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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Feels Like Riding Wild Mouse

Remember the Wild Mouse? It was an amusement park ride something like a roller-coaster, in which a car full of screaming children would hurtle madly toward a precipice, just to shift 180 degrees at the last minute and launch into a stomach-churning dive. You never knew if you were about to climb, or plunge, or jerk to the side.


After the final, bone-rattling sweep, the rider would emerge, shaking and ill, swearing never, ever to get on the thing again. Boy, it was fun.


I feel approximately the same way about Russia. Just when disaster -- or success, for that matter -- seems inevitable, this huge country takes a surprise turn, and we're all holding on for dear life again.


In the decade that Russia and I have spent together, the country has lurched from totalitarian gloom to democratic euphoria to terror at the possibility of a neo-communist revanche.


It has been a wild ride. At times I can't help but echo my friend Natasha, who heaves a huge sigh, wrinkles her brow, and says, "Why can't I just have a quiet life?"


But I know that the excitement of not knowing what will come next is part of the reason I am still here. Every time I begin to think, "Well, I've seen it all now, I can go home," the fun starts again.


I'm very glad that I'm not an economist or a political scientist, trying to analyze Russia in a systematic way. I have full confidence that this country can find a way to escape the confines of any scholarly discipline. Is Russia the Wild West? Chicago in the 1930s? England during the Industrial Revolution? Where is the model that corresponds to our reality, that will help us make sense of the chaos around us?


Forget Adam Smith, is my advice to the academics. Start reading Gogol or Dostoevsky.


The problem with Russia is that so much of it is counterintuitive. In much of the world, if you start with A, you expect B to follow. In Russia, it could just as well be Q.


Take my old friend Fedya, who went from government hack to New Russia tycoon in just a few dizzying years. When we met, he couldn't afford to take me to McDonald's, which was then the hottest place in town. By the time we broke up he was frequenting the tonier nightclubs, driving an imported car, and carrying his money around in hefty bags.


Normal progression in the wild, wild East. But just when it seemed that Fedya was headed for a five-story dacha and a Mercedes he went broke, got a regular job, settled down with a woman of almost his own age and is happily leading a quiet, domestic life. An acquaintance in a Western embassy complained few years ago that a Russian had come into his office looking for asylum. Not an unusual occurrence in the "bad old days" perhaps, but this was at the height of the new freedoms. The applicant needed support, it seems, because he faced discrimination in Russia -- due to his past job with the Communist Party.


I can't imagine a Russian going into an American-style job interview and facing the question, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" Considering the enormous physical and emotional dislocations of the past decade, making plans would seem a bit risky. Ten years from now? Forget it. Let's deal with today first. That's challenge enough for anybody.