This spring I traveled to Chukotka, a remote patch of frozen tundra across the Bering Strait from Alaska, and found something rare in Russia these days: political activism. A group of hunters, with help from the World Wildlife Fund, had organized themselves to protect the region's polar bears, which face a dual threat from climate change and poaching.
I returned to Moscow feeling a glimmer of hope, just in time to see the government's more typical response to organized activism. In mid-April truncheon-wielding security officers broke up an attempt by President Vladimir Putin's harshest critics to hold a peaceful protest on Pushkin Square. It happened again a day later in St. Petersburg. Scores were arrested, among them the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, and dozens were beaten, including some mere bystanders.
For me, these two experiences encapsulate Russia's essence. I have lived and worked here as a journalist for five years, in a country whose breadth is, in every aspect, awesome, making it unwieldy and seemingly unknowable—though it is not.
Which is the real Russia? The country that threw off the ossified Soviet system and ushered in a new era of freedom and prosperity or the one that has whittled away at the foundations of democracy: elections, free speech, the right to assemble? The nation that brims with an emerging middle class or the one where the state has blurred the lines of property and law, allowing a corrupt bureaucracy to stifle innovation and entrepreneurialism?
Russia is all those things. Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still in search of a national interest, an identity that can replace centuries of authoritarian rule. Some, like Putin, have sought this in history, imagining the restoration of the strong, proud state. He has selectively seized upon the ideals of im-perial Russia and the Soviet Union, expropriating the traditions that suit him while ignoring those—such as the Soviets' worst crimes and those being committed today—that do not.
Russia is not becoming a new Soviet Union, as some critics believe. People here are freer than ever to travel and to worship, to shop and to read, to try to preserve polar bears in the farthest reaches of the far north (if not to shout "Putin must go!" at a street protest). And those freedoms, once enjoyed, will not be given up easily. Yevgeny Yasin, an economist and stalwart of Russia's early transition to democracy, told me not long ago that he remained optimistic, though realistic. "We thought we could change everything in five or ten years," he said. "It's turning out to take much longer." At the same time, Russia is not necessarily on what some believe to be history's irreversible march toward liberty and democracy.
"Why do you hate Russia?" I have been asked on more than one occasion when my articles chronicled the country's corruption and lawlessness, its hypocrisy and brutality, and the government's irrational paranoia (none of which appears on the increasingly servile instruments of the state media). The death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in her apartment building last October by a gunman still unknown, was a tragic watershed in my years in the country, the moment when it seemed that the basic promise of a free society was broken. Putin responded by saying, "Her influence on political life was minimal." And so?
I don't, in fact, hate Russia. On the contrary, I wish it well. But there are those in the Kremlin and other corridors of power who seem to believe that all Western reporters are bought-off agents of distrust bent on bringing Mother Russia to her knees. An apparatchik of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's domestic successor, even went so far as to ask his colleagues about my perceived "Russian-hating" ways. I considered this harmless, but I have since wondered, What kind of modern democratic state has its spies wasting time snooping around the work of one reporter, which could be had for the price of a subscription, rather than trying to track down the killers of another? —Steven Lee Myers was the New York Times' Moscow bureau chief from August 2003 TO July 2007.