Myth #1: Immigrants Don’t Go to Russia and Russians Can’t Wait to Leave

As Mark Adomanis, an expert on Russian demographics, noted in a Forbes article pointing out several basic facts that president Obama got wrong about Russia in his interview with The Economist last summer, Russia is second in the world only to the United States in immigration. Most of the immigrants are from the former Soviet republics, particularly Central Asia, and the influx has created an important political issue: “Several of the most consequential political disagreements in Russian society revolve around the question of how to deal with immigration. Anyone who thinks that Russia isn’t dealing with a significant debate over immigration simply doesn’t know anything about the country.”

Further challenging the typical western narrative that Russia is the armpit of the world and no one in their right mind could possibly want to live there, it should also be noted that a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center found only 10% of Russians thought they might enjoy living abroad while only 5% regularly thought about leaving.

Myth #2: Russia is on the Verge of Collapse

Russia is actually a much more resilient society than the western media would have one believe. A harsh climate and a history of being invaded numerous times from different directions has created a culture of stamina and resourcefulness. There is, therefore, more going on in Russia that may provide a sense of pride and an incentive for Russians to stay in Russia than the average American may be aware of.

Russia is no doubt suffering a financial crisis, but not an economic one. The fact that a low oil price occurred in tandem with a devalued ruble has actually protected the country’s budget and trade balance. Russia saw industrial and agricultural growth in 2014 and the government is providing assistance to small and medium sized businesses to advance import substitution. Unemployment remains under 6% — comparable to the United States. Even mainstream media outlets like Newsweek and Bloomberg, normally sour in their reporting on Russia, are starting to acknowledge the reality that Russia’s economy is not down for the count and the West’s sanctions project to back Russia into a corner is largely a failure.

The main concerns in Russia are increased inflation (cumulatively around 17%) and decreased finance capital. An AP/NORC survey from December 2014 revealed that, despite these problems, most Russians are still optimistic about their personal financial future and believe the country is headed in the right direction.

Several important business and infrastructure projects are in progress, including an energy bridge to Crimea with the first of two electricity cables to be laid along the bottom of Kerch Strait by the end of 2015. Throughout the mainland, there are several impressive architectural projects being designed and built, such as a multi-use environmentally friendly commercial square in St. Petersburg, a Science and Technology Museum and Park in Tomsk, a wild urbanism project in Zaryadye, Moscow and a mixed use tower for living, shopping and leisure activities which will incorporate sustainable energy use. For more details and design images, see here.

Furthermore, China plans to invest $5 billion (RI, RBTH, China Banks to Finance New Russian Hi-Speed Railway) in the construction of a new high-speed rail system from Moscow to Kazan as part of the New Silk Road project of economic development and trade throughout Eurasia, a project that Russia will figure prominently in. Speaking of railways, Russia has been investing heavily in reviving and updating its rail system, with United Wagon Company being one of Russia’s most recent success stories with its “state of the art factory that last year became the biggest producer of the world-class wagons in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and has left the rest of its Russian competition in the dust.”

Myth #3: Russians Just Want to Be Americans in Furry Hats — if Only Putin Would Stop Holding Them Back

Russia has a rich and complex history and culture that is four times older than that of the United States.

Russia was deeply influenced by the Byzantine culture after Prince Vladimir chose to adopt Orthodox Christianity as the official religion in the 10th century. The Mongols invaded in the 13th century and left behind their administrative state system with its tribute paying and overweaning bureaucracy.

Peter the Great began a ferocious Europeanization and modernization program in the 18th century, which was continued erratically through the 19th century. Alexander the II, a serious reformer, oversaw the liberation of the serfs, facilitated virtually free access to education for anyone who wanted it — including women, flourishing of the arts, literature, philosophy, architecture, crafts, trade and a free and vibrant press until his assassination by nihilistic revolutionaries in 1881. This ushered in an era of emboldened and radical political activity by extremists who saw reform as a threat to their vison of a utopian society that required a clean slate upon which to build, necessitating the destruction of essentially all existing social foundations. The ends justified the means, including the use of terrorism.

Even under the inexcusable brutality of Stalin’s regime, advances were made in industrialization — the speed and level of which many Russians acknowledge likely made it possible to break the Nazi war machine. And for all the stagnation, repression and rigidity of the Soviet Union (post-Stalin), many of those who lived under it speak of a life that was more nuanced and even positive in some respects than most Westerners would assume.

One of the common themes that came out of ethnographer Michelle Parsons’ interviews for Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis was Russians’ sense of security, connection and even a limited sense of freedom that was fostered by the Soviet state.

Older Muscovites were often nostalgic for Soviet order because it ordered social connections. People’s positions vis–vis the Soviet state influenced what people could give to other people — the ways they could be soulful and needed. Work was the principle means by which Soviet citizens were ordered by the state. At work, Russians had personal connections and access to resources and services. Someone in the Soviet bureaucracy could arrange permission to build a dacha. A friendly butcher could set aside a good cut of meat. A test proctor could help a student pass an entrance examination. Collectively, people often circumvented the state, but they depended on the state to do that. Order here refers to both the order of the state and the order of social relations because they are mutually constitutive.

“.The paradox of space and order — the unbound and the bound quality of social relations in Soviet society — resolves into the even higher-order concept of freedom. For these elderly Muscovites, freedom was not always compromised by the Soviet state. In some cases the constraint of the Soviet state heightened a sense of freedom. As people using their connections, collectively pushed against the limits of the state, and as those limits bent back or gave way, they experienced a sense of freedom.

The value of the social collective predates the Soviet Union and has its roots in the harsh climate and vulnerable geography mentioned earlier. Since one would simply not be able to survive in such an environment without the help of a community of people, the attitude of rugged individualism that is so admired in the West does not necessarily resonate in Russia and one cannot expect Russia’s political evolution to result in a libertarian form of democracy as has existed, to varying degrees, in the United States. The prioritization of security — social as well as physical — is reflected not only in the overwhelming support of strong Russian leaders who stand up for Russian interests with the outside world (Putin has approval ratings over 85%) but in a recent poll by the Levada Center revealing that 61% of Russians favor living in a society that strives for social equality rather than one that strives for individual success.

For those open-minded enough to look, Russia is undergoing a gradual process of creating a post-Soviet national and cultural identity. As Paul Grenier discusses in his most recent article, Distorting Putin’s Favorite Philosophers, Russia has a strong philosophical and cultural tradition to draw upon in this quest. Russia will also likely borrow some elements from the West, but they will never be a carbon copy of the United States which has a far different geographical, historical and cultural background.

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