Before traveling to Russia, we read an excellent, new book on the last ten years in Russia (Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution by a husband and wife team, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who work for the Washington Post). The book detailed the multiple problems faced by Russia, including a declining population, terrorism, corruption and the pull-back from democracy.
Among other things, it said that because of a very high death rate due to AIDS, suicide, alcoholism, etc. and a very low birthrate, the present population of 140 million plus will be halved in fifty years. In addition, it described corruption at all levels, even for the average person, describing how a citizen might be pulled over by traffic police for a bogus infraction for which the policeman expects a bribe.
During a question and answer session on the cruise with the ship's staff (mainly young, college-educated women who were answering the questions), I asked them about both of these situations. First, were both true? All the Russians nodded yes. We asked what is being done about the population decline and one got the impression the answer is not much. Regarding the bribe to the traffic policeman, we asked if that bothered them . Everybody shrugged as if to say, that's just the way it is in Russia.
With the political pullback from democracy, no one is too sure what Russia is today. While Putin seems to have much respect, there is also unease about the economy, particularly among the elderly who are locked into very low pensions. The young seem to appreciate some of their new freedoms but many of them can't make ends meet either. The Communists and other hardliners lurk in the background hoping for a return to power but that seems somewhat unlikely. Meanwhile, the business community which had been thriving seems somewhat spooked by a recent crackdown and imprisonment of prominent industrialists. No one knows where all of this will end.
Nevertheless, we saw the greatness of Russian history and art in its wonderful palaces, museums, cathedrals and monasteries. Its history is rich and varied, illustrating the supreme toughness of the Russian people, most of whom we found to be very friendly. The cruise was an excellent way to see this variety--we recommend it to anyone who longs to see Russia.
Note on the photographs: The 650 photographs on these pages were taken with an Olympus C-700 Ultra Zoom (10x optical) digital camera. Many photos were digitally enhanced for color correction, brightness or sharpness using Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 software.
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