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  • Does the United States Have a Future as a Great Power?

     

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    Twenty years ago posing this question would have seemed absurd. The United States was fully self-confident about its position as the sole surviving superpower in the world which faced virtually no obstacles or objections to its performance of “public goods” that brought order to the world either through the liberal international institutions that it helped to create after WWII and dominated, or unilaterally when necessary through “coalitions of the willing” aimed at bringing down one or another disruptive malefactor on a regional stage. From all sides abroad it heard only “amen” to its claims of exceptionalism and farther-seeing vision that came from its standing taller, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it.

     

    Fourteen years ago, when America prepared for its ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and encountered loud resistance from France and Germany, backed up by Russia, it became possible to wonder whether U.S. global hegemony could last.  The disaster that the Iraqi adventure quickly became within a year of George W. Bush declaring “mission accomplished” rolled on and progressively diminished the enthusiasm of allies and others hitherto in the U.S. bandwagon for each new project to re-engineer troublesome nations, to overthrow autocrats and usher in an age of liberal democracy across the globe.

    Still, the doubts were discussed sotto voce. Governments tended to conform to what the Russians colorfully call “giving someone the finger in your pocket.”  Observers spoke their piece privately against the violations of international law and simple decency that the United States was perpetrating, against the swathe of chaos that followed American intervention across the Greater Middle East.  But such persons were on the fringes of political life and drew little attention.

    What has happened in the past couple of years is that doubts about the competence of the United States to lead the world have been compounded by doubts about the ability of the United States to govern itself. The dysfunctionality of the federal government has come out of the closet as an issue and is talked about fairly regularly even by commentators and publications that are quintessentially representative of the establishment.

    In this connection, it is remarkable to note that the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine carries an essay entitled “Kleptocracy in America” by Sarah Chayes. This takes us entirely away from the personality peculiarities of the 45th President into the broader and more important realm of the systemic flaws of governance, namely the extraordinary political power wielded by the very wealthy and the self-serving policies that they succeed in enacting, all at the expense of the general public that has stagnated economically for decades now, setting the stage for the voter revolt that brought Trump to power.

    And in an op-ed essay in the The Washington Post on September 1st that is remarkable precisely for its identification of the failing political culture in Washington, Senator John McCain says the following:

    “Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.”

    McCain himself was till now a major contributor to the poisonous political climate in Washington, to partisanship that tramples patriotism under foot. One thinks of his unprecedented attack on fellow Republican Senator Rand Paul several months ago whom he accused of “working for Putin” because the good Senator refused to vote for the accession of Montenegro to NATO.

    Gridlock in the federal government is nothing new. In the past decade, work of the federal government came to a standstill when Congress and the President could not agree the conditions under which the federal debt ceiling would be raised.  Such an eventuality was just narrowly averted in the past day.

    Public exposure and ridicule of a sitting president for personal failings, such as the case of Bill Clinton’s sexual transgressions, have been exploited for political gain by his opponents whatever the cost to national prestige. We have lived through that crisis of the political elites and the republic survived

    What is new and must be called out is the loss of civility in public discourse at all levels, from the President, from the Congress and down to the average citizen.  The widely decried personal attacks that otherwise would be called defamation during the 2016 presidential electoral campaign were symptomatic of this all-encompassing phenomenon.  It signifies a dramatic decline in American political culture that the whole world sees and is beginning to act upon in self-defense.

    In what follows, I will speak to each of these levels in the calamitous loss of dignity and reason in the establishment as it bears on the unsustainability of American soft power abroad, which in turn preconditions hard power.

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    Let us start with President Donald Trump, who is attacked in the news daily by the liberal media that represents the lion’s share of all television programming and print publications, media that vehemently opposes Trump’s domestic and foreign policy positions. In their determination to ensure either his impeachment or effectively to strip him of powers, they speak of Trump the way cheaply printed caricatures for the masses lampooned Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution.

    The President is publicly described by his compatriots as an imbecile, a rabid racist, a misogynist, a volatile and impulsive narcissist whose finger on the nuclear button gives us all goose pimples:  this cannot be ignored by the wider world outside US borders and it is not ignored.

    To be sure, Donald Trump has brought a good deal of this ignominy on himself by his intemperate comments on daily events, particularly at home but also abroad, where silence or a nod to conventional verities would be the better part of valor. He keeps his own counsel on foreign affairs and erroneously believes that his instincts are superior to the advice of experts. In his kitchen cabinet, there are no experts.  In the official cabinet, he has for his own reasons assembled a group consisting of Neoconservatives and Liberal Interventionists, who made it easy for him to get confirmation in the Senate but who are all pulling in the direction opposite to the America First concepts of nonintervention in the affairs of other states that he set out in his electoral campaign.

    Trump changes direction daily, even on matters as critical as the likely U.S. response to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula.  The tactic of unpredictability was an approach he said in the campaign he would use against enemies, in particular against terrorist groups, not to tip them off about U.S. intentions in advance and weaken the effect of eventual U.S. military strikes. But it makes no sense when applied to all other current business, which requires a firm hand on the tiller and sense of continuity and predictability, not constant disruption.

    The net result of Donald Trump’s first six months in office has been to undo the bonds of mutual confidence with our allies and friends, and to put on guard our competitors that America’s role in the world is up for grabs.

    Foreign policy has opened up as a topic for discussion here in Europe ever since Donald scattered the chickens by his loose talk about NATO and America's commitment or non-commitment to the Article 5 provision of all for one and one for all. This has given impetus to the long-spluttering plans to create a European Union army as an alternative to NATO, and as a rallying point for federalists in what will be a two-speed Europe.

    During the two terms of Obama, meddling in the internal politics of China and Russia, repeated hectoring over their alleged human rights and rule of law violations, but still more importantly the wrong-headed policy of simultaneous containment of these two giants through construction of military alliances and bases at their borders put in motion a strategic partnership between them that was once improbable but is now flourishing. The Russia-China axis is underpinned by vast joint investments and promises to remake the global power balance in the decades to come.

    Now, with Trump, the damage to American power in the Pacific region is spreading. His ripping up free trade accords and his incautious rhetoric regarding possible military strikes against North Korea have pushed both Japan and South Korea to explore actively and urgently how Russia can be befriended, at a minimum, for the sake of greater leverage against the big ally in North America. This has been demonstrated with perfect clarity by the meetings of Vladimir Putin with Japanese premier Shinzo Abe and Korean president Moon Jae-in at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok over the past couple of days.

    Russia’s evolving political entente with both South Korea and Japan is providing support for the launch of ambitious foreign investment projects in its Far East as announced at the Forum. These include one which has the potential to re-shape the imagination of regional populations for a generation to come: revival of plans to build a 50 billion dollar rail-auto bridge linking Hokkaido with the Russian island of Sakhalin, thus uniting Japan with the continent and facilitating freight shipments across Russia to Europe. For its part, Korea announced infrastructure investments for the Northern sea route linking their country with European markets through sea lanes kept open by Russian icebreakers.  Like the Chinese One Belt One Road, these plans all dramatically reduce the importance to world trade of the long-standing US policed sea lanes off Southeast Asia up to and through the Suez Canal.

    Of course, the low point in America’s image in the world today under Trump is not entirely new. By the end of his two terms in office, George W. Bush had driven American prestige to what were then all time lows even among Europeans.  There was a brief resurgence of American popularity at the start of Barack Obama’s tenure in office. But that was quickly dissipated by his failure to deliver on the pledges of his campaign and inaugural address, as Guantanamo remained open, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued and as drone strikes proliferated.

    But Donald Trump has shaken up the world order by repeatedly questioning the public goods that the country claimed to be delivering these past decades, opening a void without projecting a new vision of global governance. In the meantime, the unique value of America’s public goods is being eroded as alternative suppliers step forward.

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    It is commonplace today within the United States to put all blame for the shocking decline in political culture at the door of President Trump with his boorish language and behavior.  However, as we noted from the outset in citing Senator John McCain’s recent op-ed, Congress has contributed mightily to the erosion of civic values by its vicious and counterproductive partisanship.

    And yet a still greater threat to our democracy and to the sustainability of our great power status has come from the inverse phenomenon, namely the truly bipartisan management of foreign policy in Congress.  The Republican and Democratic party leaderships have maintained strict discipline in promotion of what are Neoconservative and Liberal Interventionist positions on every issue placed before Congress. Committees on security and foreign affairs invite to testify before them only those experts who can be counted upon to support the official Washington narrative. Debate on the floor of the houses is nonexistent.  And the votes are so lopsided as to be shocking, none more so that the votes in August on the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.”  This measure removed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia from the category of Executive Order and mandated them by federal law.  In the Senate it passed 98 to 2. In the House, the vote was 419 for, 3 against.  Such results remind us of the rubber stamp legislature of the USSR, the Supreme Soviet, in its heyday.

    That particular vote was still more scandalous for its being drafted and passed without any consultation with US allies and friends, though its intent is to control their commercial and credit policies with respect to the target countries under sanction.  For Europeans, in particular, this puts in question their ability to pursue what they see as great economic benefits from trade and investment with Russia and Iran. In this sense, Congress demonstrated that it is pursuing a still more radical program of America First than the President. In-your-face unilateralism such as this works directly to the detriment of the country’s standing in global forums.

     

     

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    It would be comforting if the problems of our political culture began and ended with the elites operating in Washington, D.C.  However, that is patently not the case.  The problem exists across the country in the form of stultifying conformism, or groupthink that is destroying the open marketplace for ideas essential for any vital democracy.

    Some of us have called this the new McCarthyism, because the most salient aspect of groupthink is the ongoing hysteria over alleged Russian meddling in U.S. domestic politics. The denunciations of “stooges of Putin” and the blacklisting from both mass and professional media of those known to deliver unconventional, heterodox views on Russia and other issues of international affairs is reminiscent of what went on during the witch hunt for Communists in government, in the media during the early 1950s. 

    However, no one is being hounded from office today. There are no show trials, as yet, for treasonous collusion with Russia.  So, it would be safer to speak of an atmosphere of intimidation that stifles free debate on the key security issues facing the American public.  Absence of debate equates to a dumbing-down of our political elites as intellectual skills atrophy and results in poor formulation of policy. The whole necessarily undermines our soft power and standing in the world.

    Groupthink in America today did not come from nowhere. Debilitating conformism was always part of our DNA, as is the case in a great many countries, though its emergence has been episodic and in varying degrees of severity.  The present acute manifestation in the United States goes back to the mass paranoia which followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the  George W. Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act, gutting our civil rights in exchange for the promise of security.

    Though the revelations of Edward Snowden have shown the full extent and potency of the  instruments of surveillance over the general population that were introduced by the Bush administration after 9/11, there was enough of state control exposed in the Patriotic Act text to silence anyone with doubts about US government policies at home and abroad.  When the harsh personalities of the Bush immediate entourage were replaced by the liberal talking officials of Barack Obama, people breathed easier, but the instruments of surveillance remained in place, as did the Neocon middle and senior officials in the State Department, in the Pentagon, in the intelligence agencies.  Thus, for a whole generation the Washington narrative remained unchanged, giving encouragement in communities across the land to Neocon-minded administrators and professorate of our universities, publishers and owners of our mainstream newspapers and other arbiters of public taste.  That is quite sufficient to explain the current atmosphere of intimidation and groupthink.

     

     

     

    It is improbable that any Humpty-Dumpty successor to Donald Trump can put the pieces back together again and restore American dominance to where it was at the close of Bill Clinton's first term as president. Given American hubris, will our political class accept an equal seat at the global board of governors or just walk away from the table?

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.

  • The Red Book

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    One of the endearing features of the Harvard Alumni Organization is to oversee the production of class books for each graduating class at five year intervals from graduation to the time of collective extinction, which may be 75 years out. Bound in the college colors, this is the proverbial Red Book.  No doubt other prestige universities across the United States have a similar practice, but I will limit our consideration here to one college, which happens to be iconic and thus broadly representative of the American establishment. I will further restrict our consideration to one Red Book issue, that of the Harvard College Class of 1967, my class. These limitations have one purpose:  to arrive at some conclusions based on close study of a control sample as opposed to a broad but superficial survey of elites in general. This exercise is very timely given that the 2016 election was largely fought over the issue of the American establishment’s conflictual relationship with the broad public. So who are we in this establishment?

    Despite the best efforts of cheerleading volunteer editors from our class, who tend to occupy these positions for decades and have their network of helpers, the submission of entries by classmates has its ebb and flow, with greatest success rates coming in sync with the most hyped and attractive reunions, the 25th and 50th. The first marks the time when professional and familial ambitions have reached flight altitude. The second marks the high water of success and the onset of decline.  These are times to report, times to be seen, if ever and many classmates who were silent finally make their contributions. Our class had something like 75% participation in the 50th year Red Book, and so it is very indicative of who we are.

    Professionally who are we?  The single largest field is clearly health services, and within that, it is psychology and psychiatry.  I will not speculate on what demand for such services says about our society at large, but the fact is striking.  After that, quite predictably, many classmates have made their careers in law and in the justice system.  The third great profession is education, mainly higher education but also going down into secondary and primary education, both public and private. 

    After that comes business, though here there are some surprises.  Relatively few classmates made careers in large corporations.  A great many were self-starters, entrepreneurs who founded their own companies.  That attests to considerable self-confidence and risk taking. 

    Indeed, very few classmates served in the federal government or other large bureaucratic institutions.  Regimentation apparently is not readily accepted by individuals as talented and ambitious as my Harvard classmates. These talents are multi-dimensional and explain the rather high rate of mid-career changes in occupation, from sciences to arts or vice versa.  No doubt these unusual career decisions were facilitated by substantial financial success at an early age that made experimentation possible.

    There are among my Harvard College mates and Radcliffe graduates reporting in the Red Book a very few star performers who enjoy national name recognition.  These include Lou Dobbs (before he fell from grace), the Hollywood and Broadway actor John Lithgow, and several politicians who reached the national stage. One,  Richard Morningstar, was for many years a key official in the State Department in charge of Eurasian energy matters and ended his career as US ambassador to Azerbaijan.  Tom Ridge reached national prominence as Governor of Pennsylvania and then served George W. Bush as the first Secretary of Homeland Security. The most recent big name is Richard Blumenthal, current U.S. Senator from Connecticut, who has been highly visible of late in his attacks on President Trump over Russia-gate and who received pay back in kind from Donald in some fairly vicious denunciations of his misrepresentations of his Vietnam War service.  Sad to say, these political stars all have their place in my personal rogues’ gallery since they one and all have been champions of U.S. global hegemony and stoked the confrontation with our nuclear peer, Russia, putting the security of us all in great jeopardy today.

    A much larger number of classmates have achieved state, regional and national reputations in their chosen professions, though they may be invisible to the general public.  They are the chairmen of law associations, or highly decorated research scientists or educators at the head of the national organizations of their discipline.

    The great majority of classmates have reached material prosperity and respectability that makes them the pillars of their communities. They are public spirited and generous donors to worthy causes.  They serve on the boards of cultural, educational and other local associations. They work for social justice in their communities.

    All of this is to the good, and matches the expectations one might have for graduates of the country’s top elite school with a distinctly left of center political orientation.  However, leafing through the thousand plus pages of the Red Book, I was struck by the way classmates’ vision and interests are concentrated in their families and communities to the exclusion of the broader nation, not to mention the world at large.

    Out of the 900 or so entries, you can count on one hand those who expressed any concern about the state of the nation.  And the world outside U.S. borders appears in their writings almost exclusively as a destination for prestige tourism.  Now that many are semi or fully retired, those still in good health are going through their “bucket lists” of must-see locations around the globe.  Indeed, many of the photos that were sent in for photo gallery of this Red Book were chosen to show off desirable backgrounds like the Eiffel Tower or similar. 

    Aside from the few foreigners who were in our class, there are almost no American born Harvard classmates who might be considered to be citizens of the world.  Yes, to be sure, we have educators who taught semesters abroad on Fulbright or other grants.  Yes, we have businessmen who traveled widely and even served some time stationed abroad. And there are some diplomats among us but nearly all were political appointees for whom the posting represented a reward for campaign contributions.  None of these professional travelers suggest in their class reports that the experience abroad changed their outlooks in any way.

    The net result is shocking provincialism among the country’s best educated and most successful professionals who are my classmates. That was confirmed in face to face meetings we had over the four days of our Reunion and in group discussion events.

    The key event of our reunion was about how the Vietnam War affected us all, for which 3 hours were allocated in one of the larger auditoriums.  In preparation for the event classmates were invited to send in personal accounts of the impact of the war on them. About 175 did so, and the organizers compiled from this a pdf book which was distributed to the class ahead of the Reunion on a strictly confidential basis.

    The intent of the organizers of the book and the event was to mediate a reconciliation between those who served in the Armed Forces during the war and those who didn’t. The reasonable assumption was that at 50 years distance any hot feelings from our youth will have been dissipated.  Indeed, the event was quite civilized and innocent.

    It also revealed something otherwise not the least bit obvious:  that the Vietnam War had almost no impact on the lives and careers of the Class of 1967 though we graduated right into the midst of the draft and the civil disturbances of the antiwar movement.

    A fairly large minority of our class did serve during the war, but only a tiny proportion of those saw military action in Southeast Asia.  A large contingent of those who served did so as doctors in training, and most of those served their time in laboratories of the National Health Service or in other capacities which in no way slowed their advance along their career lines. This is not a judgment, merely a statement of fact.  Another large contingent found positions in the National Reserves and remained stateside.  Others volunteered in order to secure places in the Coast Guard or in the Navy (including one or two who chose submarine service). Anything but the infantry!

    A majority of our class did no military service and avoided the draft by a variety of respectable and less than respectable stratagems.  Some entered the Peace Corps. Some entered the domestic equivalent, VISTA. Some secured teaching positions in the public school systems which conferred draft deferrals.  Some found ways to get medical exemptions, by hook or by crook.  A very few claimed and were recognized as valid Conscientious Objectors, and did their national service working in hospitals performing menial jobs.  It is interesting that out of 1200 not one said he considered leaving the country, though moving across the border to Canada or finding refuge elsewhere was discussed a lot in the media at the time.

    My conclusion is that the convulsions which tore apart Berkeley and other public universities seem not to have influenced the course of action and mentality of my classmates. The war was an inconvenience which with or without connections one could deal with and then move on.

    Is it surprising then that today the problems of the wider world, the military and economic posture of our country in that wider world, are of little interest to Harvard ‘67? This is not burn-out and retreat to one’s near surroundings.  It’s all the same “I’ve been blessed” that turned up in the Red Book entries of my class from the very first issue 45 years ago.

    The sad, and possibly tragic thing is that the self-satisfaction, the smugness and false sense of security in these entries and the indifference to the broader world and our country’s role in making it the mess it is, means that all the talent and prestige of this elite brings no weight at all to bear on the nation’s politics, least of all on its foreign policy. Our politicians in Washington, D.C. get a free ride.

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in the autumn of 2017.

     

     

     

     

  • Letter from Orlino, summer 2017

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D

     

    Our 5 week stay at our home in the Russian countryside was approaching its conclusion when I got an email from a friend in France asking me to comment on an article in The New York Times entitled “Russia’s Villages, and Their Way of Life, Are ‘Melting Away’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/29/world/europe/russia-population-changes.html?_r=0).

    The article surely met the expectations of its editors by painting a grim picture of decline and fall of the Russian countryside in line with what the author sees as very unfavorable demographic trends in the Russian Federation as a whole. The fact that his own statistics do not justify the generalization (a net population loss of a few thousand deaths over live births in 2016 for a population of 146 million) does not get in the way of the paint-by-color canvas.  Nor does the author explain why what he has observed in a village off the beaten track in Northwest Russia, in precisely the still poor region of Pskov, gives an accurate account of country life across the vast territory of Russia, the world’s largest nation-state.

    As the author notes, the main source of income from the land of the town he visited was in the past linen. That cultivation turned unprofitable and was discontinued. Consequently, the able-bodied part of the population has been looking for employment and making their lives elsewhere.

    The author fails to mention that linen production is not a major agricultural indicator in Russia today, whereas many other crops are booming.  Linen goes into the lovely traditional handicraft tablecloths and napkins sold to tourists at riverboat landings, and that is the extent of demand.

    I could respond to the overriding portrait of countryside decay in the NYT article by drawing on my observations a year ago from the deck of one of those riverboats navigating the canals and rivers connecting St Petersburg and Moscow.  From that deck and from the experience of walking around the little picturesque towns where we made stops, I understand that growing domestic Russian tourism has pumped financial resources into historic centers, like Uglich. They are coming alive, with infrastructure improvements and reviving trade.

    However, tourist sites are not going to be representative of the country at large.  So I will instead use two sources of information that I am confident have greater relevance to the issue at hand.  The first, and surely the most politically significant, comes from a couple of family friends who for nearly 50 years have spent summers at a parcel of land deep in the hinterland, 280 km southeast of St Petersburg, close to regional industrial center of Pikalyovo, (Leningradskaya Oblast) with its train station along the line linking the northern capital to Vologda. The second source is my own experience in and around our property in Orlino, a hamlet numbering 300 inhabitants in the Gatchina district, also Leningradskaya Oblast, but 80 km due south of Petersburg.

    The homesteads around Pikalyovo were always hard to get to, with very poor local roads. There was no commercial infrastructure, so the bold and determined vacationers coming here had to bring most provisions for their stay with them. They were rewarded for their efforts by the produce grown in their gardens and by foraging for berries and highly desirable boletes and other wild mushrooms in the surrounding forests.

    When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian economy followed suit in the 1990s, the Pikalyovo region suffered the kind of economic misery and population loss that the NYT describes today in the Pskov region.  Our friends saw that normal folks left, and the concentration of drunkards and thieves rose proportionately.  The theft of anything of value in common space became acute when scrap metal scavengers pulled up kilometers of electrical cables for their copper content, leaving swathes of the district temporarily without electricity.

    Pikalyovo came to the attention of national news during the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis when its three main industrial enterprises shut down, causing widespread misery.  The best known of these enterprises, a clay processing plant owned by the oligarch Oleg Derispaska’s conglomerate Basic Element, caused a major scandal when state television carried reports on how the factory had not paid its employees for months while the boss was seeking and obtaining government assistance with repayment, rescheduling of his foreign loans.  In the spring of 2009, there were protest demonstrations in Pikalyovo that resulted in both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin personally entering the dispute to pressure Deripaska to do the right thing.

    The economic woes of the regional economic hub did nothing to improve the living conditions in nearby hamlets like the one where our friends have their parcel.  Our friends started cutting back on their visits and missed a year or two altogether. All of this would seem to confirm the story line of the Times reporter, but the latest word from Volodya and Tamara overturns the story line completely.

    A few weeks ago our friends decided to go back to the property to prepare it for sale. They had had enough, they thought.

    However, once there they discovered things were definitely looking up.  A newly completed 35 km highway makes their settlement much more accessible.  But more importantly, the neighbors have changed – for the better.  A retired colonel moved in a couple of years ago and started raising pigs, cows and chickens, offering meat, eggs and dairy products for sale, thereby ending our friends’ need for brought-in provisions. His example attracted others. New and dynamic settlers are putting into practice the ‘return to the land’ trend that is an undeniable feature of current Russian social life.  Our friends have decided not to sell, and to spend more time on their property.

     

     

    In legal terms, the parcel of land my wife owns in the hamlet of Orlino (population 300) is categorized as a “subsistence farm.” The nature of the farming to be done there even features in the plan attached to the cadastral registry: the 700 square meters where the house was built facing the “Central Street” can be used for fruit trees and vegetable garden; the back field of another 700 square meters is allocated for potatoes, cabbage and similar crops. 

    In the vernacular, however, together with the two-story planed log house we built here 5 years ago, the property is considered a “dacha,” a summer residence. Nearly one in two urban Russian households has a dacha.

     Young people think of dachas as weekend get-away locations to hold a barbecue for friends and family.  If they have a feeling for Russian traditions, it is where they take their Saturday banya, or sauna in dedicated outhouses heated by wood burning stoves and then socialize over a beer. Older folks and pensioners find this frivolous. In their view, the dacha is not so much a place to idle time away as it is a place of honest toil, working the land and communing with nature. And even some of the younger generation buys into the concept of growing their own organic foods on their land, thus getting along without industrially farmed supermarket produce, whether domestic or imported. 

    One hundred years ago, Orlino was populated mostly by wealthy merchants whose businesses were in the extended district. They lived here year-round in substantial houses, some of which have survived to this day. To the back of the houses, what were essentially barns were built on, and there they kept some small livestock.  No one in Orlino today keeps chickens, pigs, goats, not to mention cows.  But they do till the land with great enthusiasm and look after their fruit trees and red berry shrubs.

    The notion of subsistence farming suggests border-line poverty. But Orlino was never poor, and its residents are not indigent today.  Oldsters whose pensions are inadequate are supported by their children or nephews/nieces’ families living in the local towns, in the district capital of Gatchina 50 km away, or even in St Petersburg.  In return, these relatives visit in the summer to spend some days of vacation and take advantage of the large lake on the edge of the hamlet, which is lovely for swimming or boating when the weather is cooperative.

    The notion of subsistence farming also suggests tough practicality.  But making good use of the land does not exclude aesthetic pleasures, and every parcel of land in the hamlet is decorated by flower beds showing great ingenuity and effort.  Similarly, in the last year the Orlino farmers have all gone the way of their brethren across Russia and invested in greenhouses made of pre-formed polycarbonate walls, most commonly resembling hoops in profile.  Here they put in tomatoes, cucumbers and other highly prized vegetables for their dining table which do not do well in the short growing season of the North, and in the very adverse climatic conditions which were exemplary this year in terms of cool temperatures and incessant rains.  Given the expense of these greenhouses, the investment is not so much economically justified as it is a point of pride in self-sufficiency and green-thumb skills.

    Electricity is the only utility that spells dependency for Orlino residents.  Otherwise, each household has its own well, its own septic tank system, its own gas cylinder for the cooking stove and its own supply of birch logs for a wood burning stove that is the mainstay of heating.

    Many households have cars.  The most recent arrivals, being by far the most prosperous, often have four-wheel drive utility vehicles. This is a valuable benefit given the deplorable condition of many local roads.  But then there are a significant minority who depend on the local bus system to get around. It is cheap, runs to schedule and gets you from point A to point B without fuss. 

    The hamlet has a couple of grocery stores, so that staples are always available within easy walking distance. For luxuries, there is the town of Siversk 10 km away.  Numbering perhaps 10,000 it is the local economic hub, with several factories, including a manufacturer of good quality upholstered furniture. Siversk has a train station with hourly connections to Gatchina and St Petersburg.  It also has several supermarkets run by major national retail chains, so that you will find exactly the same product assortment as in St Petersburg or Moscow. And there are a number of high quality specialty food stores and at least one bakery which is indistinguishable from what you might find in Vienna or Frankfurt

    In the not so distant past, even urban Russians had not much interest in salads or in fish. Chicken legs or sausages or pork  cutlets for the barbecue were what folks shopped for as main courses.  Now even our Siversk stores offer pre-packaged mixed lettuce salads or rucola coming from greenhouse complexes in Greater St Petersburg.  And for its part, the leading fish store offers not only salmon steaks from Scandinavian producers, but several varieties of delicacy fish from Europe’s largest fresh water lake, situated 50 km to the east of Petersburg. Still more impressive is the assortment of fish coming down each day from Murmansk: excellent flounder and superb gorbusha, a wild salmon usually considered to be a Pacific Ocean variety but also available in the waters north and west of Siberia. And for those with deeper pockets, the fish vendor in little Siversk occasionally offers a fresh sterlet, the magnificent 1 kg size representative of the sturgeon family that is farmed on the Volga in Astrakhan, far to the South.

    I offer these observations from shopping to make the following point about the Russian country life as I see it:  a lively economy with a population growing ever more sophisticated and aspiring to the good life.

    When I shared these thoughts with my friend in France, he shot back:  what about the lower strata of society? How are they faring?

    My ready response draws on my 5 year acquaintance with our “average Joe” neighbor in Orlino,  Sergei. When we settled here five years ago, he drilled our artesian well, installed the electric pump and all sanitary plumbing in our house. Now he winterizes the house each year and keeps an eye on the property when we are away, for compensation to be sure, but more out of friendship, because he has other, more lucrative sources of income as a subcontractor or day worker on local construction projects. There is a lot of work of this kind now that Orlino’s fallow fields are slowly being converted into housing estates.  Sergei is a master of several building trades. He also drives a tractor. He is mechanically gifted.

    Sergei is about 55, the father of a grown son and daughter, the grandfather of two. When we first met, he was living in an apartment in a multi-unit wooden house dating back 60 or 70 years that was neither comfortable nor attractive. In the past three years he has realized a long time dream and built for himself a two-story cement block house, now clad in siding. The interior space is perhaps 250 square meters. When you pass it from the road, in a row of several other very substantial recent houses, you would place it as solidly upper middle class.  And next to his house Sergei has put up a very fine and large greenhouse. Beyond that is an extensive field of splendid potatoes and vegetables.

    To be sure, the second story of Sergei’s house still needs work and he and his wife live now only on the ground floor.  Moreover, the investment of all spare cash into the house has scuttled other needs. When Sergei’s ancient Toyota pick-up finally rusted into irreparable condition, he found himself without motorized transport. Until further notice, until he can put together the down payment for a new vehicle, he gets around town on a bicycle.

    Sergei is no fool. He gripes about local corruption and terrible roads.  But on the whole he is satisfied with his lot and optimistic about the future. Any belt-tightening that has been made necessary by Western sanctions he takes in his stride. He is resolutely patriotic.

    I realize full well that the observations taken from my personal experience of the Russian countryside and from the experience of close friends is anecdotal and so not statistically significant.  But then neither are the observations of The New York Times reporter. Russia is a vast land and you can pretty much find what you are looking for there.  Nonetheless, the gross economic statistics published by Rosstat are upbeat and fully contradict the notion of a country in decline, including its rural component.

     

     

     

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in the autumn of 2017.