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Just below my window / Stands a birch-tree white

The title of this post is the first line from one of the best known poems by Sergei Esenin, one of Russia’s finest poets. He was found dead, hanging from a rope in a posh St Petersburg hotel, in 1925, just as disillusionment with the Bolshevik Revolution was beginning to spread among the artists who had supported its coming so fervently. To this day, mystery remains: did he kill himself or was it the secret police who got him? We’ll likely never know.

Few things in Russia are clear. The country is constantly in the midst of massive change, and that’s true of today. There’s a struggle happening for the future of Russia – has it reverted into a hermit kingdom, closed off to dissent and foreign investors, or is there hope that the freedom – without the chaos – of the 1990s can return?

I wanted to come see for myself. Both my parents fled the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s separately, meeting in New York soon after and raising their children as Americans (they even changed our last name from Voitashevsky soon after I was born).

As a result, I feel immense sympathy for Russia – its long, often tragic, history, its desire to be taken seriously as a world power, the difficulty of governing a country that spans 11 time zones. Yet the trends that have appeared under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and the ex-KGB clan with which he’s surrounded himself, are worrying, to say the least. He allows no opposition, wreaks havoc on business at a whim, and presides over a country where corruption runs rampant and a fair judicial system is a distant thought.

His once unassailable power is now being tested by the economic crisis, which is presenting a challenge to the country unseen since its 1998 financial collapse. As always, it’s a fascinating time to be here.