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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As journalists, Chukovskaya and her friend Alexandra Sheveleva, who joins her after a long day at the BBC, see that servitude playing out in the press.Skip to next paragraph
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"I think chief editors and editors know ... how news should be cooked," says Ms. Sheveleva, poring over the menu, which offers tea starting at $8 a cup.
Government supporters often counter such criticism by pointing to Ekho Moscovy, a hard-hitting radio station based in Moscow. But Chukovskaya discounts its existence as evidence of freedom of expression. "I have the feeling as if it is there for the government to say, 'Oh no, we have opposition,' " she says.
"Our radio exists for Condoleezza Rice," agrees Sheveleva dryly, noting the US Secretary of State's concern about democracy's decline under Putin.
But without a network of robust democratic institutions, such outlets don't have the same ability to act as a catalyst for public scrutiny as those in the West – whose stories often spark political activism, court cases, or government investigations.
"What's key about lack of press freedom," Ms. Lipman of the Carnegie Center says, "is that even though there is some investigative reporting, this does not make officials any more accountable because of what's printed."
The lure of an omniscient state
Despite being critical of reduced press freedom, however, Sheveleva can see the appeal of Putin's administration.
"When you talk to ... people who are close to power, they are so optimistic and they just involve you in this feeling. You think, 'I should be with them. I should be a patriot,' " says Sheveleva, recalling an interview with one of Putin's press secretaries. "The happiest people work in the administration of the government."
But still, she and Chukovskaya struggle to understand how their fellow citizens can be happy with Putin's government, and chalk up their compatriots' contentment to a long-cultivated image of the state as omniscient provider.
"The old generation, they vote for United Russia, and you say, 'Why? Your pension is so low, the healthcare system is so bad,' " says Sheveleva, who as part of her job takes calls on the air from BBC's mainly elderly shortwave radio audience. "And they say, 'the government is strong, they know what to do, they know how to run this country.' "
For Chukovskaya, who has all the restraint of a Kentucky Derby contender in the starting gate, such unquestioning reliance on the state has no place in a democracy.
"For me, democracy is something where the people are involved," she says. "You know how English parks are made? They watch where people walk and then they build paths there.... Here, no," she adds, explaining how her mother's neighbors keep treading the old path in the grass instead of using a new walkway nearby. "They will give you the model, will tell you what to do.... Maybe for some people that's good. A lot of people think we need Stalin back (see story).... For me, democracy is where I'm involved."
"When you go through your favorite path," interjects Sheveleva – not theirs.
"And someone cares that I want to," agrees Chukovskaya. She's not sure what her path will be – maybe a PhD program in Europe or America. But she can't imagine leaving Russia. Her role models are not stars or czars, but friends like Sheveleva. What's her counsel?
"In every time, there are a lot of people who are educated enough – they are the core of society, they are the moral leaders," says Sheveleva. "[Nobel laureate and novelist Alexander] Solzhenitsyn was such a person in the '80s, and the real thing we can do is to become such moral leaders."