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What the Winter Olympics tell us about life in Russia (and vice versa)

February 21, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
To outsiders, Russia carries a near mythic reputation. Gregory Feifer, whose mother grew up during communism and lived there himself as a news correspondent, teases out an understanding of Russian character through observations of daily life in his new book, “Russians: The People Behind the Power.” Feifer joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss how Russian behavior is reflected in the Sochi Olympics.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: As the Winter Olympics close this weekend, we conclude with a broader look at the host country, at its people and the contrast between the past couple of weeks and the day-to-day life of ordinary Russians.

Jeff is back with our conversation which he recorded earlier in the week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregory Feifer first came to his interest in Russia through a personal connection. His mother grew up there under communism. He later lived and worked there as a correspondent for NPR and other news organizations. And he has now written of people he met along the way and events he covered in the new book “Russians: The People Behind the Power.”

Welcome to you.

GREGORY FEIFER, “Russians: The People Behind the Power”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: A starting point is this — is that even while the world’s spotlight is on Russia during the Olympics, we Americans really don’t know it or understand it much. Right. That is your feeling?

GREGORY FEIFER: Absolutely.

The idea behind the book was to try to get behind why is it that two decades after the Soviets collapse, do Americans find Russian behavior mystifying in some way? We tend to explain what we don’t know about Russia by saying that, well, perhaps Russians have a mystical Russian soul that we have heard about and it’s different and so we can’t understand it.

I don’t believe that’s true. My approach has been to look at Russians’ daily behavior, their family life, work patterns, drinking. And in my many travels across Russia, it seems to me that Russian behavior is understandable and there are patterns behind it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so let’s — so let’s look at that through the guise of the Olympics, right, because we’re seeing the Olympics from the opening ceremonies to the whole staging. How does this Russia that you see manifest itself?

GREGORY FEIFER: Well, I think the Olympics are a very traditional Russian event.

I mean, this is a country that has built Saint Petersburg to be the European city on a swamp, professed it wanted to spread communism around the world. The Olympics in a way are another grandiose project to try to catch up to the West.

But I think what really characterizes these Games to me is that they show how much Russia actually lags, because if you look at what’s going on in Russia, Moscow may be full of luxury cars and fancy restaurants, thanks to the riches from Russia’s vast energy wealth, but you don’t have to go to Siberia. You can just drive 50 miles outside of Moscow and see a countryside that’s literally dying.

I visited many villages there where there were two, sometimes even one elderly person living in what used to be villages on muddy tracks. And the poverty, alcoholism, disease, in many ways, Russia’s heading towards crises.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two of the things that you write a lot about, and then again I think we see in the Olympics from your writing and others, power and corruption.

Tell us what you see. And, again, how do they manifest themselves in the Olympics?

GREGORY FEIFER: Well, and we have heard a lot about corruption in the Sochi Olympic Games, the most expensive Games ever at more than $50 billion; $7 billion are reported to have gone to companies connected to one man. This man happens to have been Putin’s childhood friend and former judo partner.

But I think what happens at the top reflects what’s going on in the rest of the country. A former central banker said that, in 2012, $50 billion were sent illegally outside of Russia. But it’s more than that. I think that we have this idea that Putin has ruled according to a social contract, according to which, as long as living standards keep rising, the Kremlin is more or less free to be as authoritarian as it likes.

I don’t think that’s quite true. I think the glue binding Putin’s regime to the Russian people is corruption, because bribery involves everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you. Why is it accepted? Explain that. Why would corruption be the glue if there is — and I recently spoke to Masha Gessen about her book about Pussy Riot.

And we see Pussy Riot, some of the members showing up in Sochi, and we have had some reports of them being attacked for it. But the general population seems, at least from the outside, to accept the system.

GREGORY FEIFER: Sure, because they’re part of the system.

I was saying about how Russia has — Russians have practical motives for acting the way they do. I think this — this glue binding the system together, as I said, is bribery. Everybody has to pay a bribe. If you drive a car, you will certainly have to pay a bribe when you’re stopped by a traffic policeman, which happens almost every day.

If you’re the owner of a corner store, for example, you have to pay the fire safety inspector, the health inspector, the building code inspector. Everybody pays bribes. And I think bribery not only coerces people, because it enables the authorities to prosecute everybody. It also co-opts people, because if you’re paying a bribe, you get something out of it. If you’re the corner store owner and you’re paying the police to ensure that no harm comes to your business, you feel that you have got something over the competition a couple blocks away.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how does this play out on the world stage?

I mean, now, of course, we’re watching what’s happening in the Ukraine and then of course the relationship with the United States, a so-called reset that never seemed to actually happen.

GREGORY FEIFER: Right.

Well, we see Putin as this caricature of an aging dictator. And I actually think one of the reasons for his success — and he has been successful — he’s been in power for 14 years and it doesn’t look like he’s leaving any time soon — is that he’s very good at creating images of himself.

To us, as I said, he looks like this dictator. But to Russians, he’s popular to the majority of Russians. Most Russians are envious, at least many Russians are envious of the West, and Putin’s nationalism plays into that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new book is “Russians: The People Behind the Power.”

Gregory Feifer, thanks so much.

GREGORY FEIFER: Thank you.