Putin, Power and the $10 Latte
Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
9Trip End Aug 05, 2013
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There clearly has been a profound change from the defeated "Evil Empire" of the Ronald Reagan era.
We arrive at the beginning of Putin's 4th term as leader of the country, during a time when Russia snubs its nose at the U.S. by nonstop arming of Bashar Assad of Syria, supplying nuclear power plants to Iran, and asylum (temporary?) to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
While we remember the news reports of empty store shelves, massive unemployment in the wake of economic collapse, 60 year life expectancies, and Muscovites waiting hours for their first McDonald’s hamburger, today Moscow is the home to the most billionaires in the world, is rated the most expensive city in the world for an expat to live, and a decaf latte to go is $10 (Marcia had two in two days!)
How does that happen – especially within 20 years?
We hope to use our short time in Moscow to explore these questions with our guide Elvira.
Moscow is a vast metropolis of 12 million. Surprisingly, even at the end of July the weather is cool and blustery. No matter how much I try, I can’t predict the right combination of travel wear – shorts?, sunglasses?, umbrella?
After St. Petersburg, I ask our guide to go easy on the churches and the art museums, but she finds it an impossible request. As we learned, the reasons for churches and art museums in Moscow were primarily to educate, commemorate and glorify events and personalities in Russian history. We see St. Basil Cathedral, The State Tretyakov Gallery, the cathedrals of the Kremlin, the Armory (with all the tsar’s crowns and the empresses’ dresses and carriages) and, most impressively, the Diamond Fund, a private gallery that holds all the incredible diamond and platinum royal jewelry. Empress Elizabeth had 15,000 gowns – she changed 3 times a day and never wore the same dress twice
All memorials are on a monumental scale. The two most memorialized events are the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 and the defeat of the Germans in the ”Great Patriotic War” in which over 20 million Russians died (versus 450,000 Americans). One interesting facet of the pre – Communist era is that the King or the Tsar would build a cathedral honoring his own war victory, in effect, putting a sainthood on himself.
We explore some of the Stalin era legacy – massive architecture, subway stations made to be palaces for the people, as well as the murder and Siberian exile of the general and Jewish intelligentsia – authors, Yiddish playwrights, doctors – and the attempt to completely eradicate Judaism.
We make sure that we search out and find the “Make Way for Ducklings” installation that Nancy Schon copied from her Boston Common installation on the request of Raisa Gorbachov. After Raisa saw it in Boston, Barbara Bush commissioned a copy for her. It is nice to see this connection between the children of Moscow and Boston
Other worrying signs of Russia’s turn back to the triumphalist nationalism of the past included Putin’s traveling to Kiev (in another country!) to celebrate the 1025th anniversary of the founding of the Russian Orthodox church (after a mega rally in Red Square), the rebuilding of a massive cathedral in the center of Moscow, and the nationwide celebration of the xenophobic holiday declared by the Nationalist party in the third Sunday in July that make us avoid all public squares Sunday afternoon.
So here is Alan Leifer’s list of how to create a long list of billionaires and $10 lattes in your city:
1. Control a region that has world class deposits of oil and gas.
2. Implement Communism for 50 years to destroy all entrepreneurship and economic initiative.
3. Suppress all religious and objectionable artistic and editorial expression.
4. Waste whatever resources you have to become a military superpower and an internal police state.
5. Let OPEC restrict the supply of oil while the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians add 25 million cars on the road every year, driving the price of oil from $25/ barrel to $100/barrel
Then, and only then, give monopolistic (or oligopolistic) licenses to Putin’s inner circle to copy basic economic services (television stations, banking services, cellphones, supermarkets, fast food restaurants, resorts, office buildings, modern apartments, airline travel) that exist in the West but without the competition.
If you use the Putin/Leifer formula, I guarantee that you too can have an excess of billionaires, the highest cost of living capitol in the world as well as tens of millions impoverished senior citizens and rural residents.
Inevitably, competition will come into the picture and the restaurateurs can say goodbye to the $50 fish dinners and the oligarchs will be a thing of the past. Also, if we are lucky, U.S. innovations in natural gas and electric cars will break the world’s oil dependency. I wouldn’t want to own Russian stocks then!