We just returned from summer vacation to the Baltic, including St. Petersburg, Russia. Mother Russia hasn’t really changed all that much since the Soviet days. There are beautiful palaces, exquisite waterways, and art treasures galore. There are security cameras on every building and corner, very cold and unpleasant immigration officials, and tour guides who speak disparagingly about Russian technology and society.
Over 30 years ago, when Secretary Block negotiated the sale of U.S. grain to the Soviet Union, it was a great day for both countries. The U.S. had every reason to be proud that its hyper-efficient agricultural sector created significant abundances so that we could help feed ourselves and much of the Soviet population. For the Soviets too, it should have been a great day in the sense that the grain sales represented hope for the future of U.S.-Soviet relations and, ultimately, the Soviet people.
Unfortunately, Russia, illustrated by its grandest city – St. Petersburg – remains a land of stark contrasts. The palaces of Peter The Great, Catherine the Great, and the world class art museum, the Hermitage, are spectacular examples of Russian history and wealth. Curiously, the vast majority of Russians we met remain pessimistic about their country and its future. One tour guide remarked that Russians favor American, Japanese, and European cars because Russian- made vehicles “perform poorly” and look like “square boxes.” Another guide quipped that while the Russian government has built numerous canals in an effort to prevent flooding, “they never seem to work.”
The Cold War mentality represented by security cameras and over-zealous border guards is a sad reminder that the Russian people haven’t made as much progress as we all hoped for when Secretary Block completed the grain sales to Russia in the early 1980’s. Russia has made substantial progress in agriculture and has had the financial benefit of vast natural resources. But the national morale of the Russian people remains dismal. Americans, despite our economic slowdown, remain an optimistic and proud people, always striving to improve. Russia’s continuing pessimism, and its Cold War-type alliances with the likes of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad are strong reminders that a Soviet-style Bear is still alive and not so well in Russia.