This is the point at which anyone writing about Rusiia must trot out Winston Churchill's remark from seventy-five years ago.
Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.Of course, the reason the quote gets used over and over is that it remains true. The one immutable fact about Russia is that it is … well, weird.
The problem, of course, is that this weirdness makes it difficult (or impossible) to understand the country or to predict what it might do next. That is compounded by the inevitable corollary that they find us equally unfathomable and unpredictable.
Along these lines, I greatly enjoyed this review by P. J. O'Rourke (a favorite writer) of a new book about Russia, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev.
O'Rourke opens with an intriguing lead sentence: “This is the strangest book of note I have ever read. And that’s as it should be, since the subject is Russia, the strangest country of note I have ever visited” and follows with several vignettes that illustrate how strange Russia is. Among my favorites:
Corrupt crony capitalism is familiar everywhere. But in Russia the corruption is so pervasive that even the cronies have to pay bribes, not just to the higher-ups but to the lower-downs.
Pomerantsev visits a TV studio owned by Kremlin-connected moguls. It’s in a shabby warehouse on the wrong side of town. There’s no sign or address on the metal door. Inside is a dirty little room with a drunk guard.
Pomerantsev goes down a dark corridor and up two flights of dingy stairs to another unmarked metal door. Behind that is a modern, well-lit, busy Western-style production facility. But there’s an inconspicuous door here as well, with a secret code pad. And behind that is a more modern, better-lit, even busier production facility with an even less conspicuous door with an even more secret code leading to the real offices of the moguls, where the real business accounts are kept.
All this is to foil the tax police. Who come anyway. One of the moguls tells Pomerantsev that “the tax police were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion.”Or there's this one, which calls to mind the classic movie Gigi:
It’s an interesting moral atmosphere in Russia.
In Russia, small-town girls go to the big city and get ruined, but that’s what they’re trying to do. Really trying. They go to school for it.
The students take notes in neat writing. They have paid a thousand dollars for each week of the course. There are dozens of such “academies” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with names such as “Geisha School” or “How To Be a Real Woman.”
If a girl with potential studies hard, “she earns the basic Moscow mistress rate: the apartment, $4,000 a month, a car, and a weeklong holiday in Turkey or Egypt twice a year.”
In return, she’s available to her “sponsor,” as he’s called, any time, any day.Of course, Gigi was made in 1958 and set at fifty or sixty years prior. The rest of the developed world has moved on, but not Russia.
Of course, in the long, long term, Russia may not matter. The country's demographics are outrageously horrible; Russians have an extraordinarily low birth rate and short life spans (life expectancy is on a fourth-world level) and are being replaced inside their own country by the nationalities they once held captive. Which might someday pose a whole new problem.
But that's far in the future. Back to Putin, one obvious question is, if he's alive and in even reasonably good health, why don't they just prop him up in front of a press conference under carefully-controlled conditions, have him answer a few softball questions and … problem solved.
That I am unable to answer that question is the only reason I continue to think that maybe there is something to all the rumors.
Addendum: Here are a few of the articles I've seen recently.