Daniel Chardell: From Russia with love

By Daniel Chardell, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published March 11, 2012

VYTEGRA, Russia — While many of my peers flocked south to get their tan on this spring break, I spent my time in provincial northwestern Russia — a part of the world not often considered a springtime hotspot, and rightly so. After all, the weather in northern Russia this time of year makes our Michigan winters seem mildly cool at worst.

A subzero temperature was just one of many expectations that I entertained as I set out for Russia.

Organized through the University's Center for Global and Intercultural Study, the 10-day alternative spring break excursion was intended to give participants (about a dozen undergrads, myself included) the opportunity to experience the Russian provinces firsthand and to witness the ambiguities that comprise Russian national identity — the ambiguous position between the European West and the Asian East, between the status of former superpower and a nation in decline, between the urban modernity of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the rural backwardness of, well, just about everywhere else.

The roads outside the city were rough. We quickly found that the bustling metropolis that is St. Petersburg is the exception and that miles upon miles of wilderness are the norm.

You can’t truly grasp the sheer vastness of Russia until you spend a day sitting in a chartered bus, teetering along some long-neglected highway, watching the breathtaking landscape uniformly covered with snow pass by outside your window for hours on end. It was stark, but it was beautiful.

This was where we spent most of our time — in the towns and villages located hours away from the Europeanized St. Petersburg. This, some would tell you, is the real Russia.

In addition to volunteer work in local museums and public schools, I was to conduct an independent research project on provincial attitudes toward the federal government and the then-ongoing presidential election (obvious spoiler alert: Putin won).

I planned on conducting interviews with local administrators and townspeople, gathering some information on the campaign and then continuing on my way. But the people whom I encountered on the ground changed my outlook entirely.

In all of the villages, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the individuals we met, young and old. Local businesspeople enthusiastically sat down to speak with us. Local officials were eager to discuss their new initiatives. Teachers were thrilled to have native English speakers visit their students. The children were especially kind. As we departed, they humbly handed us small gifts — pictures they drew, letters they wrote and crafts they made. Some gave us their most prized possessions, which they insisted that we, their new American friends, take home as a reminder of our new friendships.

In one memorable moment, an older high school student asked me what I thought about the U.S. military. I told her that I believe in supporting American troops, but I don’t believe in many of the wars that we fight. She smiled, telling me in broken English that she agreed. She disliked the American interventions in the Middle East, but she didn’t hold my government’s actions against me.

These kids deserve better. Their schools are underfunded, opportunities for employment are decreasing and the government makes sacrifices at the expense of young people as opportunistic politicians consolidate their own power.

I went to Russia with Putin, politics and protests on my mind. I left 10 days later thinking only of the friendly students we’d met, the lives they lead and the uncertain future they face.

Putin’s preordained victory seemed insignificant in light of what I’d seen. My research project seemed trivial. I caught only a glimpse of provincial northwestern Russia, but I saw enough to know that there are more important things – real issues affecting real people – than a sham of an election. Politics mean a lot, but they aren’t everything.

In political conversation, it’s convenient to make blanket statements — to say, for example, “the Russians” when you really mean Putin, “the Iranians” when you really mean Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and “the Israelis” when you really mean Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his majority Likud Party. It’s easy to forget that these individuals don’t necessarily speak for all those under their authority and that there is human depth beyond the statements of the most prominent few among them.

When you hear talk of an abstract “Russia” impeding the passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria, know that this action represents the will and interests of an infinitesimal fraction of individuals who occupy positions of power. Their decisions do not mirror the character of a single, cohesive Russian people. As in any country, pure national solidarity does not exist. Just as Americans would resent outsiders presuming that there is consensus among us and that we passively support all government policies and wars being waged, it’s worth bearing in mind that such statements make complex realities unrealistically simple.

Look past the obvious. Behind the impossible generalizations, there are millions of diverse opinions. Behind the smokescreen, there are innocent children for whom political theater means little. Behind the politics, there are very good, very real people.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.