After watching so many foreign policy experts look back on their experiences in Russia and Ukraine for warning signs of the current crisis, I decided to do the same. Was there something I missed during my November 1994 trip to Moscow? Were there dots that I should have but did not connect?
Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the National Governors Association received a USAID grant to work with the emerging Association of Oblast (i.e. Russian state equivalent) Governors (AOG). I was assigned responsibility for the grant which included setting up a Moscow office which would be used for two purposes: work with the AOG and facilitate Russian trade visits by U.S. governors. In the fall of 1994, I spent a week in Moscow, assessing the venture including meetings with both Russian and U.S. partners.
On November 9, 1994, Ted Boimov, a Ukraine-born U.S. citizen who managed the NGA Moscow office, and I had lunch with Anatoliy Tyazhlov, who then held the title of head of administration (i.e. governor) of the Moscow Oblast. He was not elected to that position. Instead, he was appointed by Russian president Boris Yeltsin with whom he was known to have shared a vodka or two (but that’s a story for another time).
Two days earlier Ted and I, against the advice of U.S. embassy staff, went to the square outside the former KGB headquarters to view what the local communist party billed as an October Revolution Day parade and rally heralding the revival of Marxism and Leninism. Less than a thousand Russians participated. I remember telling Ted how glad I was we had gone as we might have just witnessed the last vestiges of the Soviet Union.
After lunch, I shared this experience with Tyazhlov and asked his perspective on what this meant for Russia’s future. I should have paid more attention. He said the real danger would come from the “right,” not the “left.” He talked about how so many Russians, who believed in the communist promise of support from cradle to grave, now seemed lost. If conditions did not improve, Russia would be ripe for takeover by an autocrat. Less than six years later, Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president. City #1 is filled with Russians who grew up under Stalin and are creatures of the conditions which made his rise to power possible.
The following day I attended a session co-sponsored by the Foreign Commercial Service within the U.S. Embassy and the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. NGA was in the midst of a new initiative to encourage states to make their economic development policies and programs more entrepreneurial centric. The hosts invited graduate students from several Moscow based universities and asked me to share some of the lessons from the NGA effort.
Two things immediately became clear. Higher education in Russian academies was overly practical with students being taught how to produce and delivery commodities based on government planning priorities. There was little or no understanding of market pull or technology push. At the end of my talk I asked the students, “If you could start your own business tomorrow what would you offer?” One student immediately replied, “That depends on what the government tells us they need.” City #2, almost thirty years later, is filled with middle-aged Russians, who were on the cusp of becoming part of the global economy but hampered by Soviet era educations.
City #3 emerged in the late 1990s at the dawn of the information technology revolution. Young Russians were exposed to the world outside their geographic borders and wanted to be a part of it. With the exception of a couple of Russian and Ukrainian students in the classes I taught in Milan, I have had little exposure to them. But I know them when I see them. Which is exactly how I felt watching Marina Ovsyannikova disrupt a Channel One broadcast last Monday. Ovsyannikova, born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1978 came of age during the era of dial-up modems and WordPerfect, just enough for her to understand the window that had opened for her and her peers.
These three cities peacefully co-existed in modern-day Russia until February 24th. Residents of City #1 largely rely on state-controlled media and Putin’s disinformation campaign. Citizens of City #3, absent access to more traditional social media, are finding ways around the information blackout. Inhabitants of City #2 are conflicted, their allegiance depending on whether they are more influenced by their parents or their children.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is correct when he says the fate of his country is in the hands of the Russian people. My bet is on the Russians in City #3. Why? Because America was in the same position in 2020. Consider the following exit poll data from the presidential election.
The 65+ voters represented only 22 percent of the 2020 electorate. I suspect the population of City #1 is also a decreasing percent of Russian society. The only question is will it decline fast enough.
For what it’s worth.