Russia: The country in a world of its own

Our “Eye on Russia” week had been months in planning. Rather than covering the political salvos fired regularly between Moscow and Washington over missile defence, CNN aimed its radar at how Russia has changed over the past decade and what domestic forces are propelling president Vladimir Putin to record approval ratings.

I spent seven days in Russia after a nine-year absence. Four correspondents with decades of experience scoured the landscape for stories about the people, politics, economics and culture.

The overview I assembled covers the basics. The Russians are more confident in themselves, more optimistic about their future and happily floating on a sea of oil selling for $70 a barrel.

The opposition and a handful of journalists are frustrated that while there are political parties, there’s no real politics in Russia. They insist there’s no discussion of issues, no give and take or debate.

Mikhail Kasyanov, the opposition leader, says he rarely gets invited to appear on Russian TV. His live appearance reinforces that view as he accuses the Kremlin of hogging the airwaves and rolling back reforms.

He concedes president Putin hasn’t made any major mistakes, but shoots back that it’s easy if you’re not doing anything.

One of the Russian TV crews runs after Kasyanov as we begin to break down the live shot location.

“Why did you agree to appear on CNN television?”

“Because I don’t get invited to talk to any television networks in Russia,”

he replies. I never heard whether they used that soundbite.

We report that the Russian Academy of Sciences surveyed young Russians aged 17 to 26 and found 49 per cent have “no interest” in politics. Young Russians are interested in getting an education, starting a career, affording a car and an apartment and making sure they work in Moscow where the salaries are higher.

They are bright, hardworking, determined and optimistic. They’re also happy with president Putin. Fully a third would like him to stay in office beyond his second term (though that would take a constitutional amendment to legalise). In short, they hope nothing changes that might derail their well-planned futures.

Ask young Russians about Darfur and you may as well be speaking Esperanto. I make it a point at the end of interviews with Russian television channels to ask young reporters what they think of Darfur.

Not one could tell me whether it was a person, a place or a new entry in the periodic table.

Political cartoonist Victor Bogorad sat down with me and laughed his way through our interview.

“I’m free to draw whatever I like,”

he chuckled, “but the editors won’t publish it.”

Bogorad says it isn’t the Kremlin that muzzles Russia’s press. It’s the editors and publishers themselves who don’t want to offend anyone in politics.

“Local initiative,” is how he describes it.

Take the biggest controversy in St Petersburg as an example. State-owned oil giant Gazprom is building a 300m-tall headquarters on the spot where Peter the Great founded the city.

The curator of the Hermitage museum says it should be moved three kilometres away. But St Petersburg’s governor, Valentina Matvienko, says her city has to embrace change and be grateful for the thousands of jobs that will come with it.

“Not a single political cartoon depicting Matvienko in this controversy has been published in St Peterburg,” says Bogorad. It’s not normal.

But Bogorad draws a picture for us that points to the future. A stern-faced president Putin stares disapproving from the TV screen as a father looks in surprise behind a stuffed chair.

There, behind the chair is a young boy watching CNN on his laptop.

If Russia’s news media isn’t going to report all the news, Bogorad predicts Russia’s viewers will turn elsewhere.

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