We just returned from a boat trip across Russia, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, to see firsthand the world Peter the Great began for Russia in the 1700s. Objective observers are vividly struck by today’s Russia and how it is generally seen in the West in ways quite different from its observable current reality.
Two earlier exposures to Russia — in 1956 and 1978 — further sharpen the vast changes wrought over the last 30 odd years. The shift to market-based economics has, with help from very high oil prices, enlarged the middle classes to the point that both those leading cities now suffer from an engorgement of cars (virtually all Japanese, European and American models), to the point that traffic in those cities is becoming the biggest choke to their growth prospects. Their system evidently failed to anticipate those amazing numbers, despite building many modern roads and highways.
The people of Russia throughout the trip, despite daily news from the Middle East and Ukraine including the tragic downing of a commercial airliner, are clearly prosperous, relaxed and enjoying their unusually warm summer weather, apparently barely aware of global issues.
One-on-one chats with everyone who could be engaged in a private conversation (about a dozen people, all told) disclosed that they:  deplore the Ukraine situation;  support the Crimea annexation;  love America and its people;  support the Russian government; and  are worried about the attitude of the American government.
One young man from a small town on the Volga River married with two young children and a working wife, whose basic job is as a manufacturer’s rep in the food industry and has a family income in dollar terms of about $20,000 said:
“I work hard. Our life is relatively good today. We have confidence in Putin. Why he wants to take on the problems of the Ukraine is a mystery to everyone. We trust and like American people but worry that your government does not trust us or our government. All we want is a chance to continue to improve our lives. Seeing interested Americans visit us gives us all more hope. Thanks for visiting us.”
A constant theme was Russia has always needed strong central leadership and Putin has been all of that for them. He has presided over the boom years following the difficult first years under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and they credit their current relative prosperity almost completely to him, and seem not yet to grasp the possible consequences of current events on their personal lives.
While Ukraine’s drift toward the West holds some possible adverse economic consequences in due course for Russia, it hardly needs Ukraine to prosper. Russia is a powerful, fully modern society.
Nor is Russia in need of more territory. Perhaps they might wish to be lower in latitude on the globe, more like Europe and the US, but that is how their cards were dealt way back and no amount of hostility or ambition is going to change that reality.
It strains credulity that Russia stands to gain in any way from nurturing hostility with either Europe or the US.
At the periphery, Russia’s global interests in projecting power in the world are its activities in the Middle East. But beyond appearances of influence and playing games, the stakes between Russia and the rest of the world seem to be more clearly aligned than ever before.
The aptly named (by history, anyway) Peter the Great had vast vision, boundless energy and compelling powers of persuasion. He saw the need to understand and bring European sophistication into the life of Russia. The path since then to the present has been fraught with complications and troubled times — wars, revolution and economic communist stagnation, yet Peter’s vision seems finally close to being realized, if today’s conditions can be sustained.
Russia, the United States and Europe have much more in common than not, and if we all could get reciprocally clearer pictures of each other deeper than Cold War era stereotypes, to the point that leaders feel that throb, this just might be the right moment in time where there could be a collective hegemony among all our peoples.
We get bogged down in daily squabbles in the news. Perhaps it is time for a bigger, broader vision to be advanced on the world stage.