Last week I was lucky enough to take part in a few conversations with different young Russians about their country, and the future. I was surprised at their pessimism and some of their opinions. It was the first time I had actually heard them for myself.
Sometimes I wonder if we are living on an island. Moscow citizens seem to think that they are incredibly different from other areas of Russia. A lot of the time, this comes with an idea of ‘cultural development’, as if somehow society here has progressed, and left rural Russia behind. Sometimes St Petersburg is included in this anomalie- but the rest of Russia is backward, to be interpreted with tsarist analogies, uneducated…
As I sat across from Andrei in class as he told us that ‘the rest’ of Russia believed the news, and would stand in the way of real change, I was surprised. Surely those in the country, forgotten by Moscow’s wealth, far from the elite would be exactly those who feel left out, ignored, and call for change? Did he actually know what he was talking about? Just five days later Yulia agreed with him. She drank her tea and said simply ‘I worry for my country, I don’t know what will happen to it’. She, too, despaired in the rural folk- those who have no connection to the west, cannot learn about democracy or about culture, and just sit in front of their TV consuming Putin’s mass media.
This time I asked; ‘have you been there?’ She was not born a Muscovite, she had made this clear- but she was raised here, from quite young. The family still had links with her home town, but her mother was a Muscovite, so she rarely visited. No, she had not been out in the middle of Siberia, or in the far west, but she wanted to go- maybe after she finished her degree.
In other words, no, she had no connection to these people, the ones who were “traditional”, “backward”, but determined so much of the countries future, and would likely keep it in its undeveloped place. I guessed that Andrei was the same.
I wonder if maybe, like with so many things in this country, the real problem is the distance. If the distance in physical terms has become greater through the metaphorical distance between people, as they see each other in their boxes- ‘rich, socialite, educated, Muscovite’ and ‘poor, uneducated, rural other’. After all, there are places where, unacknowledged by my peers, economies are being built somewhat independently of Moscow. Vladivostok, for instance, is building links across the sea, or the areas that border on China which have been developing trade between the states. And the reach of education might be spreading as well- Many of our own peers come from all across Russia for the education, and who knows what they will take back with them when they return. Our own University now has four different campuses, in different regions. I strongly suspect that these ‘rural’ places could change, and are probably even changing now.
Perhaps the problem is more that the rural people will never create a political contender (due in part to their education and in part to their great dispersal across the land), and that a political contender from Moscow will always be co-opted into the system. I base this theory on another thing that Yulia said, which stuck with me- ‘We Russians need someone to organise us. We cannot organise ourselves.’ It was straight out of the patriarchal rhetoric of the Kremlin. And this from a girl who claimed to be a European, believer in democracy, hater of corruption, someone who wanted to change Russia for the better. She was looking to the West for assistance- assistance which she thinks will no longer come because of the breakdown of political relationships over the conflict in the Ukraine. ‘Maybe things will be better after Putin’ she hesitated- ‘But we know Putin. We do not know…’, she slid back into another tsarist comparison. ‘If we look at history, after one tsar died or left there was always trouble, uncertainty- it was always bad for Russia.’
Change still has to be top-down, bringing people to development, into civilization- preferably from someone already established in power.
I begin to think that I understand.
They are judging the likelihood of a change of ideology in Putin and the government elites themselves. Something which tends to be unlikely when you are feeling boxed in with a military conflict on your border, an angry EU, a growing China, and a threatening USA.
After these discussions I feel thoroughly depressed.
(No, those are not their real names. After Yulia insisted that there is still a threat to people who publish material against the Kremlin, I thought it would not hurt to give them some level of protection. Even if, like we agreed, they are ‘small fry’ and probably safe.)