Rural Russia Not Being Swept Along by Kremlin Patriotism, Belarusian Visitor Says

July 7, 2014
Velikie Luki International Balloon Meet. Photo by Alexei Sizov

Staunton, July 6 – An article of faith among many commentators on Russia since the Crimean Anschluss is that the patriotic wave the Kremlin has promoted has swept across the entire country and is likely to be even stronger in traditional areas than in Moscow and other major urban centers.

That view in some cases is reinforced by polling data about urban and rural attitudes, but as so often happens, grouping the data this way has the effect of suggesting that there is greater commonality among the latter, which typically includes both mid-sized and small cities as well as the truly rural villages.

A correction to that perception about rural Russia as a whole is offered by Denis Blishch, a Belarusian journalist who visited smaller towns and villages in the Veliky Luky area. He writes that there is local patriotism, focused on the family and village, but little beyond that.

For the residents of the dying villages of northwestern Russia, “somewhere out there are Moscow, nuclear rockets, and ‘Crimea is Ours;’ but the zone of comfort … is restricted” to no more than “one’s own home and car.” Otherwise, “everything is bad with respect to patriotism.” Village Russians simply don’t think more broadly than that, Blishch suggests.

The Belarusian journalist says that he takes away from his recent visit to this region five main conclusions. The first is the sense that Russia as a country faces “an end in the foreseeable future.” Things may be fine in Moscow, large cities and even regional centers. But there is a yawning “gap” between Russians in those places and Russians in the villages.

In the latter, the situation can only be described as “a hell,” he says.

In another two or three generations, Blishch continues, “provincial Russia simply won’t exist.” The atlas he used was about 20 years old, and it showed villages that no longer exist. Where people had lived, houses and barns have decayed into ruins, and the last time anyone had worked on “90 percent” of the roads was in Brezhnev’s time.

Throughout the rural areas he travelled in, there has been “the complete destruction of transport links and as a result of economic and social ties” as well. That leads to his second conclusion: the people in the villages are not working at anything. They are simply trying to survive.

His third sense or conclusion is that villagers have accepted this situation as “normal,” as something to which there is no alternative. “If someone tells them “’what poor roads you have,’ the reaction is approximately on the lines ‘on the other hand, no outsider will be coming.’”

What makes this so striking and so sad, Blishch says, is that in Belarusian villages, the situation is entirely different. Belarusians keep their villages neat and clean, and they hope for a better future for their children as part of Europe. They are not simply waiting to die as their Russian counterparts appear to be doing.

Blishch says that he finds it hard to explain why this should be the case. And he asks without giving an answer whether the explanation somehow involved “Asiatic genes.”

His fourth conclusion is that there has been “a general collapse of the local economy.” Russian stores when they offer anything offer Belarusian goods, and what is most shocking of all is that even in these rural areas, one often cannot find milk and meat, neither of which are absent from the shelves of stores in Belarusian villages.

And his fifth sense, the Belarusian journalist says, is that Russia is dying as a result of this acceptance of things as they are as the new “normal,” a reflection of an increasing disposition among them to “deny reality.”

“Is there life” in Russia beyond Moscow’s ring road? He asks. The answer is certainly “no.” Russia is “condemned” because it has proved “incapable” of integrating its “gigantic spaces” but is equally incapable of acknowledging that reality. Blishch says he hopes he is wrong but fears that he isn’t.