At Centrale, an Italian thin crust pizza restaurant, a European soccer match was on the big screen, American pop music wafted out of the sound system and Olga was nibbling on her Norwegian salmon carpaccio.
I asked her how many foreign countries she had visited.
“Italy, Switzerland, France, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Spain – four times, I liked Spain – U.S., Bulgaria, um…Maldives, and Croatia,” the 26-year-old ad account manager said. “I love to travel.”
Ok. And how many countries had your mother visited when she was your age?
“Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine — of course it wasn’t a country then,” she said.
When Vladimir Putin was 26, he could only dream of the plum KGB assignment that he won seven years later — East Germany.
Fast forward to 2011. Mr. Putin, now prime minster, is grappling the fruits of the decade of stability he provided Russia.
This December, the largest protests in a generation have broken out across Russia. Olga was home nursing a cold and skipped the Moscow protest. But it was her generation out there — middle class, university-educated, in their 20s and 30s, people with exposure to the outside world.
Two weeks from now, when the last New Year’s eve flight takes off packed with Russian holiday makers, the total number of Russians traveling this year outside the former Soviet Union is expected to hit 15 million. That means that roughly 10 percent of Russia’s population has traveled outside Russia this year.
Olli Perheentupa, Finland’s consul general in St. Petersburg expects that his office will issue nearly 1 million visas to Russians this year, making it the busiest consular office in the world.
Then there’s virtual travel. Fifty-one million Russians – about 40 percent of adults – now regularly cruise the world on the Internet.
Never in history, has there been such a massive, peaceful exposure of Russians to the West. (Note, I stress peaceful: I rule out Polish invaders in the 17th century, French in the 19th century, and Germans in the 20th century.)
Prime Minister Putin knows Russian history very well. He knows the story of Russia’s last December rebels, the “Dekabristi.”
In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russian officers returned from occupation duty in Paris and chafed under the autocratic rule of the czar. They demanded a constitutional monarchy, freedom for serfs, and equality under law. After a decade of debate and organizing, they rose up in St. Petersburg on Dec. 26, 1825.
The revolt failed. The top leaders were publicly hung. Others were exiled to Siberia.
Although the revolt failed, these first Dekabristi occupy a beloved place in Russian history.
Nearly two centuries later, experts on the Dekabristi generally agree that the key destabilizing element was direct and prolonged exposure of a group of Russian elites to the West.