Russia's transformation has only just begun

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 25, 2000

Each of us has examples of media distortions, but having just returned from Russia I can report to you that just about everything you hear about what is going on there from our media is just plain either wrong or grossly exaggerated.

I am not new to the Russian scene. For the past 11 years I have been working there with the forces dedicated to freedom and democracy. That has taken me from one end of the country to the other and to 10 of the 15 former Soviet Republics as well as just about every country in Eastern Europe.

But it has been a couple of years since I have been in Moscow. Judging by what has been in our media I should have found (a) a city on the ropes; (b) lots of impoverished people begging for help (c) a populace scared to be out on the streets after dark and (d) a pessimistic populace worried about the return of bad times.

In fact, my associate Bill Lind and I found exactly the opposite. Just so you don't think we were given some special Intourist-type treatment where we were shown only what the government wanted us to see, let me make it plain that we were on our own for most of the time we were there. On one day, we spent the entire day going to parts of Moscow that almost no one sees. We photographed Moscow's far-flung tramway system and it does not run in the best neighborhoods.

What we found was a booming city where restoration is proceeding at a dizzying pace. This restoration is not just taking place in the central area of the city. It is happening everywhere, in every district. Moscow is beginning to look the way it was pictured in pre-Revolutionary times. The amount of change there is breathtaking.

Of course, some of the change is not necessarily for the better. Moscow now has terrible traffic jams. Back when only the Communist Party hierarchy and the privileged could have an automobile, Moscow, with its wide streets, was a dream city to navigate. Now, with four times the number of automobiles in operation, as was the case just a few years ago, Moscow is beginning to resemble New York City with its ever-present traffic tie-ups.

With prosperity also come absurd ideas. Moscow has nine railway stations, most of them large and beautiful. Now the Mayor wants to make them into shopping malls and suggests dumping the millions of passengers off at suburban stations around the third ring (or outer beltway) in Moscow and require people to transfer to the Metro instead of being able to ride all the way into the city. We did our best to put that idea down.

This is Indian Summer in Moscow and families were out in full force enjoying life. When I first came to what was then the Soviet Union, Moscow was a gray, drab place where people were in a constant rush. They almost always looked agitated and they invariably looked down as they went about trying to survive. There were long lines for everything. Almost no goods or services were available.

Now virtually anything is available in Moscow. Yes, it may be expensive. But there are no lines for anything. Food is in great abundance. Hundreds of new restaurants have opened up. And the attitude of the people could not be more different. Clearly they are excited about what is happening to their city. Whereas a decade ago, it was hard to get anyone to stop to help a foreigner, now people go out of their way to be helpful to strangers. Streets are a lot safer than they are in Washington, D.C. and there are a lot fewer street people asking for a handout than ever before.

The new Christ the Saviour Cathedral is now functioning as a church. This massive structure, which dominates the skyline in the center of Moscow, was built over a 50-year period to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon. Stalin had it blown up in 1931. He had intended to build a huge structure as a tribute to the Soviet State, but somehow it never got built. Eventually a huge swimming pool was erected on that site. After the fall of the Communists, Moscow authorities determined that they wanted to restore the church. It was rebuilt in just four years. Inside it is the most breathtakingly beautiful church anywhere in the world and thousands are flocking to it each Sunday.

That church is in many ways symbolic of the rebirth of Moscow. What it took the Communists decades to destroy is being rebuilt in record time. We stayed in one of two new Marriott hotels in the city. I have not had better service anywhere in the world. This in a place which did not know the meaning of the word service just a decade ago.

Go outside the city and new single-family homes are going up in every town and village you come across. True the pace of change is not as dramatic in some of the rural areas as it is in the big cities, but change is sweeping Russia. Crop production is setting records this year. Industrial production is way up. The railroad system is having a record year.

This is not to suggest that there are no problems or that some people, especially the elderly, are not being left behind. But the image of Russia as a nation on its knees, with ever-deepening poverty in a totally lawless society, is simply a lie.

Vladimir PutinYes, there is a criminal element. That remains a major challenge for the Russian government because the rule of law has yet to be fully established. Much of the criminality results from people being unable to turn to the courts for justice. So they turn to private criminals to seek redress of grievances. President Putin has made this a priority of his administration, along with a package of economic reforms which have now passed the Duma, which would make Milton Friedman jump for joy. Russia's transformation has only just begun.

Moreover, just because Russia is on its way toward a rebirth does not mean it will be an ally of the United States. That is a subject for another day, as one of our reasons for being in Russia was to suggest a new paradigm for U.S.-Russian relations.

But meanwhile, the next time you read that everything is coming unglued in Russia, take it with a grain of salt. Russia's first democratic prime minister, Igor Gaidar, once remarked that the Soviets spent millions to infiltrate U.S. media and when Communism fell in Russia those people did not go away. That may account for at least some of the propaganda being set forth, to the effect that people were so much better off in the good old days of the Soviet Union. Don't you believe it. Go see for yourself. Aeroflot, which now uses comfortable European Airbus planes from Washington Dulles to Moscow nonstop, has some bargain fares. Service on board beats any U.S. airline and once over there you will hardly believe what there is to see.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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