Russians and Americans have more in common than they know.
On this episode of Recode Decode, host Kara Swisher sat down with Lisa Dickey, the author of the new book, “Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.” Dickey visited the same people in 11 Russian cities across seven time zones, first in 1995, then in 2005 and again in 2015. On the podcast, she and Swisher talk about how Russian attitudes toward Americans have changed — and how they haven’t.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the person who keeps sending Russian nesting dolls to the White House, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas in how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode anywhere you listen to podcast or on Apple Podcast, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher, Sound Cloud or more or just recode.net/podcast for more.
Today in the red chair is Lisa Dickey, the authors of “Bears in the Streets.” It’s a book about three trips she took across Russia over three decades and how the country evolved in that time. She also spoke at the Code Conference this year and was unusually popular, although I don’t understand why. I am delighted to welcome her to the Recode Decode podcast. Lisa, thank you for joining us.
Lisa Dickey: Thank you so much, Kara Swisher, for having me.
No problem. We have so much to talk about. Let’s just dive in. Why don’t you explain for the people what “Bears in the Streets” is, because I think you’ve done something unusual. You went to Russia over, what? 17,000 years?
17,000 years, approximately.
Three decades of trips to Russian.
I guess technically it would be over … The first trip was in 1995. I went with this photographer Gary Matoso who had this radical idea that he just wanted to go across Russia and take pictures of ordinary people and then upload them to the internet, which most of the Russians we talked to had no idea what that was. They thought we were just making stuff up. This was his big idea. He had this prototype digital camera and we were going to go across Russia.
What was the camera?
It was a Kodak DCS 420 and it was the size of a house. I actually didn’t even know that this technology existed when he showed it to me. First he told me, he said, “Oh, we’re going to do … I’m going to take pictures and we’re going to do a World Wide Web travel log.” I thought that was nuts. This was 1995. In 1995 I think about 15 percent of American households were even online. Even in the States we didn’t really … People weren’t online.
There certainly wasn’t a web presence.
No. I just thought he was insane and I thought, “Oh, this is great. I’m about to go across Russia for three months with this crazy man who I’ve only just met,” but then he pulled this giant camera out and he showed me. He took a picture of me and then he popped this little diskette into this other little thing, adapter thing, and then he put it into his laptop and my face came up on the screen. I had no idea this technology was even in the works. It was just unbelievable to me.
We did this and then we had these two guys in San Francisco who were our partners for this nonprofit. They put the actual site up because it was all we could do. He would take these photos. Gary would take these photos, shrink the pictures down to the 25 kilobytes each and it would take us like eight hours to upload six photos of 25 kilobytes each. We would send them to these guys and then they would put them up on the site. We’re doing this in the middle of Siberia with this dial-up. We didn’t actually even see our own website until we were done because we didn’t get a connection.
Until you were done? You would upload text?
Yeah. I would send the stories, Gary would upload the photos and then we would have a little thing saying, “This photo is this person that goes with this paragraph,” and then the guys would just put it up on the site.
Would assemble it?
Yeah. I didn’t even see it until the end.
There was no self-web publishing at the time.
Oh my god. No. No. Nothing like that.
Why did you do this? Why do it on the web? Why not just do a book because that’s what people did in those days?
Because Gary was a guy who always wanted to push the boundaries and push the limits of what you could do with photography. Somebody he knew at Kodak said, “Oh, we are developing this new thing and it’s really cool.” He said, “Oh.” You could then just put stuff up on the web. His big thing that he was really excited about was, “Oh, we can have people emailing us and being in contact with us along the way.”
Two or three weeks into this three-month trip, we got an email from a guy in Canada saying, “Hey, I actually left Russia two years ago to try to make a living here in Canada. My wife and my kids are still in Irkutsk. Can you stop by and say hi to them and put pictures of them up?” We did. It was like this incredible … Gary and I just couldn’t believe it. It just totally blew our minds that oh yeah, we go and knock on the door of this house and the woman’s like, “Oh, hello.” We said, “Well, we’ve been getting this thing called email from your husband. He said to swing by and take some pictures.”
That was the time where you said, “We’ve been getting this thing called email.”
This thing called email. There’s this really funny, funny moment that happened where I was interviewing this woman in Novosibirsk and she, like everybody else, would say … We’d say, “Well, we’re American journalists,” and they would say, “Who you writing for?” We would say, “Well, there’s this thing called the internet,” and we would explain that you plug your computer into a phone line. People just thought we were making stuff up. I said, “Do you mind if I use your last name?”
Because the Russians are such trusting people.
I said, “Do you mind if I use your last name in what I’m writing?” She said, “Well, tell me again where it’s being published.” I said, “Well, there’s this thing called the internet,” and I explained it to her. She said, “Okay. Stop. Stop. Stop.” She said, “Russians will never figure that out. You can go ahead and write what you want.” She was like, “Yeah.”
We will fast-forward to today. They had figured it out.
Yeah. That’s right.
You did this across Russia and then published this to what?
We did this website. We called it The Russian Chronicles.
Right. Like 14 people were on the internet.
No. Actually, no. It was surprising how much … We got actually a fair amount of traffic. We got a lot of people emailing us. We had this little page on the site that was like … I mean, it’s all so rudimentary to look at it now.
A lot of the internet then wasn’t visual. It was actually blue links.
The fact that we were actually uploading photographs from the middle of Siberia, this was just insanely … I still can’t believe we managed to do it. Gary actually had some sort of deal with Sprint which had these telecom nodes there because they were starting to try to do business in Russia. He had this deal with them where we would go to their offices and someone would hook up to the nodes directly. I still don’t fully understand how we did it. We had this website.
You would sit there for eight hours.
Yes. It was so stupid. We’d be like, okay, we start to upload. It was like, “Oh, this one’s really slow. Okay. Well, you watch and I’ll sleep for a while.” Because if it conked out, you’d have to start all over again. You go, “Oh god.” We had to catch the train. We had to get to the train station, and we’d go all night and then it would stop. We did the site, and actually if you look at it … Actually, up until about two or three months ago, it was still online. You could look at it and you could look on the bottom of the homepage it said, “Best viewed using Netscape 1.1 or later.” That’s kind of my favorite bit. It was super cutting edge for its time and it just looks ridiculous today.
Well, look at old Yahoos. You ever look at old Yahoos? The first pages of Yahoo? You went back then in 10 years?
Right. Gary and I did this trip and I thought, “Well, that was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.” We did things like we went out to visit a farmer in this tiny village outside Ulan-Ude. We went out with the scientists who studied Lake Baikal. We went out on an expedition with them.
Explain. The lake is one of the biggest … It’s like Lake Michigan.
Lake Baikal is like a wonder of the world. It’s actually got more fresh water in it than all of the Great Lakes combined, but it has much less surface area. It’s actually super deep. It’s more than a mile deep. Lake Baikal. It’s amazing.
That’s where the Loch Ness monster lives.
That’s right. The Loch Baikal monster. It’s his summer home. We interviewed a rap star in Moscow and we went to this lighthouse at the edge of the Earth in Vladivostok. We’re just like meeting regular people and doing this. I’m thinking that was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I’ll never do anything that cool again. Ten years goes by and I call Gary because we’re still friends. He was living in Paris. I said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we just went back and found all those people again?”
It’s sort of like that “Seven Up” series.
Yeah, like “Seven Up,” exactly. Exactly. A lot had changed in Russia because in 1995 it was just four years out from the Soviet Union and Yeltsin was the president. Clinton was our president. It was like super-friendly relations between the two countries. Then in 2005, now Putin had been in office for five years. The economy had turned around. I just thought it would be really fascinating to go see how people are.
Who’s our president at the time?
George W. Bush. Gary couldn’t come so I hired another photographer. This guy named David Hillegas. He and I set out and we actually did this deal with the Washington Post where it ran on washingtonpost.com as a blog for 11 weeks. We just went.
Which were also in their infancy. Blogs were also …
Blogs were new. Blogs were totally new. It was very cool to be able to have washingtonpost.com running it. We went and like …
What blog software did you use at the time?
Actually, you know what? I just would email the … Again it was like me emailing the stuff and David emailing the …
Wow. There were a couple of places using WordPress. I think it was getting around.
It was just whatever it was. There was an editor there that I worked with who put it up on the site. Actually it’s funny, just as an aside, we didn’t get as much viewership as we hoped because we launched on September 1st, 2005, and that was right in the middle of … New Orleans was underwater from Hurricane Katrina. Washington Post stripped down their entire homepage and it was nothing but Katrina the whole time.
Anyway, we start the trip again. We start with the remote lighthouse in Vladivostok, which is 5,700 miles from St. Petersburg. It’s seven time zones away. It’s like right next to North Korea. We went there and just knocked on the door again to see the people and I had no idea if they’d be there. I had no idea if they’d be alive.
They come out and they’re like, “Oh hey, American journalist who was here 10 years ago. You’re back. Isn’t that funny?” Did that all the way across and found almost every day … Incredibly enough, we found everybody except for one guy who was an elderly pensioner in 1995 and I suspect he was no longer living. We found everybody and did this blog. Even before I finished in 2005, I thought well, now I have to go back in 2015. I’ve got to see what’s going on with all these people again.
What was the difference between Russia and … In the two Russias?
In 1995, four years out from the Soviet Union, the ruble had collapsed. The transition, if you remember, from the state-controlled economy to a market economy in Russia was completely disastrous. The ruble collapsed. People lost their life savings. Everybody was freaked out. You didn’t have the social net that you had had before. Everybody was just like, “We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.” They were just completely freaked out. It was very chaotic.
Then in 2005, I got there. Putin had been in office for five years. The economy was doing really well because between 1995 and 2005, the price of oil tripled. It’s a very oil-based economy. They have all this money coming in and then they’re sending it out to the provinces and the other cities and stuff. They’re building better roads and they’re building bridges. Suddenly — I think on that first trip there was literally one person that I met who had a credit card and had ever been outside of the Soviet-controlled area. They had gone on a trip to Italy.
By the time we came back in 2005, people were going on vacations to Turkey and they had credit cards and they could afford to buy imported stuff. It just felt so different. The shorthand that I’ve used — which I think is really true — is like Putin made Russia great again. If you think about it, Russia in the second half of the 20th century, there were only two superpowers in the world, us and the Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union collapses and in the ’90s nobody cared what Russia thought about anything anymore because they were poor. They were broke. Their army was weak. Nobody cared. Then in 2005, they start to get strong again. People ask me all the time, is Putin really popular over there? The short answer is yes.
We’re going to get into that in more details of what that is.
That was the main difference was just economically everybody was doing a lot better.
What did you bring?
What did I bring?
This time? You didn’t bring this giant camera?
Now people have been uploading photos to the internet pretty easily.
I don’t think Instagram or Facebook was there.
In 2005? No. Uh-uh. No. David Hillegas, the photographer, had regular good cameras.
Yeah, there was no Twitter. There was Facebook. No, there wasn’t Facebook. Facebook was like 2006 or 7, I think. Yes. There wasn’t any of that stuff, but there were internet cafes. We were able to go even in tiny little Birobidzhan, which is this like …
Where is Birobidzhan?
Birobidzhan is like … It’s so far east it’s not even Siberia. It’s the Russian Far East. It’s just a little bit north of China. It’s really the middle of nowhere. It’s where Joseph Stalin sent Jewish people in the late ’20s and early ’30s promising them … It was called the Jewish Autonomous Region, still is, and his whole pitch was, “This will be a Jewish homeland in Russia, everybody.” He basically offered all these Jewish people free passage on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to go out to this place Birobidzhan.
At its height there were actually more than 40,000 Jewish people living there, but by now, by the time I got there in 1995, there were very, very few. Even in little Birobidzhan, they had this internet café with super-fast connections because there was all these teenage boys in there playing games. Video games and stuff. It just was like night and day, being able to communicate.
You brought a digital camera.
We brought a digital camera.
Yeah. Much like a regular-sized camera. One of the sponsors of the trip was this satellite phone company. They gave us a satellite phone and an Arbigan satellite communicator. Do you remember that? Do you remember those?
You hook it up and you basically … You hook it up to your laptop and then you can be anywhere. I mean, it was so difficult to use — sorry, company that sponsored us. To show what it could do, we were out on a boat on Lake Baikal and we were like, “Look, we’re uploading photographs from our Arbigan.” We were out in the field in Buryatia with the farmer and, “Look, we’re out here with the cows and we’re uploading this stuff.” It was so hard to use we hardly used it at all really. Then of course, you compare that to when I went back in 2015.
Right. We’re going to get to that in a second. You carried a digital camera, your laptops, what else?
Digital camera, laptops. We had to still double up on everything because we’re traveling with Apple computers and you can’t buy Apple stuff in Russia in 2005. Actually we had a really disastrous moment where David accidentally knocked his laptop off of a chair and it broke.
There was vodka involved, I’m sure.
There was always vodka involved. No. He accidentally knocks it off and then it wouldn’t start. I was like, “Oh my god,” thinking I’m literally going to have to fly out of the country into Western Europe, buy a laptop and bring it back because I don’t know how else to do this. Then David somehow popped it open and fiddled with it and fixed it. I still don’t know how he did it, but we doubled up on software. We doubled up on the wires and stuff because there just was no way to buy anything that was made by Apple there. Then the satellite communicator thing.
Internet cafés. It was easy at that point to dial up. It was much, much, much easier on the second trip than it was in the first trip.
This is a happier Russia under Putin this time?
Yes, much more so. People felt more comfortable. They felt more comfortable talking to us, certainly. People were very open talking to us — surprisingly so, I thought.
I think people have a vision of Russia that’s quite different than what it is like.
Yeah, no, it’s true. If you asked people here, “What do you think of a Russian person?” they’ll say like cold, unfriendly. They certainly are to people they don’t know necessarily. If you’re walking down the street in Russia, you don’t smile at everybody because they will think you’re insane or they’ll think you want something. They don’t really trust that. When you’re in a Russian person’s home, they’re just unbelievably … People are just so generous to us on this trip. If you think about it, right?
If you’re a farmer out in the middle of wherever you are and two Russian people come knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, we’re a couple of Russian journalists and we’d like to write about you,” you’re probably not going to have them in for dinner and have them stay over, but this is what people did with us.
When you went back in 2015, the conclusion was that Russia was in a good place, wasn’t it?
Russia in 2015 was kind of in between.
2005, yeah, Russia seemed to be in a good place.
Yeah, we’ll get to that in the next section.
People were getting their confidence back. People were feeling like, “All right, we made it through the worst of it.” The ’90s pretty much sucked for Russian people. It was not a good time.
What was the most unusual person that you met there during the 10-year difference?
Who changed the most?
Oh wow. Well, I’ll say a couple people had really dramatic bad things happen to them. There was one guy actually who was murdered and that was awful.
That was a terrible, very, very, very sad story. Then another guy had another tragic thing happen to him. He got hit by a bus and was in a coma for a while and then he came out of it. I went to go meet him at a metro stop and he and I stood on the platform, the only two people in the platform for ages because neither of us recognized each other. I was like, “Where is this guy? Where is this guy?” Then I looked and I was like, “Oh my god, I think that’s him,” because he had changed a lot because he’d had this accident happen.
It was really interesting to see, most people were so much better off in 2005 than they had been in 1995. There were only a couple who were not. There was a farmer who wasn’t because he lost his tax subsidies he had in the ’90s. His story sort of got worse and worse as we went along, but I think farming … It’s a difficult way to make a living at the best of times, but almost everybody in 2005 was better off.
Better off. Okay. We’re here with Lisa Dickey who’s the author of “Bears in the Streets.” It’s a journey across Russia she took in three trips over three decades, and we’ll talk more about that when we get back.
Today’s show is brought to you by Audible, which has an unmatched selection of audiobooks, original audio shows, news, comedy and more. You can listen to all of that wherever you are thanks to Audible’s free apps for iOS, Android and Amazon devices. It’s not a streaming or rental service. With Audible, you own your books. Lisa, what book should I listen to next?
“Bears in the Streets.”
No. No. No. You can’t say your own book. I said that.
You did say that.
There’s no Audible of it, I mean.
Oh right. What book should you listen to next? Well, I just picked up “A Gentlemen in Moscow” and I’m about a third of the way in and it’s really, really good.
What is this about?
It’s a novel and it’s about a guy who is being held in a Metropol Hotel in the early 1920s. He’s a count and he’s being held there because he’s supposed to be antirevolutionary. It’s just a really interesting character study. Again, I’m only about a third into it, but it’s really quite good.
Well, thank you very much.
We’re here with author Lisa Dickey who wrote “Bears in the Streets,” which is about — you guessed it — Russia. It’s a book about three trips she took across Russia over three decades and how the technology and the country evolved in that time. The first time you went over you had a giant suitcase full of technology.
Giant suitcase full of every cord and wire and software and a giant digital camera the size of a Buick.
Buick. The second time? Laptops.
Second time were just like regular digital cameras and we had a couple laptops. We did still have to double up on stuff because they didn’t have Apple stuff there.
They didn’t have Apple stuff. Third time, you decided to go back. What happened?
Third time …
You keep going back.
I know. It’s like I’m obsessed. It’s like an addiction. It’s a weird addiction. Yes, so I went back again in 2015. Found all the same people again. This time around I thought …
That you interviewed. This is a trip across from Vladivostok to where? Moscow?
To St. Petersburg.
Eleven cities in seven different time zones.
I would go east to west on the Trans-Siberian and stop in each of these 11 different cities and interview the same people that I had interviewed first in 1995 just to see how their lives have changed. It’s an in-depth look at how Russian people’s lives — actual people’s lives — have changed over the past 20 years. For the technology this time around, I did not bring a photographer. I thought I can just take my own pictures using an iPhone. Isn’t that easy? I did that.
Were they just as good?
They were not as good unfortunately. This time around I didn’t do a website. It would have been so easy to blog or Instagram or do whatever it was. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I was doing a book and so I sort of kept it under wraps. It was just so much easier this time. It was ridiculous. I mean, I could just FaceTime with people, whereas before when I’m out on Lake Baikal and I’m using that big clunky Arbigan in 2005 trying to upload stuff, but this time I literally was standing on a boat floating on Lake Baikal FaceTiming with my wife. No problem. It’s so incredible, the difference.
Because of cellular service.
Also, this is kind of a funny story, in 1995 Gary and I had told this guy in Ulan-Ude that we wanted to meet a Buryat farmer. Ulan-Ude is the capital of Buryatia, which is one of the republics.
Which part of Russia, for those who are not geographically insightful?
It’s in Siberia. It’s right just north of Mongolia. We had said we want to meet a farmer. He said, “Okay. I think I know someone who can help you.” He had this colleague who was a Buryat woman who knew somebody who lived in a village like three hours away. She wrote a handwritten letter in the Buryat language and said, “Get on this bus. Go three hours. Get off and ask for this woman by name. I don’t know her street address, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a tiny village.” We go out with this letter in a language that we don’t understand. We get to this woman’s house. We hand her the letter. She’s like, “Oh my god. Are you actually Americans?” We said yeah and she couldn’t believe it. She’d never met a foreigner before.
We had this crazy experience and she hooked us up with this farmer and she drove us way out into the sticks. We spent a couple days with this farmer. Fast-forward now to 2015. I’m in Ulan-Ude with the same guy who 20 years ago recommended me to this Buryat woman who did all this for us and I said, “Well, we’re going to go back out and see the farmer again.” The guy’s like, “Does he know you’re coming?” I said no and he said, “I really think you should get in touch with him.” I said, “Well, I don’t have his phone number or anything. We’re just going to show up.” He was like, “I’m really uncomfortable with that.” How can we find him? I was like, “Oh, I know. I’ll look up his son on Facebook.”
His son was on Facebook and I sent him a message and he didn’t reply immediately. Then I was like, “I don’t know what to do. Oh, he’s probably on Contactia,” which is the Russian version of Facebook.
Could you explain that, Contactia?
Contactia, which means in contact. It’s a social media site. I contacted him through Contactia.
Did you actually join Contactia?
Well, I did it through somebody who already had a profile on it. He responded in like half an hour. He’s like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re back here. Call my dad. Here’s his cellphone.”
This kid was how old?
I guess he’s probably like 30 something because he was about 11 or 12 when I first met him. He’s like, “Oh, here’s my dad’s cellphone number. I’ll call him and tell him you’re coming.” The difference between going for three hours on a rickety bus with a handwritten letter …
Right. I was expecting a donkey in there somewhere.
There should have been a donkey. I never thought I’d see any of these people again after 1995 because they all lived in the middle of nowhere and why was I ever going to go back there. Now I’m Facebook friends with all of them. Almost all of them.
You don’t even need to see them anymore.
I know everything that’s going on with everybody because we’re all Facebook friends. We can message each other and we’re liking each person’s stuff.
Were these farmers on Facebook?
The farmer’s not, but his son and his daughter are.
I see. Okay. He’s on Instagram. No. You went back. You go back with just your phone and just yourself and you found these same people.
I sure did.
You could chronicle them in the easiest way possible with just a mobile device.
Yes. It was very easy this time around. It was super easy. I went back. I mean, the biggest worry that I had this time was that we’ve been seeing the anti-American sentiment was really high. They had invaded Crimea. They had imposed sanctions and everybody was saying that the relations between the U.S. and Russia were worse than they have been since the Stalin era. I was very nervous about going back traveling by myself, but I didn’t have any trouble at all. I went back and people were just as welcoming as they had been before. They had a lot to say about the American government and how they truly and vehemently dislike the American government, particularly Barack Obama.
Obama’s the president at this point.
Obama’s the president at this point. I would ask people what they thought about Obama and they just were like … Oh god. The faces they made. I had one guy say, “I’m just embarrassed for you as a country that you could ever possibly elect such a man.” They meant it.
Wow. Not Trump? No, they love Trump, right?
Well, you know what? It’s funny. In the fall of 2015 when I made this trip, I didn’t really ask people about Trump because I never imagined that he would actually get the nomination, much less be president.
Right. Explain why they hated Obama.
Well, they hated him because most of the information that they get about him is from watching TV news, and most TV news in Russia is controlled by the Kremlin. What they’re getting is a steady diet of … I would say, “Why do you dislike him?” “Well, because he’s a liar, because he’s sneaky.” I had a lot of people say this to me.
Towards the end [of the trip] I had this conversation with a couple and they kept saying that. They were like, “Oh, he’s so awful and all he does is lie and you can’t believe a word that he says.” I said, “All right. Well, so I mean you hate …” Then the husband said, “Well, it’s never good for Russia when a Democrat is in office.” I said, “All right. Then did you like George W. Bush?” Then they’re like, “Oh god. No. We hated him too. He was terrible.” I said, “Well, are there any presidents that we had that you liked or admired?” No. Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan who was most aggressive towards …
I was like, “Wait. How could like Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan’s the guy who …”
“Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev. Tear down this wall.”
Yeah, exactly. They’re like, “He said what he meant. He was a strong man.” I was really surprised by that.
I was surprised.
Heavy dislike of Obama.
Yeah. Very heavy dislike of Obama. Very heavy dislike of Hillary Clinton. I think their feeling was, Russian gets screwed when Obama or Clinton ran the office. That was their feeling.
Right, because they don’t like the …
The title of the book, “Bears in the Streets,” speaks to a feeling that I encountered numerous times on this trip: Russians think that we don’t respect them. The title comes from the second day that I was there in the 2015 trip. A woman said to me, “Well, you Americans all just think that we have bears wandering around in the streets here.”
Well, do they?
I’ll get to that.
Because I think they do.
She says this to me and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of funny,” meaning that we think that they’re backwards or less sophisticated.
They’ve had that problem for hundreds of years, since Peter the Great, right?
I said, “Well, that’s kind of funny. I don’t think we really think that, but whatever. Thank you.” Then a week later I’m in a different city and another person says the same exact phrase to me, “Oh, you Americans all think we have bears wandering in the streets.” Six different cities, six different people said this exact thing to me.
It must have been on their version of Fox News or something.
It must have been. I don’t know. The biggest thing I think for them is they feel like we don’t respect them. They feel like we don’t pay attention to them. Well now of course, we’re paying attention to Russia all the time and I think that that makes them feel … This is a gross exaggeration to say everybody, but I do think there is a certain segment of Russian society that does feel like, “All right. Now you’re going to pay attention to us again just like you did when it was two superpowers prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
That’s been an issue of Russia since Peter the Great. I think it’s something that’s a constant phrase I recall from my historical learning in college.
If you think about it from 1945 through the end of the Soviet Union — so over almost 50 years — we cared a lot about what the Russians did all the time.
Well, we disliked them. We didn’t pay attention. Yeah, that’s right. There’s all those sports things.
Yeah, it was all that stuff. It was always like the Soviets versus the Americans. That was the thing. In the ’90s after the Soviet Union collapsed, everybody was like, “Okay. China. Now we care about China. Now China’s the other superpower.”
There’s another funny story where the guy who I was writing about in Novosibirsk, this guy named Valera, he and I had a free night and so we went to the movies in Novosibirsk. This is the fall of 2015. We went to see “The Martian.” In “The Martian,” there’s this plot point where Matt Damon is stranded on Mars and we need to get a rocket up there and we have a rocket explode and oh my god, how are we going to get up there in time. We have to ask another country for help.
Who do we ask, right? We asked China. Then we come out of the movie theater and I said to Valera, I’m like, “Oh, how’d you like the movie?” thinking he’d say like, “Oh, American can-do spirit. Matt Damon, square-jawed American hero. Ha ha.” But instead he was really pissed off. He said, “I cannot believe who would ever suggest that you would ask China instead of Russia?” He was so offended by that. He was really convinced that that was like the American government forced the filmmakers to make this choice just to screw with Russia.
That seemed to me like a really prevalent attitude among the people, that the things that we’re doing are meant to screw with Russia, but I think we also think that about Russia. The things they do are meant to screw with us. To a certain extent, some of the stuff they do is, but some of the stuff that we do is meant to screw with them.
Especially that movie.
Especially that movie.
Obama called Damon up and said, “Hey, Chinese. Piss them off.”
If you read the book, which is … just read the book, actually. It is written in the book that it is China and the guy who wrote the book, he just was putting chapters up online. He was just like a nobody writer who was just writing the stuff and putting it online. I mean it’s better obviously …
Well, he got called by Obama.
In terms of how Russia was, this is 10 years into Putin, 15 years into Putin?
Putin came into office in 2000. He’s now 15 years in.
Right. It’s a long time.
Big strong man.
Let’s clarify that. There was Dmitry Medvedev for a while because he had …
Right. Medvedev is basically Putin’s right-hand guy. Effectively 15 years of Putin.
What was the attitude? Where has Russia been besides feeling insecure around the U.S.?
If you look at it as sort of the arc of the 95 trip, it’s chaotic. The ruble had collapsed. Everything was terrible. 2005 they’re a lot stronger. The price of oil had risen. 2015 their economy is not doing so well.
Because the price of oil had gone down.
The price of oil had fallen again. In January of 2014, you could get, $1 would buy 33 rubles. When I started my trip in September of 2015, so about 18, 19 months later, $1 would buy you 67 rubles. The ruble just collapsed again and it was partly due to the sanctions and it was partly due to the falling prices of oil. I’d be going across country and I’d talk to people. Like there was one guy who lost his job and he ended up working as a bus driver, but he had to stop doing it because he wasn’t getting his checks from the government. This used to be a huge problem. In the ’90s, the government couldn’t afford to pay people and now it was happening again.
I said to him, “Well, are you mad at the government? Are you mad at Putin?” He was like, “Oh no. I’m not mad at Putin. I’m mad at you guys.” Because, he said, “You guys are screwing with our economy. You’re doing it just to make us weak. Because it makes you stronger when we’re weak.” He had actually a framed picture of Putin up on his bookshelf with pictures of his family. I saw so many people who had framed pictures of Putin and like calendars of Putin.
You showed off some calendars of Putin at the … Some of them disturbing. A lot of chesty. Do you like the “SNL” version of him?
Oh my god. He’s really funny. He’s perfect.
Yeah. He’s very chesty. He’s very chesty with a big Russian orthodox cross. What I love about those calendars is they’ll always have like the triptych of photos, right? There’s Putin either with a gun or on a horse or with his shirt off. Then there’s Putin cuddling some sort of furry animal, like a kitten or something. Then there’s Putin looking just like your favorite uncle, right? “Look. Here’s Putin. He looks like a nice guy. Let’s go for lunches.”
“He can kill you at any moment.”
It is fascinating the difference between how we perceive Putin and how they perceive Putin.
Which we’re going to talk about a little bit more, like why that is and where the disconnect is, but they really admire and continue to think he’s the best. Most Russians. Is that correct?
Obviously they’re not a monolithic people. There are a lot of people who don’t like Putin.
There’s been a recent protest.
There have been recent protests. I mean I think the sort of shorthand is look, if you look at the United States and how “Americans” feel about something, you pretty much kind of take New York and Washington, D.C., as separate entities or not separate, but they’re not represented …
It’s a half-and-half country, really, because half the country lives in cities and half …
I think in Russia, when you’re talking about Russian people in particular, for me I try to stick to the people I actually spoke with and who I have experience with. The majority of people that I spoke with on these trips were not in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but then the people I spoke with in Moscow and St. Petersburg were a little bit more … had slightly different attitudes. Not access to, but they just were more aware, I think, of the differing opinions of Putin worldwide. Whereas there were a lot of the people that I talked to who were in Siberia or the Russian Far East or the smaller villages and towns, the ones I talked to, they just love the guy.
Give me two or three examples of the difference of people that surprised you.
People change. You think the scientists are still the same?
They actually really were. It’s funny. It’s not like people changed in some tremendously huge way. They really didn’t. It was pretty consistent. The lighthouse keepers were more or less the same. They had been super nervous on the first trip because Vladivostok used to be a closed city and then it was open and then there’s these Americans poking around with all this weird equipment. Then they were less nervous later. I wouldn’t say that people changed a tremendous amount. Their circumstances certainly did. You mentioned scientists at Lake Baikal.
One of the things that was really fascinating was in 1995 we went out on this expedition with these scientists — and these are world-class scientists, Lake Baikal was an amazing lake. It’s like Woods Hole oceanographers, right? They were so broke. The institute wasn’t getting them the money they needed to do these expeditions. In order to do the work that they needed to do, they would sell postcards on the side or they would sell aquarium fish. They were trying to find ways to make enough money to actually do these expeditions.
Then I go back in 2005 and suddenly there’s all this oil money flowing in. They have plenty of money. They’re doing all these expeditions. They’re not having to look abroad for funding, which they felt embarrassed by. They felt like, “Oh god. In 1995, we’re constantly having to ask foreign governments for money to study our own amazing lake.” This again goes to the chip that they have on their shoulder. Not them specifically, but Russia in general.
Then I get back in 2015 and I’m really curious. Do they still have money to do these things because the ruble has fallen? They did have the money to do the stuff? And it’s really interesting because the first two trips I was very focused on did the scientists have the resources they need to do this. On the third trip it became apparent the story was that the lake is actually really sick now. This magnificent lake that’s always been one of the cleanest bodies of water in the world is now being choked by algae. The sponges are dying. The health of the lake is really precarious right now. That actually became the story.
Well, that’s interesting. Then what about the rapper who became right wing-y, right?
No. MC Pavlov is his name. He was a really tricky one. He was trickier than I expected him to be. Just sort of as a social experiment on this trip across Russia this time, I revealed to people that I’m gay, because I was really curious to how people would respond, because obviously in 2013 Russia passed this law that you can’t propagandize being a gay person. I was like, “Well, now I’m going to go across the country and propagandize the fact that I’m gay and let’s see how that goes.” Most people were actually really chill about it. Most people were really cool about it.
The rapper was not so much. He was very thrown by that. He also was one of a few people on the trip who basically said to me, “Well, it’s clear. It’s been proven that 9/11 was an inside job, that the American government basically was behind the destruction of the Twin Towers.” It was so odd to me, because he was one of the few people — certainly in 1995 — who had actually been to the States. He was in a band, very popular Russian band called Zvuki Mu, and Brian Eno, the super producer, had heard their music and loved them and brought them to New York City in the late 1980s. This guy had traveled abroad. He’d been to the States. He seemed like a super open and chill guy, but then as I say, he had this terrible … I don’t know what is related to what in terms of how the accident affected him or anything, but he did seem to get a little bit more …
Right. Then the girls? The young girls?
Oh god. The young girls were such a fabulous crazy story. I interviewed these two sisters in Chelyabinsk. They were 11 and 16 when I first met them. The 11-year-old in particular is just this little girl with this little ponytail and practicing her piano. They had a nice life. They were the one family that had the credit cards and the parents had actually recently gone to Italy and that was just unheard of in the mid ’90s. They were a really nice family. We wrote about them.
And then I came back in 2005 and the 11-year-old and the 16-year-old were now 21 and 26. They were like these Russian women that you see in Monaco. Oh my god. Just beautiful women. Fluent in English. They came and picked me up in a Land Rover. They’re just like supermodels. Oh my god. When I saw them in 2015, so now they’re 31 and 36, and we went out to lunch in this place in Chelyabinsk called The Wild Boudoir Café.
Oh my god.
I know. It’s actually a really nice restaurant. We went and sat and had this meal. The 36-year-old who — again, she’s fluent in English. She can read any media that she wants. She was the most anti-American person I met on the trip, bar none. This was the only time I saw her was at this lunch and she almost immediately leapt into telling me why the Russian press is more free than the American press, why the Russian people are more free than the American people and that 9/11 was an inside job.
I just said to her, I was like, “Look, I’m not the hugest homer about my country. I like my country and everything, but we’re not perfect. There’s a lot of things I could say about that, but I got to tell you, you’re really wrong about the Russian press and the American press. Like, really you are.” Although look, we see what’s happening now here with our press not being allowed to film the House conferences at the White House and shutting down and not … Everything is “fake news.” We’re definitely moving down a path that I think …
We’ll talk about that when we get back and what’s happening with the Russian involvement. This is Lisa Dickey, author of “Bears in the Streets,” where apparently there are not any bears in the streets in Russia. We’ll be back.
We’ll get to that.
We’ll get to that.
We’re here with Lisa Dickey, the author of “Bears in the Streets,” a book about her travels across Russia over 30 years. Russia’s in the news now like all the time.
It sure is.
Around hacking, around technology. When you first went to Russia, almost no technology.
Over the 30 years, obviously, they’ve gotten quite adept at it and are one of the biggest developers of technology. If you pick three countries … Well, actually maybe not Russia, but China, U.S. and Israel, Russia, maybe India like in terms of the biggest users, consumers and creators of technology. Talk a little bit about the technological leaps this country … They have availability of all technologies or what?
Yeah. Oh yeah. Everything. These particularly young Russians, anybody under the age 30 is constantly looking at their phones just like everybody is here. They have all kinds of texting and social media and their own stuff and they use our stuff.
What’s popular from the U.S. and what do they have? Like you said Contactia?
Yes. The Russian Facebook essentially is called Contactia, which means “in contact,” and a lot of Russians are on that. A lot of Russians are actually on Facebook, too. A lot of Russians on Instagram. Instagram is super popular. They really are. They’re texting constantly.
Twitter? Do they use Twitter or no?
Yeah, they use Twitter. Mm-hmm. Yeah.
I’m actually not sure whether they use Snapchat or not. I was actually just thinking about that earlier today. I’m not sure. I don’t remember talking to anybody who brought that up.
What are the Russian products they use? Obviously the search products. Google is used there?
Yeah. They use Google. I’m not sure about things that were created in Russia that they’re using because I don’t use any of those products myself and so I’m not really sure.
They’re very tech savvy?
Very, very tech savvy. You can get Wi-Fi a lot of places. You can get Wi-Fi on the Moscow Metro. They’re very up on everything. It would be a mistake to think of Russia as a place that’s backward. They don’t have bears wandering in the streets.
You said they might.
There are some bears.
There are some bears.
While I was on my trip, halfway through this 2015 trip, when I was in Novosibirsk, there was a big story all across Russia where this one bear in Khabarovsk went and somehow got into a shopping center late at night and then they had this video. Actually if you Google Khabarovsk and bear shopping center, you can see.
I couldn’t even spell Khabarovsk.
He’s like pounding on the thing trying to get out and then he busts out the doors and then he goes running down the street.
Look, it’s funny. Spoiler alert, I do put this in my book too, but we have bears jumping in swimming pools all across California right now.
That’s true. That is true.
I mean, we have bears all over the place here.
We do. We do.
See? We’re more alike than we are different.
Oh okay. We have bears.
We have more wolves, I think.
We have some wolves, but we have bears too.
We have deer. We have a lot of deer in the streets.
We sure do.
Deer in the streets doesn’t sound like a bear.
Talk about this fear of Russia right now in terms of hacking, because it seems to be at the center of every … Either North Korea or Russia are at the center of all this. How do they look at that in Russia? Obviously you were there before this whole hacking scandal with Trump happened, but what is your assessment of why? What’s happening?
My impression of what a Russian person — but the people that I talked to and again this is me speculating because you’re right, I was there in the fall of 2015 and this was not nearly as a big story. I think their feeling would be … look, you got to protect your servers. I think there were a lot of mistakes that were made on our end in terms of when the hacking was happening and the IT people not being up on whatever. That certainly doesn’t excuse anything that was done because it doesn’t. It’s like, look, we got attacked by hackers that were … It is said were being controlled by a foreign government. That’s obviously problematic, but we also need to be able to protect ourselves too.
I think another thing they would say is, “Look, you have all these trolls and these bots or whatever spreading all this fake news and we fall for it.” If I had to guess, I would say their attitude would be “That’s on you. You guys got to learn how to …” It’s a complicated thing. I wish in some ways that I had been there a year later to be able to ask people what they thought about all this stuff.
You’d guess they’d think it was false, but the government’s putting that out.
Not that it was false. No.
The government’s been saying … Putin’s been saying a lot of unusual things.
He recently sort of gave a little wink wink to …
Of course, we’re doing this.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean to be honest, I don’t … I mean, are you shocked by that? Are you shocked that there was …
To the extent of it, yes.
The extent of how effective it seems to have been in some ways.
Of how effective it is. But are you shocked that one government’s trying to mess with another government?
I don’t watch the Americans like you do. You know what I mean? I think we’re all trying to mess with each other’s governments all the time.
I think that’s true.
This is incredible. This to me is much more.
You know what I find more incredible? What I find incredible …
From what I have been reading again.
This is what I find incredible. I find incredible that the current administration and so many people who are at the top levels of that administration are so obviously saying, “This isn’t a big deal. This doesn’t matter.” That’s what is really surprising. It makes me wonder what’s going. Why is it that …
That they’re not indignant about the possibility.
Yes. Why is the current president angry all the time at the Germans and never the Russians? You know what I mean? There’s something deeply weird about the fact that so many people in this administration are not okay with this. These are Republicans. Republicans for years have been like, “Watch out for Russia. Look out for Russia.” Now all of a sudden it’s like, “Well, maybe they messed with our election, but you know what? Things happen.” I find that very surprising.
You look at polls. Most Americans are concerned with it. They still have a vision of Russia as not friendly, that it’s a troubled country, that it’s out to get us. I think that has not left this country.
I think it’s certainly come full circle in a way, if you think about it.
I don’t think we ever felt warm and fuzzy towards the Russians.
The ’90s were a good decade for them.
What the Russians would say and did say to me in this trip, they’re like, “Well yeah, of course, that was good. Of course, you guys liked that because we were really weak.” We like it when Russia is weak. That’s how they would phrase it. The first time I ever went to Russia was 1988 and it was still in the Cold War. It was still the Soviet Union and it really was. It was really tricky, the relations between us and them. I happened to be living and working at the U.S. Embassy. We had all these rules, like I couldn’t meet alone with a Russian because the Russian was going to try to trick me or compromise me or something.
In 1994, I moved to St. Petersburg just to live and work as a writer and it was like, “Oh my god. This is great. I can move about freely. I can talk to anybody. It doesn’t matter.” Peace had broken out all over. What’s been interesting is to see, as I’ve done these trips, we’ve just come right back around in a lot of ways. Lucky for me that I did this trip in 2015. I’m going across and I’m talking to people and they’re all very open and talking to me in large part, I think, because they’ve known me for 20 years. I think if I were to do the first trip now as opposed to when I did it in the mid ’90s, I’m not sure that people would have been quite so welcoming and accepting. I think they would have been more leery.
Where do you imagine the Russia-U.S. relations going? One of the things, the points you were making at Code was don’t see these people in the wrong light, that you may not agree with them, but they’re different than you imagine them to be.
Yes, and I think that’s very true. I always try to make a distinction between … I mean, I think the line I used at Code was there are 144 million Russians not named Vladimir Putin. That’s very important to remember, because in the same way where Americans don’t equal Donald Trump, Russian people don’t equal Vladimir Putin.
With my book and with these trips, I wanted to be able to show people, “Look, this is why they love Vladimir Putin. This is the hook. This is how we can understand on a deeper level what his popularity is and why he’s popular.” On another level, I just wanted to show that these are people who, just like you and me, they worry about their families, their kids, their home, their jobs. Who’s going to walk the dog this afternoon? I got to go do this thing. These are just regular folks, really, and we do have a lot more in common with them than we think we do.
What do you think happens, given the level of scrutiny right now in Russia and largely to do with hacking and largely to do with screwing around with our elections and all sorts of Boris and Natasha action?
I know. There really is.
Boris. That’s why we hate the Russians, because of Boris and Natasha from … I haven’t said that Lisa speaks Russian fluently, too, which is helpful to be in Russia.
Yes. That definitely helped. That was very helpful. I could not even begin to predict where we’re going to go because I would never have predicted that we would end up where we are.
Where we think they’re hacking everything.
There’s so much mistrust that’s going on between us all now. There really is. The one thing that I think is important to remember is look, we can’t do anything about whatever it is that Donald Trump is doing in the White House, we can’t do anything about what Putin is doing in the Kremlin, but what we can do is make sure we are having connections with people.
There was a guy who came up to me after I did a talk at one conference and he said, “I’ve been asked to come and moderate a panel in St. Petersburg, but I feel like I should say no because of everything that’s going on.” I said, “No, it’s the opposite. Now is when you say yes. Go over there. Meet with them. Talk with them,” because it’s just helpful to have … We have so many tools available at our disposal to be able to have connections. The fact that I have all these Russians who are my Facebook friends now or Instagram, we’re Instagram friends, I think that’s really critical now and that’s a thing we didn’t have during the Cold War. There wasn’t any way to have connections with the Russian people.
I’m not sure if that’ll solved the problem, though.
I don’t think it’s going to solve it, but I just think it helps to remember that these are real people we’re talking about. Everything just becomes such a caricature after a while.
Our leaders, in many ways.
I want to finish up. Are you going back in 2025?
What? Until you’re dead?
I know. I think so. I was talking with somebody and I was like, “What kind of technology? I’ll probably have a GoPro camera installed in my forehead.”
Glasses. AR. Something like that. It’ll be a constant broadcast from Russia.
What do you imagine you’ll find there in 2025?
Again, isn’t that what’s so fascinating?
Bears in the streets is what you’re going to find.
Yeah, that’s right. There’ll be bears in the streets. It’s like you never know, right? From 2005 until now, I would not have have guessed. Oh my god. I never would have guessed it. It’s just impossible to know.
Who knows who the president will be? Who knows who their president will be?
No. Nobody knows.
The Russians will figure it out first.
Elon Musk knows.
Maybe Elon Musk will be president in both places. I’m fucked.
President of the World Elon Musk.
President of the World. You’re going to go back and see what happen?
I really want to. At this point, I just love seeing these people. When I went back in 2005 after having been there in 1995, there was a lot of … When I would knock on people’s doors and they’d open, there was a lot of them sort of looking at me momentarily confused and being like, “Wait. What? Why are you back here?” This time around when I would go, people would open the door and they’d see me …”
Oh, it’s Lisa.
Yeah, exactly. It was like, “Hey, come on in.”
“I saw you in your Instagram. That looked like a delicious meal in Los Angeles.”
I know. Exactly.
“What are you doing? I saw you on Twitter,” this and that. I want to end very quickly, Lisa. Just so you know, everybody, Lisa’s the person who introduced me to the internet. I’m not going to go into all the details, but Lisa’s the one who showed me how to use … Short story, Lisa Dickey.
This is such a good story.
No, it’s a short one.
Kara and I were friends. This is 1994. Kara and I were friends and I told her, I was like, “I’m moving to St. Petersburg to find my fortune as a writer.” Kara was like, “Oh well, I guess I’ll see you in three years when you’re back.” I said, “Look, you should try this thing called email. You should get on this thing called email. There’s this little company called America Online and you should sign up for an account and then you and I can email together.”
You were using something before that. Remember?
Well, I didn’t use AOL in Russia. I used a thing called GlassNet.
Yeah, GlassNet. Yes, I got that. GlassNet. You used something else too. You used the very early … What was it? Remember they had weird names. You were using really crude communications tools.
I introduced you to email. It was like a little light bulb went off.
It went off.
By the time I came back, god, by the time I came back to the States, you were writing about AOL and you had a book deal.
Running the internet. That’s true. You are the reason. Silicon Valley, this is the person …
That’s right. You’re welcome, everybody. Because otherwise Kara would still be like, “How do I send you a postcard?”
I wouldn’t have sent you a postcard. It’s true.
Can we just acknowledge too that you came to visit me in Russia?
Yes, I did, but we’re not going to talk about that trip. That’s another story. I could acknowledge it. We’re not talking about the fact that I didn’t bring socks. Anyway.
She did not bring socks. It was January, I just want to say.
Yes, it was cold.
Kara Swisher, ladies and gentlemen.
I thought there was department stores, but now apparently there are so I could come now without socks and buy socks.
She’s like, “I’ll just buy some,” at 11:30 PM on New Year’s Eve in 1990 or whatever.
I grew up in New York. You can buy anything. Well, now I can, so so much has changed in so little time, Lisa Dickey. Anyway, thank you for coming by. It was great talking to you.
No problem. The book is great. It’s called “Bears in the Streets” and you should buy it immediately if you want to understand what’s going on with this very important country who is apparently fucking with us quite a lot — or not, if you’re Donald Trump. Who knows? I think they are.
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