COMMENT: Banned if they do, banned if they don’t

By bne IntelliNews June 11, 2015

Julia Reed in Moscow -


Each week in Russia some obscure Duma deputy no one has ever heard of before proposes a new law. Usually, the proposal gets instant and almost unanimous approval of the legislative body and within days becomes law, signed by the head of state. Usually it’s a law that bans something.

The first set of such laws shocked the local press and even gained coverage overseas because they appeared out of the blue, adopted without any public debate or scrutiny, and the Duma was even nicknamed “the mad printer”. Then the speed of the law-making process accelerated and now it’s hard to keep track of all the different bans that sweep across all aspects of Russian life.

While the ban on foreign adoption or the necessity for local NGOs who receive foreign funding to register as foreign agents sparked widespread controversy, little or no notice has been given to many of the subsequent ones. These laws are broad ranging, have major consequences and increasingly repressive, and so it is remarkable how little media or social discussion they receive.

Here are some most recent examples:

  • The naming of educational funds such as Soros Open Society, the Dynastiya fund or the Gorbachev fund as ‘unfavourable organisations’;

  • Putin’s ban on the publication of information about soldiers who have died in the military during peace time, which will strip Russian soldiers and their families from any rights to restore their good names or families from receiving true information about their destiny;

  • A ban to disclose information in the press on cancer patients who commit suicide, which will make it difficult for the public to apply pressure on health authorities who administer pain-killer drugs to act quicker and more efficiently;

  • Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signing into law the right of prisoner officers to use batons on prisoners at their own discretion, and not just when they are at risk of actual harm (not that the earlier law protected prisoners like Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower murdered while in custody).

Heading for the exits

Russians today avoid talking politics or social issues, resolving to watching football and Eurovision and going to their dachas to have barbeques, banyas and plant vegetables in their spare time.  Those whose education allows and money can afford leave the country. They do it silently. They claim it is not for good, but just to give their children a Western education, for health reasons or to spend just a little bit more time in their summerhouses in Bulgaria or France. To illustrate, consider some common anecdotes (surnames are withheld, as there is a possibility of a backlash in several of these cases.)

Those who have escape routes in the West also don’t mind visiting Crimea. “It’s very nice here, as if nothing ever happened. Planes are full. We had to fly business not because we wanted to be cool, but because there were no economy seats left (on the 10 flights a day to Yalta, a seaside resort in the Crimea). Shops are full of all the cheeses you can imagine. When we asked about sanctions, the sales lady said they have none,” comments a Moscow lady on her Facebook page about her June family trip to there.

In addition to being a flat owner in Cannes, this lady has Latvian residency, which she applied for a few years ago, should she ever need to escape Russia urgently. The lady registered her small business in Latvia and now visits the country once a year to show her face to the authorities. She has no plans to ever live in Latvia, but it makes her feel safer to have it ‘just in case’ and for easy travel in Europe.

This lady, I will call her Lena, aged 42, is a typical example of an educated and Western-minded Russian entrepreneur who has a nose for where the wind is blowing. A distant relative of a well-known oppositional journalist, Lena took part in major Moscow opposition rallies and seems to want political and social reforms in Russia. But in her heart of hearts she doesn’t feel she has any ability to make this happen and does not want her comfortable life affected. She does what is expedient at the time.

Irina, of similar age and background, married a British man, went to live in London for 10 years where the couple bought a house and had a daughter. The relationship failed and she met and re-married a Russian man in England. Back in Russia Irina has a sister, Veronica, who is married to a very well known member of the Russian government. He invited Irina and her new husband to come back to Russia and gave the husband support to get a lucrative job in business. Born in the UK and with a British passport, Irina’s daughter from the first marriage came to Moscow hardly speaking a word of Russian. Now the family lives in Moscow, attends pro-Kremlin public functions and goes to Crimea on holiday, with occasional trips to England. The member of the government happens to be an ardent public critic of the West and Western values, but Irina does not seem to see any conflict. She enjoys living in the UK, but it’s also convenient for the family to make the most of the power of their high-profile in-law back in Russia. So why not have the best of both worlds? 

At the end of the 2000s, in her desire to do some good for the country, Svetlana tried to join the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, but appeared to be lacking commitment during her interview and was refused. She also tried to be an active member of the church, but this idea faded away. Then she took part in some opposition rallies because it felt new and exciting. But then her parents continued to vote for Vladimir Putin, so she began to see the positive side of stability too. Now she is considering marrying a foreign boyfriend and starting a new life in Sweden.  Shooting in all directions may be the best strategy to adopt in uncertain times.

Self-made Russians who succeeded in Russian businesses in the 2000s have maintained their homes in Russia, but are now largely making their way to the West by sending their children to British schools, establishing themselves on non-working visas in Monaco yet still going to Crimea, largely supporting the general trend of quiet conformism.

“Are you leaving?” is now a common greeting instead of hello. “My ex-wife is soon moving to Germany with her German boyfriend. It looks like they are going to take our two daughters with them. In a way I’m happy about it, because then I don’t need to worry about my gene pool being protected,” says Victor, 31, a psychologist. “I’m thinking about leaving myself and I’m doing a degree in Italy at the moment, but my English is still not good enough to practice psychotherapy in Italy. Otherwise, I would have already left.”

It’s not just the expats who do not extend their contracts and leave at the end of their tenure – and many of them have; it’s those wannabes from obscure Soviet working-class families, whose fathers had life-long careers in the Soviet military, who as children were relocated every couple of years and were posted everywhere across the former Soviet Union, and who then made their first money in capital cities of Russia and became its middle class, who are now leaving the country. 

They protest with their feet. They are leaving because they do not see opportunity and do not know where Russia is going. They don’t even have strong beliefs about human rights.

People do what’s easy and convenient. They do not want to get into trouble. They don’t trust the government. They live their parallel lives, hoping the war or cancer never touches their homes. And even if they do, it’s not Putin, government funds or charities they will cry to; they will resort to friends and family for help. Because Russians today, just like the Soviets in the past, do not trust anyone.

It may seem like the people in the examples above lack moral fibre. I am not sure if they do or don’t, but they are very typical. The lives of ordinary Russians have little to do with the lives of other people in their country and society as a whole. There is no society as a whole, just different sets of individuals with their closed circles of friends. The people in these example and many more Russians hope that they will not be affected by the multiple bans that are steadily robbing society of its right to excerpt control on its government and provide individuals from their constitutional rights. Unable to change things in their own country, they’d rather leave for good – but will still check out Crimea.


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