I’ve just spent the last couple of days holed up inside Moscow’s World Trade Center for the Troika Dialog Russia 2010 Forum, an economic conference where I was surprised to hear some refreshing honesty from the Russian political elite who made appearances there.
Anatoly Chubais, who heads up the state nanotech corporation and was an influential reformer in the 1990s, said, “We have to admit that we have fallen very far behind.” And by “far” he means about 30 to 40 years. Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov was equally harsh. “We need to change our behavior, drive safely and not, as is customary in Russia, haphazardly,” he said. He admitted, too, that the Russian bureaucracy — “an unfriendly administrative system” — is a stultifying force that even the elite has to do battle with, and that social protection is not a public good here. “Even if you have money, you have no sense that the security services will protect your rights,” he said.
Chubais and Shuvalov, two stalwart liberals, largely echoed the tough-love tone struck by President Medvedev in his “Go, Russia!” article in September as well as his address to the political elite two months later. So far, the changes this has produced are cosmetic and superficial, and it remains to be seen how much tough love will turn into concrete policy, but, at the very least, the honesty is extremely, extremely refreshing in a country whose approach to public relations has generally been of the hyper-sensitive and hyper-defensive variety.
Which brings me to my gym TV-watching.
The other day, I saw a commercial for the Sochi Olympics, which aren’t for another four years. It was, well, a rather excellent commercial for the very same reason: it was honest. Summoning up that good old wry Russian humor, the commercial conceded not only some of the more ridiculous aspects of Russian life but pointed out what is perhaps the most absurd part of the already much-criticized boondoggle that is Sochi 2014.
“We are a people of extremes,” the commercial intones, commenting that “we work hard to make our money in the north, and spend it with ease in the south.” The version I saw even makes fun of the 10-day New Year’s holiday that basically kills everyone’s January. “We even celebrate New Year’s for an entire month,” the voice over says — lovingly, mockingly — before admitting to the giant, muffled, white elephant in the room: “We host the Winter Olympics in a place where everyone spends their summers.”
Egads! They admitted it! And admitted that a Black Sea resort town doesn’t need the ski lifts and the ice rinks it will inherit once it’s done hosting the Winter Olympics. And! They even took the smart approach, embracing the mockery with almost as much pleasure as those of us who love Russia take in ribbing this absurd absurdistan.
I couldn’t find the gym version online, but here’s another, almost-as-good take.