Russia remains one of the toughest challenges on the current U.S. administration’s agenda. Media coverage of the country focuses relentlessly on election hacking, politics and Putin. But a quarter-century after the fall of the USSR, what’s really happening in Russia? How do Russians live? What do they talk about, think about, believe in?
Lisa Dickey traveled across Russia three times in the past 20 years in (1995, 2005 and 2015), and each time she went back, she interviewed the same people in 11 different cities to find out how everyday life there has changed.
Our student fellow Connie E sat down with Dickey for an on-the-ground view of Russia today and its post-Soviet evolution.
Fun fact: When Lisa was 22, she worked as a lounge singer at a French restaurant in Japan.
FPI: Your book Bears in the Streets is a fascinating read. Could you explain what the title means in Russia, and why did Russians frequently bring this up during your last trip?
The title Bears in the Streets comes from something that happened during my third trip, in 2015. On my second day there, somebody remarked that Americans all think there are bears wandering the streets in Russia. I’d spent a lot of time there over the previous 25 years, and I didn’t remember anybody putting it quite that way. So, I just kind of filed that away—but then a few days later, in the next city, somebody else said the exact same thing to me. And then, in the next city, another person said it! I spent some time pondering this, and I realized that what the Russians were saying was that we Americans don’t respect them—that we think they’re not as rich, important or sophisticated as we are.
So, the title of the book has two meanings: First, it’s a reference to that anecdote. Second, the bear has long been a symbol of Russia, so Bears in the Streets also can refer to the people of Russia, which is what this book is about. It’s not about politics, the Kremlin, or Vladimir Putin; it’s just about the Russian people. But of course, by understanding more about the people, we can gain a better understanding of their government and leadership.
FPI: What are some of the notable changes you saw in Russia over the course of 20 years? Did any of them come as a surprise?
The changes were just enormous. The first trip was in 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia had been under Soviet rule for 70-plus years, and suddenly they were switching from a state-controlled economy to a capitalist one, so you can imagine how chaotic that whole transition was for everyone. There was a lot of fear and trepidation, because the ruble had collapsed, and people didn’t know what the future held. Boris Yeltsin was president, and although he’d started off strong, by the mid-90s he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a pillar of stability.
When I came back in 2005, after a ten-year absence, everything felt very different. Putin had been in power for five years, and most people I talked to were better off financially: they had credit cards, they’d traveled abroad, they could afford to buy imported goods. The Russian economy had rebounded, primarily because the price of oil tripled between 1995 and 2005. And just in general, people seemed to feel more confident about the state of their country, and about Putin as their leader.
When I went back in 2015, Putin had been in power for 15 years—but the ruble has collapsed again. Between January 2014 and September 2015, when I launched the third trip, the ruble lost half its value, which was just devastating for Russians. I was really curious whether they would blame Putin for their economic woes. But instead, they blamed us, for the sanctions we had imposed, and for the falling price of oil. This was really eye-opening for me: It showed me that the Russians’ love of Putin goes very deep. It’s easy to maintain support when the economy is good, but even when the economy was tanking, Russians still believed Putin wasn’t at fault.
Russians love Putin in part because they’re better off under him than they ever were under Yeltsin. But it’s crucial to remember that Putin has systematically shut down independent journalism over the years, so many Russians aren’t aware of—or don’t believe—the bad things he’s done.
FPI: To what extent do you see Russian people’s attitudes and perceptions towards the US reflected in US-Russia relations? Is it as hostile as the media portrays?
Well, U.S.-Russia relations are what they are because of who our respective leaders are. The truth is, Americans don’t really know what Russians think of anything. Over there, they watch a lot of American television; The Big Bang Theory and Friends are particularly popular. They also get a lot of American movies and music. But how many Americans have seen a Russian movie, let alone a Russian TV show? So the simple truth is, we know very little about the Russian people themselves.
To many Americans, Russians are a cold, unhappy people. But that’s really not the case at all. It may seem that way because culturally, Russians are not overly friendly to people they don’t know. But once you have any kind of connection, they’re unbelievably generous and welcoming. In 1995, when I first traveled to Chita, in far eastern Siberia, I had been given the number of someone who was a friend of a friend of someone I knew in St. Petersburg. This person didn’t know me from Adam, but when I arrived at the Chita train station at 3 a.m., she was waiting at the train station waving an American flag. It was unbelievable to me how generous people were as I crossed the country dropping in on them over 20 years.
FPI: What continues to draw your interest in Russia? Is it the people, culture, language, or the politics? Do you foresee a fourth trip 10 years later?
I totally want to go back in 2025; I just love seeing how people’s lives have evolved over time. And there’s also the whole other layer of what’s happening in the country itself: Russia is a vital country in the geopolitical world order, so it pays to understand what’s going on there. In that sense, my trips are both personal and political.
I also enjoy these long trips because the Russian countryside is so beautiful and varied. I had the opportunity to go on a research expedition with scientists on Lake Baikal—a once-in-a-lifetime thing I got to do three times. And I visited a tiny village in Buryatia, which is close to Mongolia and has these rolling low hills and big skies, very different from what we typically think of Russia. Most U.S. media coverage of Russia is very Moscow-centric, and making these trips enables me to see what’s going on in the rest of the country.
FPI: As a traveler and writer, have you ever felt your being a woman was a challenge?
The first two trips, I traveled with male photographers, so I wasn’t too worried about safety. But on the third trip, I went alone. I was definitely nervous, particularly about the long train journeys, where I’d be sharing four-bed coupés with strangers.
There was one time when I boarded the train at night, and there was only one other person in the coupé: a very red-faced young guy who seemed kind of drunk. The train pulled out of the station, and suddenly he pulled his pants off. He was wearing boxers, but yikes! I was debating what to do when he took a call, and for the next 20 minutes he talked to his girlfriend, calling her every pet name you can imagine—my sweet, my love, my little sun! I realized he was harmless, just a little drunk, and soon after the call he was asleep. But that was one of the few moments where I felt concerned about my safety.
FPI: Do you have any tips for emerging and fellow interruptors?
Remember that “no” isn’t necessarily a final answer. Meaning, if there’s something you want to do, either professionally or as a personal goal, keep pushing until you get that thing. If someone tells you no, your next question should be: How can I get this to a yes? If you can train yourself to do that, you’re going to get a lot further.
FPI: Who are some of the mentors or people who have influenced you?
Gary Matoso, the photographer who actually came up with the idea of the first trip in 1995, was a tremendous influence on me. He was just so ambitious on the project: Imagine, in 1995, deciding you’re going to create a real-time web travelogue across Russia! At the time, only 14% of American households were even online. This was insane—but we did it. No matter how many roadblocks we bumped into, Gary worked like crazy to overcome them. Because he wanted more than anything to make this trip happen.
I’ll tell you a story about one of the transformational moments for me—and I don’t know if Gary even remembers it. During the last stop of our 1995 trip, in St. Petersburg, we were planning to photograph five generations of one Russian family, from a 98-year-old woman all the way down to her 6-year-old great-great-grandson. This was the last task we had, to get this photo for our final story, which was about seeing the Soviet century through the eyes of one family.
We were scheduled to shoot the photos on our last day in Russia, but the night before, the mother of the Vanya, the 6-year-old boy, told us they couldn’t bring him because there was an ice storm in the forecast. I got off the phone, turned to Gary and said “Wow, that stinks. Looks like it’s not going to work out.” And he said: “Call them back. Tell them we’ll do whatever it takes. Get them to a yes.” Since Gary didn’t speak Russian, I had to make the call. I was uncomfortable with the idea of pushing them, but Gary was insistent. So I pleaded and wheedled until they finally agreed to bring Vanya the next morning.
And you know what? Twenty years later, when I interviewed now-26-year-old Vanya, he told me something amazing. His great-great-grandmother died a few months after we did that photo shoot… and those photos Gary took are the only ones that exist of them together. The whole family is incredibly grateful to have those pictures—and they only exist because Gary refused to let “no” be the final answer.