Open letter to Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow

On 15 November, the Harvard Alumni Association organized a Zoom event open to members around the world entitled “A Conversation with President Bacow.”  I take my hat off to Philip Lovejoy, head of the HAA, for this outreach to the global community.

I comment below on the main points in the President’s message which raise serious questions about the aspirations as well as the foibles, illusions and misdeeds of America’s Liberal elites.

Mr. President,

Many thanks for your warm and informative talk on Zoom.  You are very much the leader I wish we had back in 1963-67 when I came through Harvard College.

I particularly welcomed your remarks on freedom of speech on campus, and on how Veritas is arrived at precisely by the clash of divergent opinions in a mutually respectful setting.  Regrettably my own experience of Harvard in the past several years in the area of my expertise, international relations with an accent on Russia, does not indicate that  your tolerance for those with different points of view is shared by colleagues in the professorial ranks.  They stand shoulder to shoulder over their reading of the “Putin regime” and in support of the hard line, aggressive and ultimately very risky stance that the United States has as promoter of a New Cold War to defend democratic values and the maintenance of its global hegemony. 

Efforts by my fellow “dissidents,” in particular the late Professor Stephen Cohen, to arrange round table discussions at the Kennedy School and elsewhere on campus (we dared not mention the word “debates”) on the Russia policy came to nought. We were snubbed. Thus, on the Harvard campus, just as in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country’s foreign policy establishment there is no open questioning of official policy on an existential question before the nation.

You spoke of Climate Change as the issue facing our civilization.  I beg to differ. If we keep on track with the demonization of our nuclear peer, Russia, and of the up and coming nuclear power China, if we bait them daily as our armed forces are now doing at their borders, we will be damned lucky to make it to 2030 not to mention 2050 and the carbon neutral world.

I also bring to your attention another take on the rising presence of foreign students in Harvard College and graduate schools about which your administration is clearly proud.  Do they make the campus more cosmopolitan and questioning of U.S. conventional wisdom about the world? or are they just another form of Davos Culture, meaning representative of the tiny minority across the 200 nations worldwide who are drawn to American life style and values but are distant from their compatriots.  Doesn’t such recruitment amount to the latest form of  cooptation, which had in the past brought in Jews and people of color from the domestic population and then Chinese and other Asians from abroad?  Are these students challenging Harvard and shaking it from its conceits?  or are they just trying hard to fit in and move along?  Wouldn’t more be achieved by sending Harvard students abroad on study programs? My own experience of the latter type was life changing: I have in mind the Sheldon Traveling Fellowship which the College conferred on me at graduation, enabling me to spend an academic year living in a dozen countries across Europe from France and the UK in the West to Russia in the East with the sole obligation to send back reports of my progress regularly.

Finally, I come to your remarks about the value of a liberal education in today’s technocratic and Covid-changed world.  I share your enthusiasm entirely. And your mentioning the views of the CEOs of major corporations who value candidates with top writing, reasoning and speaking skills versus the views of their own entry level recruitment officers fishing for narrow technical skills are surely relevant to the debate.  However, I ask how many Harvard College graduates will be entering large corporations after graduation.  I hazard the guess:  very few. Four years ago when I went to my 50th College Reunion I heard Joe Biden say in his talk to the senior class that less than 5% of graduates were going into government, which is just another large hierarchy, That confirmed what I had observed over decades of reading class books issued every five years by alumni:  almost none of my peers went into large corporations or other big entities.  They entered law firms or started their own businesses.  They were never “team players.” Tney were always too smart for that.  And I have to be persuaded that I am wrong about present day College students, who are chosen first and foremost for their IQ.

Notwithstanding these reservations, I greatly appreciated your outreach and your sincerity and  your thoughts about the real issues facing higher education today.

with best wishes

Gilbert Doctorow, College ’67

Book talk: text of speech delivered to the Golitsyn Library, St. Petersburg, 16 November 2021

Tonight’s Zoom presentation of the Russian edition of my book on Russia in the 1990s was a celebration of the right product to the right audience. Wonderful audience of book lovers and those interested in the recent history of their city/country as recorded by an informed foreigner deemed to be reasonably objective.

The book:  Россия в бурные 1990е:  Дневники, воспоминания и документы (Russia in the turbulent 1990s: Diaries, memoirs and documents)

For those Russian speakers among you, my talk, in Russian, is set out below.  The entire event was recorded and will be posted on the website of the Golitsyn Library in the next few days.


Добрый вечер всем и спасибо Вам, что решили участвовать в этой презентации моей книги « Россия в бурные 90-е»

Первое дело я хочу выразить свою признательность моему российскому издателю, Лики России, Санкт-Петербург за плодотворное сотрудничество в создании на основании оригинального английского двухтомного издания в 1200 страниц книгу в 780 страниц на русском языке, которую я Вам презентую сегодня.

Для Вас, любителей книг, это важно знать, что мое партнерство с Лики России доказало, насколько полезно работать совместно с профессиональными редакторами, когда есть такая возможность. К сожалению, у меня не было такой возможности в США или в Европе когда я готовил первоначальное издание на английском языке . Там в Штатах многие авторы делают как я – выпускают свои книги по формуле «self-publishing», новый очень распространенный вид самиздата, который на самом деле есть возврат к системе издания книг в 18-ом и 19-ом веках.  Быть автором и консультантом по организации своей книги и еще корректором –  тяжелое бремя.

Елизавета Петровна Шелаева и ее команда дали мне профессиональный совет по сокращению текста и оптимизации интереса для перспективного читателя в этой стране, например, по добавлению фотографий, которые иллюстрируют важные моменты повествования, и  по добавлению детального Указателя имен. Они конечно проверили все факты,  изложенные в  тексте. Но, наверное, самым важным стал их вклад  в области редактирования текста с целью удаления неудачного или просто ошибочного выбора слов и выражений в переводе с английского.

На обложке книги Вы не найдете слово «перевод», тем более, не найдете имени переводчика. Условно им был я, но только условно.

Базовый перевод с английского  сделала «машина». Я использовал онлайн программу на сайте www.linguee.ru. Я загрузил английские файлы объемом до полстранницы один за другим и через секунду получил обратно русский текст. Таким образом, я получил полный перевод 780 страниц за один месяц. Совсем бесплатно. Если бы я отдал эту задачу нормальному переводчику, работа длилась бы год, и стоимость  была бы непомерно  высокой.

Хочу отметить, что я сам сумел уловить и исправить многие из странностей, которые дает машинный перевод даже сегодня, после всех замечательных достижений программного обеспечения последних лет.  И, как я сказал вначале, коллеги из Лики России произвели очистку текста до удовлетворительной степени.

Учитывая, что  Отделение иностранной литературы библиотеки имени Маяковского является одним из “спонсоров” сегодняшнего мероприятия , я думаю, что весь этот производственный процесс моей книги даст «хозяину» полезные подсказки.

Итак, я имею книгу, и эта публикация является ориентиром на моем жизненном пути. Горжусь, что сразу после выхода книги английский оригинал был куплен Нью Йоркской Публичной Библиотекой и группой других библиотек в США. Однако, честно говоря, материал в этой книге должен быть лучше оценен здесь в России, где

каждый образованный человек старше 50 лет знает про персонажей деловой, политической и культурной жизни, с которыми я познакомился, сотрудничал и которых описал в дневниковых записях, предшествующих появлению  этой книги.  В Штатах или в Европе только узкий круг специалистов их знает. Эта книга больше говорит о Вашей истории, чем о нашей.

Сейчас я собираюсь Вам обьяснить, почему моя книга является пионером в своем жанре дневников-воспоминаний о России иностранцев, работающих в Москве и в Петербурге в 90-е годы.

И в заключении я поделюсь  с вами некоторыми выводами, которые я сделал из своих дневниковых записей, опубликованных в этой книге касательно  демократии в России в ельцинские годы, вызовам перед бизнесом – и отечественном и иностранном – в то время и по поводу культурной жизни России в те годы.  Одновременно подчеркиваю, что дневники сами по себе есть материал для Вашей личной оценки и что каждый найдет свою добычу.

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Численность иностранного сообщества в российской столице в 90-е годы достигла 50.000 англо-говорящих семей в период пика 1995-1996 год. Они занимали все ключевые должности в новых открывающихся представительствах и производственных подразделениях западных фирм и международных организаций. Как я объясняю в главе «Кем мы были», среди нас были  мои сверстники в возрасте 50 лет и больше, с опытом работы в России в советское время. Но было много молодежи, на 15 – 20 лет моложе меня, которую западные фирмы набрали за знание языка и желание заработать деньги, им недоступные у себя дома, и стать менеджерами сразу после учебы.

Для нас открылась англоязычная ежедневная пресса, частично мейнстрим по политической линии, частично андеграунд, но всегда интересная, и в своей книге я  часто цитирую статьи из нее для  дополнительной меры соли и перца.

После дефолта и финансового кризиса в августе 1998, западные компании приостановили свои планы по расширению деятельности в России и резко сократили кадры. Через год половина экспатриантов уже уехала домой и их заменили русские менеджеры. Это значило не столько продвижение русских сотрудников по деловой лестнице сколько уменьшение России в глобальных расчетах международного бизнеса.

Почему почти никто из участников сообщества экспатриантов не написал о том, что они видели и делали в России в те годы?  Одной причиной является то, что  вообще и везде не в характере рядового бизнесмена вести дневники и готовить книги воспоминаний. Их цель в жизни была красиво и сочно выражена моим боссом в компании Diageо, Эндрю, когда он выступил с речью перед нами, его командой, на одном из корпоративных собраний: «Вы  должны стать очень  богатыми!» Точка.

 Кроме того, есть вопрос о конфиденциальности в договорах всех управляющих высших уровней корпоративной жизни. И даже минуя договоры  1990х, многие из этих лиц или еще работают в фирмах или являются консультантами и не могут позволить себе выступить публично как свободные личности и говорить о прошлом.

В этих вопросах я занимаю особое положение.  Во-первых, я получил образование как историк и хорошо понял со времен моей  работы над диссертацией, как важно иметь дневники, которые могут дать колорит эпохе и человеческое измерение сухим фактам в архивных папках. Кроме того, в годы моего пребывания в России в качестве генерального директора представительств ряда ведущих мировых компаний в сфереэлитных спиртных напитков, я знал, что занимаю уникальное место для наблюдения наджизнью высшего и среднего слоев русского общества и их взаимодействия с нами иностранцами в исторически редкий момент изменений.  Я  чувствовал обязательство все это зафиксировать на бумаге. Когда я наконец 5 лет назад думал написать книгу о России в 1990е годы, у меня был богатый запас дневниковых записей, написанных  понедельно за весь период. И к тому же еще, у меня были вырезки из газет того периода, которые дают общий фон для моих заметок.

Все это стояло в папках на полу в моем кабинете в Брюсселе без движения до начала пандемии Ковид-19. При локдауне  стало ясно – пора написать и опубликовать это богатство. Или сейчас или никогда.

Во-вторых,  с тех пор, как я оставил корпоративный бизнес 18 лет назад и стал аналитиком международных отношений, блогером, автором сборников эссе и участником политических ток-шоу на телевидении,  у меня нет никаких  препятствий, чтобы  делиться информацией из моего прошлого как экспатриант-управляющий в России, которая не является коммерческой тайной. Я только принял некоторые меры предосторожности: я удалил фамилии моих непосредственных боссов, которые могли бы обидеться за вторжение в их частную жизнь,  и я исключил упоминания о тех личных ссорах, которые всегда возникают в человеческих отношениях и не представляют интерес для читателя. Я следовал старому, мудрому совету, что ловишь больше мух медом, чем уксусом.

Доказательством  того, что мой подход был удачным, стал тот факт, что один из моих коллег в компании United Parcel Service, человек, который сделал блестящую карьеру в компании и более 10 лет был президентом их дочерней компании в Германии, написал мне после прочтения моей главы о своих четырех годах в компании с 1989 до 1993: «Гил,я не знал, что у тебя были такие положительные впечатления от ЮПС, когда мы работали вместе.» И он потом рекомендовал мою книгу своим коллегам и боссам в штаб- квартире фирмы в Атланте.

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Если откроете  вэб-страницу amazon.com английского издания «Россия в бурные 90-е» (Russia in the Roaring 1990s), вы найдете оценку книги, данную  редактором самого известного в Американских университетских кругах ежедневного дайджеста новостей о России Дэвида Джонсона.  Цитирую:

 « Увлекательный рассказ из первых рук о работе, политике и жизни в России в 1990-е годы. Обязательно прочтите! Очень актуально для сегодняшнего дня.» 

Я делаю акцент на его последние слова – об актуальности этой книги.  Я не сомневаюсь, что речь идет об идеализированном понятии ельцинской России как эталоне демократии по сравнению с сегодняшней России Владимира Путина, который якобы ликвидировал эту демократию и ее заменил вертикалью власти – иначе говоря, авторитарным режимом.

Имейте в виду, что 75% моей книги – дневники, которые написаны давно,  и не воспоминания, написанные  в 2021. Значит, ее содержание не отражает сегодняшнее мышление,  а наблюдения того периода о произволе, о постоянной войне исполнительного органа с избранными депутатами народа – т.е. с Государственной Думой при Ельцине.

Эти записи показывают, как правление осуществлялось  по указам и по циркулярам – письмам министерств, интерпретируя закон не по тексту законов, одобренных парламентом. Указы противоречили друг другу из-за постоянно изменяющегося равновесия сил внутри правительства между реформаторами и другими. Ясно из моих дневников, что не было никакого верховенства закона, и эта ситуация признавалась западными юристами, с которыми мои работодатели консультировались. Эти юристы сказали мне, что почти никакой нормальной работы  по защите нас в судах они не делали – они больше занимались тем, что мы называем лоббированием высшей бюрократии в пользу своих клиентов.  Одновременно, наши аудиторы от ведущих компаний мира по специальности тихо и за закрытыми дверьми признавали, что применение запретов законов или указов ex post facto в России сделало невозможно быть всегда и везде законопослушными.

Как я заметил в своих дневниковых записях, эти ведущие фирмы по счетоводству и аудиту, ведущие фирмы адвокатов доложили в корпоративные штаб- квартиры в Лондоне, в Нью Йорке, что Россия идет к реформам, и там  можно спокойно работать. Своими руками эти высокооплачиваемые эксперты  в 1990е годы создали из России при Ельцине  Потемкинскую деревню для большой публики на Западе.

В западных СМИ того периода говорили только о двух отрицательных моментах в Новой России:  коррупции и угрозе правлению про-западных Либералов со стороны Коммунистов и ультра националистов, как Жириновский и ЛДПР. И такие убеждения сложились в образованном американском обществе.

Я отметил в дневнике,  как тема  коррупции доминировала в разговорах за столом на завтраке, организованном Гарвардским Клубом  в Москве в 1998  по случаю  приезда из Пекина после поездки по Транс-Сибирской железной дороги группы Гарвардских выпускников, администраторов и их гида, профессора экономики и заместителя директора Центра Российских Исследований в Гарварде Маршалла Голдмана. Ни о чем другом эти господа не хотели слышать.

Я не отрицаю, что коррупция была везде в России того времени,  начиная со взяток мелких блюстителей общественного порядка и до самых крупных друзей Президента. Но мы в бизнесе испытывали еще более серьезные проблемы каждый день, о которых я много писал в своих дневниках – а именно наследие законодательства анти-бизнес, оставшееся после  70 лет Коммунизма.

 Да, в известных сферах Россия не имела адекватных новых законов, чтобы контролировать новые учреждения и сферы деятельности, как например  фондовая биржа или ритейл-банкинг, чтобы защитить потребителя. Но в текущих делах общего бизнеса проблема была совсем другая – огромное количество законов, которые трактовали любые коммерческие операции частного бизнеса как преступные по факту или по намерению. Правительство при Ельцине использовало банки как полицейских, требуя  оправдания  перед банкирами за каждую копейку доходов и расходов. И никто, ни российское правительство, ни западные СМИ обращали на это внимания. Единственными предметами их интереса были падающие сборы налогов, национальный счет импорт-экспорт, государственные долги и, главным образом, приватизация государственных компаний. Эти вопросы детально изложены в моих дневниковых записях.

Наконец обращаю внимание на значительную часть моей книги, посвященную Высокой Культуре в России в 1990е, среди общей нищеты и горестей населения. Это явление,  можно сказать, довольно актуально сейчас, учитывая, как в наши дни пандемии Ковид-19 культурная жизнь России – симфонические концерты, балетные спектакли и оперные постановки, спектакли драматических театров и выставки в музеях намного больше и богаче, чем в любой другой стране Европы или Америки, где многие культурные учреждения просто остаются закрыты. Моя книга подтверждает обобщение, что исполнительская, изобразительная и другие формы Культуры были и есть определяющий момент России среди народов мира.

Откуда  частые записи в моей книге о культурных мероприятиях и ведущих артистах страны?  Я имел привилегию работать на производителей предметов роскоши, у  которых принято, что бюджет на продвижение включает в себе не только рекламу, но и спонсорство элитных мероприятий. Как генеральный директор я располагал свободой  решать, на что тратить значительные суммы денег,  особенно в Петербурге, где ожидания учреждений культуры от спонсоров были скромнее по сравнению с Москвой. Я успел наладить хорошие деловые отношения с Филармонией, с Мариинским театром  в музыкальном мире. И деловые отношения в спонсорстве часто стали и приятельскими или дружескими. Так это было с директором Филармонии Антоном Гетьманом и дирижером Темиркановым. Так было с Сергеем Калагиным, дирижером Мариинского оркестра. Калагин  мне представил ведущих певцов,  баритона Василия Герелло, баса- баритона Виктора Черноморцева и тенора Сергея Найду .  Они все были талантами мирового класса, которые тоже выступали за границей.

Со временем мое спонсорство от имени своих работодателей перешло от музыки к  драматической сцене и  литературе. Так мы с женой, журналистом Ларисой Залесовой наладили близкие дружеские отношения с основателем и режиссером Театра на Таганке в Москве Юрием Любимовым и его супругой Каталиной. В антрактах  Юрий Любимов нас приглашал в свой кабинет на встречи с другими спонсорами, среди них был  Борис Березовский, губернаторы и другие деятели искусства. Мы были в театре на вечере, посвященном  80- летию  Александра Солженицына, незабываемому вечеру и по неожиданному выступлению мэра Москвы Юрия Лужкова.  С Любимовым мы тоже встретились за границей во Франции, в Бельгии и  т.д

Благодаря моей должности в фирме Diageo меня назначили в 1998 председателем Русского Букера, в то время  самой престижной литературной премией в стране. Я им оставался до 2002 года, то есть 2 года после моего развода с Diageo. За это время я познакомился с творческой литературной интеллигенцией, с видными деятелями среди русских издателей, в книжной торговле и директоров библиотек в провинции. 

Все это подробно описано в дневниковых записях моей книги.  Надеюсь, что Вы найдете эти записи и интересными и поучительными.

Сегодня нет времени говорить о совсем другом измерении книги – мои тогдашние оценки внутренней политики России и ее влияние на международные отношения страны, особенно с США и Западом. Я имею в виду реакцию Запада на избрание нового созыва Государственной Думы в декабре1995 года. Массовое голосование за Коммунистов и ультра-националистов, казалось,  поддержали  аргументы тех кругов на Западе, которые опасались  изменения курса России и устремление на восстановление статуса великой державы и на защиту своих национальных интересов. Фактически это и случилось : Министр Иностранных Дел, Господин «да» на всякие  навязывания Запада Андрей Козырев был заменен Евгением Примаковым, человеком совсем другого склада.  И Запад больше не стеснялся  и взял курс на расширение НАТО.  Весь этот процесс отчуждения России от Запада и наоборот продолжается до сегодняшнего дня.  Надеюсь, что будут среди моих читателей те, которые интересуются этой проблематикой.

Этим я заканчиваю свое выступление. Спасибо за внимание.  

©Gilbert Doctorow 2021

Invitation to an online book presentation

It gives me great pleasure to invite the Russian-speakers among you to register for and participate in a Zoom presentation of my latest publication hosted by the Golitsyn Library in cooperation with its parent organization, the Mayakovsky Municipal Public Library of St Petersburg, Russia. The date is 17 November, the time 18.00 Moscow time, which is 16.00 Central European Time and noon Eastern Time in the USA. My talk on that date will be delivered in Russian.

You can read about this event and register by following either of the following links:

https://pl.spb.ru/events/index.php?ELEMENT_ID=45748

https://galitzinelibrary.timepad.ru/event/1828611/

A video recording of the event will later be posted by the Mayakovsky Library on its youtube channel.

About one week later, I will be delivering a second talk about this new book in English, this at the request of the Mayakovsky Library for the sake of its English speakers. The topics I discuss then will not be the same as the first speech, so there is no repetition.  When this English talk is announced for registration, I will alert you so that non-Russian speakers among you can also participate.

Background Information about the book to be presented

Earlier this year, in February when the second volume of my Memoirs of Russianist was published by Author House in Indiana, I mentioned that a Russian-language edition would soon be coming.  In fact, such an edition did appear a few weeks later, primarily as a low-price e-book and high price paperback.  However, I did little to promote it, since its appearance was a stopgap measure, to have something available to the reading public pending the preparation of a revised edition in a thoroughly corrected translation.  That has now taken place thanks to the release in St Petersburg of Russia in the Turbulent 1990s: Diaries, Memoirs and Documents (in Russian: Россия в бурные 1990-е: Дневники, Воспоминания и Документы).

A lot has changed in going from the first edition to this new one thanks to an important change in the production process.  Whereas the original English edition was the product of self-publishing, by which I was author, editorial consultant and ultimately ‘translator,’ in a qualified sense that I will now explain, this new Russian edition is the fruit of a traditional collaboration with a quality publishing house having considerable experience with books on modern Russian history, Liki Rossii, in St Petersburg. Regrettably, there was no such potential publisher available to me in the United States or Western Europe.

I did not address this question previously, but it is now high time to explain that I ‘translated’ the original English text into the Russian text of the Author House edition using a machine translation tool provided for free online by www.linguee.ru.  Thus, I fed into their website half or a third of a printed page at a time and received a Russian text back in several seconds  The entire translation of 800 pages took me a little over one month.  Had a human translator assumed this assignment, the translation work would have taken a year and would have been prohibitively expensive.

In anticipation of your likely raised eyebrows at the notion of putting a machine translation into print, I hasten to add that I have a good deal of professional experience as editor and translator in the Russian-English language pair, though admittedly that is running in the Russian to English direction based on my being a  native speaker of English. I was well prepared to catch and correct the nonsensical word choices and even nonsensical composition of whole sentences that a machine translation even today in its greatly improved capabilities compared to a very few years ago will inevitably render. However, inevitably, given the sheer volume of text to be edited and the blindness to errors that develops with fatigue, I freely admit that there were quite a few errors in the version of my Russian edition that went to press in the USA.  With the help of an editorial team at Liki Rossii, we have flushed out most of these errors and provide in the new Petersburg edition a text that will raise few objections over linguistic quality among Russian readers.

However, the publication of a Russian edition also entailed a good many other important changes to the content of this book. 

First of all, it puts in one 780 page volume what had been 1200 pages in two volumes in the English originals. The entire narrative section of the English Volume I, which took the reader from my childhood and early education up to my becoming an expatriate manager in Russia in 1994, has been included in the new single volume edition. I also included select diary entries from 1978 – 1980 that are particularly interesting for the general reader and relevant to understanding who I was, what was my intellectual and experiential baggage, when I moved to Russia in 1994.

Secondly, we changed the title of the book to make it more comprehensible to Russian readers, for whom the notion of a “Russianist” is as alien as the notion of an “expatriate.” But this was not all.  Indeed, the original English title “Memoirs” is misleading. On the better advice of my Russian editors, we changed the subtitle to reflect the actual content of the book, which is preponderantly diaries, a much rarer literary form and potentially more valuable to professional historians and social scientists.

Finally, under the guidance of my Russian editors we put into the new volume 8 pages of mostly color photos in montage illustrating key moments in the text, especially as regards my chairmanship of the Russian Booker Literary Prize. And we added a detailed Index of Names to facilitate the reader’s navigation through the book.

I am hopeful that many of you will sign up for the book presentation and I will welcome any comments from eventual readers of the book

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

No representation without taxation

“No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry of the American colonists in the run-up to the War of Independence.  Taxation issues arising from decades-long overspending on the military in the national conflict with England are what brought down the French monarchy and cost Louis XVI his head.  Strangely, Emanuel Macron overlooked this history when he imposed new taxes on gasoline a couple of years ago in an attempt to both raise revenues for the state and implement a “green” agenda to appeal to the environmentalists. Thus, he spawned the ‘yellow vests’ movement that caused havoc across France and has not entirely gone away up to the present.

As a professionally trained intelligence analyst, Vladimir Putin has always understood the connection between taxation and revolutions better than other heads of state. As a result, when he came to power in 2000 one of the first major reforms he oversaw was the imposition of a very low flat rate income tax.  Once in place, this had the immediate effect that was widely foreseen by political analysts in Russia and abroad: it cut away nearly all of the possibilities of graft and corruption in administration of taxes on the general population. There was nothing ‘negotiable’ to encourage bribe giving or taking. 

What few commentators picked up at the time or since is what this approach would mean ultimately for the political pact between Citizens and Power.  All that we have heard is about a different pact:  Power ensures rising prosperity and Citizens keep their mouths shut and make no claims.

So where would the State get its income to meet budgetary obligations?  In the distant past, during tsarist times the Russian state took in 32% of overall revenue from the excise and other taxes on vodka, which was a state monopoly.  In the early years of the newly independent Russian Federation, this income collapsed when the government farmed out the income to a limited circle of favored charitable organizations and friends.  In 1995 that amounted to $200 million a month disappearing from the state coffers. What gradually came to replace excise tax and to rise to about 40% of total state budgetary income was tax on oil and gas, coal and other extractive industries. Western analysts direct attention to this number, which they explain as indicative of the overconcentration of the Russian economy on oil and gas and failure to diversify its economy. Yet, in the writings of the same analysts we find tucked away the fact that oil and gas account for just 15% of Russian GDP.  In fact, the Russian economy is becoming ever more diversified, not in small measure due to Western sanctions.

The 40% of all budgetary revenue flows number is the standard today and was cited just a couple of days ago in expert articles appearing in the daily news digest Johnson’s Russia List.  The number came up in the context of the meetings in Glasgow to deal with climate change and the concerted efforts of global leaders to sharply reduce reliance on fossil fuels.  Russia’s contradictions in planning for increased production of these fuels while striving to become carbon neutral by mid-century were what underlay the attention to the role of fossil fuels production in covering the Russian state’s financial needs.

What these and other Western experts do not talk much about is the peculiarity of Russian taxation on energy producers. Russia chiefly taxes their export earnings and does not impose more than nominal excise taxes on fuels consumed within Russia. By contrast, in Belgium and many other European Union countries the high price of fuel is due to very high taxation at the gas pump.  That is to say, the Russian consumer does not feel the weight of regressive taxes on consumption at home. Indeed, in terms of advanced industrial countries, of which Russia is one, the income and excise tax burdens on Russian citizens is minimal.

To my mind it is most striking that this arrangement is not called out by the myriad analysts who daily are looking for reasons to pillory the Russian ‘regime’ for depriving its citizens of political rights and enforcing autocracy.  The logic is clear:  the Russian citizen has little reason or justification for feeling aggrieved over his slight political weight because he pays next to nothing in taxes.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Valdai: Russia’s Best Political Talk Show

The annual Valdai Discussion Club gathering in Sochi took place over the course of four days during the week of October 17th and garnered a considerable amount of media attention following the delivery by President Vladimir Putin of the keynote address to its plenary session on October 21st. The Kremlin itself characterized the speech as Putin’s most important since his address to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007.

That was the verdict of television anchorman and head of Russian state news broadcasting Dmitry Kiselyov on his widely viewed Sunday show.  As we know, the Munich speech went down in history as a turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. In it Putin set out Russia’s rejection of US global hegemony in a monopolar world order, listed his country’s grievances with the U.S. and its allies’ infringement of its national interests and shabby treatment since the mid-1990s. What followed was ever greater confrontation between East and West.

Whereas the 2007 speech set out the military and geopolitical dimension of Russia’s alienation from the U.S. led world order, this latest speech to the Valdai Club addressed the growing intellectual chasm between the adversarial parties. Putin placed Liberal Democracy, globalism, newly formed “progressive” values on issues of feminism and transgender, as well as compensatory “reverse discrimination” in racial relations on the Western side and set against them what he calls “healthy conservatism” and repudiation of extreme or revolutionary changes in values on the Russian side. 

In effect, Vladimir Putin was detailing the Russian position in the emerging ideological dimension to the East-West test of strength. A simple military stand-off does not make a Cold War. But when an overlay of ideology is added, you do indeed have a full-blown Cold War II.

Cold War I was Communism versus Free World market economies and democracy. Cold War II, in the eyes of the USA and its allies is all about democratic countries standing up to authoritarian regimes, meaning Russia and China.

 To be sure, there was a bit of hyperbole in the Kremlin’s calling out this latest speech as marking a new turning point.  It was in fact one further step in the development of ideas first given public airing in Putin’s 27 June 2019 interview with the Financial Times on the eve of the Osaka gathering of the G20.  In that interview, Putin said that ‘the Liberal idea has become obsolete.” Those words touched off a firestorm of controversy and sharply raised the ideological dimension to the East West differences.

My peers in the global community of international affairs analysts are straining their minds to parse Putin’s speech, especially his notion of the conservatism that has been embedded in Russians’ DNA by the horrors of the 1917 Revolution and Civil War, followed by the decades of social engineering under Soviet Communism.  Some will be busy interpreting for their readers Putin’s references to Nikolai Berdyaev, an early 20th century Russian philosopher who has guided his thinking on political values and on Russia’s place in the world.

What I will say is that the speech was brilliantly constructed. Putin touched on all the divisive social issues that form the template of domestic politics in the United States and Western Europe. His own views and the views he attributes to “an absolute majority” of Russians on these matters will be familiar to anyone who has read the American conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan. They come down to common sense or ‘homespun’ logic.

Whether one liked what he said or not, Putin came across as eminently reasonable. He said to the Progressive West: do as you like, we have been where you are now and it does not end well; just don’t try to impose your values on us, for we won’t accept them. This deliberate put-down of the arrogance and narrow-mindedness of the Collective West will certainly give great encouragement to political and cultural leaders of the Rest of the World who are trying to justify their own traditional values.

Of course, presidents have speech writers and however well Putin read from his text to the Valdai Club  it tells you little about the man. That is something we see only when we put the speech in its full context, beginning with the fact that the speech itself was 38 minutes long, but in this plenary session the President was on stage for another 172 minutes in a free Q&A with the moderator, political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov, and with the audience, including several from abroad who participated via video link.

In the Q&A, Putin, without notes, without hesitating for a moment, responded to a great number of questions dealing with all manner of issues both domestic and international. He did so in a substantial manner, summoning up figures to support his arguments, recalling the names of obscure terrorist organizations in places like Syria or Afghanistan and otherwise demonstrating fulsomely his absolute command of the facts which cross his desk daily. He did so without strain and smiling throughout. It is impossible to think of any other world leader who might equal such a stellar performance before cameras.

In saying that he projected reasonableness and a facts-based approach to political issues, I do not mean to suggest that he displayed no temperament. On two occasions in the Q&A he took sly pleasure in sarcasm. The first was in answer to a question from Dmitry Muratov, chief editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Muratov was hammering away at the alleged wrongs of Russia’s law on registration of news agencies as ‘foreign agents.’  Before explaining why Muratov was wrong, Putin congratulated him on the Prize, which, he said, put him in very good company with Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. In Russia, this was an unmistakable ‘left-handed compliment.’ 

The second moment when he allowed his personal as opposed to ‘official’ thoughts to show through was in his answer to a question about the need to reform the United Nations Organization and, in particular, the Security Council to better represent the current distribution of political, economic and military power in the world. Putin said that reform is due but that nothing can be done absent a full consensus of members. And if, for example, the decision should be taken to abolish the veto rights of permanent members of the Security Council, as many are now calling for, then the UN would on the next day cease to have any value and would become just a Valdai Club II.  This was a revealing slip showing his estimation of the Valdai Club I he was addressing and contradicted the spirit set by his repeated use of the terms ‘friends’ and ‘dear colleagues’ when speaking to the audience.

Apart from the live transmission from the hall on Russian state television, there were that evening and throughout the weekend airing of choice moments from Putin’s exchanges with the audience. This, I insist, is what the Valdai forum is all about: its plenary session amounts to the very best political talk show in a country that adores the genre. The scripting of the event, the ‘casting’ of participants fit a time proven formula of giving the microphone not only to friends of Russia and its ‘regime’ but also to Russians and foreigners who oppose Putin and his policies with greater or lesser aggressiveness. The defenders of the ‘regime,’ in this instance Putin himself, then demolish the arguments of the critics, proving to the Russian audience watching at home who is best.

Americans like Angela Stent of Georgetown University or Robert Legvold of Columbia University, identified by the moderator as ‘veterans of Valdai’ because of their participation year after year surely explain to themselves and their peers that they are unaffected by the blandishments of invitation to the Valdai Club gatherings and retain their distance from Russia’s President. After all, in their books and articles they publicly criticize the ‘authoritarian’ Putin regime, in line with America’s anti-Russian consensus in the political establishment.  However, their status as respected experts makes them perfect foils to Putin’s superior intelligence in the Valdai talk show.

The invited foreign guests generally remain respectful of the host when they are handed the microphone during live broadcasts of the Valdai club proceedings. There are exceptions, of course. I think in particular of one former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union who violated this protocol during an exchange with Putin. He had challenged the Russian President’s characterization of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, then went on to say that when he first heard that the USSR was no more he had opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate.  Needless to say, the gentlemen never again received an all-expenses-paid invitation to Sochi!

 In closing, I wish to share some background information on the setting for Putin’s annual talk show, the Valdai Discussion Club.

This was the eighteenth iteration of the Valdai Club annual gathering. At the very beginning, the event was held in the Valdai resort complex that borders an extensive national park of the same name situated midway between Moscow and St Petersburg. The luxury dachas within this complex on the shore of a lake were once summer residences for Stalin’s elite. These few accommodations are now available for rental by the day or week for the general public. However, most visitors to Valdai are put up in what might be categorized as a three to four star hotel. They get full board, meaning modest Russian institutional food. The complex supports a healthy life style, meaning no alcohol in the dining room, no smoking on the premises and participation sports. In winter there are excellent cross-country ski trails and in summer there is boating on the lake and hikes. The complex comes under the Presidential Administration and most visitors are employees who receive subsidized vacation packages, though a third or more of the guests are from the general public or foreigners, like myself, who reserve their rooms on booking.com and pay commercial rates.

Back in 2002-2003 when the idea for such a ‘discussion club’ with the President was first implemented, the Valdai resort complex was built out to include a conference hall accommodating several hundred. The facility is now used for showings of classic Russian and Western films every evening.  Despite these upgrades, it was understood very quickly that the resort was too small and too modest in comforts to serve the grand promotional purposes that the Presidential Administration was planning. Accordingly, the annual gatherings were moved to the far more fashionable Black Sea city of Sochi, which enjoys a warm and inviting climate in the late autumn when the forum takes place. Hence, the slightly confusing nomenclature of Valdai meetings in Sochi.

Who is invited?  Overall, Russians predominate with foreigners of all stripes amounting to a minority of 20 per cent or less. The core invitees are political scientists holding professorships in major universities or leading positions in think tanks, people with a following who are recognized experts in their field. There are also journalists, historians, a smattering of statesmen and politicians.  Among the faces picked up by the television camera crews that I recognized this time were the Ukrainian political scientist Mikhail Pogrebinsky, who for a long time was a regular participant in Russian television talk shows, and the University of Kent historian- political scientist Richard Sakwa. Then there was another ‘veteran’ of Russian televised events, the German political scientist, historian, and former adviser to the German government on Russian affairs, Alexander Rahr. None put Vladimir Vladimirovich under much pressure.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Russia’s ‘Greens’ Revolution

In the question and answer session that followed President Putin’s speech to the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi last week, Vladimir Vladimirovich said he was thankful to the European Union for imposing sanctions on Russia in 2014, because Russia’s counter-sanctions, banning food imports from the EU, resulted in an enormous boost to its agricultural industry. Russian farming coped magnificently with the challenge. Putin mentioned the $25 billion in agricultural exports that Russia booked in the last year and he went on to thank Russia’s workers in the sector who made this possible.

These remarks would suggest to both laymen and experts in the West the emergence of Russia as the world’s number one exporter of wheat and its leading position as global exporter of other grains. As we know, investments in industrialized farming by Russia’s oligarchs and agricultural industry giants have paid off in higher crop yields and insured their production volumes against weather imposed damage through farming in multiple regions. Moving beyond the traditional production centers in the ‘black soil’ belt of the south, Russian grain farmers have made excellent use of previously under or ill-used acreage in Western Siberia and elsewhere. Thus, when Canada or the United States have stumbled in wheat production from one season to another, Russia has carried on to new heights. Investments in grain storage and port facilities have made it possible to use the new surpluses to best advantage on world markets.

However, what Western readers know little or nothing about is how Russia’s agricultural sector has expanded into all food niches of the home consumer market during these years, so that supermarket shelves are now filled with a great variety of domestically grown fresh foodstuffs that rival the best and most sophisticated products Western Europe has to offer . This is something you will not find detailed in official statistics, and it is certainly not carried by mainstream Western media, whose only interest is denigration of Russia, serving propagandistic and not informational purposes. Nor is it covered by the Western ‘alternative media,’ who do not send journalists to visit Russia and least of all to report on what they see in the food stores.

 I will discuss the changes in food supply below based on my latest, ongoing visit to St Petersburg. However, my eye has been focused on the subject now from the very start of the Western sanctions and Russian counter-measures in 2014. I was surely the first Western observer to write about what the Russian farmers’ markets and supermarkets had on offer then and I have refreshed my information during periodic visits to Russia ever since.

The collapse of international travel since the onset of the Covid pandemic has meant that the numbers of foreign visitors who can do what I have been doing have been cut to nearly nil.  Even at present tourist visas are not being issued and apart from family members of Russian citizens, the visa category I enjoy, only a relatively small number of businessmen and other professionals arrive on narrowly defined missions.

* * * *

In keeping with the title above, let us begin with ‘greens,’ by which I mean salads and vegetables more broadly.

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, this category of produce was almost non-existent.  Traditional Russian cuisine featured ‘salads’ among the first course appetizers. But what was meant was potato salad of one variety or another, including the highly esteemed ‘salad Olivier’ named after a French chef in Moscow at the turn of the last century; this has chicken or meat chunks added to diced cooked potato and mayonnaise.  Lettuce and other greens simply had no place in the Russian diet. This is not to say that there were no officials-dieticians preparing to change that reality. In 1979, at the invitation of the Ministry of Agriculture of the USSR, I accompanied executives from Castle & Cooke, the Hawaii based company that was then the world’s largest grower of iceburg lettuce, on a mission to set up such production in Russia’s south. That mission failed in the faltering days of détente.

Iceburg lettuce as well as other greens appeared on sale in Russia only in the mid-1990s when millions of citizens of the now free Russian Federation traveled the world and picked up new dietary habits including a high appreciation of green salads. At the time, all of these new delicacies for the arbiters of taste in the country and those with deep pockets were imported from Western Europe and sold at European prices.

Over time, early in the new millennium, the assortment of vegetables and fruits imported into Russia expanded quickly, in keeping with rising living standards and differentiated tastes of various demographic groups.  After the ban on European imports was imposed, a geometric progression in the variety and quality of Russian grown greens set in. Now when you visit even ‘economy category’ supermarket chains in the cities or in their branches in the countryside, you find on offer leaf lettuce in transparent wrap sitting atop the little plastic pots in which they were raised in greenhouses; or cut lettuce packed in plastic bags and given long shelf life by their protective atmosphere.  In higher category supermarkets for the middle and upper classes, there are mixed young shoots of beets and other highly fashionable salad components in protective atmosphere; or stalk green celery, a product until recently imported from Israel. Then there are extraordinary quality small cucumbers and tomatoes from various seed varieties produced in greenhouses year round.

The traditional Russian accompaniments to soups and main courses such as dill and green scallions are also now farmed locally year round and portion-packed in plastic.

By its nature, much of the new perishable produce is grown in greenhouse complexes on the outskirts of urban areas.  Other items, like the aforementioned celery, are grown in one location, Kursk in the given example, to provide for the entire nationwide market.

All of the above assumes enormous investments in greenhouse capacity these past few years, as well as the import of seeds and know-how. Presumably, The Netherlands, which is Europe’s leader in many categories of greenhouse produce, has been Russia’s partner in these developments. Russia’s own inputs are essential to the economic success of the new produce: it has very cheap natural gas to heat the greenhouses and cheap electricity for lighting.  It is no wonder then that the supermarket price for the produce I have described is several times below what you see in Western Europe.

Of course, not everything on the green grocer’s shelves is presently grown in Russia and there are imports to fill out the assortment: items like avocados and kiwis.  However, considering Russia’s vast territory that cuts across several climatic belts, one may expect over time to see many such items also filled by local producers.

Beef and Pork

In the ‘bad old days’ of the USSR, there were chronic meat shortages due to a variety of failures in the food chain, including disastrous grain harvests.  I knew the situation and its causes from the inside having in the late 1970s assisted a couple of U.S soy producers promote their meat extenders to the Meat and Dairy Industry. Lest anyone raise a critical objection about soy, I note that soy isolates or concentrates would have been far preferable to the potato or pea starch and similar that was then going into Russian sausages. As for fresh beef, it was not highly appreciated by consumers and for good reason. When available, it was tough and sinewy. Moreover, the butchers did not do their work with much professionalism, and what you got over the counter for the single official price per kilogram could just as easily be the worst cuts as it could be choice cuts.  Pork was by nature more edible, commanded greater consumer demand and was more expensive than beef, an unnatural inversion of pricing.

In the 1990s Russian meat production collapsed, and what meat there was imported. This even extended to the least demanding meat sector in terms of return on capital, poultry.

Domestic beef and pork returned to life early in the new millennium though quality was generally poor and visits to the butchers’ stalls in farmer’s markets could turn anyone into a vegetarian, conditions were so medieval.  However, in the last several years the situation has changed beyond recognition. First, at about 2018 premium restaurants began offering on their menus “marbleized” beef from grain fed cattle coming from the center of the country, in Kaluga and a few other production sites. Prize bulls were brought in from Japan and other countries to create admirable herds of beef cattle.

The beef industry moved on from its modest debut in luxury restaurants to enjoy in the past couple of  years a major presence on supermarket shelves.  Big corporations took the lead. One, in particular, Miratorg, achieved full vertical integration, from production of cattle feed through raising beef herds to slaughter, packaging and distribution.  Its high quality ‘pepper steaks,’ ‘minute steaks’ and premium cuts, as well as ground meat and other meat culinary products sealed in special atmosphere plastic packaging have long shelf life and an appealing appearance. Consumer demand is generated by active television advertising.

A similar development has taken place in pork, where there are numerous competing producers. Their packs of pork chops and other cuts clearly state energy value, fat and protein content.  This transparency is surely attributable to the producers’ confidence in their quality and pricing.  By contrast, the vast array of sausage products on the Russian market have made it very difficult to read nutritional values which, if not disguised, would put the consumer off, given the 30 or 40% fat content of so many.

Whereas in Belgium and elsewhere in W. Europe the accent is on grass fed beef, which summons up images of calm meadows but yields rather tough meat on the plate, the Russians have chosen the American way:  grain fed beef (250 days) and pork, placing a premium on tenderness.

Poultry

Chickens were no friends of Soviet agriculture.  They had a hard life and were not treated well after their demise, so that the black and blue marks on their carcasses in shops did not raise optimistic expectations about the cooked product.  In the years immediately after the crash of the Soviet Union, local production ended and what poultry you found in shops was nearly entirely imported from America, the popularly dubbed “Bush legs,” named for the American president under whom the imports began.

Domestically raised chickens returned to Russian stores in the new millennium, but the poultry industry only became wholly modern in the last few years. Now you find exactly the same product assortments as in Western Europe: eviscerated, whole chilled chickens or, chicken parts, meaning breast meat, legs, quarters weight portioned in plastic packaging.

Ducks, quails and similar are to be found in farmers’ market and in specialty premium level food stores. Some items are strictly seasonal, like turkey.

What is missing, strangely, from the offering is game. Here alone one can speak of a step in reverse from what prevailed in Soviet days. In the 1970’s even common food stores offered frozen partridges (feathers and all) coming from Siberia.  Today there is nothing of the sort in the retail trade, although premium restaurants in major cities may have wild fowl and ‘exotic’ native game like bear or venison on their menus.

Fish

Going back to 2014, I commented on the fast growing trade in fresh fish that was reaching out from the capitals to the Russian countryside. I mentioned the new aquaculture industry in Karelia, producing wonderful salmon trout and fish farms in the Lower Volga producing starlet sturgeon that was being sold across the country. Then there were the choice flounder being shipped fresh to European Russia from the Murmansk region in the Far North.  Now, very recently I note the expanding variety of luxury frutti di mare coming from Vladivostok and Sakhalin. My neighborhood Perekryostok supermarket is selling small whole calamari from the Russian Far East.  More exclusive supermarkets offer mussels from the Far East and oysters grown in the Crimea. All of these delicacies are priced two to three times lower than in Western Europe.

Interestingly a similar price differential applies to several farmed Mediterranean fish that Russia is buying from Cyprus, which is not on Russia’s prohibited list, while Western Europe sources them in Greece. I have in mind sea bass and sea bream (daurade). By contrast, fresh farmed salmon bought in by Russia from Iceland is sold at only a modest discount to the banned Norwegian alternative. However, wild Baltic salmon, a seasonal Russia-sourced delicacy that is now in the markets is priced at a fraction of its cost in Western Europe, if you can find any there.

Though I have focused in the foregoing on fresh fish, the strong trend to resuscitation of long forgotten Russian smoked and cured fishes from the country’s interior has developed at a gallop in the last few years.  These high priced delicacies are mostly sold through farmers’ markets or specialty stores. I think in particular of omul’ coming from the Baikal region, though there are many others. We may expect to see a lot more of this in future, replacing in part the now almost defunct trade in wild Caspian sturgeon that in Western Europe was synonymous with Russian extravagance during Soviet days.

Much lower in price though still much beloved in Russia, smoked Baltic sprats are one more example of Russia rising from its knees in food production since 2014 and the sanctions.  The product was in the past produced and sold to Russia only by Riga fisheries-canners.  When those sales were prohibited by the counter-sanctions, Russian producers stepped in. Their first offerings were pitiful, and it was puzzling why the know-how seemed to be beyond the reach of Russian factories.  However, with time has come success.  I opened a premium quality glass jar of these little fish a couple of days ago and was pleased to note their conformity to the best Latvian traditions. The label of this “Captain of Tastes” product showed proudly the medallion recording its award as a winner of “import substitution.”

Wines

Russia is a hard spirits country, as we all know.  That was certainly true in the late 1990s when I was working in Moscow and promoting Absolut vodka and Smirnoff on behalf of my employers.

But even such givens are subject to change and have been changing since Russia came of age in the new millennium.  Wines moved on from being a women’s drink to the status of a sophisticated beverage for all adults. Early in the new millennium, sweet wines were gradually replaced on store shelves by dry wines coming not only from France, Spain and Italy, the Continent’s biggest producers, but also from California, Argentina, South Africa, Australia. These wines continue to be sold in Russia, but are being squeezed by much larger assortments of Russia’s own burgeoning wine industry.

Until several years ago, Russian wines were an expression of patriotic wishes and not much more. The few market entries of wannabe quality Russian wine about five years ago started out well. These were  from the Taman Peninsula along the Black Sea Coast of Krasnodar Region, just across the Straits from Crimea. But supply could not keep up with demand and the product was falsified, becoming  inferior and in sharp discrepancy with its high pricing.

That initial failure has been corrected.  Now when you visit premium wine stores or even the wine shelves of the better supermarket chains you find dry red and white wines from Taman and from Crimea which are serious and command respect.  The only caveat is that the price/quality ratio compared to French wines, for example, does not favor the Russian bottle. That is not uncommon in countries that do not have a long existing tradition as wine producers. The consumer is buying pride and not just the beverage.

Meanwhile in the past couple of years the Russian industrial association of wine producers, led by Dmitri Kiselyov, has been very active working with the federal government and Duma to enact strict regulations on wine production and imports so as to ensure quality and reassure consumers.  Kiselyov happens to be not only the owner of vineyards in Crimea but also the country’s director of state television news reporting.  That this defender of Russia’s reputation and national interests is leading the prestigious end of the food industry is fitting.

In conclusion, I invite all skeptics about having a good meal in Russia based on local ingredients to make the trip here when the borders open and to see for themselves how and why I am for the moment enjoying every trip to my neighborhood supermarket.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Then and Now: Dissenters from American Foreign Policy on Russia in the 1980s and Today

In my intense, nearly daily exchange of emails with the late Professor Steve Cohen in 2015 before and during our incorporation of The American Committee for East-West Accord, Steve often expressed his deep regret that American political dialogue on policy towards Russia had become so consolidated and closed to dissenting views, which were now vilified and beyond the pale.

His words came back to me recently when, going through my home archives as I prepared my memoirs for publication, I came across a little brochure dated March 1982 listing members of the original American Committee on East-West Accord, in which both Steve and I were shown. Indeed we were on the same page in alphabetical order, 12 places apart. His professional affiliation was given as Director, Russian Studies Program, Princeton University. Mine was ITT Europe. To be sure, we had no knowledge of one another back then as we existed in parallel worlds of business and university life. We came together only in the new millennium when I transitioned from business to a new role as “public intellectual.”

March 1982 was a year before Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech targeting the USSR and almost two years before the launch of his “Star Wars” program, but it was well after everyone in the American political establishment understood which way the wind was blowing, what the policy direction from Washington would be, namely growing push-back, confrontation with Moscow in what could be a very rough ride.

The Wikipedia entry on The American Committee for East West Accord is very spare in its report on the original Committee, which existed from 1974 to 1992.  I quote:

Founding members included George F. Kennan, Stephen F. Cohen, Jerome Wiesner, and Theodore Hesburgh. The group, which was composed of businessmen, journalists, academics, and former elected officials, advanced the position that “common sense” should determine U.S. trade policy with the USSR, specifically, that the U.S. should avoid economic boycotts and sanctions against the Soviet Union as such measures rarely worked. Instead, it argued, expanding American-Soviet trade would help advance the cause of détente.  It also supported the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), increased scientific and cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union, and less confrontational rhetoric about the USSR.

This very brief description in Wikipedia, in particular the skewed list of Founding Members and the failure to identify the given “businessmen, journalists, academics and former elected officials” leaves the reader with no sense whatsoever of the moral and political strength of the original ACEWA as compared to its 2015 reincarnation that had only the handful of persons who are shown in the article. Indeed, naming names here and now demonstrates in black and white how over the past 30 years there has been near total collapse of free thinking, or shall we say of any thinking whatsoever as regards one of the fundamental, even existential issues facing the United States: how to deal with Russia. Numbers alone tell the story:  in 1982 there were approximately 300 very visible leaders from all branches of American society in the Committee.  In 2015, it was hard to find the 10 listed.  This collapse would be cause for alarm if anyone impartial were watching.

I will give below some of the best known people from the list of Committee members in 1982. But first allow me to cut to the quick. In any such organization there are names and there are movers and shakers.  Sometimes the two overlap, but rarely.

Contrary to what the Wikipedia article suggests, it was precisely businessmen who were the movers and shakers of the original Committee. I know, because starting from my joining The American Committee in 1976,  I attended its key gatherings on the sidelines of US-USSR Trade and Economic Council annual meetings. At that time, I still was running my own ship as chief executive of a consultancy serving a dozen major US corporations on their Soviet projects.

Former Trade Council chair Donald Kendall served as a co-chair of the ACEWA, and if anyone called the shots and helped finance ACEWA it was he. Kendall’s daytime job was, of course, as chairman of Pepsico, and in that capacity he had negotiated some of the most profitable and successful business deals with the Soviets in the entire period of détente.  He was a vigorous defender of these achievements.

The downside of Mr. Kendall’s stewardship came out only in the mid-1980s, when the launch of Star Wars and the noisy clash with the USSR over its SS20 intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe to be countered by American Pershings in Germany was heating up. At that point, a large swathe of American university students and professors sought to join ACEWA, seeing in it a possible vehicle for applying political leverage on the Reagan administration to back off.

As Steve explained to me in 2015, Kendall, as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, did not want to go up against a Republican president in a public fight, and he did not open ACEWA’s doors to these large numbers of potential new supporters. Thus, ACEWA was rendered irrelevant precisely at the moment when it could have become a political force.

At Kendall’s side as President of the original American Committee was Robert D. Schmidt, a top executive of Control Data Corporation. Schmidt took personal oversight of publications, including their Common Sense in U.S.-Soviet Trade issues to which I contributed as an expert on food technology cooperation with the Soviets.

To be sure, the other co-Chairmen of ACEWA were George Kennan (at this point a retired academic) and John Kenneth Galbraith (one of Harvard’s best known academics at the time). But they were present as ballast, not as drivers of policy. I exclude the lesser officers of ACEWA from our nose count because they were just implementers.

I offer below lists grouped by professional orientation of some of the most prominent members of the original ACEWA according to the 1982 publication.  Of course, in some instances the attributions equate to their past careers; for others, generally younger members, their public importance lay in assignments yet to come.

Business                                                    

Ball, George W.  Former Under Secretary of State; Senior Managing Director, Lehman Brothers

Hammer, Armand  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Occidental Petroleum

Jacobson, Jerome  Vice Chairman, Burroughs Corporation

James, John  Chairman and President, Dresser Industries

Makush, Walter  Vice President and Area Director, Westinghouse Electric Corporation

Oztemel, Ara Chairman of the Board, SATRA Corporation

Pisar, Samuel  Author; Attorney, Pisar and Huhs [stepfather to the current U.S. Secretary of State Blinken]

Scott, Harold   Chairman of the Board, Givaudan Corporation; Former President, US-USSR Trade and Economic Council

Skouras, Spyros  President and  Chief  Executive Officer, Prudential Lines, Inc.

Stroebel, Paul Director, International Business Relations, The Dow Chemical Co.

Verity, Willliam  Chairman, ARMCO Incorporated; Co-Chairman, US-USSR Trade & Economic Council

Academics

Baltimore, David   Professor of Biology, MIT; Director, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

Berman, Harold   Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Black, Cyril Director, Center for International Studies, Princeton University

Bowen, Howard Professor of Economics, Claremont Graduate School; Former President, the University of Iowa

Doty, Paul   Director for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

Feld, Bernard  Head, Division of Nuclear and Particle Physics, M.I.T., Editor-in-Chief, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Goldman, Marshall Professor of Economics, Wellesley College; Associate Director, Russian Research Center, Harvard

Hoffmann, Stanley   Chairman, Center for European Studies, Harvard

Howard, John Former President, Lewis and Clark College

Kistiakowsky, George  Former Science Adviser to President Eisenhower; Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, Harvard University

Leontieff, Wassily  Nobel Laureate; Director, Institute for Economic Analysis, NY University

Reischauer, Edwin Former U.S. Ambassador; University Professor  Emeritus, Harvard

Riesman, David  Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, Harvard

Robinson, Olin  President, Middlebury College

Rome, Howard  Mayo Clinic President Emeritus; Past President, World Association of Psychiatrists

Sanford, Terry   President, Duke University; Former Governor of North Carolina

Starr, S. Frederick  Vice President for Academic Affairs, Tulane University; former Secretary, Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies

Steinbruner,John Director, Foreign Policy Studies Program, Brookings Institution

Stern, Fritz  Provost and Professor of History, Columbia University

Tucker, Robert  Professor of Politics, Princeton University

Von Laue, Theodore  Professor of History, Clark University

Wiesner, Jerome  Former Presidential Science Adviser; President Emeritus, MIT

Politics

Carter, Hodding III Former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

Church, Frank  Former U.S. Senator (D-ID) Former Chairman Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Clark, Dick  Former U.S. Senator (D-IA) Senior Fellow, Aspen Institute

Clusen. Ruth  Former  President, League of Women Voters; Former Assistant Secretary, Department of Energy

Culver, John Former U.S. Senator (D-IA) and Member of Senate Armed Services Committee

Earle, Ralph II  Former Director, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency

Fulbright, J.W.  Former U.S. Senator (D-AR), former Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Harriman, Averell Former U.S. Ambassador to USSR; Former Governor, New York

Haskell, Floyd  Former U.S. Senator (D-Colorado)

Javits, Jacob  Former U.S. Senator (D-NY)

Klutznick, Philip  Former Secretary of Commerce; former President World Jewish Congress

McCarthy, Eugene, Former U.S. Senator (D-MN)

McGovern, George Former U.S. Senator (D-SD)

McNamara, Robert Former Secretary of Defense,; Former President, World Bank

Newsom, David  Former Under Secretary  of State for Political Affairs; Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University

Ribicoff, Abfraham  Former U.S. Senator (D-CT)

Roosa, Robet Former Under Secretary of the Treasury

Shriver, Sargent  Former U.S. Ambassador

Stevenson, Adlai  Former Senator (D-IL)

Symington, Stuart  Former Secretary of the Air Force; Former Senator (D-MO)

Tunney, John  Former Senator(D-CA)

Public figures

Benton, Marjorie  Board Member, Arms Control Association. International Editorial Board, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Davidson, William  Institute for Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs

Douglas, Kirk   Actor

Forrestal, Michael  Former President, US-USSR Trade & Economic Council

Fraser, Gerald   President, United Auto Workers

Gayler, Admiral Noel  (USN-Ret) Former Commander-in-Chief, all U.S. Forces, Pacific; Former Director, National Security Agency

Lee, Vice Admiral John Marshall (USN-Ret) Former Commander, Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force in Western Pacific

Mott, Stewart Rawlings   Philanthropist

Salisbury, Harrison  Specialist, Soviet Affairs; Former Associate Editor, New York Times

Woodcock,Leonard  Former U.S. Ambassador; President Emeritus, United Auto Workers

Note:  Ball, Hodding Carter, Cohen, Galbraith, Gayler, Hammer, Hesburgh, Kendall, Kennan, McNamara, Mott, Oztemel, Schmidt, Scott, Wiesner and Woodcock were among the 33-man Board of Directors, that is to say, one-tenth of the overall membership.

The business list set out here is brief because I have only called out the top executives of best known major companies. A good many business members of ACEWA were lawyers or owners of smaller companies that would not be recognizable to a general reader today.

Out of the 12 former U.S. Senators, each and every one was a Democrat. This is all the more remarkable given that it was the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter, which, guided by Zbigniew Brzezinski, had buried detente in 1979-1980. Moreover, it contrasts with today’s Democratic Party which has been leading the charge against all things Russian ever since 2016 with no naysayers on board.

I call attention to the several public figures who were prominent labor leaders (United Auto Workers).   And, of course, we see several top name personalities from the Kennedy administration.

As for the academics, I have only reproduced here professors and officers of Ivy League and best known universities.

Despite these cuts, I think it is fairly obvious that the membership of the original American Committee on East West Accord was drawn heavily from both Center Left (academics, labor) and center Right (business) America.  It is safe to say that virtually none of the practitioners of the professions represented in the membership in 1982 would dare to sign up to a similar program of détente with Russia today. 

Was Soviet Russia a more likable entity in 1982 than the Russian Federation of Vladimir Putin?  The answer is obviously “no.” 

The inescapable conclusion is that the inability of the 2015 reincarnation of the American Committee to attract any meaningful support from all of the public spheres listed above demonstrates the refusal of society today to deal rationally and in a facts-based manner with the issue of relations with Russia.

* * * *

Following the death of Steve Cohen a year ago, his widow, Katrina van den Heuvel, owner-publisher of The Nation and main financier of the American Committee for East West Accord folded its tents and established a successor organization bearing the name American Committee for US-Russia Accord. The remaining Board members from ACEWA stayed on in the new body and several new members were added, including Ms. Vanden Heuvel herself.

Prior to the roll-out of this new ACURA, I had made the suggestion that the group’s mission should be expanded for the sake of better traction, broader outside funding and effectiveness. If the name remained East West Accord, it would be possible to add China to the “East” part of the equation and so to deal with the ongoing New Cold War as it is actually developing, meaning a simultaneous confrontation between the United States with its allies on one side and a closely bonded Russia-China on the other side.

Indeed, the New Cold War differs from the Old Cold War in this very sense. Its ideological content, created and propagated by the United States and its allies is precisely to defend democracy against the authoritarian regimes that both China and Russia are said to represent.  This, of course, is a smokescreen for the true content of containing and doing whatever harm is possible short of war to the two major powers in the world which openly resist U.S. global hegemony.

The advantage of expanding the ACEWA tent to take in China was, I thought, inescapable:  whereas U.S. views of Russia have hardened over two decades in their disregard for facts and primitivism, and whereas this obtuseness is manifest across the political and social spectrum, the same is not true of American attitudes to China, particularly the views of American business.  The Russian economy is largely irrelevant to the United States today, but that is hardly true of China, despite all the efforts under Donald Trump and now under Joe Biden to force “de-coupling”.  You simply cannot decouple from the world’s second largest, soon to be first largest economy.  The net result of the foregoing, is that discussion of Russia in American society would profit greatly from its being attached to the question of relations with China.  Financing would be easy to come by.  Venues for debates would be found, whereas no Harvard, Princeton or the other academic centers noted above will find any time or space for discussion of Russia.

Regrettably, Ms van den Heuvel took no notice of this recommendation.   Perhaps someone else and some other advocates of a sane policy towards Russia will.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Re-visiting Dubrovnik after a 30 year absence: September 2021

A week ago I concluded an 11 day sojourn in Dubrovnik. The trip was a kind of Rip Van Winkle return to a city that I had visited at least once a year from 1980 to 1987 when I served as the Country Manager, Yugoslavia for the telecoms conglomerate ITT. We had no business as such in this historic coastal resort city, but it was the venue of the annual gatherings of the US-Yugoslav Trade Council, of which my employer was a member. The center of these events was the then newly built Hotel President on the outskirts of the city, 10 minutes drive from the Old Town.  

In the 1980s, the Hotel President was a much talked about architectural landmark: built into a hill that descended to the sea, it offered guests spacious, well-appointed rooms with terraces and unobstructed panoramic views of the magnificent seacoast and sea lanes below while respecting and fitting well into the natural topography. The structure was very representative of the Yugoslav concept of public space: generous open areas overlooking the sea were available for holding cocktail receptions of the business-government events such as ours.

To savor our return completely, my wife and I booked that very same luxury hotel for five nights of our stay. That was a calculated risk, as I was aware that the hotel had served as center of refugee housing in the midst of what is now called the Croatian War of Independence.  However, we were well rewarded,  because the hotel has benefited from substantial improvements and capable management in recent years, along with the entire hospitality infrastructure of the Dubrovnik region.

My long absence from Dubrovnik and more generally from Croatia was prompted by my “knowing too much.”  In my seven years as a regular monthly visitor to Yugoslavia, I had watched up close the country’s long slide into economic collapse and political turmoil under Marshal Tito’s successors. The young technocrats who replaced retiring veterans of the Tito administration lacked the reputation for military valor, revolutionary zeal and charisma to make things work by ignoring petty bureaucrats and stifling regulations in their path. Moreover, the enormous public debt load from Yugoslavia’s decades-long status as the Continent’s biggest investor in (duplicative) manufacturing capacity dictated by political balancing among the republics was becoming unmanageable. The final nail in the coffin was precisely the approaching end of the Cold War in the rapprochement between Gorbachev and Reagan, and most particularly the Soviets’ acquiescence in the fall of the Berlin Wall and end to their hegemonic control of Eastern Europe. With that, Yugoslavia’s geopolitical balancing act between East and West became irrelevant, and the Great Powers left the country alone with its economic plight.

Following my departure from ITT in 1987, I resumed business travel to Yugoslavia, though at irregular intervals, in my capacity as Business Development Director, Eastern Europe for the logistics company United Parcel Service. Thus, I witnessed the onset and early stages of the Yugoslav civil war that economic collapse facilitated.

I literally had a seat at the table in the months before Yugoslavia imploded. At the 1990 Zagreb Fall Fair we brought together representatives of our various delivery partners in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia. Tensions and mutual animosity between these communities was running so high that had anyone been carrying firearms there would have been a shoot-out at our banquet table.

Just nine months later came the June 1991 declarations of independence of Slovenia and Croatia. The first led to a military clash that was short-lived, just 10 days before Belgrade let go of its northernmost republic.  The Serbs had no intention of pushing troops and weapons up to the Italian/NATO border in pursuit of unity and Slovenia as such was not critical to the survival of their state as was Croatia.  

In short order the Yugoslav army began brutal air and land assaults on Croatia about which I heard directly from our delivery partners in Zagreb. I was also in regular contact with the little airline based there which provided us with daily carriage of our sacks of documents and parcels into the country; they went on to become what is now Croatia Airlines.  In a touching gesture of war fatigue and plea for outside support, one of their managers gave me several bottles of white wine as a souvenir of one of the towns in central Croatia that had just been destroyed by incoming Yugoslav Army units. I took these back to Brussels and opened them only when peace came to that unhappy land.

As for Dubrovnik, by December 1991 this UNESCO Heritage site was under siege, cut off from electricity and water. The Old Town was bombarded regularly by Serb artillery from the mountains which loomed over the harbor. Residents were prohibited to leave by the local authorities lest the city’s defense forces be reduced.

The devastating civil war finally ended in 1998 when NATO effectively destroyed the war-making potential of Serbia, the moving force in the entire tragedy, though by no means the only party  guilty of what we would call “war crimes.”  Indeed, under its first president Tudjman, independent Croatia was both the aggrieved party in some territory and an aggressor both to minority populations on its land and in territories beyond its borders.  On a visit to Ljubljana in 1993, I found that several of my former business associates from Iskra Commerce, ITT’s agents in country, were now actively engaged in illicit arms trade with one or another former Yugoslav republic.  I could see no entirely innocent actors in what had become a national tragedy.

And so I lost my appetite to revisit the lands of former Yugoslavia, though I knew them well to offer some of the most beautiful seacoasts and alpine resorts in all of Europe.  Several years ago, we relented and made a short visit to Slovenia for a cultural festival in Maribor to which my wife had been invited as a journalist. We used the occasion to revisit parts of the country which we knew much better from the past, Ljubljana and the mountain retreat of Lake Bled, the nearest reaches of the Julian Alps.  Our impression from that trip was mildly disappointing, because the distinctive culture of the country seemed to be fading into European Union standardization and blandness.  The local high cuisine in particular was already long forgotten.

This summer, after 18 months of lock-down in our Brussels home, my wife and I were keen to travel abroad, to resume normal living. We made four lengthy trips abroad, the final one being Dubrovnik. As in the case of the other three destinations, we were guided both by considerations of Covid risk, meaning the rates of local infection, and by considerations of weather, seeking an escape from the cold and rain that descended on Belgium and on much of Western Europe from June through August.  In this context, we looked first to the North, and visited St Petersburg in May-June. The weather was good and the Covid wave now lashing Russia had not yet made itself felt.  This was followed by a July trip to Helsinki, about which I have already written separately. The weather in Finland that month was exceptionally warm and the sanitary situation was exceptionally good.  Next came a trip to Venice in August which proved highly successful on all counts. The waters of the Lido beach were delightfully warm, the beach itself was sun-drenched and under-visited by foreigners so that social distancing was never an issue.  The Venetian experience directed us to think about the coast further down the Adriatic, and we followed the logic by ordering our flight tickets to Dubrovnik for the first week in September, when the 40 degree heat of August diminished to very tolerable daytime readings in the mid-20s.

The overriding impression of our visit to Dubrovnik, to its nearby Elafiti islands and to the further removed island of Korcula, home town of Marco Polo halfway up the coast to Split and today the producer of superb white wines that are served in all the best restaurants of Dalmatia, was one of high professionalism of the domestic hospitality industry, daring private investment in state of the art hotels and bold public investment in resort infrastructure, meaning in particular public beaches and seaside walks, that are enjoyed by local residents and visitors from abroad in equal measure.

I put the emphasis on “in equal measure.”  It may be that due to curtailment of some traditional tourist flows as, for example, from Australia, which remains under lockdown, foreign visitor numbers were still down this season and the percentage mix with guests from elsewhere in Croatia or the Balkans was not quite “normal.” That being said, we encountered large numbers of Americans and British, goodly numbers of Germans and Russians in the four and five star establishments we visited. 

However, in the most expensive places, and in particular on Korcula island, there is no question that the wealthiest guests, the owners of the multimillion dollar yachts in the port, were Croatians, not foreigners.  This is a “sea change” from the Yugoslavia that I knew, where the guests at prestigious, though never excessively ostentatious, establishments were most likely to be government officials, not business people, as is clearly the case today.

In this regard I think back of the refrain I heard many times from one of my colleagues in Ljubljana in the Iskra office representing our products and technologies in country: “We are Slavs, not slaves.” There was back than an obvious defensiveness related to their own relative poverty compared to our West European and American managers. There was a particular sensitivity to Germans which came down from the horrors of the Second World War.   All of that insecurity is now history, from what I observed over the past few weeks.

As for the civil war, there are in Dubrovnik streets wall signs bearing photos of the destruction of this or that building by Serb artillery. In one of the historic palaces just next to the cathedral, there is a room dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives during the siege.  But this is exceptional.  We spotted an Air Serbia plane at the Dubrovnik Airport and I have no doubt that the Croats just want to move on with their lives, including having normal relations with their neighbors.

The Yugoslavia of my memory was to a great extent a fun-loving place where the business people with whom I associated had a well developed a sense of humor, cultivated witticisms, enjoyed immensely good food and good drink.  Their standing joke was “call us whenever you want a problem arranged in some very nice place.” That mindset has clearly survived very well into the present-day Dalmatian coast.

Aesthetically the development of Dubrovnik and the surroundings has been world-class. This comes at a cost: the region is not cheap, prices for food and lodging are entirely in line with Northern Europe. But the value is there, you get what you pay for, and more. The natural beauty of the region has been maintained. Everywhere we looked, including in the marinas and commercial port, the sea water was transparent, sparkling clean and inviting.

As for Covid, all the hotels and restaurants were operating with keen attention to the sanitary rules. All of the hotel guests were observing mask requirements and social distancing indoors. It was very reassuring.

Having cast these bouquets, I now will turn to another set of impressions from this visit. The Yugoslavia of my past was more than a place valuing joie de vivre. It was a country with ambition, and it managed to serve a very important role globally, hitting way above its weight in the mission to preserve peace and stability in a world divided by two armed camps, the United States with NATO versus the USSR with its Warsaw Pact. Tito’s Yugoslavia, alongside India, was a founder and leader of the so-called Non-Aligned Bloc of Nations. 

The six nations which have resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia have no such ambition. Nor do they have the demographic or economic weight to support such ambition if ever it existed today. Their biggest hope is to grow as equals within the European Union which is today just another word for NATO, meaning vassals of the United States. Croatia is thus willy-nilly aligned against Russia and surely soon to be aligned against China.

The disappearance of the Non-Aligned Movement deepens the lines of cleavage in the ongoing and deepening New Cold War and makes the world a much less safe place than it was when I was a frequent visitor to Yugoslavia and a once a year visitor to Dubrovnik

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Finland: rah, rah, rah

Readers of my travel notes will know that I often use anecdotal evidence to support my conclusions about this place or that, meaning that I set out my personal observations based on a small sampling, but one which is entirely my own. At times, this sampling may not be truly representative of the given country or city. That is a calculated risk that is common in journalism. It usually pays off, but not always.

I write now to reconsider the dismal picture of Finland which I painted nine years ago following a lengthy visit to the country’s provincial eastern region of Karelia.  This region, especially its southernmost district just across the border from Russia, had been described to me glowingly by friends in St Petersburg, who went there periodically to do shopping for smoked fish and other Finnish delicacies or who were crossing over to Finland at its nearest point to satisfy the requirements of the Schengen visas which Finnish consulates were giving out with abandon to Russian tourists for the sake of anticipated hard currency earnings during mandatory stops in Finland on the way West. These friends were greatly impressed by the smooth asphalt of the roads and high quality of infrastructure generally, by the cleanliness and orderliness of the towns and countryside. As one observed, “Finland is Russian landscapes plus civilization.”

My own visit to this eastern province of Finland was made in August 2012 when my wife and I went to the Savonlinna Opera Festival, which was marking its hundredth anniversary. The management generously accorded to my wife free tickets in her capacity as accredited journalist, which, of course, favorably disposed us to the festival organizers. What we saw there on stage and on our follow-on visit to the “black heart” of Karelia to the north, in Kuopio, a university town and center of environmental studies, was described in some detail in my unflattering essay:

https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2012/08/19/finland-oy-oy-oy-travel-notes-from-karelia/

Since Finland then, as today, figures among the most desirable nations on earth in which to live in the tables compiled by travel experts, not least of all due to the supposedly healthy life style, I imagine that readers of that essay may have been surprised by my remarks on the sickly or deformed specimens of humanity that we saw around us in Karelia:  I called out in particular the high numbers of obese or grossly overweight ladies and gents, the high number of deformed or disoriented people resulting from alcoholism.  And lest anyone would suggest that this was a lower class phenomenon from which I was generalizing, let me remind the reader that Savonlinna during the festival is the musical center of the country, attracting the prosperous audience of the Helsinki Opera as well as from the rest of the country. The dead drunk lady who was looking in vain for her seat in our row was holding a ticket that cost her 140 euros. The passengers on our river and canal cruise north to Kuopio had paid a handsome fee for the right to be served alternating rounds of sparkling wine, beer and spirits nonstop over the ten hours of the trip. And after we disembarked another restrained couple of fellow passengers went straight to the hotel bar before check-in and were in no rush to go to their room.

In the years since 2012, I have visited Finland a couple of times but in the mode of my 1990s travel to the country, not as a destination but as a stopping off point on the way to or from Russia. On one such overnight visit we stayed in a business class hotel in the Helsinki harbor before proceeding to Russia on the newly opened fast trains to Petersburg and Moscow.  The impression of that trip was favorable but not sufficiently so for me to have bothered to reexamine my earlier published remarks on Karelia.

This summer is an entirely different case. Helsinki was our destination for a 12 day holiday and our impressions are so very positive that I am compelled to bring this to the attention of my readers so as to set right what may have been a spoiled or shall we say unrepresentative sample of Finland taken nine years ago.

Why Helsinki of all places for a summer holiday?  It bears saying that our original plans for this July had been to spend a month at our country house 80 kilometers south of St Petersburg, Russia. We had been there in May, after a Covid mandated absence of 18 months, and, at great pains, had put the grounds in order in preparation for a relaxing stay in July.  The meteorological reports indicated a Russian summer of unusual warmth, underscoring our sense of anticipation.  However, Covid intervened yet again: in late June the third wave of the pandemic hit St Petersburg and Russia generally, a wave led by the Delta variant which greatly increased infections, hospitalizations and…deaths. It was clear that this was a risk to be avoided, notwithstanding our full vaccination records. Moreover, and decisively, we understood that any visit to Russia just now would place us in a social void, because we would not meet with our friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom were anti-vaxxers or as they call them in Russia vaccination dissidents. We had our fill in May of arguments over the benefits of vaccination, of wearing masks, as well as over the value of Belgian (not just Russian) official statistics that weigh in on these matters.

And so to enjoy the rare pleasures of White Nights and the unusually warm northern summer, we looked to Finland. The decisive point was that Finland from the start of the epidemic had very low infection rates and that has continued to the present, notwithstanding the Delta variant. Indeed, Finland is one of the very few “green” countries in Europe, with much better current indices of infection, hospitalization and death than our country of residence, Belgium, which recently moved up to “orange.”

 Since we have no interest in driving, an indispensable feature of renting a dacha in Finland, and since we were not attracted to “fine urban views” from the windows of up-market hotels in provincial towns like Tampere, we looked more closely at Helsinki and discovered to our great pleasure a five-star Hilton hotel at comparatively modest room rates situated in a secluded shoreline residential area within city limits, at Munkkiniemi, the terminus of the number 4 tramline northwest of the city center. Here our balcony looks out directly at a protected inlet of the sea. Here the hotel’s private stretch of shore and the adjacent public beach measuring perhaps 250 meters each attract only a handful of swimmers, so that “social distancing” occurs entirely naturally.

The hotel itself appears to have a respectable occupancy rate, though it is certainly not sold out. The guests, as confirmed by Reception, are about 90% Finns, mostly young families, with an admixture of visitors from Germany and Estonia. The absence of foreigners generally is attributable to Covid travel restrictions. An international branded hotel like this in normal times would have a large foreign contingent of guests. The Finns staying here are not only out-of-towners, visitors from the hinterland, but also some Helsinki residents who were driven by the intense heat earlier this month to escape to the park-like surroundings of this residential district, about which they, unlike me, were long well informed.

They would know, as I didn’t, that this district is home to the official residences of both the premier and the president of Finland, as well as of the Guest House where foreign dignitaries are put up. When you consider the beautiful natural setting of mixed pine and deciduous forests and the vast expanse of the sea inlet which these houses border, the location speaks for itself.  Meanwhile there are also two noteworthy tourist sites here. One is the former official presidential residence, now a museum open to the public (Tamminiemi), where the country’s longest serving president, Urho Kekkonen lived most of his 27 years up to 1981.  The other is the Seurasaari Island, fifteen minutes walk from our hotel, which is one of the main tourist attractions of Helsinki thanks to its open air “museum” of architecturally interesting wooden buildings of various usage moved here from all around Finland and dating back mostly to the late 18th and 19th centuries.

I was once a frequent visitor to Helsinki going back fifty years.  It was, as I said, a transit point to the Soviet Union. This ceased in the 1990s when both Finland and the new Russian Federation, headed in different directions and redefined their commercial and political identities. I had been a visitor to Helsinki in the late 1990s when I had business partners in the country for whom I was performing consultancy. But all this time I had stayed downtown in business class hotels and knew well only the area running from the main railway station to the Finlandia concert hall and nearby Hotel Hesperia and similar. Now, just 25 minutes away by tram, I discovered this other Helsinki that is a splendid resort with conference facilities as well.

The 90% of guests in our hotel as well as the visitors we see on the beach, the folks playing at the nearby clay-courts tennis club, riding their bicycles or taking their morning jog are decidedly healthier looking than the people we saw in Karelia, even if they also line up at all the ice cream kiosks and order a lot of pastries and other sweets in the cafes. I would say that no more than 20% of the adults we see are seriously overweight, of which perhaps a third are classically obese. In this day, when Americans and Brits tend to need two chairs on an airplane to be comfortable, the weigh-in of the Finns I see around me is not exceptional. 

Meanwhile, the restaurants and cafes that we find here in our hotel complex and also in downtown Helsinki, are definitely offering healthier food than I remember from the past. They nearly all feature salads consisting of greens to which are added “toppings” such as baked salmon that are perfect for the diet conscious.  Moreover, these offerings are taken up by many diners. And in the supermarkets, boxes of healthy salads kept fresh in controlled atmosphere are put out daily, meaning that they sell out.

 Hamburgers with fries are almost nowhere to be seen outside of specialized fast food outlets, of which there are relatively few.  In the cafes, soft drinks are available but generally passed up. Instead, most everyone takes advantage of the free water. Among alcoholic beverages, we see only beer and to a lesser extent wine enjoying favor. Few take more than one glass of wine. In our 10 days we have not encountered a single drunk or a single instance of exuberant drinking. 

The Finns we see around us have other remarkable features that we did not notice so clearly in Karelia: the men in particular are very big, very tall.  A great many males are over two meters. A great many of them also have wide frames and developed musculature.  Women, when they are fit are very fit.

But the real kudos goes to the kids, who are almost without exception slim and well proportioned from toddlers through early adolescents.  They are well-behaved, quiet and cute. 

This observation about the kids reminds me of the comment made by one Russian taxi driver in St Petersburg at about 1995 who said that he would not buy a Russian car because his countrymen were not good at manufacturing anything, though to their credit they “produced very cute little kids.”  I don’t think his point about poor manufacturing has any relevance to Finland, but his remark about kids does.

At 1.3 million residents, Helsinki is about the size of Brussels. It goes without saying that it has a more limited cultural offering than the Belgian and EU capital. In this regard, my observation from the past about Helsinki being quite exciting when arriving from the East and quite boring when arriving from the West still holds.  Nonetheless, what high culture it does offer is of good, international quality.  The musical life in season is worthy of respect. The musical establishment includes very well respected

schools such as the Sibelius Music Academy. The cultural calendar which restarts in late August features in particular symphonic music, opera and dance.

And the national art museums are today under good management, as we understood at once upon visiting the ongoing temporary exhibition of Ilya Repin at the Ateneum.

This exhibition has to be called the cultural event of this summer in Helsinki. The Ateneum’s website urges visitors to buy tickets in advance online and they are very right. When we arrived before the museum’s entrance this past Tuesday we found a line stretching around the corner, meaning a good 45 minutes to get in and buy a ticket. However, the effort would be worthwhile. The exhibition presents 130 paintings and drawings by Repin, including several that are signature pieces by the artist known the world over.

At the entrance to the exhibition, Repin is identified as “a Finnish-Russian painter.”  To Russians, this may seem peculiar, though it is truthful:  as from 1918, following the Revolution, the Finnish-Russian border north of Petersburg was moved several dozen kilometers to the south and Repin’s residence cum studio Penates at Kuokkala, just 30 kilometers from Petersburg, fell within the new Finnish state. Repin lived out the remainder of his life there, to 1930.

Though Repin donated several of his paintings to his new homeland, the Finnish holdings of his works are clearly very few.  Nearly all of the paintings and drawings come from Russia, mainly from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in Petersburg, who are co-organizers of the exhibition together with the Petit Palais fine arts museum, Paris. Smaller museums across Russia such as in Saratov and in Irkutsk and elsewhere also have contributed paintings.

The most famous large scale canvases on display include the Barge Haulers on the Volga, the Reception of Volost Elders by Emperor Alexander III in the Courtyard of the Petrovsky Palace in Moscow,  a Religious Procession in the Kursk Governate, the  Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom.  Importantly there are sketches and oil studies for these master works also shown.
Given the tense relations between Russia and the European Union these days of Cold War 2.0, given the open hostility towards all things Russian by the Finns’country cousins across the Gulf in Estonia and by the other neighboring Baltic States, it bears emphasizing that this important exhibition has been curated with the highest professionalism and will bring great pleasure to all art lovers who visit. Ideology and geopolitics are totally absent, as well they should be.
I have no easy answers as to why this stay in Finland produced a so much better impression than the one of nine years ago. To be sure, dietary habits in Finland may have evolved in a positive way just as they are changing across Europe. Infrastructure investments are in evidence in downtown Helsinki and the city looks that much better than it did just a few years ago, with more pedestrian zones and less congestion. I freely acknowledge that we were staying this time in a particularly prestigious part of town which has been meticulously planned for the comfort and pleasure of residents and visitors alike. There are splendid walks and riding paths along the shores of the sea.  Traffic is free flowing and public transit runs at frequent intervals on clean, new and well-designed vehicles.  To all of this, I say “bravo.”
In these signs of prosperity and superior management, the capital factor has to be taken into account. Helsinki has nearly one quarter of the country’s 5.5 million inhabitants.  It surely presents the best that Finland has to offer.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021