Letters From Moscow

Russian Spring

Russian Spring
Credit: Freedom House

Last month TMN asked me, as a Russophile, to write a piece explaining “why what’s going on in Russia is bad, and why the West should care.”

I did it. In doing so, I confirmed a few things for myself:

  • I’m still a Russophile.
  • I’m an old one at that. It’s both easier and harder to be an informed Russia-watcher in the era of socially networked regime-change.
  • What’s going on in Russia is good—it’s always good when “creative class” comes out of a civic coma.

As for why the West should care, that’s more easily addressed today. Before the presidential elections of March 4, there was little to debate aside from whether the West could fairly be blamed for the burgeoning protest against the regime of Vladimir Putin. Ikea, for example, has caught a lot of heat for furnishing the rebels. MTV was a clear indoctrination model for the youth talk show yanked from the airwaves.

Now that the election has passed and Putin’s presidency is official, why should we Westerners care? Here are three reasons, in descending order of gravity:

Because the 99 Percent Is Not Always Going to Question Inequality

The protest movement in Russia today is made up of a small, urban, educated minority. It is that fact, and not the brazenness of the Putin apparatus, which explains why the “party of crooks and thieves” is still in power.

Yes, the voting was highly irregular. Yes, no viable candidates were permitted in the tightly controlled campaign.

But Putin would have won without the inflated figures.  A study published yesterday by Gazeta.RU found that votes for Putin rose disproportionately as the turnout rates increased beyond the statistically probable. That makes about 9 million votes (the green dots) suspicious, on the grounds that they were all recorded in areas with above-average turnout and were all for Putin.

Credit: Sergei Shpilkin

The analysis concludes that actual voter turnout was about 56 percent (and not the official 63 percent) and that Putin garnered 57.5 percent of the vote (and not the official 63.5 percent). In essence, this is a picture of margin-padding. This is not an emperor with no clothes: This is an emperor in a fat suit.

And for the most part, Russians want to keep their emperor.

Because the Protesters May Become Occupiers

They may not be the 99 percent but the 15,000 people who thronged to Pushkin Square to protest the election results on Monday did so with the declaration “We are the power.” After the officially sanctioned demonstration, hundreds of people stayed, calling for tents and shouting, “We aren’t leaving.” Hundreds were arrested, including several of the movement’s most visible figures.

For three months the movement that identifies itself with a white ribbon of solidarity has differentiated itself from both the Arab Spring (we don’t want a revolution) and the Occupy movement (we’ve got no beef with Wall Street).  Today, it joins the ranks of global movements everywhere—orange, green, and occupy—in its need for leaders, consensus and strategy.

Or, as one Facebook participant suggested, “Here’s the recipe: We have kids, we raise them to be citizens. We get prepare for 2018.”

Because Russian Computer Programmers Are Remarkable

In one of the few concessions to the protesters’ accusations of vote fraud, authorities installed 200,000 webcams in polling stations around the country. Watchdog groups made the most of this move, allowing users to monitor, record, and report anything streaming from Siberia’s farthest-flung voter booths.

The digital portal is a testament to Russian ingenuity, empowerment, and responsiveness. The videos it generated demonstrated a notable lack of imagination on the part of ballot-stuffers, and lack of interest on the part of official monitors.

The highlight reels give me hope that my favorite foreign country will survive its increasingly less-foreign versions of democracy, citizen activism, and outrage. It assures me that even with fair elections on the line, plenty of Russians will celebrate the absurd, the unself-conscious and, of course, the crotch-scratcher.

The most popular camera on webvybory on March 4, was at a polling station in the private home of Sha Yunosov in Chechnya. Video from the good village elder’s living room showed his wife, kids, and the 44 other registered voters of Meseda, Chechnya, where turnout was just shy of 100 percent.

What’s going on in Russia today is either “a sober, uncowed opposition movement,” as Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Fund calls it, or “a civil rights movement,” according to blogger and activist Ilya Krashin.

Most importantly, what’s going on in Russia—at least last Saturday, the night before the most important elections in a dozen years, in polling stations across five timezones—is much the same as ever. And to my mind, it’s all good.



TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem