Prof sees new openness in Russia
By LORETTA FULTON
Staff Writer, Abilene Reporter-News
April 1, 2000
The image of vendors standing in the snow on a Moscow street selling hot dogs cooked on a small grill is one Gary Thompson will carry for a long time.
Another is the magnificent but deteriorating cathedrals that remind visitors of the splendor that was once Mother Russia.
"The first impression one gets of Russia is how poor a country it is," said Thompson, an Abilene Christian University political science professor and state legislator from 1979-86.
Thompson spent two weeks in Russia recently as the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Growing up during the Cold War when the Soviet Union dominated the headlines, and possessing an interest in international governments, Thompson was naturally led to Russia after trips to Eastern European countries.
"Visiting Russia was a very special occasion," he said.
Thompson left Russia just two days before the election of Vladimir Putin as the former Communist country's second president. Observers say Russians hope Putin can rescue the floundering economy and improve their lives.
Described as methodical and deliberate, Putin warned his countrymen not to expect quick fixes. Thompson said his observation was that the Russian people don't necessarily expect any fixes from their government, although for the most part they are pleased with Putin's election to replace Boris Yeltsin, who resigned Dec. 31.
"They really don't have much faith that there are political solutions to their problems," Thompson said.
One political view they definitely share with their new president regards the war with rebels in Chechnya.
Russia has drawn criticism from Western nations that claim the seven-month war has resulted in human rights violations. Russia rejects those allegations.
Putin's views on that war resonated with the Russian people, Thompson said. They see the war as necessary to maintain the integrity of Russian borders, not as a trampling of people seeking independence.
"For Russians, that was probably a major centerpiece of his campaign," Thompson said.
He said he felt no remnants of the Cold War such as governmental intimidation during his stay in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
He visited cathedrals, a Church of Christ and the Moscow Center for Political and Social Sciences, which Thompson characterized as being similar to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
In St. Petersburg, Thompson found traces of the grandeur that once characterized Russia. Most public buildings are now dilapidated, he said, but some of the historically significant buildings and cathedrals have been restored.
"What a city that must have been in the 19th century," he said.
Even living in what Westerners would consider a dreary existence, Thompson saw in the Russian people a surprising warmth and candor.
"I found the Russians to be open and cordial and generous," he said.
They were so generous, in fact, that they routinely declined monetary offers for their assistance, Thompson said. However, they did take him up on his offer to go out to eat. The Russians favor McDonald's over any other restaurant, and Thompson agrees.
"It's clean and quick and the food is good and reliable," he said. "And they have restrooms."
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