Should a majority of the Russian middle class truly venerate such values and the deeply-rooted intellectual ideals that Western observers tend to attribute to them, one may also wonder why there seems to have been so little display of respect and remembrance for the late wife of Mikhail Gorbachev, Raisa Gorbachova, the highly active and first university-educated First Lady of Russia. She revolutionized (if only briefly) her position in the Russian system of governance, with her involvement in children and women’s issues and cancer programs, among others.
Sure, her husband is still reviled by much of the population for dissolving the Soviet Union’s powerful empire and bringing about the political, economic, and social chaos that ensured. But that does not justify a lack of appreciation for her own personal merits and accomplishments — even before she married Gorbachev.
Yet, while there have been yearly visible gatherings and commemorations of anniversaries in public spaces for such questionable figures as Stalin, and even the non-Russian Hitler, Gorbachova seems to have been virtually pushed out of the headlines, as well as people’s minds and memories. Personally, I don’t recall any sightings or press reports of such public celebrations for her.
Ironically, while she never seemed to be celebrated “at home,” by Russians, she was celebrated abroad. It was Western media and observers who lavished far more attention on her, with all the major American networks broadcasting her 1990 speech with First Lady Laura Bush at Wellesley College, for instance.
This is just one case — and of course, there are people who do remember and appreciate her. But the lack of mass appeal this true symbol of high intellectual and democratic ideals inspired in her people does raise some questions about the so-called “educated emerging middle class.”
I fully realize that so far I haven’t done justice to the many people in Russian society, from the ordinary “Ivan” to the more prominent and pro-active entrepreneurs who truly want and actively defend democratic change. I do not doubt that there are many of them across Russia, and that their intentions and deeds are genuine. In fact, despite hundreds of arrests reported in several cities, opposition leaders have vowed to resume their demonstrations in the near future.
But my goal here is to draw attention to the naïve, misplaced, and inflated U.S. and Western media’s bias in their coverage of signs of democracy in Russian society (and perhaps I could tentatively throw in those of a few countries of the former Soviet Union such as Ukraine and Belarus). The Russian system seems to me still too encrusted in its old ways to say so optimistically that it has changed fully and for the long-term. While there is certainly beauty in the strategy of envisioning what one wishes for and seeking signs of it, the media should still report facts and the truth, and not yield to the temptation of inflating what it wants to see — and what Washington and Brussels want to hear.
A corollary of such hasty and optimistic appraisals of the protests and situation with Russian civil society in general is that they can lead to a quick dismissal of how much progress still needs to be made, and how serious the obstacles that lie in people’s paths are.
Perhaps eager to get on with business, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to commit that very mistake by brushing under the carpet widespread alleged irregularities in the presidential election and declaring Putin the “clear winner,” with whom the United States is now “ready to work with,” The Los Angeles Times reported. Russian human rights activists denounced those comments as an insult to their hard work and concerns.
In any case, their indignation is certainly an encouraging sign that at least some segments of Russian society are more in touch with reality and pro-active than rosy-eyed Western analysts or the older generations who are often nostalgic about the more stable days under Communism. But even some of the younger generation have shown clear signs of fatalistic apathy when it comes to politics and bringing change.
At least some American news organizations have started to acknowledge the premature protest fatigue among Russian activists, following Russian media reports and a VTsIOM poll citing the shrinking size of the anti-Putin rallies soon after the election results.
But in a country where the authorities and the public are often at loggerheads as to the honesty of electoral proceedings and the veracity of the results — as in this latter presidential one, which included an allegedly foiled assassination attempt on Putin that is believed to be concocted by his team as a ruse to garner support for his election — it is very hard to discern facts from fiction, and interpret statistics and sentiments accurately.
This article is the fifth in a series on Russia’s presidential election, popular street protests, and Putin’s new presidency.