Russian contradictions – Strengths and weakness

The Russian Contradictions series provides examples of the many contradictions that you are bound to encounter during your stay in Russia. No matter what qualification you apply to Russia, the opposite will always be true as well. For many foreigners, and for me as well, these contradictions and contrasts are actually one of the great attractions in Russia. It makes life in Russia rich, colorful and immensely valuable.

The famous Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck put it rightly, when he said that “Russia is never as strong, nor as weak as she appears”. This statement applies to the country and everything that is in it. For example, Tsar Alexander II, also called Alexander the Liberator, abolished serfdom in 1861 and introduced wide ranging liberal reforms of economic, judicial, constitutional and administrative nature. Logic dictates he should have been a hero of the people. Practice showed however that in 1881, this “Reformer Tsar” who took the interest of the people to heart was killed by a bomb of the “People’s Will” party. In the early twentieth century economic growth in Russia stood at 6%, the country industrialized rapidly and foreign investment was increasing. During the first decade of the twentieth century no one could have predicted that the 1917 October revolution would put an end to all that for the next seventy years.

After the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian people and the Western world got their hopes up as 1987 Glasnost was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was confidence that large scale privatizations and market and trade liberalization would herald a bright new future. However, in 1992, during the Gaidar reforms, Russians were faced with an inflation of over 2,500 percent and lost practically all of their savings in a matter of weeks. A brief famine followed and until 1998 GDP dropped with over fifty percent. Nobody saw it coming in 1991. And when the rouble crisis of August 1998 took most businesses and financial institutions by surprise and most foreigners packed their bags to go home, Russia only needed but a few months to start a decade of the strongest economic growth in its entire history.

The crisis of 2008, again, caught most people of guard. But once more, half a year later, the Russian economy rebounded with surprising strength. Russia’s oil wealth has a lot do to with the rise and fall her economy. Pessimists says that when Russia’s oil runs out, so will Russia’s fortunes. For a while, this may be true, but Von Bismarck’s wisdom may be proven right again, when the world turns to Russia for its unfrozen fresh surface water reserves. The lake Baikal alone, contains twenty percent of the world’s fresh water reserves. With retail prices for one litre of bottled water now already exceeding retail prices for one litre of gasoline it is not at all imaginary that Russia will rise in the coming decades as a water power like it is an oil power at the moment. Russia is like the Rocky Balboa of the world stage. No matter how bloodied he falls on his knees, he always rises again to deliver a debilitating punch and the sequels to this scenario are endless.

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