The United States and its supporters have hardly been able to contain their excitement at the winds of democratic change that they perceive as blowing in the Arab world and other regions following recent anti-government uprisings. But this has often led to misinterpretation and inflation of the actual number and honorable motives of the protesters. The Western media’s assessment of the recent street protests in Russia is no exception. The misjudgment and embellishment of the popular opposition and reactionary forces in Russian society by the West is in fact not confined to their size, but also their quality — or one could say, the “spirit” behind them.
This has been most apparent in the American and European media’s descriptions of the emerging middle class, in which they also claim to see signs of true democratic efforts and evolution. While this has undeniably been the case, it does not hurt to question the rather short-lived acts of rebellion that the already waning activism on the streets attests to, or the lack of direction and organization of the political opposition, or the real motives and long-term goals and passions of the now more socially mobile segments of society.
Often described by optimistic Western commentators as “richer, more vocal (as here above), technology-savvy, and more educated and intellectually enlightened” than the rest of Russian society and their former repressed selves under Soviet rule, it is important to note that these qualifiers assigned to this ‘new class’ miss the point on several fronts.
The Economist, for example, reports, “A poll by the Levada Centre found a wide range of ages, incomes and political preferences among the protesters; they are not just the young, well-off middle class. What they have in common is their level of education: 70% were graduates.” This omits the fact that even in Soviet times, Russia had one of the most highly literate and educated societies in the world. The present level of education of today’s protesters, seen in that larger context, loses much of its significance and association with the desire for democracy.
The media has also focused on how this younger and more mobile generation has been acting as a “catalyst” for discontent now felt across the country. Again, while this is true to some extent, I do recall seeing the early steps of this nascent “creative class,” as it is sometimes called, as a journalist in the early 2000s and as late as 2008, and speaking from my perceptions and for those years, this emerging middle class seemed, perhaps understandably, to be more interested in tasting the sweet pleasures of the Western life (with foreign travels and holidays, brand-name clothes, cars, and cosmetics, dining, and night-clubbing), than in defending liberal democratic values.
In fact, the latter have never really been a unifying factor or ideal national goal fervently pursued in the whole country at any given time in post-Soviet Russia — perhaps not surprisingly, given the size and cultural diversity of the country. This is not to say that democracy only suits certain cultures — obviously it doesn’t discriminate. But you do need a unified opposition that can speak to all these diverse peoples in an attractive and coherent manner that makes sense to all — and this has been sorely lacking in the new Russia. So far, such pro-democracy efforts have been too isolated and unsupported by institutions.
There are other subtle signs that make me question the reportedly deep and long-date desires for democratic change that Western media and Russia experts are quick to attribute to whom they call “the children of the Soviet Intelligentsia.”
Many among Russia’s foreign trade and diplomatic partners are putting all their hopes on the higher echelons of this educated class — the well-connected, influential elite in business and the creative industries — but I have seen too many figures in these sectors keep their mouths shut about Kremlin abuses of power and other injustices, and suck up to the authorities.
While being precisely the people with the concrete means and public exposure to send some powerful messages about liberal ideals, many (although obviously not all) ended up openly supporting Putin’s policies, simply because they feared losing their positions, plushy jobs, contacts, or whatever of value they might lose.
The reality in Russia is that wealth is acquired very quickly — but can also be lost tomorrow just as fast. Nothing is guaranteed in such an unregulated, dysfunctional system, unprotected by the usual legal guarantees one would expect from a democratic nation. And in such a dysfunctional environment, friendships and alliances are made — and dissolved — very quickly and unpredictably. The way post-Soviet Russia has been bullying its former “friends” — satellite countries of the former Soviet Bloc — is a sign of this on the scale of foreign relations.
But in the everyday life of Russian society, broadly speaking, I have often witnessed how some deep, usually long-nurtured values such as free expression, care for one’s fellow beings, and independence, for example, are being sacrificed with little second thought for the immediate pleasures of a much more fickle and material nature.
This article is the fourth in a series on Russia’s presidential election, popular street protests, and Putin’s new presidency.