poverty of shantytowns and slums is rare. Though rising sharply, street crime is still less common than in major cities of the West. At times gruff in public, Russians privately maintain a superb civility and dignity, and their oriental tradition of hospitality toward strangers puts Westerners to shame. Customs now regarded as quaint (or sexist) in the West—such as a man's opening doors for a woman and paying for his date's meals—are the rule, and only the indigent dress shabbily. Standards of education, especially in math and science, exceed those of all but a few Western countries; the average Russian high schooler may have a grasp of U.S. or European history that would humiliate an American college student. The remnants of the Soviet welfare state ensure that few starve; the apartments the Soviet government gave to its citizens make Russia a country of homeowners to a great extent. During the spring and summer months Russians take to the streets to enjoy the clement weather; in the endless, magenta-hued dusks of May and June the well-lit central avenues of Moscow and St. Petersburg resemble fashion runways, with poised, long-legged beauties strolling arm in arm with their dates. On street corners, or in pedestrian underpasses during the winter months, buskers play the balalaika, sing "Kalinka," and chant Eastern Orthodox hymns. In sum, few visitors find cause for despair, and Armageddon appears well at bay. Reform and prosperity, it would seem, are a hair's breadth away, and those who would deny this are shortsighted pessimists.
I, too, thought this way when I arrived in Moscow. In 1993 I was an optimist. How could one not be, after six years of perestroika, the defeat of the Communist coup-plotters in 1991, and the innumerable positive assessments by prominent Westerners, from Presidents to journalists to economists and investors? The image of Boris Yeltsin mounting a tank in front of the Supreme Soviet during the attempted coup and announcing, in his kingly baritone, that Russia would remain free of tyranny retained perfect clarity in my mind's eye. Moreover, in 1993 Yeltsin had just prevailed in a national referendum that granted him a mandate to continue his free-market and democratization reforms. History in Russia was beginning anew. What needed to be changed would be changed; problems that needed solving were going to be solved.
One warm afternoon in early October of 1993 I was strolling through the Kitai-Gorod neighborhood of central Moscow with a young woman by the name of Lena. An accountant, Lena had cropped flaxen hair and hazel eyes that radiated purpose; she was well spoken and curious. We talked about Pushkin's poetry, about the Michael Jackson concert that had just taken place in Moscow, about which designers were chic in the West, about how she liked to spend her days off at her parents' dacha. But when our conversation turned to Russia, a hardness invaded her eyes. I took the position that Yeltsin would keep the country on the reformist path; she countered with declarations that "nothing good will ever come of Russia," that the truth about what was going on here would never be known, that one who thought otherwise was naive, and that Russians were, above all, an unpredictable people, given to wild swings and dangerous extremes, lacking the patience and adherence to principle that democracy demanded. She scoffed at forecasts of prosperity and laughed at Westerners, with their belief in progress, the rule of law, and the goodness of men. I answered that this would all change, and we argued. But it was a beautiful day, the poplars stood red and gold in the fresh autumn air, and we soon dropped the subject. Suddenly we realized that we were almost alone on the streets, although it was a weekend afternoon. Only the distant sound of sirens broke the silence.
That evening I arrived home and turned on the television to scenes of mayhem and carnage in central Moscow. A couple of weeks earlier Yeltsin had ordered the Supreme Soviet, which opposed him, to disband. The deputies had refused; they had proclaimed a new government and appointed their own President. They had locked themselves inside the Soviet; soldiers and demonstrators had surrounded it; and a standoff had ensued. While Lena and I were out strolling, some of the demonstrators had broken through the line of soldiers and set off on a rampage through town, shooting their way to the main television station, which they attempted without success to take by force. The next morning Yeltsin ordered tanks into the streets, and I watched from the bank of the Moscow River as they blasted the white-marble citadel of the Supreme Soviet into a flaming, blackened shell, as snipers fired on passersby from rooftops, as crowds ran screaming along the embankment.