What would you do?

What would you do if you lived in Putin’s Russia?  Really?  Are you sure?

An old friend who does not reside in the capitals made the overnight train trip to spend the day with me yesterday.  We walked the city, visited the Yusupov palace, and talked and talked over cups of tea.  Eventually, we couldn’t avoid politics.  Unlike my former Russian assistant who surprised me in Moscow with her virulent anti-western sentiment and aggressive expressions of support for Putin, my friend from Karelia matter of factly and almost reluctantly explained why she supported censorship and why she shrugged at worries about loss of freedoms under Putin.  First of all, she primarily had in mind the new censorship laws about sexual content and explicit language.  Like many Russians, she was tired of seeing what we would deem “adult programming” broadcast broadly and at all times of day. And what of censorship that dealt with other forms of speech?  She felt that such concerns simply didn’t affect her every day life or that of most Russians.  As a religious person, she admitted that if they tried to ban freedom of religion she would protest, but she feels strongly that Putin’s Russia allows people to practice freely (she herself is not a Russian Orthodox believer but a Lutheran).  For her it all boils down to stability; a modicum of security that you know what the future might look look like, at least in broad terms (basic government structure, currency, etc).  We take these things for granted, but for millions of Russians who lived through the break-up of the Soviet Union, this anxiety about the basic shape of their future and that of their children is anything but abstract.

As an American, I find it difficult to fathom this absolutely sincere willingness to sacrifice basic freedoms for a dictator’s promise of “stability.” Still, I worked hard to see her perspective rather than shutting her down with American righteousness. Shelley later pointed out to me that this “freedom vs. stability” bargain is a favorite  trick of dictators.  They manage to frame the choice so that freedom becomes synonymous with chaos. The way Ukraine is being portrayed in the Russia press only helps make the case; rather than inspiring similar movements in Russia it serves to underscore the comparable calm at home.

its easy for Americans to judge Russians for embracing Putin rather than taking to the streets for change.  But really, what would you do?  Would you risk the stability of your career, your friendships, perhaps your personal savings and your children’s education? Or would you focus on the things you can control — the day to day worries about work deadlines and kids’ school projects — and hope for the best?  I take away from all this a renewed desire to listen and understand; an acknowledgment that, in all truth I’m not sure whether I would have the desire or the courage to “act” for change if I were in my friend’s position.  It leaves me feeling sad, resigned, and almost fatalistic about Russia’s  future.

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