After a quarter of a century of claiming to be a part of Europe, Russia has ceased to regard it as a goal. As tension over Ukraine remains taut, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has confirmed a new line. He no longer wants Russia to be thought of as “European.” Europe and Russia, he now says, are in separate moral spheres.
When I first began visiting Russia in the Soviet Union in the eighties and eventually lived there, it marked itself as a different political, economic and social world system. What struck the Western visitor most was that it wasn’t a consumer society. There were no advertisements; the shops, largely empty of goods, were overstaffed by women who ignored you or were rude; the restaurants sold greasy, lukewarm and sometimes uneatable food. Hotel rooms were bare, with tepid water, cracked ceramics and bad smells. Most people -- even young women -- were dowdy. And that was Moscow. Outside the capital, it was often worse.
One could say -- as I did -- that these things were superficial. Soviets may have argued that they aimed for modesty of living; they were attempting to make citizens more or less equal in plainness, directing them to political or intellectual interests and satisfying the mind rather than the tastes for comfort.
To be sure, Soviet Russia was a reading society. Metro passengers were accompanied by books, magazines and newspapers. The books were often the Russian classics. Once I had some language and could make friends, a world of warmth, curiosity and hospitality opened. It was demanding but rewarding.
The eternal conversation that Westerners had about Russia was: Are Russians Europeans? I would have said: Of course they are.