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Suddenly we know we are many

Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant. By Natalia Klyuchareva

Shortly before the elections they repaired the roof of the kindergarten in our courtyard. But not out of concern for the children. No, the real reason is very simple: this kindergarten doubles as a polling station. And the logic of our rulers is equally simple: if there is water dripping through the roof while people are casting their votes, the voters may be annoyed and put their cross in the wrong box. This is assuming that the voters have failed to notice that water has been dripping onto the heads of their children for years on end (the roof is only repaired immediately before elections) or that they would never make a connection between the leaky roof and the well-fed physiognomy of the politicians. As if people only use their brains and take action once every four years, namely, when they go to the polling station to vote.

This about sums up the Duma's style: impudence, total confidence in its impunity and contempt for the people. So it is only natural to ask what kind of people would tolerate such a government? In my opinion the word "tolerate" is not entirely appropriate here because to tolerate means to recognise the humiliating aspect of the situation. We have, however, become so accustomed to this situation, that we no long notice it, it's as if an unscrupulous government were as much a permanent feature of Russian life as the short summer or the soggy paths in spring and autumn. Just as the inhabitants of a megalopolis rarely notice the toxicity of the air they breathe.

Political freedom has never existed in Russia. Which is why in our country even critically minded people are not used to thinking about society as a whole, and many of them genuinely see no connection between a kindergarten's leaking roof and the Duma elections. Politics is one thing, life is another. Russian society, particularly when it comes to my generation, is extremely unpolitical and this gives the government more or less unlimited freedom. We are not concerned about the government and that suits the government just fine.

Of course there are people, plenty of them, who very definitely do make this connection. But even they do not get involved. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the entire political system in Russia – from village soviet to federal committee – is based on lies, on the pursuit of private instead of societal interests, and on theft. Even an honest person who ends up in politics has to play the game to some extent, otherwise he will be "eaten" by less upstanding colleagues. This is why honest people give politics a wide berth. And engage in civil society in other ways. Such as in the voluntary movement which in recent years has become a mass phenomenon.

Secondly, there has been neither political nor personal freedom in Russia for a very long time. Throughout the 20th century the totalitarian state wanted to control all spheres of life. This is no longer the case. The state no longer reaches into personal affairs, into the family and into people's inner lives. Beyond this, many people don't ask more of the state. People are left in peace, they are no longer shot for reading forbidden poetry, they are allowed to wear whatever they want, listen to whatever music they like, travel the world and even think what they wish about the state – and that's just fine. It is a sort of silent agreement, a mutual nonaggression pact: leave us in peace and we will leave you in peace. The right to live one's life in exchange for keeping out of politics in exchange. And for quite some time this seems to have satisfied both sides.

Of course the state does not waste any time in dealing with those who dare to violate this agreement, who poke their noses into things or disrupt the status quo. The attacks on civil rights activists, the murders of prying journalists, the brutal suppression of demonstrations – these are all as much symptoms of the time as social networking or security checks in public spaces. In other words, it is not only hard work to stand up for your rights in Russia, it is also dangerous. And you cannot blame anyone for not wanting to risk their lives. After all, not everyone is a hero and a fighter.

Moreover there is no opposition with any political clout in Russia. There is not a single oppositional politician for whom I would actually vote. There is not a single party to which I would not be embarrassed to belong. And sadly most of those in the opposition are freaks, crazies or demagogues who have lost touch with reality.

Here is a typical story that happened in a city where members of the public were protesting the construction of an underground car park. There was a bitter struggle with demonstrations, letters of protest, even hunger strikes. Eventually the governor announced that he was prepared to meet the people and listen to what they had to say. The first protestor spoke up, a regional historian by profession, and he basically said that "they never had underground stables here in the old days" so why should they have an underground car park now. Then up spoke the next protestor, a librarian. Her argument was that "underground car parks have a bad aura, negative energy." The governor, the only leader in the region who belonged to a democratic party, politely let both of them have their say and then asked whether anyone else wanted to add anything. No, no one did. Construction on the car park, of course, went ahead.

There is a further, admittedly very sad, reason for this. The majority of people in Russia are content with the government because it is made of the same stuff as precisely this majority, no better and no worse, and has the same (in other words understandable and pardonable) vices. The politicians steal, and so do ordinary folk - just on a smaller scale. The president behaves abominably but so does the average citizen, not on TV perhaps, but in their own homes. So what actually changed in Russia on December 10th this year? And did anything actually change or was it just an illusion? And where do a hundred thousand politically engaged citizens come from all of a sudden, when recent oppositional demonstrations were able to motivate a hundred-odd people at most?

All my friends were there that Saturday on Bolotnaya Square. Even those whom I would never have imagined had any interest in politics. And those whom I would never have imagined taking part in a demonstration. Suddenly something happened to all of them, suddenly it became impossible not to be involved. But if someone asked you to explain what had  actually happened the only answer would be a vague "enough is enough" or "to let them know."

It was an overwhelmingly spontaneous action. Acquaintances from Germany wrote to me to offer their "congratulations on the birth of civil society in Russia". But this is not entirely the case. Civil society is not made in one day. It all began much earlier. When people started to notice the unhappy people around them and to help them instead of waiting for the state to act.

Many of my contemporaries, myself included, have taken part in demonstrations in the past and have written letters of protest. But very soon we realised that it changed nothing. That we were not helping anyone. Fighting the state is like running behind a car that has run over a pedestrian instead of giving the pedestrian aid. You neither catch the car nor help the pedestrian.

Last summer when forest fires were blazing across Russia, for the first time we realised we were many. People, that is, who feel personal responsibility. People who are also capable of taking action in a critical situation – with speed, precision and efficiency, unlike those in power. While activists from United Russia headed to the affected regions to hand out out baseball caps bearing the party insignia and state officials blocked the roads for the water canons in order to paint the curbs prior to Putin's visit, ordinary people were putting out the forest fires, collecting and distributing aid to the victims and clubbing together to buy missing equipment for the firemen. In other words they were doing everything that should have been taken care of by the state. And this made many people question the need for the state when we can cope perfectly well without it?

During that terrible summer spent beneath a veil of smoke which lay over the whole country, many of us grew up very fast indeed and were cured once and for all of the infantile and very Soviet hope of receiving state help. We suddenly understood that we can help ourselves, that this is our country, that it is in our hands. Of course it will take some more time before this realisation leads to genuine political change, but the first toll has sounded – and it sounded on December 10th on Bolotnaya Square.

There is one more thing I would like to add. An elderly woman (her son is my age) said something to me after reading my books, something that astounded me at first, but which I now understand. She said: "I am ashamed to read what you have written. I am ashamed about the world that we have left for you."

Last year all my friends had children, I have one of my own. And I believe that this is another reason for the sudden awakening of civil rights activism in an entire generation. Because from now on the ugly reality around us is no longer the world into which we were thrown like kittens into a hole in the ice, but the world which we are leaving to our children. And we very much wish that it will be different.


This article was originally published in Die Welt on 19 December, 2011.

Klyuchareva  was born in 1981 in Perm (Russia). A poet and prose-writer, she lives and works in Moscow, where she is a journalist with First of September, a newspaper, and a frequent contributor to the literary journal Novy Mir. She was recognized as a promising young writer in 2002, when she was shortlisted for the Debut Prize for Poetry. In 2006 she published her first book of poems, "White Pioneers" (ARGO-Risk Press). Her novel, "A Train Named Russia" (in Russian: "Obshy Vagon"), was published in Novy Mir (No. 1, 2006), and was nominated for the National Bestseller Prize. It was subsequently published as an independent volume (Limbus Press, 2007), and has been translated into five languages.

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