Lesson 3: My Czar, My Father
Any further misunderstandings between Russia and the Western nations will be chalked up to — you didn’t read what I wrote
In July 1994, one of my first meetings was with then-Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. At this meeting was a nondescript, even small man with a wire-like intensity, making me think he would jump into action or attack at any moment. His name was Vladimir Putin — the future “czar” of Russia.
Twenty-six years ago, I moved to Russia to take part in constructing the new society. With a couple of international grants secured and my public health program developed in collaboration with the Columbia School of Public Health in my IBM Thinkpad, I met with the Mayor to get the green light to set my program up in city middle schools.
Having heard the words “Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs” and “non-governmental organization,” Mr. Putin shook my hand and left. As a vital member of the mayor’s inner circle, he was responsible for attracting foreign commercial business and investment to the city. When he reached across the small table, Putin’s demeanor with me was just sort of, “Okay, whatever, kid, good luck.” But before his boss, Anatoly Sobchak, he was gentle, I recalled, even fawning. The tough-guy image that would be perfectly cultivated years later was nowhere in sight. Later, I would learn that Sobchak was Putin’s czar then, a father of sorts.
In that one meeting, the most important lesson I would eventually learn was on full display, and I was blind to it. There was simply no way I could register it, just the way that foreigners today can’t understand the all-pervasiveness of this cultural accouterment. Diplomats, as I have already expressed in other articles, are clueless to what Russia is, which is why there are so many ridiculous misunderstandings. Maybe something I write here will find its way to someone charged with “understanding Russia,” and then they will learn about this complicated but rather simplistic riddle.
The Final Lesson of Three
Russia comes off as straightforward and passion-filled to the untrained eye — this is what I and many foreigners initially thought. It usually takes a few years of immersion in Russia…