Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the presidential oath at his third inauguration ceremony on May 7, 2012. (Russian government photo)
After a year and a half of conducting research on Russia, the world’s largest country, mostly for a book I co-authored on the history of post-Soviet U.S.-Russia relations and its context for the Ukraine conflict, it was time for me to finally go see this beautiful, fascinating and complex nation in person and to meet its people on their own terms and territory.
On this maiden voyage to Russia, I visited six cities in two weeks: Moscow, Simferopol, Yalta, Sevastopol, Krasnodar and St. Petersburg. In each city, I talked to a cross-section of people, from cab drivers and bus riders to civil society workers, professionals, and entrepreneurs of small- to medium-sized businesses.
I even had an opportunity to hear what teenagers had to say in two of those cities as my travel mate and I participated in a Q&A session with students of a private high school in St. Petersburg and teens who were part of various youth clubs in Krasnodar. Their questions reflected a thoughtful engagement with the world as they led to discussions on environmental sustainability, socially responsible economics and how to promote initiative, goodwill and peaceful conflict resolution.
Many of the adults were no less thoughtful during the formal interviews and informal conversations I had with them. Admittedly, I wondered how I would be received as an American during one of the most acrimonious periods of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.
It helped that my travel mate has been going in and out of Russia since the 1980s, lives part-time in St. Petersburg, and has developed good relations with many Russians across the country. Once most Russians realized that I came in goodwill and did not approach them or their country with a superiority complex, they usually responded with some combination of curiosity, honesty and hospitality.
Below is a summary of what Russians that I spoke to thought about a range of issues, from their leader to their economy to the Ukraine war, Western media’s portrayal of them and what they wanted to say to Americans.
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