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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Simple Pleasures of the New Old Russia

For someone who has known Russia for 20 years, but who lived in the West in the 1990s, perhaps the most striking thing about Vladimir Putin's Moscow is how familiar it feels.

When I lived here in the 1980s, it was scarcely surprising that everybody danced to the tune played from the Kremlin. It was the time of deepest Communist stagnation, and falling in line was the surest way to survive. Whatever the latest pronouncement of the latest elderly leader -- Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov or Konstantin Chernenko -- their phrases were sure to be parroted for weeks on end in the official media. When it came time to vote, the requisite red flags and posters went up in my neighborhood, and the residents trotted into the appointed polling place, voted for the prescribed candidates, and hoped for some reward, like a rare shipment of mandarin oranges.

Those days are gone and they will not return. Yet after the heady wonder of glasnost that Mikhail Gorbachev brought in the late '80s, and the chaotic, corrupt, yet exhilarating turn to capitalism and free expression that followed under Boris Yeltsin, the aura that surrounds Putin seems strangely lifeless.

The old and the new exist side by side. By night, Moscow's buildings are bathed in light as never before, though dozens of towns are once again without heat and power this winter. Chic young women strut the streets of the capital, but they are not much nearer to feminist independence than their dowdier, plumper grandmothers.

The Kremlin, however, is as impenetrable as it ever was. Russia's leader, like the tsars of old, has always set the tone for the country. Now it is Putin and what he radiates is the managerial air of the capable, intelligent former KGB official that he is. For all that he speaks fluent German and has turned the country westward, his universe is unmistakably Soviet. Opposition is weak, and the war in Chechnya has receded both in the news and in ordinary conversations. Russians seem to have concluded that they are not really in charge of what the government does.

That does not mean, however, that they are not warily on the watch. Conditioned by a harsh and unpredictable history, Russians appear disillusioned and cynical. Surveys conducted by the New Siberian University in Siberia since 1992 found at the end of 2001 that only 6 percent of respondents had any faith in political parties, only 10 to 12 percent believed the media, and just 18 percent trusted the Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoyed the trust of 60 percent of respondents just five years ago.

Several commentators marked the end of 2001 by noting the anemic state of political life. Television still usually shows the president and his official guest of the day facing each other in wooden poses and with no sound coming from their mouths -- only an announcer's voice-over. Can this be the same Putin who stood and bantered -- albeit with visible discomfort -- at the side of a folksy George W. Bush, fielding questions from Texas teenagers?

No Russian has a simple answer. While Bush claims to have seen into Putin's soul, Russians make many things of their president. His popularity rating, if the opinion polls are to be believed (and that is always a question here), is at around 80 percent. But that may mean little more than that he has brought stability after 15 years of turbulence. "We need a rest," said Larissa Anno, a friend from my years of living here who used to teach English and now has turned her linguistic skills to advantage in business. Putin spoke to this sentiment in his televised New Year's message to the populace, promising Russians that he would work to make 2002 still "more predictable."

The newspapers, meanwhile, are markedly less full of verve than in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin days, and they are capable of fawning praise for that kind of goal. In 2001, oozed the labor daily Trud the other day, "Russia objectively lived the best year in its modern history."

In fact, Russia's economy benefited from a couple of years of high prices for oil and gas and from the ruble crash of 1998.

These developments have helped to increase the aura of well-being, at least in Moscow, where New Year's food and presents flew off the shelves of gleaming 24-hour supermarkets. In the capital, there is a growing educated middle class that has found its way in the new Russia, earning and spending the fruits of honest livelihoods, and making it nearly impossible to book a flight abroad over the three-week Christmas-New Year's-Orthodox Christmas holiday period.

But even those around Putin hesitate to trust in a bright new future. His economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, recently said that hopes of breaking corruption had so far proven illusory and that the government could take almost no credit for the recent economic growth. Meanwhile, critical voices from abroad, as well as from inside Russia, point to the shutdown of the old independent NTV, the attempt to do the same with TV6 -- which won at least a temporary stay of execution from a court last week -- the sentencing last month of a journalist for treason and above all Putin's own background in the KGB as proof that he wants to control a Soviet-style state and crush civil society.

"There is nothing inside him, no culture, convictions or principles," said Valeriya Novodvorskaya, a fiercely independent woman who was once a Soviet dissident and now is among the president's most outspoken critics. "The Chekists," she said, "are comedians. They will play any role, don any mask. They are what any particular time demands of them." Putin, she argued, is an intelligent observer of world affairs and recognized that international terrorism might not stop at the United States; therefore, it was to his benefit to turn to the West, particularly at a time when falling oil prices might threaten the veneer of prosperity his presidency has so far brought.

Instead of smiling upon such a guest and feeding him steak on a Texas ranch, she said, the West should keep careful watch. Instead of agreeing with Putin that the war in Chechnya is a war on Islamic extremism, she said, the West "cannot keep quiet about it on a state level. Such silence already reduces Western democracy."

What is needed, her comments seemed to suggest, is for the West and the Russian populace to both take on the role of the old bride-to-be of Russian folk custom, who was handed a tangled ball of thread on the eve of her wedding. If she untangled it, she would be an excellent wife for her complicated, problematic partner. It seemed an apt metaphor for the problematic marriage that both the West and Russia have made with Putin.

The problem is that after a period of curiosity under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, many Russians and many in the West appear to have decided at least for now that the tangle is too vexing to unsnarl, and so they have cast the ball of thread aside and are devoting themselves to simpler pleasures.

Indeed, as I walked down the snow-laden street where I lived in the 1980s, I found it tempting to agree. The television may be vulgar, the corruption widespread, the people alternatively servile or cruel. But there is almost nothing to compare with the sheer joy of sledding down a hill next to the restored onion domes of the Novospassky Monastery, watching the men who sit for hours fishing a hole in the ice and listening to the gleeful shrieks of women exulting in the rosy cheeks of their coddled and muffled children, soon to be borne home, fed and put to that most blissful of Russian conditions, sleep.

Alison Smale is foreign editor of The New York Times weekend section, to which she contributed this comment.