Liam Halligan, in Moscow for the city's 850th celebrations, wonders about the bad news from Russiaby Liam Halligan / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
In the early 1990s, with the loss of an empire still hurting, and the country lurching between coups, Russians cared deeply what other countries thought about them. Now, growing national confidence seems to mean a healthy indifference to foreigners’ views.
On a late summer break to visit Moscow’s 850th birthday celebrations, I found that the new generation of Russians is almost grateful to be underrated. Something very special is happening here, they are saying, whether you westerners like it or not-we are about to rewrite history before your eyes.
Even the unfortunate timing of Princess Diana’s funeral-on just the wrong weekend for the 850th celebrations-was greeted with equanimity by politicians. Given the lavish $60m programme of events, including a recital by Pavarotti in Red Square and an open air concert by Jean-Michel Jarre, the French synthesiser wizard, one might have expected the country’s leaders to begrudge losing out on some decent foreign coverage.
Because decent foreign coverage is not something Russia has been getting. While preparing to leave London, intelligent friends asked in earnest if I had packed food parcels and a bullet proof vest. Rarely is Russia presented favourably, as a country of endless commercial possibilities, which since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 has taken large strides towards political and economic sanity. Little is made of the fact that despite inheriting a grossly distorted Soviet economy, the Russian authorities have reduced annual inflation to 14 per cent, stabilised the rouble and brought interest rates under control. International reserves of $25 billion, up from $14 billion at the beginning of 1997, mean that talk of a hard currency and lasting macro stability is credible.
Yet Russia is still portrayed in lingering Soviet clich?s: as a no-hope nation founded on organised crime, prostitution and vodka.
Why is the news coming out of Russia so bad? Why don’t we hear that Mars, Coca-Cola and Hewlett Packard have each made direct Russian investments exceeding $100m? Why is it not widely known that Nestl? enjoyed Russian sales of $500m last year, while the big six accountancy firms are expanding aggressively-some now employing over 1,000 professionals. Only now, with the Russian stock market increasing fourfold since early 1996, and the country’s credit rating outstripping those of Brazil and Mexico, has the commercial side of the Russian story begun to seep out, and only among a highly specialised audience. General perceptions, as my…