Tuesday, July 18, 2017

“Facts on the Ground”

It is a sad fact that people in the West, and in the US especially, are presently living in a world that is bereft of actual news about what goes on in many parts of the world, especially the active conflict zones, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya. What they do hear is often based not on facts but on ideology, which is endlessly spouted by officials and think tanks in Washington. For instance, in Syria, Bashar al Assad, the Russians and the Iranians are said to be destroying the country and the Turks, the Kurds and various rebels supported by Saudi Arabia are attempting to “liberate” it whereas in fact Syrian government forces, aided by Russia and Iran, are liberating Syria from terrorists, including ISIS, which are supported by the Turks, Saudi Arabia and the US, and are doing quite a good job of it.

But perhaps nowhere is this ideological bias more blatant and obvious than in the treatment Russia receives in American mass media. Obama claimed that the Russian economy is “in tatters” because of Western sanctions; Senator John McCain is famously quoted as saying that Russia is “a gas station masquerading as a country”; and mass media echoes these fancies. But what if this “just ain’t so”? It is one thing to view a certain place through a certain lens, giving it a slightly misleading hue; it is another to suffer a psychotic break with reality and let wishful thinking, quite uncontaminated by any facts, serve as one’s guide.

Last week I flew back to St. Petersburg, Russia, after a five-year absence. As usual, it has turned out to be insightful to catch a periodic glimpse of a very familiar place. I grew up in St. Petersburg and have visited it seven times over the past 28 years. Catching periodic snapshots of a place allows one to see just the changes. This may not matter so much for places that don’t undergo drastic change; for example, over the same period, Washington or New York have hardly changed at all, their essential character remaining largely the same. But over this same period St. Petersburg, along with the rest of Russia, has been on a tare: it has undergone a total transformation from a stagnant backwater to a depressed hollowed-out shell to a thriving and vibrant place and a prime tourist destination.

To listen to and accept talk of “shreds” and “gas stations” is to choose to inhabit some parallel universe run by people who are willfully ignorant or psychotic and deluded or hell-bent on misleading everyone. And so plenty of people in the West, and in the US especially, are walking around with an assortment of fanciful notions in their heads: that Russians drink more than anyone (actually, that would be the Lithuanians); are the most depressed and suicidal (that would be the Latvians); or choose flee their country in greatest numbers (the Estonians). Or they think that Russia is an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship that sustains itself solely through oil exports (Saudi Arabia); or that it is hell-bent on world domination (that would be the United States).

On my previous visits, I have caught very different glimpses of St. Petersburg. In 1989 I saw pretty much the old USSR except for a lot of talk—it was the “glasnost” period—much of which later turned out to be not quite accurate. In 1990 I saw the old order teetering on the brink, empty shelves in government shops and the economy nearing a standstill. In 1993 I observed many signs of social collapse, with most people living in abject poverty and middle-class, educated people digging around in the garbage or trying to sell their belongings at flea markets to buy food. In 1995 and 1996 I saw a land in the grip of ethnic mafias, with goods sold from locked metal booths erected in city squares and on vacant lots. In 2013 I saw a city that has made a full recovery, with a vibrant economy, close to full employment and a people cautiously optimistic about their prospects. And so what did I observe this year, 2017, after several years of Western sanctions? Is it a place “in tatters,” as Obama would have it, or something else entirely? [2608 words]