Fred Weir has the uncanny ability to help you understand the ideas and values shaping this complex, diverse, and fascinating country. Earlier this summer, Fred proposed a reporting trip to the eastern Russian republic of Buryatia. The goal: provide a rare glimpse into the historical, political, religious, and environmental culture of this mountainous region of Siberia. Five stories later, we were thrilled that Monitor subscribers devoured Fred’s Siberian Crossroads dispatches at an impressive clip.
Siberian Crossroads also piqued my curiosity. What’s it like to cover Russia when you’ve lived there for more than three decades. Why is the Russo-American relationship so fraught? As part of our new monthly profiles of Monitor journalists, I posed those questions and others to Fred.
You’ve lived in Russia for more than three decades now. What prompted you to choose Russia as home?
I come from a family in Canada that had long connections in Russia, including family ones. I studied Russian history at the University of Toronto, and actually was in graduate school in the early 80’s when things really started to change in the USSR. I decided I’d rather see history being made than sit in archives reading about it. So I moved to Moscow just as Gorbachev’s perestroika was just getting underway in 1986, intending only to stay a short while. But, as these things will happen, I married the wonderful Russian woman who is still my wife, found that working as a journalist in Russia was endlessly fascinating – it still is – and decided to stay. Over the years I’ve worked for quite a few news organizations, and in 1998 I started writing for the Monitor, and eventually became its sole Moscow correspondent. It’s a good fit. I had always been a fan of the Monitor, and its very conscientious approach to international news, and have never found better editors anywhere else.
Many have stereotypes of what life in Russia must be like. You live in a small village outside of Moscow. What would surprise readers most about living in Russia. Are there stereotypes that still ring true?
Yes, I live in a village. It’s just a few miles outside the city limits, but we are surrounded by forests and get into Moscow by train. We live in a big house, which we built when it became possible to do so about 20 years ago. My wife and I, two mostly grown kids, mother-in-law, dog and four cats, live there all together. It is quite nice, and things don’t move very fast here. But Russia is changing, very rapidly, and in many ways for the better [in my opinion]. It’s a totally different planet from the USSR, and it has left behind many of the worst features of the Soviet system. People are much more free; they can travel, own property, read whatever they like, speak more-or-less openly, even to a foreign journalist.
However it is still recognizably Russia. It has a traditionally Russian authoritarian political system, a powerful and largely unaccountable bureaucracy, and it cracks down on political dissent. I lived five years in the USSR, so I am offering this comparison from my own experience. I am not trying to sound like I personally approve of the Russian system of government when I say that many things are far better today. It’s a work-in-progress, I guess.
What prompted you and the Monitor editors to take on this series in Siberia now?
I have a constant dialogue with the Monitor’s editors about finding such stories. I know that Russia is a huge, far-flung, and extremely diverse place – it’s not just the Kremlin and Putin – so it’s about finding the places, the voices, and the happenings that can reveal these less-known sides of the country. I had traveled widely around the former Soviet Union, and had been to Siberia several times before, so I knew pretty well what to expect. Still, going out there to Buryatia, climbing the fortress-mountain that Genghis Khan once assaulted, spending a day by Lake Baikal, having lunch with Old Believers, and wandering around a huge Buddhist monastery was a real voyage of discovery for me. I’m very pleased that it seems to have struck a chord with readers as well.
Moscow and the capital of Buryatia are about the same geographical distance as Washington and Los Angeles. Are the cultural, economic, and political differences as big as the geographical distance?
Moscow isn’t just the capital of Russia, it’s also the main control panel – not communist anymore, but still a very centralized government. All power is concentrated in Moscow – and it is the richest, the fastest-changing, and most modern place in Russia. But it’s also very multiethnic and diverse. This city is the metropolis of two huge past empires, and so Moscow streets are filled with faces of people from all over that vast space, from the natives of the far north and lands that neighbor Alaska in the east, to Buryat Mongols, Tatars of central Russia, a huge mixture of people from the Caucasus, and even Baltic people from the lands that border on Europe in the west. Lots of Slavs too, of course. The thing is, everyone speaks Russian, the politics are Russian, and Russian culture and national consciousness binds them all. Under that surface, there are lots very interesting and sometimes dynamic peculiarities.
Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, is a sprawling provincial city that hasn’t seen much economic development since the Soviet collapse. The first thing you will notice about it is that it is definitely a Russian city. The Russian language, political system, and mentality dominate. You have to dig a bit, but you will find that has other sides; it’s a little piece of a very big Russian mosaic, with its own different history, language, and culture. It has integrated and melded with Russia, but it’s also got local realities that are fascinating. I guess that’s what I set out to illustrate in that series.
What were the biggest surprises you discovered about this region when you started your reporting?
I keep being surprised. I suppose it is the vast, almost endless expanse of Siberia that always amazes me most. I took the trans-Siberian train, twice, when I was younger. That trip is eight days from Moscow to Vladivostok; it’s like crossing an ocean, and everything you see out of the window is Russia.
Tolerance of religion and culture - you write about the repressed religious group of Old Believers – how were they able to survive centuries of repression?
Many, many waves of Russian dissidents were exiled to Siberia over the centuries. They were swallowed up by the vastness of the place and, in some ways, maybe, that was what protected them. The Old Believers were cruelly persecuted, but they also managed to survive and maintain their faith in part because they were so far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg. There are more, and different, stories like that waiting to be told about Siberia. I hope to do that.
Many outside Russia focus on the issues that divide Russia from America and Europe. In your experience reporting on Russia, have you found any hopeful developments that can bring these disparate parties together?
History is my subject, and I am aware that the gulf of misunderstanding between Russia and the West has always been vast. However, it’s worse than ever today. Perhaps it would help if people in the US tried to accept that Russia is, and probably always will be, a different kind of civilization from the West. I don’t mean that to convey approval or disapproval, just to note that it’s very different in its core. Some people, especially many Americans, apparently had the expectation that Russia would quickly become another normal Western-style market democracy after the Soviet Union collapsed.
There seems to be some sharp feeling of disappointment in Russia for having refused to join the West, and instead reverting to being a version of its own historical self. That seems to inform a lot of the angry passions directed at Russia these days. But it doesn’t seem to me a very useful way to look at it. Nobody ever blames China for being a distinctly different civilization, even though it is definitely an adversary of the US. China doesn’t attract the same furious antipathies and blanket condemnation as Russia does. Seriously, I often wince when I hear American politicians calling Putin a “thug” or describing Russia as a “gas station masquerading as a country,” and many other dialogue-wrecking memes that so commonly pepper the discourse these days.
I know that Russians have become quite anti-American in the past few years as well. I often argue about that with my Russian friends; I try to correct what I regard as their misconceptions about the US, and usually find them quite willing to listen to me. It’s a vexed debate. There are no simple answers. But I think it is one worth having.
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Meanwhile, our next profile will focus on two Monitor journalists who are now working on a new 10-part series on global migration. With 70 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, their arrivals are transforming politics from Massachusetts to Tanzania. What questions do you have for Peter Ford and Scott Peterson about this phenomenon, and what it's like to get a closeup view of global migration. And keep an eye out for our next profile on November 1.