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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Old Riddles for New Russia




We need a few new handy cliches to pigeonhole Russia. The old "mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma," or whatever it was that Winston Churchill actually said, is really too hackneyed to do the trick. Poet Fyodor Tyutchev has also been overworked, with his "Russia cannot be understood with the mind" routine. It helps if you can recite him in the original, but even that gets old after a while, and non-Russian speakers think, rightly so, that the quoter is just showing off.


I have a few standard remarks on the subject, but most of them are not printable. I am now on vacation, though, out of the pressure cooker of Moscow into the sterile comforts of Scandinavia, so I have plenty of time to ruminate.


The problem is I just don't understand Russian any more. The country in which I have spent the majority of my adult years is more unfathomable to me now than it was 10 years ago. This could be the beginning of wisdom, but it feels like the onset of a nervous breakdown.


At one point most of us thought we knew where Russia was going. There would be progress, slow but steady, toward a bright future of democracy and riches. Russia was emerging from the deep-freeze of the Soviet years, casting off paranoia and anger to take its rightful place among the family of nations. All of this tired old ideological chatter about the decadence of the West and the moral superiority of Russia was just a product of that silly Marxist-Leninist dogma, and, given the chance, Russia would abandon it with alacrity and relief.


Boy, were we dumb.


We saw only what we wanted to see f Russia hopping the express train to capitalism and democracy, the fast track from gloomy stagnation to neon-lit prosperity. Now the dream has died, there is, as yet, no new self-deception to take its place, and Russia and the West are looking at each other in mutual disappointment.


But this year's disillusionment may be just as big a mistake as last year's boosterism. Russia is not that simple. A mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma, to coin a phrase.


I am no specialist on the fine points of relativity, but Albert Einstein surely had Russia in mind when he spun his theories of time and place.


There is no single age or even dimension that can contain this country.


Or maybe H.G. Wells would be more to the point. Russia seems to have been scrambled in a time machine. But instead of going back to the future, we're heading forward to the past.


Take a look at Yury Maslyukov, first deputy prime minister in charge ofwhat is optimistically called the economy.


The steely gaze, the jowls, the Gosplan rhetoric f how did he get to be the wave of the future? In what other country could the "young reformers" become the old guard overnight? I was just getting used to smooth-talking, Armani-clad officials, and all of a sudden we're back to lumpy suits and really nasty ties. Are we in the Gorbachev years? It feels more like we've landed in deep Brezhnev-land, complete with a lurching, rambling leader and impenetrable politics.


But then you take a look at the Russian press and realize that you're in never-never land. Can you imagine anyone in the 1970s publishing a magazine with acover showing the country's leader pickled in a jar of formaldehyde?


Itogi, the magazine in question, is very fresh, very funny and very cruel. And as long as editor Sergei Parkhomenko is still at large, there is hope for Russia.


Political analysts say we're back in 1917, with a hated monarch on the point of abdication and the Bolsheviks waiting in the wings. Economists say we're heading for 1970s Argentina.


So where does that leave us? Standing in the shadow of St. Basil's, perhaps, with the ghost of Ivan the Terrible. Or Yury the Terrible, to name another Moscow sovereign with a yearning for power and a taste for dotting the landscape with unusual buildings.


Maybe it's time to stop trying to figure Russia out. It always confounds expectations. The other day I had caught a cab to work, piloted by a homespun philosopher.


"Any country could get rich given our resources," he said, more proudly than otherwise. "But to have it all and still be poor, now that takes talent."


It makes no sense to me. But then, as I have been told, Russia cannot be understood with the mind.