Facing the Russia Threat

Times have changed since the Cold-War officially ended, but, perhaps times are more dangerous. Certainly for Latter-day Saints, the entire Russia-America relations are more complicated.

Pre-1991, before the putsch that overthrew the Soviet government of the USSR, American LDS members had communism as the clear-cut enemy, although in enclaves of BYU and other universities left-leaning LDS professors quietly spoke fondly of the wonders of collectivization with their academic peers, while sternly looking down on the Ezra Taft Bensonites who could quote “None Dare Care It Treason” or reel off statistics and sayings from Cleon Skousen’s “The Naked Communist.”

In 1991 the Bensonites felt justified that they’d won part of the geopolitical gambit although there was still Cuba, Venezuela and China to go.

The LDS lefties decried the capitalists going into post-Gorbachev Russia and spoiling a pure people. Oh well. What can you do with some mother’s children?
I felt their wrath when, in 1990, I brought the Deputy Minister of Higher Education of the USSR to BYU. He was instantly greeted with great warmth by so many from the BYU political science and Russian departments until he spoke to a large gathering. 

At the start of his lecture these professors were beaming to have a Soviet leader actually speaking at BYU, but let out a collective (pun intended) gasp when he announced that he was bringing to the USSR a group of American business leaders to teach capitalism to the Soviet people. When he announced he had partnered with me to lead his effort, I went from their darling to devil in a twinkling of an eye. Ah, the fickled fortunes of fate.

Over the next ten years the company my wife and I started, took 10,000 Americans and Soviets/Russians and put them on ships that sailed on the Volga and Dnieper rivers so Americans could learn about Russia and Ukraine through the eyes of her people. Thousands of friendships were made.

Between land tours, Americans were in classes on board learning about Russian culture, Pushkin tales, language, etc., and the Russians were taking my classes on how to survive and prosper in a free market economy and how to start a business. Many businesses were started with new American partners.

Marriages happened. So many Russians joined the LDS church just because coincidentally (if there are such things) many of our passengers were faithful LDS members anxious to share their faith.  

All of this work in the former USSR republics, Russia in particular (I’ve been there more than 50 times), I grown to understand a bit about the place. I’m not an expert on this place Churchill called “a riddlewrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
But I’ll try to lend some thoughts.

What’s changed in Russia from the Soviet Union is, on one hand substantial, but on the other, negligible. Russia has a long history of being subjected to either tsars, commissars or plutocrats. Democracy is minor on a local level and at best theoretical on a presidential level. The parliament is the main democracy although Vladimir Putin has constrained that making it less relevant.

Given the long history of being ruled from the top down, the Russian people have no history of objecting to authoritarianism until they are pushed to do so by massive war deaths and starvation that precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution. Beyond that … so many just take their vodka back to their small apartments and survive.

America has long been a country they at once fear and admire. Even while it was the USSR I was greeted with trepidation, then genuine warmth. Children couldn’t wait to high-five me in the closed city of Gorki. When I was the first foreigner to address the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine and then BelaRus, the decorum shown was astounding. The shared frankness remarkable. I quickly learned that Russians were self-deprecating and loved “dishing it out” and taking it. We teased each other incessantly. I gave as good as I got, and then some. 

On long train rides we held joke contests that I won about as many times as I lost. On politics, they were realistic but rather fatalistic. None could ever see how anything could ever really change for them. Yes, a bit of freedom in traveling and starting businesses, but they’d just shrug and figure the mafia would take whatever the politicians didn’t take.

The LDS Church has grown, shrunk from emigration and loss of faith, and grown some more. The temple in Kiev was no accident. Ukraine is more hopeful than Russia, but the saints all over the former USSR are people who have something so many Russians lack – hope.

This was borne out to me while on one of our river cruises. We had gathered the Americans and Russians together for one of our “Getting to Know You” sessions where ANY topic was allowed, although we told people to speak for themselves and not their country and whenever I felt we’d covered the topic, we’d go on. On Russian stood and asked, “To my new American friends. Please tell me what gives you security and…hope.” The Americans started off with answers like their financial solvency, a paid-off home and car, money in the bank, and a retirement account. 

A little flummoxed the Russian tried again, a bit more earnestly. “Not that. What gives you inner security. Peace. Inner hope. A deep sense of being still?” The Americans tried again with freedom, democracy, friends and such and could see they still weren’t registering with this very earnest and sincere Russian. So they asked him, “Tell us what gives you hope.”

That brought a serene smile to his face. “Two years ago I was like most of my Russian friends. I was in despair. I had no hope. We had nothing and no prospect of anything even though this country was becoming more free. Life was dark, with little reason to smile. Then, I was allowed to come on this cruise and I met some people who introduced me to God. A light began to shine inside my heart. My heart became a little warmer. I shared this with my wife and children. We all could feel the light and warmth grow. God became the center of our lives. Today, we still have very little, but, we have so much hope. So much warmth in our heart. Today, we smile and every day we smile and give thanks to God.”

The Americans shifted very uncomfortably in their chairs as they knew they’d been taught a powerful lesson by this Russian. Many spoke up and echoed his belief in agreement. The rest of this meeting of people from different faiths became unified in their faith in a divine being. One last thing. The good Russian was in the leadership of the local LDS church.

Having the church helping the lives of so many Russians rather complicates American foreign policy for many LDS in the West.
But things are rather straightforward in some ways. Russia is being led, pulled and bullied by Putin. Too many Americans whine about Trump doing the same, but that shows a woeful ignorance to the real political system differences. 

What Putin says will go for as long as he wishes to remain in power. And power is the dogma of Putin, not communism. Trump seems mindful, and I hope he is, that Putin is not governed by a sense of what is best for Russians, but what will keep him in power. Trump had better not push him too far, but had better do enough to keep him in check. It will be a delicate dance.

Obama was terrible at this dance. When someone sought to cut in, Obama stuttered and stammered but stepped aside, “leading from behind.” Putin knew he could push his power claims however far he wished and did so mercilessly on Ukraine.  Trump will need to let Putin win a issue, but very few and solely in the trade area which will actually help Russia and in turn be good for America.

Putin understands Trump. He knows Trump is also not an ideologue and deals from a power base as well. The two will be in a two-step for at least four years. Neither will push the other enough to have a war. Above all Putin cannot afford any military actions. His military is weak and ill-prepared for any conflict more than a few minutes. A military set-back of any kind would be a disaster for Putin so bluster must be his game and he knows if he tangles with the US a set-back is the overwhelming likelihood.

Financially, Putin cannot afford any further reductions in his foreign currency reserves. Look for Trump to make some trade deals to allow Putin a chance to build the Russian economy. So many little thing wins can make a huge difference to this country that is potentially a huge trading partner for the USA. Keep in mind it has more natural resources than just about any country; more oil, precious metals, enough virgin forests to cover the USA and other “bounties of Rodina.” Its populous is intelligent but hasn’t a clue how to run a true market economy. Should Trump help them with that, then Russia could cease to be a tough, muscle-bound enemy and become a friend. That would be good for my friends in Russia and for the USA.

Except plenty of sabres to be rattled but in the end, money talks.