Julia Reed In Moscow -
The street where I live, about 8 kilometres from the Kremlin, is dug up at least once a month by an unknown company. Roadblocks and signs are set up, and work begins for a few months. Only a few weeks after the tarmac is laid back, a new team comes along and starts digging again. Nobody knows what is going on, who is behind the works, who operates them, when it will all end or how much it all costs. There is no publicly available plan for what is going to happen to my street in the next five years. There is no public discussion or debate about the nature of these works or whether it reasonable to spend money digging up this road so frequently.
The hill by the metro where the local children sledge in the winter used to have a small wooden church next to it. Now this common area has been fenced off and closed to the public because they are building a bigger church. No sledging anymore. Who made this decision in our secular multicultural society and on what basis? Again, no answer, no information. Residents shrug shoulders, muttering something about corruption. At best, they may write to the local authority only to receive a formulaic response – if that.
These mundane examples illustrate how people have no stake in the places where they live in Russia.
A nation killed by television
With the Soviet-era mindset that everything belongs to the state and nothing belongs to the people, Russians generally do not get involved in local issues. They are more likely to worry about Ukraine than about the quality of their children’s school lunches.
Today’s television has managed to instil two additional views into the public consciousness. View number one: Russia and its leader is the anchor of stability and Christian values in a bigger world fraught with double standards, American colonialism and sodomy. Even if we have occasional problems, the problems of the greater world are much more fundamental and serious. Therefore, if there is a piece on any social issue in the Russian news, it will be immediately followed by a story of inequality and human rights abuse abroad. View number two: those who rock the boat inside Russia are fifth columnists and foreign agents acting on foreign requests to destabilise Russia and bring it to economic collapse.
“I don’t usually go to elections and felt neutral about Putin before, but now I’d be more likely to vote for him because with his politics Putin presents a counter force to the American dominance in the world,” says Elena Zhilova, 39, a beautician. “Look what happened in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia and Ukraine… People maybe were unhappy about certain issues in their countries, but with American money and political interference they had revolutions. It takes money to raise a wave of opposition. Normal people would not take to the streets in protests; they mainly share their problems privately. Broad public outrage is designed and orchestrated from the outside, and Putin is trying to stop it from spreading to Russia.”
With her physiotherapist husband, Elena occasionally follows the news on the internet, buys only healthy foods and goes on holiday to the seaside resorts in Thailand and Spain. A former professional volleyball player, she is one of many Russians who follows the philosophy of non-involvement and family harmony. “I wouldn’t go to any street protests because I think they have no effect, mainly because very few people go to them, and also I’m not interested in politics. The only incident when I can imagine myself doing any fighting is if my family or close friends were under threat. But there is nothing like this at the moment.”
Elena’s point of view is very typical: for as long as I am fine, there is no need to get involved. If I get in trouble, I will have to use my connections to solve my problems. People’s lives run in parallel to their government’s and to the life of their country at large. They do not feel they have any voice or can make any difference. Social apathy is a major characteristic of post-Soviet Russian mentality.
A few rock the boat
Three years ago, Alla Frolova, a deputy headmistress and now Duma deputy aide, 50, found out that the local public surgery where her daughter used to receive treatments was going to be closed down due to ‘optimisation’ and the children were advised to transfer to different surgeries in Moscow. This was against the law, which states that all residents have the right to be treated in their catchment area. What’s more, the decision only became public knowledge once it had already been made by the health authority.
This incident triggered Frolova to successfully fight the closure of the surgery. In November, following a leak on the internet that some 26 out of 60 hospitals were going to be closed down without any public scrutiny in Moscow, Frolova and her fellow campaigners managed to get some 8,300 people on to the street to protest.
Three years on, an engineer by training, she is now one of the best-known Russian experts on grassroots street protest. “This injustice, be it hospitals closed down to become commercial property, or people going to jail for their beliefs, has the same root. Our government needs to go. We need new presidential and Duma elections. We need the government that will put the interests of the people first,” says Frolova.
“The only thing which is effective is public street protest,” echoes Alexander Averushkin, a 36-year-old journalist for a medical publication and a healthcare reform campaigner. “After a series of protests organised by us, the Moscow health ministry launched a public discussion on how to run the reform in the shape of a crowdsourcing project where members of the public can contribute specific ideas; now some 58,000 people joined the project.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that elections or small-scale topic-based campaigns are not effective in bringing about change. What we need is a general all-Russia peaceful revolt which will bring about revolution,” says Mark Galperin, 46, a former marketing manager, now a civil activist who has come to the attention of the media having spent 30 days in jail following his picket with a ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign on Manezhnaya square. “When the media hears about revolt and revolution, they get frightened, it won’t be broadcast. I posted an offer on social media inviting journalists to interview me, and my phone is quiet.”
Every day, Galperin comes to the centre of Moscow with a sign demanding change of government, yet only a fraction of supporters follow suit. “The public is not ready for change. I know I’ve got a long way to go, but I don’t mind.” Under a new law, Galperin is now under criminal investigation for his frequent protests and detentions. He may get up to five years in jail for being arrested more than three times in 180 days for making an unauthorised protest.
Needless to say, Galperin’s desire and method for change are radical and do not have the popular vote. “People can be pressured if they are afraid for their lives, jobs, security or their families. Even though I am afraid, I’ve made a decision to continue.”
People like Frolova, Averushkin and Galperin are unusual. In the nation destroyed by television, television rules… “Our hearts demand change”, went a popular Russian 1986 song. Not anymore. The name of the game is stability.
With the Gaidar reforms, privatisation and the breakup of the Soviet Union widely regarded as an evil Western plot and a failure, Soviet nostalgia is on the rise. Soviet-themed restaurants are abundant and heaving. Even those who were too young to live in the Soviet Union miss it. TV is full of remakes of Soviet books, films and soaps. With an unpredictable future, Russians look backward for comfort.
Western sanctions do not seem to be having the effect they were aimed at. Again, they are seen as an outsider plot to force proud Russia to submit to an encroaching West. Worried about rising consumer prices, Russians do not mind a smaller variety in their shops. Outside pressure and the 'Kyiv junta' regime unite them as never before. National pride is the ultimate value of today.
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