The Russia that Russians see

A Monitor reporter and editor's recent first visits to Russia were nothing less than a revelation. The Russia of so many Western imaginings simply isn’t there. 

Right at the top of The Christian Science Monitor’s Daily Edition are two words: “Perspective matters.” Those words come from the mission and lived experience of the Monitor. For 109 years, Monitor writers have reached out and engaged with the world “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” And in doing so, they have often found that the world bears little resemblance to our initial perception of it.

For this week’s cover story, Sara Miller Llana visited Russia for the first time to write on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. She was accompanied by our Europe editor, Arthur Bright, also visiting Russia for the first time. 

Now, these are not your typical wide-eyed tourists. Sara is our former Mexico City correspondent and has crisscrossed Europe from Estonia to Portugal as our Paris bureau chief. Arthur has worked extensively with cover story coauthor Fred Weir, who is one of the most contrarian Russia correspondents in the Western press – frequently looking at stories from a Russian perspective.

Yet Sara and Arthur’s time in Russia was nothing less than a revelation. 

Make no mistake: All the criticism of Russia is true. It is a regional bully. President Vladimir Putin ruthlessly silences political opposition. The mass media are not free. 

But the Russia of so many Western imaginings simply isn’t there. 

Arthur called it “surprisingly free,” at least in one sense. “Almost everyone we talked to was openly critical of Putin. It’s not a police state. I have no doubt that if they started to organize and push upward against the bureaucracy that they would be pushed back against. But there’s a lot of elbow room in Russia, a lot more than Westerners might think.”

Mr. Putin is not pulling one over on his people. Many have reasons for supporting him. As Sara mentions in the story, each generation of Russians has lived though a cataclysmic upheaval. First the Bolshevik Revolution. Then, the 26 million lives lost in World War II. And at last the collapse of the Soviet order and the economy with it. For Russians, stability matters. 

In the West, Putin is often portrayed in the same way as was former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Sara says. “It seemed that every single story, in its conception, presented Chávez as a terrible figure, so the American reader was left wondering, ‘So why is this nation supporting him?’ I would go to Venezuela and meet so many people behind him – from all walks of life, not just the poorest communities – and I could understand how they believed Chávez was improving their lives.

“They weren’t ‘blinded,’ ” Sara says, “or not all of them.... I had the same revelation in talking about Putin, in all his imperfections,” with Russians. 

The exercise of opposing Russian policy while embracing its people is not an abstract one. In the United States and throughout the West, too, political forces are working to turn policy differences into hatred and mistrust. To view Russia differently – to allow our perspective to shift and our hearts to open a degree – offers a glimpse of how that shift could also bless ourselves, our countries, and all mankind. 

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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