14 December 2011

Hall of mirrors

Facebook meeting announce-
 ment on Saturday morning
Streaming video from event;
  actress Elena Panfilova
  addresses crowd
Meanwhile, back in our
  kitchen: gingerbreak cookie
Gingerbread house (prefab
from IKEA but fun to 
assemble and decorate)
So far--a timid winter (that's
 Institute graffiti on construc-
 tion fence)

Poet Fyodor Tiutchev's overworked verse, "Russia isn't for brains to grasp ... but for hearts to believe," has never rung so true as in these last few days and weeks. Sometimes I feel as if I'm passing through a marvelous hall of mirrors, never quite sure of what I'm seeing. Who would have thought that a capital city so determined to shut down a few thousand demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday, would have the "planet's most civilized meeting" (ecological activist Evgenia Chirikova) of 30-40,000 wildly diverse activists on Saturday?

We Americans often seem fond of telling the rest of the world's nations how to conduct their affairs. Maybe we'll get a bit more humble about our lectures on police violence after some recent Occupy episodes (such as this one). As for me, I don't want to confirm this know-it-all stereotype, but I'm also willing to admit that I just don't know enough to be a useful analyst. Since those who do claim to be useful are on all sides of the issues, my reluctance doesn't embarrass me.

For example: was there wholesale electoral fraud in the December 4 legislative elections? Estimates and guesses range from less than 1% of the total vote count to 20%! But I want to know whether the estimator has a vested interest in a high or low figure. I'm quite ready to believe that the ruling party applied a lot of systemic persuasion in the weeks and months before December 4 to line up votes. They probably used methods that are very familiar to anyone who has known Chicago a long time. They also seem to have pressured media outlets and advertising brokers to favor their ads and discourage others; and certainly they have refused to register some political parties who seemed rather normal to outside observers. [Update: we personally witnessed some of these pressure tactics in subsequent elections.]

But on election day itself, if there was truly massive fraud, why did the official results track so closely with some of the exit polls and pre-election opinion polls? The cynic will say that these polls were as crooked as the official vote counts--but that sounds less like a substantial charge than wishful thinking on the part of those who've already made up their mind.

I admire the American political system, but I'm far from claiming that it has worked out all of its bugs, and that it's a 100% exportable model. The U.S. Congress has only two mass political parties represented in it; Russia's equivalent has four. The U.S. cynic might say that the dominant party in Russia essentially controls most of the legislators of the other parties, but a cynical observer of the U.S. could point out how little diversity there is between mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats--and how almost all our politicians depend on corporate donors to fund their campaigns.

Russia's government has domesticated its biggest oligarchs (sometimes ruthlessly); in the USA, the big corporations often seem to call the shots. In Russia, the Kremlin dominates the broadcast media; but can we honestly say that the large media outlets in the USA are expressions of grassroots democracy?

In Russia, governors and mayors have been partly replaced by regional representatives of the Kremlin and by appointed city managers. In the USA, every census seems to be followed by a sad spectacle of redrawing district boundaries to the advantage of one party or the other--often by treating the minority citizens of those districts almost like cattle who can be predicted and prodded to behave a certain way, and must therefore be either concentrated or diluted to match the dominant party's theories.

Some of Russia's most influential politicians essentially echo the old line that Russians aren't capable of mature democracy; the institutions must develop gradually and in a specifically Russian style. In the meantime, things must be run by people with a proven record of responsibility--specifically, those who helped the country recover from the dislocations and privations of the '90s. (But what kind of "responsibility" is it that blames every dissident flare-up on foreign NGOs and American politicians?) 

The problem with "wait" is exactly the same now as it was when Martin Luther King explained "why we can't wait": too often it functionally means "never." For those who benefit from the present setup, why be in a hurry? But average citizens, driven almost beyond endurance by rudeness and corruption in their contacts with officialdom, can be excused for wondering how much longer they will wait for the present "responsible" government to lighten up on honest people and tighten up on crooks. I think the "we want honest elections" slogan of Saturday's meeting was just as much about being treated as human beings as it was about electoral reform specifically. In the meantime, emigration flows on.

But, again, on the other hand (as we proceed to another mirror in this long hall), are we Americans models of democratic maturity? Right now I watch with shame as America's former claim (or at least pretence) of evenhandedness between Palestinians and Israel has been shredded beyond recognition. Iran, immigrants, access to health care, nothing seems to deserve thoughtful treatment.

In short, neither country is run by Sunday school teachers. The mirrors we prefer to look in flatter ourselves and exaggerate the distortions in the other. The mirror I look into is sentimental about the Russian opposition because they look more like me, but is this a sound basis for choosing what to believe or ignore about Russia? For the foreseeable future, the wiggly mirror and the absolutely normal mirror will be right next to each other here, and sometimes I'll still have no idea which one I'm looking into. But last Saturday, with anarchists and liberals and communists and nationalists walking together with dignity, assembling with great civility for hours, and dispersing without incident, the "normal" mirror seems suddenly to have gotten a lot bigger.

Friday PS: Anatoly Karlin on "Truth and falsifications in Russia."

A Christmas season reminder: Just $7 covers the cost of a copy of Power of Goodness for peace education and community mental health work in Chechnya. Please help us fund the printing of the new edition, which I wrote about here, so that we can supply all of the schools where teachers and psychologists are ready to work.

Loving the Least of These: The National Association of Evangelicals releases its study paper on climate change and its effect on poor people. "Some studies report that climate will take as many as 300,000 lives this year alone."

Alzheimer's ("I wonder if I'll ever have that")--a love story.

Teargassing an "invented people" during a real funeral.

Little Ed!

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