I have seen great changes in Russia in the decades I have followed that country, but a recent law, one that took effect Nov. 15, has literally taken my breath away. If enforced, it will radically alter Russian life. I could list a thousand changes over the years, but none surprised me as much as the new law, which I will get to soon.
For instance, I remember calling information in Moscow and asking for an individual’s phone number only to be asked why I needed it. This, I am happy to say, is a thing of the past.
I also remember shopping in diplomatic stores that carried mainly Western goods. Shopping in Russian stores was useless (unless it was for bread, which was always present, and delicious). Russian stores were otherwise empty or filled with duplicates of useless items. Now everyone can shop in Russian stores — if shoppers can afford prices that rival those in Paris and London.
Then there was the problem of making friends with Russians. For diplomats, everything went through an official office. Unofficial contacts were not only discouraged but tightly controlled. A “police officer” stood outside the entrance to our apartment and checked everyone coming or going. Now, one of my best friends in Russia is someone who was a major in the KGB in the former USSR. We exchange e-mails weekly, and instead of propaganda, I get honest answers to my questions, even if they are answers I am not happy with. I also was informed that two Russian scholars are reviewing my new book — something that would have been unthinkable in the USSR. I discovered during a visit to the main library in Moscow in the Soviet era that the Russians did have copies of some of my books, but they were held in a special room under look and key. Only those who were considered especially reliable could have access to them. This, too, is a thing of the past. Now my books are in the main library with other books, including those critical of the Russian government.
I also remember when private ownership of automobiles was rare. Most cares were either Soviet government cars or diplomatic vehicles. When I visited Russia several years ago, I was astounded at the plethora of automobiles. Russia has reached the highest point of civilization — wild drivers and horrible traffic jams.
To many people, the biggest change in Russia has been the end of communism and the birth of the semi-democratic regime. If someone from the years I was in Moscow were to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV today, he or she would marvel at the changes. I now read several Russian sources daily and am amazed at their openness, even in the military sphere. In the old days only men in uniforms said anything about military affairs. Anything they wrote or said was cleared with higher authorities. Now, it is not unusual to see criticism of the military structure, doctrine, strategy and tactics. In many ways, the debates are more open and critical than some in this country.
So what is this change that is so dramatic that it could be compared with outlawing vodka? A law banning smoking in public.
Specifically, smoking within 50 feet of entrances to the metro, train stations and airports, as well as near hospitals, schools and playgrounds, is now punishable by fines of $15 to $90. There is also a ban on cigarette advertising. The final part of the law — banning smoking in public places such as cafes and restaurants — takes effect June 1, 2014.
This law is a big deal because many Russians smoke incessantly. What’s more, they tend to smoke Turkish tobacco, which is especially pungent and present in theaters, restaurants and just about anywhere men (especially) gathered. Second-hand Russian smoke was present even at diplomatic functions.
The key issue before authorities involves enforcement. Enforcing a smoking ban won’t be on the level of putting a man in space, but it will not be far behind. For the sake of the Russian people and those of us who enjoy visiting Russia, I hope they are successful.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.