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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Images: Equal Parts of Hope, Despair

This is my last "on the road" column. To wrap up the last year of nearly continuous travel, I had intended to page nostalgically through my news clips and formulate a single, coherent impression.

I have no such impression.

What I have instead is a rush of images: eskimos on the tundra, Tajiks fighting Tajiks in Kurgan-Tyube, Ingushetian war refugees weeping in the Caucasus, babushkas cooking over camp fires in gas-starved Lithuania, Chechens slaughtering a ram in my honor, an icy swim in Lake Baikal, soot-stained coal miners in Siberia, a hermit fisherman living on a tiny island in the Arctic Ocean.

I am unable to weave this kaleidoscope into a single theme. It's too diverse. It was what was happening. I was there. That's all.

But the key question for me about Russia is one of hope. There is much here to engender despair:

oIts political system is not yet democratic. Mostly, it functions as a cynical, self-serving wrestling match at all levels of government, with personal power as the goal. The players are the old nomenklatura.

oThe economic system is breaking down, but not in the constructive, necessary way called for by shock therapy. Instead, the command system lives on - it just doesn't work as well as it used to.

oYoung people are disenfranchised and disenchanted. Old people, their savings depleted and pensions worthless, have been set upon the front lines to bear the brunt of the suffering of reform. From old to young, nobody trusts their leaders.

oForeign aid has been a fiasco, and Russia's credit rating has plummeted. Wars rage in former republics, drawing Russian forces stationed there into the fighting.

oRepublics are asserting their autonomy, threatening the unity of Russia.

It's a bleak picture when viewed from afar. Up close, the problems are still evident, but I found the image more ambiguous.

I think about those babushkas cooking over campfires, laughing as they complained, and I see a willingness to sacrifice that would be unthinkable in the West. I think about lumberjacks working for months without wages in Siberia and I see a patriotic desire to make Russia great again.

I think about city folk commuting in droves to the countryside to tend vegetable gardens and I see courageous resourcefulness. I think of private farmers working enthusiastically under dreadful conditions, and I see the country that Russia could be.

Which force will win out: Despair or hope? Separatism or unity? Reaction or reform?

I'm not prepared to say. But I can say this: Traveling from the Far North to the Caucasus, from Lithuania to the Kuril Islands over a 12-month period, I peered into the inner ring of Lenin's inferno. and though much of what I saw frightened me, I still found reason for hope.