Want to understand Russia? Try getting to know the people who live there


This picture taken on Nov. 5, 2013 shows Russian soldiers marching at Red Square during a rehearsal of an upcoming military parade.



BOSTON — In his new book "Russians: The People Behind the Power," GlobalPost Europe editor Gregory Feifer writes that Russia appears mystifying to many people in the West.

Why does Moscow threaten to direct missiles at Western Europe? Why do Russians support their authoritarian leader two decades after the Soviet collapse?

Feifer argues that, as chaotic and unpredictable as it may appear to foreigners, much of Russian behavior is actually based on practical motives. It functions according to its own internal logic and values that aren’t Western, he says — and Vladimir Putin is a brilliant practitioner.

We asked Greg to shed light on some of the biggest questions the West has about Russia today.

GlobalPost: First, is it reasonable to say that Putin is the biggest winner in the Sochi Olympic Games?

Feifer: We should remember when the games were awarded to Russia in 2007, Moscow was just reaching the height of its oil-fueled post-Soviet resurgence. And Vladimir Putin was getting ready to step down from the presidency the following year because his two-term limit was up. He was looking for ways to boost his personal power in order to carry him through the four years until he could arrange to become president again. Delivering the games to Russia was very much part of that.

In that sense, the answer is yes, the games are clearly making Putin more popular.

But the country is a victim. It’s important to remember that the sheen of the Sochi Games is just a façade. Moscow may be teeming with fancy restaurants and nightclubs. But the countryside is literally dying, with tens of thousands of villages across Russia populated by a few elderly people as industry and agriculture have died out and corruption chokes all aspects of life.

Alcohol consumption is killing off the country's men: A fifth die of alcohol-related causes. On top of that, the spread of HIV and AIDS, poverty and rotting infrastructure mean that Russia is heading toward crisis in many ways.

Why did you focus your book on the Russian people?

I wanted to answer the question of whether Russians have learned nothing from their very painful past.

[Winston] Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” In my book, I’ve tried to demystify the country by looking at Russians’ daily behavior, including their family life, work, and of course drinking.

After my 8 years of living in Russia and traveling across the country, I’ve come to believe that although Russians’ way of doing things may seem chaotic to us [in the West], it’s very successful in achieving its own aims. I believe there’s such a thing as a national character. But the Russian one doesn't share Western aims because Russians’ values and motives are different.

For example, the conventional wisdom is that Putin established an unwritten social contract with the people that helped him consolidate power. As long as living standards continue to rise thanks to Russia’s vast energy resources, the Kremlin is free to remain authoritarian.

But I think much of the glue for Putin’s system is provided by corruption. Bribes that most Russians must pay every day to police and officials of all stripes coerce them because it enables the authorities to prosecute almost anyone. But it also coopts them by giving people a feeling they have a stake in the system — because they’re getting something in return.

It may not function efficiently, but the Russian system has kept the country more-or-less together so far, under very difficult conditions.

What does Russia’s future look like?

I believe Russian behavior has been influenced over the centuries by the country’s distinctive characteristics: Its forbidding geography and terrible climate that makes survival difficult, as well as its bitter history.

But despite the deep continuities in Russian life, its society is constantly changing. One of the differences between today and two decades ago is that the population is open to Western influences like never before, thanks to travel and the internet. How the authorities handle that will be key for the future.

Another is the economy and the government’s dependence on high oil prices. Economic growth is slowing and dependence on oil is growing. In 2005, Russia could balance its federal budget if oil was around $20 a barrel. Today, that price has to be around $103. The price for Russian oil is currently $110 per barrel. At the same time, Moscow’s weakening grip on the energy market is threatening the Kremlin’s aura of invincibility and may eventually help bring Putin down.

One thing is clear: Reforming the country will take more than just new leadership. It will require a fundamental change in the social behavior that makes Russia seem so mystifying today.