I open this essay about the Russian middle classes at leisure with one essential definition.
If you go to www.booking.com and type the transliterated Russian name of the establishment from which I am writing, “Dom Otdikha Valday,” in the Search box, you be surprised by what you find.
The word for word translation from the Russian, namely “Valdai Rest Home,” can lead speakers of English into confusion. That this is NOT an old folks home, you will see at once from the photos on the website. It would better be described as a hotel and wellness complex. Let us just say that Russian can be as quaint in its own way as the “Ye Olde” term so widely used in tourist English.
This year-round resort has a rich history dating back to Soviet times when it catered to Communist nomenklatura. About a decade ago, it was reconstructed and expanded to world class four or five star standards in preparation to receive what has become Vladimir Putin’s annual gathering of political thinkers, mostly academics, from Russia and abroad known now as the Valdai Discussion Club. But the swelling numbers of invitees outgrew the physical capacity of the 250 seat conference hall in Valdai after the very first event there. The place name remains while the de facto location for the meetings has been in Sochi these past several years.
Nonetheless, Valdai has retained its association with the President of the Russian Federation to this day. Its location in the middle of a nature preserve of the same name situated half way between Moscow and St. Petersburg is the secret to its allure. Putin has a dacha in the area which he visits from time to time except in the late spring during the blooming of birch trees whose pollen he is allergic to. A special railway spur to that dacha was recently completed to provide a safer and less conspicuous access than by helicopter or motorcade.
The Valdai “rest home” is 15 km from the district town of that name in the hamlet of Roshchino. It is surrounded by a mixed birch and pine forest and it is adjacent to several interlinked lakes
In winter it offers cross-country skiing trails through the forest or, if there has been a long cold snap, across and along the lakes.
Last year the forest trails were encumbered by a lot of fallen branches and other debris carried by strong winds while the lake was well and truly frozen allowing for pleasurable long distance skiing on its flat surface. This year once we had a fresh 5 cm snowfall the forest trails were magnificent whereas the lake had only thin ice and was off limits.
In the summer, the lakes offer quiet boating and fishing. Due to the elevation and prevailing winds from the northwest, the water rarely rises above 18 degrees Centigrade and is swimmable only for hardy souls! But the attractive rooms of the main residential complex and the luxury fully detached “cottages” or dachas overlooking the lake find enthusiasts in all seasons. Many of the cottages have their own quays at lakeside.
According to one receptionist, the guests are split 50:50 between Muscovites and Petersburgers. In this sense, the two couples with whom we spend this vacation time in Valdai fit the average perfectly. Guests are also evenly divided between commercial visitors, like us, and federal or municipal employees who are given concessionary rates. The range of incomes goes from lower middle and middle middle class in the main hotel building, where rooms with full board for two cost slightly more than 100 euros a day in winter, and upper middle class in the cottages, which can rent for several hundred euros a day when they are in demand, meaning in summer. There are almost no foreigners.
At Valdai, the emphasis is on a healthy life style. There are no smokers and no drinkers. Not only do guests observe the no smoking rules indoors, but I have never seen a cigarette butt lying on the ground outdoors.
It must be emphasized that family values prevail. Most of the guests are young couples, probably in their late 20s, early 30s with their one, and more commonly two children, aged from toddlers to perhaps eight or ten years of age. Single women or men are exceptional. Gray heads are also exceptional and mostly belong to grandmas who are tagging along, or perhaps footing the bill, and are keeping an eye on the grandchildren during mealtime.
The cuisine might be called Institutional Russian. This is traditional fare that you will find in most any simple eatery or “stolovaya” across the country. For those who have not been to Russia and might imagine that it is one big “borscht belt” with caviar and pancakes thrown in for a touch of luxury, I aim to bring them back down to earth.
The cuisine is “light” in the sense that there is virtually no red meat. Instead, there is chicken and fish served as fillets or as patties, an occasional pasta dish and some hot specialty items made from low fat cottage cheese. There are lots of cold salads served nature, i.e., without mayonnaise or dressings. Soup is a must at lunch. Three types of hot cereal are on offer both at breakfast and supper. Indeed, the difference between the buffet assortment at breakfast, lunch and dinner is negligible. You take what you like when you like it. That said, coffee is provided only at breakfast, perhaps in keeping with the wellness principle.
The chilled beverages tend to be concentrated in berry juices, in sugared and unsugared variations, and in fermented milk products, meaning kefir, ryazhenka and liquid yoghurt. If there is any linkage between Institutional Russian cuisine and what Jewish emigrants brought to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the first quarter of the last century, it would be precisely these sour milk concoctions, which at one time were the stock in trade of New York “milk bars” lasting into the ‘50’s.
Desserts are modest, the most common and tasty being freshly made thin pancakes that you top with honey or jam or condensed milk (!) to suit your taste.
On balance, this diet is not fattening even if it is taken in copious amounts by the diners, who are otherwise exercising quite energetically either outdoors or in the splendid indoor pools. This is not to deny that a fair number of hotel guests are chubby. But very few are seriously overweight and none, not one during our stay three years in succession, could be described as obese. The heftier males may be assumed to be doing weightlifting and other workouts regularly, and quite possibly are body guards in their working lives.
As for entertainment, there is an extensive lending library. All the rooms have satellite television, 20 channels to be exact, including BBC World in English, which is not particularly commonplace in Russian hotels which have few or no foreign guests. This is complemented by daily film screenings in the conference hall, at 5.30pm for kids and at 8pm for adults.
So what is the resort management showing to its clientele of middle class Russians from the nation’s capitals who have come for a good time in family surroundings?
There are some American films, to be sure, and some Central European offerings, such as the prize winning Illusionist that was projected a couple of nights ago, but they are outnumbered by the works of the Russian cinema industry. Russian films came back to life in the past twenty years. They offer high quality animation much appreciated by little kids and some surprisingly well balanced social and political satires for the adults.
In this closing third of my essay, I direct attention precisely at the films being shown because of what they say about the audience, its degree of self-awareness and sophistication.
The President’s Vacation (2018 release)
This film, which was very unkindly described as ‘trash’ by the website Meduza, is noteworthy as a splendid example of the mistaken identity genre of farce handed down from 18th and 19th centuries in Western Europe. Like the plays of Feydeau, it amuses as well as informs, and it tests the limits of social and political criticism of the Putin regime in a good humored yet probing discussion of corruption and other social ills.
We see a presidential administration keen on keeping the Leader in a bubble of Potemkin Village misinformation about the true state of the nation. This he tries to escape from by going off on vacation incognito without the usual cohort of body guards and sycophantic handlers. His lieutenants disobey his order to stay away but mistakenly take an unemployed fraudster and deadbeat for the President in his disguise, leading to promulgation of several scandalous presidential decrees during the week of the vacation while the real Vladimir Vladimirovich learns firsthand how people live and what the general population thinks of the St. Petersburg gang (shaika) of assistants he has brought to power.
Gagarin (2014 release)
Our intelligentsia friends declined to join us for the screening of Gagarin, which they expected to be a straightforward piece of propaganda, the sort of cheap patriotism they scorn. That is a pity because the film proved to be complex, with several layers of messages addressed to different segments of the expected theater audience.
Yes, at one level it was sports arena patriotism and nostalgia for Soviet culture. But at other levels it was celebrating the human courage of concrete historical personages in very trying circumstances. I have in mind here both the astronaut and Sergei Korolev, the rocket designer and leading figure in the soviet space program of the time.
Most importantly, the film underlined the awful poverty of a country that was basking in the triumph of having launched the first sputnik five years earlier and now, in 1961, was beating the USA, becoming the first to have launched a human into orbit and brought him back alive.
For Russians who were adults in the 1960s, still more for Russians who were active in the space industry back then as one of our friends had been, their country’s poverty both in comparison to the great competitor of the time, the USA, and absolutely, is second nature and elicits no reflection. However, for an outsider, the producers’ decision to bring this into high relief is one of the most surprising features of their film which raises questions about the Russian people that are highly relevant to the present day geopolitical situation.
In his post-acquittal hour long televised speech, Donald Trump remarked that from the moment he was elected in November 2016 all we heard was Russia, Russia, Russia thanks to the efforts of the Democrats to bring him down. The power of the Kremlin to wreck democracy, to frustrate the whole of US foreign policy and much more has been blown out if all proportion by our politicians, by our mass media. It is easy to forget that in the midst of the Cold War, i.e. the time setting of Gagarin, Russia was also made a bogeyman with a frighteningly vast military force and hostile intentions.
Today even as we see Russians under every rock our official policy line is that theirs is a declining power which acts as a spoiler. Thus, Russia’s conventional and nuclear military might are played down rather than up.
The value of Gagarin is that it shows how the very successful Soviet space program, like the country at large, hit way above its weight. Korolev says at one point that he did want the Americans to see what he actually had for equipment lest they show their contempt.
It is commonplace today to stress that the GDP of the Russian Federation is ten times smaller than that of the USA. However, as we can see in Gagarin the reality of the respective economies was likely similar back in the midst of the Cold War if we look at what these economies actually delivered after deducting the inferior manufactured goods and the heavy losses in agriculture from farm to shop shelves. Thus, it is arguable that the Russian Federation, with half the population of the Soviet Union, is a much more potent adversary than the USSR ever was.
Gagarin underlines the personal qualities of its heroes, who were in fact even more extraordinary than shown. The producers held back, for example, that Korolev had spent five years in the Gulag before he was plucked out and promoted to the crucial position in the space program. The sense of duty and love of country of these personages is comparable to the merits of Russian soldiery in WWII. This factor of motivation and talent and self-sacrifice and idealism is what our foreign policy community in its hubris and bean counter approach to national greatness misses entirely.
That the Soviet Union in its poverty could yield the deeds of cutting edge engineering and human spirit of Gagarin is what made it a great power. That Russia today, with a military budget ten times smaller than America’s, could come up with its great equalizers in new strategic weapons systems like its hypersonic rockets now in service is testimony to the same enduring national traditions that we ignore at our peril.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020