Have you watched the competing protests for and against Putin in Moscow and St. Petersburg? In May of 2011, John Freedman writing in The Moscow Times lamented “The Decline of Respectful Dissent.” Hum.m.m. I am left wondering just when dissent has ever been respectful? Under an iron-fisted dictatorship maybe… in academic debate circles probably. But in real life, dissent tends to get partisan quite quickly. Watching the Republican primaries, I can taste the bile that no smile between candidates can dispel.
Prefaced by street protests of competing factions and anticipatory charges of election fraud, voters will go to the polls on March 4 to cast their ballots for Vladimir Putin who, having taken a term off, is running for a third term as President of Russia. Polls predict that Putin will win. The numbers fluctuate between his capturing between 53 and 57% of the vote.
Based on the number of protesters (estimated in the tens of thousands) you would think that Putin’s projected lead would be lower. But Moscow and St. Petersburg are not Russia. Russia is a big country with both an urban/rural and generational divide.
Yesterday, I listened with interest to NPR’s Weekend Edition. You can take it in at http://www.npr.org/programs/weekend-edition-sunday. The Feb.26 interview is titled, “For and against Putin, Russians Share their opinions.” Cory Flintoff was interviewing folks standing on a train station platform at the base of the Urals 1,000 miles east of Moscow. Two of the three people interviewed explained why they would be voting for Putin: both thought that Putin offered stability and a better standard of living than they had experienced prior to Putin’s being elected to office 12 years ago.
I have traveled to Russia a number of times, both on my own and as a Fremont County-Valdai (Valday) Sister City teacher/chaperone, and between my first visit in 1996 and more recent visits, I have seen a dramatic economic transformation. In 1996, Valdai had few cars, potholed streets, a crumbling infrastructure, and decaying schools. Some people were still getting their water from a public hydrant and yoking the water buckets to their shoulders. It was not unusual to see babushkas pushing an old pram full of cabbages or onions into town on market day. Market day was primitive. There were few market stalls; rather, some vendors would spread out a tarp to cluster their goods. On any one tarp, you might find a muffler, a size 38 D bra, some bruised apples, a slightly worn pair of birch bark shoes and some socks knit of dog hair.
Times were so hard that in October of 1996, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), expressing a lack of faith in the ability of Russia’s leadership to ensure steady development of the national economy, denied Russia its October loan. I know for a fact that the in the fall of 1996 the teachers and federal employees to include the soldiers and pensioners, had not been paid for three months. How I admired the dedicated Russian instructors who showed up to teach, despite not being paid.
On October 6 of that same year, I wrote in my journal: “Local Elections Today!” Having served as a Fremont County election judge for many years, I was keen to see a Russian election up close and personal. I came away enthused. “What a contrast to our elections. Their polling places are more celebratory. Tablecloths and vases of flowers brighten the registration and ballot tables. Traditional music plays in the background and a buffet table is set for light refreshments.”
I came away from that experience with a light heart. Times were hard, but with the exception of the pensioners who clung to the old way, people were hopeful for a brighter future. Despite the wretched economy, they approached the ballot box with a celebratory skip in their step.
Times are better now. Valdai’s market is thriving and it looks like successful market towns in the West. One market stall sells leather goods. Next door is mobile phone stall; next to it, a shoe store; and next to it, a baby boutique. The streets are paved, and cars whizz by. There is a real buzz in what was a sleepy town. The 1654 Iversky Monastery has been restored and glistens white and gold across the lake.
Snuggled in-between rolling hills, birch trees, lakes, and meticulous kitchen gardens, Valdai is equidistant between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The location is unparalleled in beauty. As a mid-way point between the city of government and the city of culture, it has always been a vacation home to the person in power. For many years, going back to Catherine the Great, Valdai has been Russia’s “Camp David.” Stalin’s dacha was on the outskirts of Valdai. And other leaders have followed . Today, the government compound in Valdai is Putin’s get-away. In truth, I don’t know whether Valdai is looking dramatically better because of a growing economy or Valdai is looking better because it is Putin’s showcase town. My guess is the latter.
Given the stronger economy today, is it any wonder that Russians will overlook the abuses of power? The voters may not skip to the ballot box on March 4th, but stability, bread and butter will always win the day. The protests won’t stop with Putin’s election. Perhaps Putin will listen. If not, he will only serve one term.
The young, who never knew hard times, are restless.
For breaking news, check out “Putin Assassination Plot: Credible Threat or Pre-election Ploy by Simon Shuster for Time World. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2107717,00.html?xid=rss-topstories
What is a person to believe?
I remember visiting the Iversky Monastery, in the middle of the Valday Lake and reached by boat or by a narrow spit of land. In 1996, the monastery was badly in need of repair and university students were hard at work on the restoration. In talking to the priest, I asked about the significance of the onion-shaped domes. I have heard a number of explanations since that conversation, but I liked his answer which was something like, Exploring your faith is like peeling an onion. Peel away the layers and seek the core.
Develop a character who is either peeling away the layers himself, or
Put him on his deathbed – a good place for him to take account, or
Place him on a psychiatrist’s couch. Have the psychiatrist help him peel away the layers.