When I was a kid, the Russians were our enemies. They had a bazillion nuclear missiles aimed right at us and they were working day and night to take over the world and turn us all into communists. That’s what we thought — and they thought the same of us.
Then, suddenly, the Russians weren’t our enemies. What had been the Soviet Union collapsed into an economic mess under the weight of almost a century of socialism. Suddenly, I was meeting real, live, flesh-and-blood Russians who were moving to this country. Other than mild communication problems and seriously different tastes in food, I quickly found out that I liked the Russians I met. They tended to be bright, well-educated and interesting. I learned to like our new friends as they started learning economic and political freedom. We had nothing to fear from Russia.
By this point, it seems that the truth is a lot more complicated than either of the stories I’ve believed about Russia in the past. They’re not the Red Menace, but they’re also not a free people living in a stable society with a clear future.
The Russian elections over the weekend are an example of just how far the country has to achieve even basic levels of political stability. I think our system is immoral and coercive, but the Russian government under the control of Vladimir Putin makes ours look positively like something from the Sumer of Love. Hundreds of people have been arrested there this week during protests of serious election fraud this time.
But what do typical Russians think about the situation? Is the anger and frustration over fraud — and over the direction of the country — overblown in media reports here? I asked a couple of Russian friends what they think. Both still live in Russia, so I’m not using their real names.
Olga is a young woman in Moscow, and she said that the country truly seems split in half. She said that about half the people seem resigned to accepting Putin’s repressive government having its way, but half the people are still eager to fight for change.
“My personal opinion is that the fraud is in the air,” she said. “Many of my friends voted for the communists just because they look at them as the only option this time. Their competitors are weak and corrupted. Many of my friends and colleagues voted for the communists just because they don’t believe the current regime and can not stay aside.”
Putin’s United Russia party has complete control, but it’s barely been able to keep a legislative majority in the recent elections, even with the fraud leading up to the election and during it. Olga believes that the ruling party is still strong in smaller areas, but it’s lost favor among people in the capital.
“In general, here in Moscow, United Russia lost its attrctiveness long time ago, but in the provinces, in remote districts, local authorities put pressure on citizens to made them to vote for UR,” she said. “People there just don’t believe they are able to change anything.”
Olga also talked about changes to voting rules that were clearly designed to keep some people from voting. She said that people who live in Moscow without permanent registration have not been able to vote in the recent election, because rules were changed — without telling people — that they had to apply for permission to vote three days prior to the election. It seems that those not inclined to vote for the ruling party didn’t know about the new rules.
Another friend sees things even more bleakly.
“To be honest, I just want to get out of the country,” said Viktoriya, who lives in St. Petersburg. “Many of us are trying to find ways to move to the EU or even the United States. We don’t see a future here and we don’t want to bring another generation into the world to face repression that goes more and more back toward what it was in Soviet days.”
The reference to Soviet days is more than just symbolic. Putin was an officer in the KGB, the feared secret police. He still has the cold heart and controlling temperament of a Soviet-era agent of repression.
“I love my country,” Viktoriya said. “I don’t want to leave my family, my friends and the place where I call home. But I am so afraid of the future. We are torn. Do we stay here and face the world Putin is making for us to live in? Or do we go build lives somewhere else? I don’t know what to do, but we are afraid.”
I’m worried about the future of this country and the entire West, but what we’re seeing play out in Russia today is even more dangerous. Sadly, as things get more dangerous here, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us move in the direction of more repression, just as the Russians are doing today.
It’s the nature of the coercive state to find more and more ways to control people. As times get worse, the control gets tighter. Things don’t look good in Russia, but it might be a preview of our own direction in decades to come as we all become economic and social basket cases. I worry about my Russian friends today, but I’m also worried about where all of us are headed.
UPDATE: On Wednesday, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called on the Russian government to void the results of the tainted voting and hold new elections.