So, This is That Nasty Russia? (Part One of Two)

Paul Goncharoff

A native New Yorker, brought up in the 1950’€™s and 60’s, I damn well knew what those Russkies were; pinko’s, spies, commissars and worse! At public school I regularly had to squat under my desk while the nuclear attack alarms went off, all the while our homeroom teacher barked at us to make sure our eyes were closed and our faces turned away from the windows. All that bother because the communists were especially intent on turning our school into a thermonuclear barbeque.

Although born in Manhattan, my relatives all emigrated from a war torn Europe in the last years of the 1940’s. Many of their friends shared similar experiences, some escaping the Nazis, some running from the reds, all running from poverty and post war chaos. It was also the time of McCarthy, and the stamp this left on American perceptions, the ‘them against us’ view of the world. Being a fan of the Lone Ranger, Superman, Gumby and Bonanza, I teethed on us good guys always being right.

My friends were a mix of the immigrant inflow to the lower east side, Russians, Chinese, Greek, Italian, East European, you name it, we were all born in America, citizens, while many of our parents were still in the process of becoming American. I noticed at an early age that many who immigrated to America became ‘Super Americans.’€™ McCarthy and his ilk were pansies compared to these ideological commie fighters from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. It was a worldview of absolutes, no middle ground, no compromise, just the good and bad. Much of America’s expertise on Russia and Eastern Europe was heavily composed of such immigrants who left during or just after the chaos of war. These became our Soviet experts, our cold warriors. They had a mind-set largely fixed at a point in time, carried forward by their children and those they mentored with worldviews still influencing perceptions and positions in our foreign policy today.

In 1976 when as a green employee I was called into the office of the chairman of our firm which was a leader in the world of Platinum and Palladium. He seemed immensely pleased that my parents were from Russia. I corrected him, my mother was from Yugoslavia and my father from Russia, and they met in NYC, hence me. He made me an offer I could not refuse; ‘€œYoung man, you are to fly to Moscow, obtain a supply contract, and do not dare return until you have done so.’ He was smiling when he said that, but this was the time of Brezhnev/Nixon détente and anything was supposedly possible with the cash strapped Soviets. Priorities in my life then were girls, study and work, preferably in New York and not some Bolshevik heaven. Nevertheless, not thrilled at losing a good job by declining this weird opportunity, I agreed.

I arrived to a place and time which was hugely different from my understanding of the usual. The Soviet Union in many ways challenged perception as the structures and priorities were so differently aligned and emphasized than anywhere else. Being a foreigner then in the USSR was unique. We could only stay at Intourist run hotels which were set up to accept us and our hard currencies, all at official rates. These hotels were the best that were available at that time; they were the peak of local luxury. This in a Soviet Union where necessities were the norm, with little that was frivolous, flashy or non-essential. It was a conservative society distilled to basics and lubricated with spirits. To an outsider from the States this was a cold, grey, strangely alien world cocooned with an undercurrent of anxiety. This was a society with a well-educated, well-read citizenry that was politely curious yet in the main disinterested in global matters that did not directly involve them. Nothing was easy; there were procedures, laurels went to the stubbornly persistent and those who knew how to operate the warp and weft of the system well enough to avoid snags.

As it happened, and it was not my prime desire, my trips to and from the USSR became regular quarterly or biannual events from 1979 through 1990, when quite a bit changed. Brezhnev died, Andropov appeared, then Chernenko and finally Gorbachev as the last leader of the Soviet Union. Witnessing this period through quarterly snapshots it seemed I was looking at an old moving picture flipbook, where the changes move stutteringly forward. The wall came down in 1989, the Comecon dissolved, the Warsaw Pact disappeared, interconnecting economic ties severed, and the currency debauched. Standards of living were akin to a postwar nation where the raw basics for survival were the main concern. The collateral damage of perestroika was the total collapse of the social net, food, jobs, security, pensions, and healthcare. People had to learn and master entirely new ways to fend for themselves; however they could, as best they could. This ‘€˜fending for oneself’€™ was a clear introduction to individualism, which was not considered a positive trait in the Russian culture even before the Communist revolution. This was the era of humiliation, where surviving tested the bonds of family, friends, position, expectations and hope, many failed, some did not, it was stark reality.

Just after Yeltsin became the first president of Russia, I moved to Moscow, working full time. Advising and consulting various interests in the country, including the new government, and running my business that was located in Europe and USA. Having already conducted business from Vladivostok to Murmansk my past and present business contacts were a telling litmus test of regional change. The management of this new Russia in many ways was the equivalent of Americas Ivy League/Goldman Sachs circles – these were the remnants of the party, nomenclatura, Komsomol, their friends and families. Whom did anyone trust in those disruptive days? Hence, nepotism and loyal old buddy networks, a practical and understandable path. America was largely accepted as the only trusted lighthouse which could guide Russia out of this storm, therefore any advice from America was implemented.

As for the majority of Russians; they stoically picked themselves up and steadily rose from the dust of the dead and collapsed Soviet Union. It was during this time that I truly became a Russia fan. There was no roadmap to a democratic free market economy for anyone to follow. Experts who arrived to Russia to advise were theoreticians insofar as they had little appreciation for the actualities of life, or state of structures that remained from Soviet times, or the day-to-day realities on the ground, or the abysmal depth of the collapse throughout the far-flung regions.

As the US and Europe were advising the Yeltsin government on how to build a Democratic Russia modeled on an ideal version of themselves, it seemed that every NGO on the planet descended on Russia. Good intentions were all the rage, inculcating trappings and nuances that every ‘€˜democracy’ must have; independent judiciary, good governance, human rights, transparency, no corruption, women’€™s rights, LBGT rights, minority rights, the list went on. All ‘good’ things, but presented and made conditional at a rather awkward time. Russians by nature tend to the conservative and pragmatic. They like to act on what has a chance to work given the tools, resources, attitudes and perspective realistically available. Then on New Year’€™s day 2000, amid this tempest of dissonance and stresses a new President came on the scene which ushered in a new era, it was Putin’s time.