A blog by Barry Edelson

Why Does Russia Vote?

"What happened to these masses, to this people? For forty years it had been driven through the desert, with threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards. But where was the Promised Land?"

— Arthur Koestler, "Darkness at Noon"

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) say they will not oversee Russia's upcoming parliamentary elections because of restrictions that the Russian government is placing on them. In other words, Russia's government doesn't want them there. Not surprising, really: would WE want foreigners watching over our elections? It would make us feel as though we are living in a third-world country, which is exactly the impression that Vladimir Putin is trying to avoid giving. He has very effectively played on the Russians' strong sense of pride and patriotism, which is about all they have left from their lost empire. Admitting election monitors is tantamount to admitting that the country is corrupt and incapable of managing its own affairs. Of course, Russia's leaders are corrupt and incapable of managing their own affairs, and everyone Russian has a trove of tragi-comic anecdotes to prove the point.

My wife and I traveled in Russia this past summer and spoke extensively to our Russian guides about politics and much else. It says about all you need to know about the state of the Russian economy that all of our guides have advanced university degrees, mostly in history and languages, and that they work as tour guides for five months of the year without a day off because the life of a school teacher or college professor is one of grinding poverty. In many respects they seem very much like us — their sense of humor, the way they look and dress, their personal warmth and charm — and we felt instantly comfortable with them. But it became apparent that their world view and, especially, their view of government and authority, is radically different from ours.

The most profound difference is that they are devoid of a belief in progress. Americans have a deep-seated cultural inclination to expect that the future will be brighter than the present, if only we make the right choices and elect the right people. The Russians have an equally entrenched conviction that fortune and misfortune have little if anything to do with them. They have never had a government that worked in their interest, and have hardly any hope or expectation that this will change. Their attitude towards Putin exemplifies their inbred cynicism: while they admit that he has gathered too much power to the presidency, they are willing to trust him (for now) because he seems to be stabilizing their rocky ship of state, the economy is no longer in free-fall, and he is making a game effort to polish the country's wounded pride. I asked our guide, Julia, what happens if the next elected president turns out to be a tyrant and makes himself president for life? Her answer, more or less, is that they'll worry about that when it happens. If you believe that the future isn't going to be better, anyway, you'll take any respite from the storm that you can find.

While we did hear an occasional comment that came awfully close to an apologist's view of Stalin (there are no shortage of those views among the elderly, it would seem), the Russians we spoke to were not interested in turning the clock back. In fact, one of them quoted a recent speech by Putin in which he said, "Anyone who isn't nostalgic for the Soviet Union has no heart; but anyone who wants it back has no brains." They feel that the country of their youth has been stolen from them. Consider that the boundaries of the Soviet Union were largely the same as that of Czarist Russian empire that preceded it; most Russians' notion of the shape and size of their country was unchanged for centuries, until the dissolution of the early 1990s. This is why they revile Gorbachev as the man who broke up the country and presided over an economic collapse that left even the relatively well-off penniless. Political freedoms are very nice, they say, but you can't eat them. (A typical joke: A group of angry villagers waiting in line to buy food selects one person to go to Moscow to kill Gorbachev. When the man returns, they ask, "So, did you kill him?" He says, "No, the line to kill Gorbachev was too long.")

The depth of Russian cynicism
about politics cannot be fathomed.

When Putin speaks of nostalgia, what he is really talking about is World War II, which looms much larger in the Russian imagination than in any of the other allied countries. In their view of history, they won the war by breaking the sieges at Leningrad and Stalingrad. We naturally see the Normandy invasion as the turning point of the war, but without those Soviet victories, they insist, the allied invasion of Europe would have been far more difficult. And they do have a point. The suffering, destruction and loss they experienced are unimaginable to us. When you drive across the line of the Nazi advance toward St. Petersburg, and realize how easily the Germans could lob artillery shells into the heart of the city, you cannot help but appreciate their perspective that the victory belonged to them. Even those who revile Stalin credit him with that moment of glory, though they tend to forget that the job would have been easier if he hadn't murdered half of his experienced generals for political reasons.

The Russians are also utterly skeptical of Western economic ideas because their first experience of capitalism was the disastrous "privatization" of the early 1990s. Every Russian citizen was given a 10,000-ruble voucher which they could use to invest in state industries which were being made private. However, Russia was then experiencing hyperinflation so the vouchers were worth far less than their face value, and most people were totally ignorant of investing in any form and did not know what to do. A few crafty insiders set up companies to buy up these vouchers for cash, which seemed a good deal to lots of hungry people, and then used these accumulated vouchers to buy up state companies on the cheap. That is how they ended up with a handful of so-called oligarchs in charge of the whole economy. One of the guides, who was in her early teens at the time, wanted to sell her voucher and buy a Barbie doll. Her parents would not let her, and invested all of the family's vouchers in shares of a factory. Today, the Barbie doll would be worth more than the shares.

The depth of their cynicism about politics cannot be fathomed. They vote, nothing changes, they lose what little hope they had. Government corruption is not something to be eliminated but merely tolerated: you learn to work the system from an early age, or you don't survive. If you get pulled over by a policeman for a traffic violation, you know you are going to have to pay him off. That's just how you have to live. They endure inconvenience on a level that is almost incomprehensible even to the poorest of Americans. The central hot water system in Moscow is turned off for a month or two every summer for maintenance, so that even people in luxury apartments have to boil water on the stove to take a bath. They are also shockingly indifferent to health and safety. We saw a construction worker drive a piece of heavy equipment in reverse, while talking on a cellphone, into a crowd of tourists on a large plaza. No one even took notice. We watched as the rear door of a bus opened, nearly crushing a young man who was then pushed out onto the sidewalk by an exiting throng, followed by the door closing and the bus driving off without him.

The most appalling sight of all, though, and which one cannot entirely remove from one's thoughts, is that of the impoverished old women selling trinkets or wilted flowers along the sidewalks, bridges, and highway underpasses of every city and town. The situation of these women, and assuredly their countless counterparts throughout the ruins of the old Soviet empire, seems especially desperate and hopeless. Will anyone, ever, come to their aid? Are these childless widows, forgotten by time and their own governments, simply going to waste away like so much human debris, their sole consolation the lonely prayers that disappear in wisps of smoke above the frescoed walls of their crumbling churches? The only attention and assistance they can expect from the state and society is an anonymous burial in the blood-soaked earth of their beloved martyrs and heroes. And for what did they die, exactly, these sainted relics of a lost civilization? Surely not to allow this shameful disposal of the weak and powerless? Russia is not alone in caring more for its dead than its living, but the Russians are no ordinary people, and the consequences of their enormous and unrelenting failures are not theirs to bear alone.

Of course, the Russians have been trained since Soviet times to deflect criticism of their miserable condition by pointing at our own failures: race, poverty, homelessness, and so on. They are also very savvy about our politics and do not hesitate to point to Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 and ask what right we have to point fingers at them about their faulty politics. It is preposterous to suggest for a moment that America's electoral system, warts and all, can be compared in any way with Russia's. Where is Russia's equivalent of our army of election workers, for example, who are thoroughly committed to the conduct of impartial voting? But it is also undeniable that most election commissioners in this country have partisan interests; that the people in each state who certify elections are also beholden to their respective parties; that the company that manufactures more voting machines than any other is an outspoken and ardent supporter of the Republican Party; and that there are morally defective politicians of all stripes who would gladly steal an election if they could get away with it. It is our system that keeps the wolves at bay and holds the potential for justice, not any alleged superiority of our mismatched population. The Russians are to be pitied not for any defect in their nature, for surely their humanity is identical to ours, but for the sheer misfortune of living in a state that has failed them in every guise it has ever taken.

November 17, 2007

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