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Russians' political apathy frustrates feisty young journalist

Anastasia Chukovskaya sees a desire for stability that comes at the expense of freedoms.

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Trappings of democracy?

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Russia indeed wears many of the trappings of democracy: well-attended elections with numerous parties and candidates; national and regional parliaments; a public chamber of civil society representatives; and media reports lambasting the government. Putin appears set to make good on his promise to fulfill his constitutional requirement to relinquish the presidency when his second consecutive term expires this spring.

But the probable election on Sunday of Gazprom chief and longtime Putin aide Dmitri Medvedev has sparked speculation that the president will attempt to maintain his influence in a beefed-up prime minister's post under Mr. Medvedev – just the latest example of the consolidation of power that has characterized his eight-year tenure.

Political parties must now win 7 percent of the vote – up from 3 percent – to enter the State Duma, or parliament. Deputies are chosen by their parties and regional governors are nominated by the president. And with nearly every media outlet controlled by the state, few journalists have the will or means to expose government misdeeds.

An Amnesty International report released this week, citing the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, expressed concern that the "fundamental rights" of freedom of expression, association, and assembly have been curtailed under Putin. And last week, the New-York based Human Rights Watch detailed how a 2006 law on nongovernmental organizations has "targeted various NGOs that work on controversial issues, seek to galvanize public dissent, or receive foreign funding."

"Putin did roll back democracy and things are more authoritarian," says Andrei Zolotov, the editor of Russia Profile, a state-funded English news magazine. "But the West also underestimates the importance of stability."

For many Russians, the humiliations of daily life just a decade ago still linger. Wives of foreign intelligence agents had to take jobs to support their husbands and teachers cleaned houses on the side to make ends meet. Young people unloaded trucks of sugar to get a prime spot in line the next day to actually buy some, and shabbily dressed businessmen ate for two or three at company dinners. Teens lost friends, sometimes dozens, to drugs and armed bandit groups.

Now, the streets are safer, salaries are better, and supermarkets are full. But in the political market, choice is limited. "In America, it's so great, you can choose Clinton or Obama, or ... who's this guy? McCain," says Chukovskaya wistfully. "It's like going to the supermarket and choosing between three different kinds of apples and deciding which one you want this evening. Here we just have one apple."

Broad sense of helplessness

Though people like Chukovskaya see much that needs correcting, she and many others describe an overwhelming sense of helplessness – rooted in a history of life under overbearing rulers – that stymies any efforts at reform.

"Nobody feels that we have the power to change anything," she laments. Indeed, according to a recent survey by the liberal Levada Center, 67 percent of Russians feel they have little or no influence over government policy.

Sitting in an upscale cafe, a scarf thrown loosely around her rebellious long hair, Chukovskaya roots her society's submissiveness in Russian Orthodoxy's legacy. "When we had czars here, people were sure that they were divinely appointed by God," she explains. "Now, they think that if someone has power over you – a pope, president, or boss – they are divinely appointed. That's why you just have to listen and do what you have to do."