Russians voting against democracy

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'Sleeping Giant' by Chris Johnston Russia has voted. The results are well known — and also the discrepancies in the process. The streets of Russian cities are draped in Unified Russia flags, leaflets are strewn on pavements, and celebrations continue for the 'Nashi' youth. For four weeks, the election campaign has showered us with activism, rallies, arrests and advertising. At the State University in Novgorod I have been showering my students with questions.

My role as a conversational English assistant means all kinds of topics are open for discussion. In the lead-up to the election, teaching became ever more interesting. My students are future interpreters. Their intelligence is considerable. Most speak fluent English and German, some also Swedish and Portuguese. They are well travelled, the majority having visited the US and Europe. Many want to work for the United Nations or in government. They are likely to play a significant role in their nation's future.

With the campaign growing increasingly vigorous, I began to put questions to the packed classes. My first was 'Will you vote?' Some said they would, but did not yet know for whom. The only party they knew of was Putin's Unified Russia. No great surprise, given that the prospect of a 60-70 per cent majority for Unified Russia has been broadcast across TV and radio airwaves, and 60 per cent of prime time television goes to Unified Russia.

Others hesitated and told me they had not given it any thought. The last group simply shook their heads, regretful, almost apologetic.

My question to this group was 'why not?' The most common response was: 'Even if we vote, nothing will change. The same party will always win. Our vote means nothing.'

Apathetic regret seems characteristic of many of the young people I have come across in St Petersburg and Novgorod. In everyday classes it is difficult to trigger passionate response. I have to search for issues that might inflame students' interest.

For the first few weeks they were surprised at my questions. When I pressed them they often became distressed, bursting into the common refrain: 'This is Russia, democracy doesn't work here.'

On the Monday morning after scores of opposition activists were arrested in St Petersburg by Interior Ministry forces, the topic in class was free speech. Again, the knee-jerk reaction came into play: 'It's not democracy, it's not freedom, but compare Russia today with what it was like during the Yeltsin years. Our economy and lifestyle have improved, so why worry about free speech?'

The feedback was more varied when I put to them the comments of international election monitors. Some echoed Vladimir Putin's sentiments, that foreign observers and other countries should keep their noses out of Russian affairs.

Herein lies the paradox. Many Russians will freely criticise their politicians and the electoral process. But any intimation of 'foreign interference' meets with defiance. It is curious that this is the point where apathy dissolves.

Breaking through the wall of nonchalance and apathy is a challenge which can seem insurmountable. The university environment doesn't help. Three days before the election a teacher walked into my class where we had been talking about how students could be activists. She began to hand out Unified Russia 'how to vote' cards.

Later, in the staff room, I asked another teacher what this meant. 'Unified Russia sponsors the university,' she said. 'They've just bought us new desks and chairs.'

I had been thinking about my students' lack of idealism. I understood now that the university itself, which should be a centre for critical thought and diversity of opinion, was drained of dynamism.

The election seemed anti-climactic in Novgorod, perhaps because we'd known the result for months. Still, the outcome produced interesting reactions. The facts coming to light post-election presented a bleak picture to any students even remotely interested. The imbalance in the new Duma was an unavoidable fact.

Yesterday, in class, as we discussed the election results, there was an outpouring of new feeling. Some students remained uninterested, but the majority agreed the result was negative and went so far as to say that something must be done.

This dissent took the form of words only. In other places I have seen an interest and involvement in social issues that gives cause for optimism about Russian democratic activism.

I spent the night before the election at a concert organised by a student group committed to fighting HIV/AIDS. They're a lively, interesting group who worked hard to see the concert become reality. Everyone from the group had input into the planning. Hundreds of students from the town, my own students included. The atmosphere was festive and lively.

When the leader of a student anti HIV/AIDS organisation got up to speak, the response was unanimous cheering. Badges were bought, money donated and phone numbers added to a long list.

So all is not lost; there exists amongst the students a feeling for the problems that surround them. They have only to convince themselves they can play a role in solving them.

The election will cause widespread pessimism among those interested in Russian democracy. Certainly the situation seems dire. But progress is being made, the democratic spirit is in motion. Since election weekend I have felt more positive about the future. There is room for hope.

Ben ColeridgeBenedict Coleridge completed year 12 in 2006. In 2007 he visited Ireland and England before beginning work as a language assistant at a university in Novgorod just south of St Petersburg. He will return to Australia early in 2008 to begin his university studies.



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Existing comments

You talk as if russian people are stupid and don't know anything else except for united russia party. It is false.

Jonathan | 18 June 2008  

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