Russia is more than its politics
Russia is a country that Westerners almost inevitably view in a negative light. Thanks to a selective representation of its social and political backwardness, and its destabalising foreign policy, this vast and diverse nation has been condensed into a single, villainous entity. It is there to be lambasted, mocked, and feared.
I went to Russia and spoke to some of its citizens. This is what I learnt.
The Russian population is suffering. Gripped by the constricting vice of an economic slump, their infrastructure is failing; even in the major city of Samara, a quick detour from the centre reveals unmade roads and dilapidated housing. Speaking to residents, it’s clear that this deficit extends beyond the aesthetic. Soviet-era apartment blocks experience regular shortages of cold water – a concerning allegation considering that daytime summer temperatures can reach almost 40° – and gas can be shut off at any time with little or no warning. Furthermore, extensive public works turn pedestrian areas into construction sites. A lack of alternative route means residents must navigate around diggers, steam rollers, and multi-story drops as huge excavations are made with no signposting.
As they suffer this, the dire economic situation has also depressed wages, while the falling value of the ruble catalyses the erosion of their spending power. For the average Russian, relatively basic necessities like air conditioning are a luxury, and they have to make do with rusted cars and dangerously faulty appliances.
This lifestyle takes its toll. While not comparable the most extreme of poverty in the world, the relative squalor I witnessed has afflicted the Russian population with a certain malaise. Alcoholism is so rife that estimates in the late 90s suggested it accounted for over half of all premature deaths. The stories of drinking and suicide that I heard while there only add credence to these dark statistics.
And yet the most basic, poorest Russian people I met battle this darkness with unkempt warmth and joy. Everywhere I went, I was welcomed with aggressive hospitality, even when the hosts in question had never met me before. I was welcomed as friend and family. The unbounded positivity didn’t fit with the dire context of the Russian world, but it was there, stark and strong.
Such optimism, in the face of overt depression, has to be lauded.
It will always be difficult to sympathise with a nation that continues to support the backward social and foreign policies of its authoritarian government. But there is more to this state than its politics; its people, suffering as they are, remain sturdy in the face of adversity. They deserve our empathy at the very least.