1000 miles of Russian Reflections:Why the Russians don't think Putin is an ogre
It is popular in Britain to think of Putin as a dangerous ogre. That is hardly surprising after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the assassination of opposition politician, Robert Nemstov. And the revelations kept from the Russian public about Putin and other prominent people's secret offshore funds revealed in the Panama papers. Let alone Russia's position on gay rights.
After travelling some 1000 miles along waterways from St Petersburg to Moscow on a very adventurous and exhausting trip organised by Viking cruises it would strike me that it would be very short sighted to think that the West could simply bully and threaten Russia.
In 13 days the trip takes in two major cities and five centres in rural Russia. There are lectures on Russia's bloody history from the Vikings through the Romanovs to Communism, a frank debate on present day Russia, lessons in Russian, vodka and Russian food tastings and a punishing schedule of included and optional excursions, morn,noon and night.
For all the misgivings about him, Putin appears to be popular. He gained some 64 per cent of the vote in a criticised election (down from 75 per cent before) in 2012.Outside Moscow the main contenders were not the Liberal reformers but the Communists who got 17 per cent of the vote. The liberal reformers who did better in the capital.
Ask our guides on the trip - and one of them voted for the Communist presidential candidate- and they would say Putin has brought them stability (despite much higher inflation there than here) and also defended Russian interests.
The Crimea vote to rejoin Russia is popular and seen as righting a wrong created by Khrushchev in the 1950s when he handed it over to Ukraine. The Russians don't forget the battle of Sevastopol.
The real villains for the Russians are Western hero Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Gorbachev is seen as a major destabilising factor over perestroika and Yeltsin for creating poverty and chaos through his shock capitalist therapy.
As one guide put it: " Under Yeltsin we had money but no goods. Now we have lots of goods and not enough money."
Another put it: " Gorbachev was rather like Thatcher. Both were seen as world statesmen abroad but both were loathed by a lot of people in their own country."
And one should not underestimate Russian determination to defend their homeland. Our visit coincided with Russia's equivalent of Armistice Day - Victory Day over the Nazis in their 1941-45 War. Some 27 million Russian died.
It is also used by Putin to show off the latest military equipment. But in St Petersburg (and also in Moscow) - the most poignant moments were the thousands of people marching with placards and pictures of relatives (often grandfathers) who had died in that conflict. They are called the " immortal regiment" and it has grown from a grassroot gesture. to one of the main ways to remember and honour the dead.
The one school we visited in the small rural town of Kirillov (7000 people) also had large displays commemorating former pupils who died in the 41-45 war.The town also has had a statute of Lenin, a huge fortified monastery favoured by Ivan the Terrible and a rebuilding project for its local church used by the Communists as a drinks warehouse.
The other striking feature is the rise of Russian Orthodox Church. Not only have old ones that survived been restored but new ones built in the old style where they were blown up by Stalin. Church attendance at seven per cent is probably little higher than in the UK, with more people attending at Christmas and Easter or for weddings and funerals. Nor is it confined to just the revival of Christianity - synagogues have been re-opened and other religions tolerated
.Moscow has a new enterprising high tech Jewish museum in an old art deco bus garage - the only place where I have experienced the Old Testament with surround sound in 3D . You get a bit wet during Noah's flood and experience what a plague of locusts is like.
And yes there is much greater disparity of wealth. Moscow's eight lane highways are perpetually jammed by foreign cars bought by Russians. The River Neva outside St Petersburg is lined with huge new dachas - the Toad Halls of the nouveaux riches. There are almost as many 4x4's as in Berkhamsted.
And Yaroslavl - a old city some 160 miles from Moscow - where the aristocrats retreated from Napoleon after Moscow was captured in War and Peace - has a UNESCO World Heritage city centre but the 600,000 people living there nearly all have jobs in industry. Unemployment is just 1.4 per cent - though this is not typical for all Russia.
And the Russians appear to have stopped demolishing Communist statutes and buildings - the Moscow port where our ship docked has a huge Stalin designed building complete with a spire topped with Red star and hammer and sickle. The 1937 hall is to be restored and refurbished not demolished.
Russia wants to become a major tourist destination. The West ought to adopt a more sophisticated approach in dealing with Putin who is no fool. Carrots and sticks seem better than trying to contain Russia. By being ultra aggressive all they will do is unite the Russian people against the West while at the moment I found them both curious and welcoming to Western visitors.