Russian Discontent

A couple of years ago I traveled through the Baltic States, finishing up with three days in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s an amazing city, having sprung from the ashes of the siege of Leningrad in World War II. The evil done by the Nazis is almost nowhere to be seen, replaced by hundreds of restored palace-style buildings along the shores of the many islands that make up the city. The Hitlerian scar appears to have been fully excised.

One of the day trips was to Peterhof, a completely mind-blowing display of radical ostentation. Peter the Great originally built it in the early 18th century as a Russian “in your face” response to the Palace of Versailles. Put bluntly, no conceivable luxury was overlooked. Current billionaires like Bill Gates or Elon Musk would have wallet cramps paying for such a place. Wikipedia cannot begin to convey its grandeur.

Peterhof was built by craftsmen who were often not paid a “living wage.” They were little better off than slaves. But even their status was a step above that of the common peasant. Taxes were extracted from all to build such monuments. These palaces were of no benefit for any but the few who traveled among their several villas stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The “income disparity” between rich and poor in Russia dwarfed virtually all others. Thomas Piketty would have had a field day…if he weren’t executed first for speaking up.

It’s not hard to see how the Bolsheviks treated people as progress. The 1917 Revolution may actually have made daily life a bit better for the peasantry, but data is sparse. The very existence of markets was often an improvement, and the Cold War pictures of lines in front of empty shelves implied that food did arrive at times. Not exactly inspiring, since Americans had full supermarkets, but still better than starvation.

The “Great Patriotic War” that we call “World War II” was won by Russian people who were a touch better off than the earlier generations. But the Germans still flattened and burned their cities. With no other place to call home, the square unpainted concrete buildings called “Krushchev Classical” were a distinct improvement over earlier hovels. So, the people, who had no history of a prosperous society, lived stoically with an “any is good” approach to comforts, even if several generations had to occupy a poorly heated apartment in the dead of winter. It was still better than nothing.

Glasnost and Perestroika brought a rising standard of living. With the fall of Communism, the ZiL tank factory cars were replaced by more modern designs, and the average person had a chance of actually getting one. MacDonalds opened in Moscow and other western companies began to tap a growing market. This trend was very much in evidence when I visited.

During the various excursions to tourist sites, it was clear that western-style capitalism was flourishing. Stores of every description were scattered throughout the city. Restaurants were everywhere. Traffic resembled that in many American cities, with recognizable brands and snarls punctuated by the occasional impolite expression as someone was unable to make it through a light. But Nevsky Prospekt was the star.

Image: Nevsky Prospekt by Ninara. CC BY 2.0.

On the display case in my office sits a bouquet of flowers made from carved Baltic amber. We bought it in a shop in Nevsky Prospekt that would fit in well on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive. We bought a small one so we could safely transport it in our carry-on baggage. Many more dramatic pieces worthy of Tiffany’s were available.

Several blocks down were two very impressive shopping malls. As we walked in, numerous young professionals were exiting carrying bags from Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, and other needlessly expensive stores. Virtually all the signage inside was English and shelves were packed. It seemed that half the city was shopping. And buying.

This sort of purchasing power doesn’t come cheap. Our tour guide allowed that she, as well as many other young adults, worked two jobs to be able to afford what Americans would consider a relatively minimal level of luxury. But this was so much better than their parents’ experience that no one complained. An iPhone was definitely a good thing.

And as we traveled around the city, she remarked again and again how this or that apartment complex was brand new. They were “springing up like mushrooms.” When I asked about Putin, she allowed that he was basically part of the furniture. The better life was all-important and, as long as he let it continue, all was good.

But you didn’t read this far to hear about my summer vacation. You wanted to know how the war in Ukraine is playing behind enemy lines.

Russia has a yuppie class for the first time in its history. Its members work hard for personal gain and enjoy the fruits of western capitalism. But that requires access to markets, which the sanctions program has rudely severed. Russian companies can’t use western credit cards to process purchases without SWIFT. That means tourists are done. The yuppie class can’t buy products because Hilfiger, Kors, and others won’t send them. No cash processing means no profit, so “Sayonara!” No profits mean empty stores.

The yuppie class isn’t accustomed to being denied. They haven’t lived with the deprivation their parents knew so well. Their sudden loss of privilege is a severe shock. And Russian kids aren’t any different from kids anywhere else. They like what they have and, when you take away their toys, they get upset. If they see a real emergency, they’ll dive in to help, just as our teens did in World War II. But without a real emergency?

Even with the propaganda, real news gets through and lots of families have dead soldiers. “For what?” must be echoing through the streets. We’ve seen reports of civil unrest and other reports of violent crackdowns by Putin. Unfortunately, the reporting from inside Russia is as reliable as that in Ukraine—highly suspect. At the same time, we can make some educated guesses.

If the casualties in Ukraine continue to mount, civil unrest will cause significant problems for Putin. A war going against him and public opposition will paint him into a corner, and cornered wounded animals tend to lash out. With the weapons he has, it could get very ugly.

On the other hand, the oligarchs who support him are probably feeling the heat more directly, and they don’t like it any better than the public. They want to make lots of money to live their lavish lifestyles. Until financial ties to the west are repaired, that’s not happening. If the oligarchs get together, Putin may be convinced to retire to Mexico. Then the evil rich can start mending fences.

Ted Noel MD is a retired Anesthesiologist/Intensivist who podcasts and posts on social media as DoctorTed and @vidzette. His DoctorTed podcasts are available on iHeart, Stitcher, Pandora and other channels.

If you experience technical problems, please write to