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Post Russian Orphanages, Politics and Democracy
Created by John Eipper on 01/18/13 12:16 PM

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Russian Orphanages, Politics and Democracy (Cameron Sawyer, Russia, 01/18/13 12:16 pm)

I have to say that I don't much like the form of Gilbert Doctorow's argument in his post of 15 January. He says, in effect, that some people in Russia express outrage over the adoption ban, these people are "democrats," "democrats" seize upon any chance to discredit Putin etc., therefore "I stop listening."

I think Gilbert is making a grave mistake to stop listening--which is usually a mistake in any argument; in fact, stopping listening is the classical sign of failure. This reasoning shows a cavalier dismissal of any criticism of the current regime, a cavalier lumping together of any kind of disagreement into a single pot of "democrats," peculiarly used here as a pejorative. "Oh, I don't have to listen to this criticism--the guy is just a subversive democrat." And the next stage in development of this attitude, which is even worse: "I can presume that this guy is a subversive democrat by the fact that he is criticizing the peerless Putin regime, therefore I will never listen to any criticism, since it only comes from subversive democrats." Thus Gilbert has stopped listening to an awful lot, he has in fact stopped listening to the whole country, and so he gravely misunderstands the feeling in this country, which as I have written turned sharply (and to me, unexpectedly) against Putin in December, 2011, after the large-scale falsification of parliamentary election results.

In fact, disappointment in the regime has practically nothing to do with liberals or opposition. There is no functioning opposition in this country, and relatively few people who consider themselves liberals. The people who are disappointed in the regime include taxi drivers in Samara, military people, teachers from Kaluga, workers, policemen, students, retired air traffic controllers, doctors, municipal bureaucrats, members of Putin's own inner circle--in short, people from all over the country and from all walks of life, and I am referring to just a small sample of the kinds of people I have personally discussed it with (oddly enough, everyone wants to talk these days, which is by the way a certain proof that this is not, for all its faults, a totalitarian regime in any sense--there has never been so much political discussion in all of my years in this country, as there is now). Few to probably none of these people have anything remotely to do with any kind of opposition, liberal or otherwise. Until a year or two ago, the great majority of Russians who were not either crackpots or pensioner-Communists were quite contented supporters of Putin's Edinaya Rossiya party, including nearly all of these people I have just referred to. The change in attitudes is remarkable, and it is ridiculous to suppose that disagreement with the regime comes only from some kind of subsersive pseudo-democratic elements. Gilbert should get out and meet more people; it would open his eyes. If he thinks that the only people who could possibly be against the anti-adoption law are subversive pseudo-democratic elements, he is very much mistaken.

My contacts with orphanages did not end in the 1990s. I have kept up with some of the contacts. I would say that the situation is actually worse now than it was in the 1990s--at that time, the whole country was bankrupt and it was somewhat understandable that orphanages were practically forgotten. Now the country is overflowing with wealth, and yet the material conditions in orphanages have hardly changed (the same is true of hospitals and schools, by the way). The good people I know involved in orphanages are in real despair now. If some concrete measures are taken now to finally help orphans, stimulated by these events (I'm referring to another of Gilbert's posts today), then that will be very good. It's about time. If Americans are willing to adopt Russian children whom Russians do not adopt, then it is the height of cynicism to prevent them from doing so. However, it is true that foreign adoptions alone cannot possibly solve the problem of orphans in this country. Much more needs to be done. It is a significant social problem which is widely understood here. The problem would be really explosive if it were not for the fact that there is practically full employment in Russia now--so unlike the case in many other countries, an orphan, upon having been "turned loose on the streets" at 16, will at least find work if he has the slightest bit of initiative.

A couple of days ago I was sitting around the dinner party with some apolitical Russian business people, like so many others contented Edinaya Rossiya supporters until only very recently. They were discussing the big change in the tone of what the regime is saying and doing, vividly observable just in the last half year or so. Someone expressed the opinion that the regime is now attempting to build an image which appeals to a certain primitive, beer-guzzling, jingoistic element of society, some kind of Lumpenproletariat, villifying America to appeal to old Cold War fears, and distracting attention from reasoned criticism, in the process simply giving up appealing to anyone on the basis of reason; having given up also on the opinion of the international community. This person referred to it as a kind of "Chavezization" (or perhaps "Lulaization") of the Putin regime, and of course this is a well-trodden path--demagoguery aimed at the lowest levels of society. The problem is that Russia is not Venezuela, and is not Brazil--this is a highly educated, advanced country, and there really is hardly any element of society which you could call a real Lumpenproletariat. Even the bus drivers in this country read Pushkin and go to the theatre (I would have said garbage collectors, but you won't find one single Russian doing that job--it's done exclusively by immigrants). The opinion was expressed that Putin might have gone somewhat crazy, and that Russians are unlikely to tolerate him if it goes on like this*. People vote their pocketbooks--and Russians are incomparably better off now than they were 10 years ago, and are better off every year. This is a powerful force against discontent--people will put up with a lot, if they personally live their lives the way they like (and they do--this is not, I repeat, any kind of totalitarian society), and if their lives are improving all the time. So what is really dangerous for Russia--as this person reasoned--is that if there is any interruption in this ever-increasing prosperity which Russians have been experiencing, this factor will be lost and there may be a real explosion. I don't know if there's anything in that idea, but it is pretty commonly heard here these days.

*Slightly off topic, but it was also said that the background of the anti-adoption law is that Putin had received certain personal assurances from Obama, that the Magnitsky List legislation would not be passed, and was stunned and shocked when it went through after all--Putin not realizing that Obama has much less ability to push through or stop legislation, than Putin himself does. This unpleasant surprise pushed Putin into an irrational rage, in which was born the recent spate of idiotic legislation including the anti-adoption bill. True or not, I don't know.

JE comments:  A sage reminder from Cameron Sawyer--stop listening, and all is lost. 

In Cameron's view, it would appear that Russians will continue to grouse, but Putin will keep a firm grip on power,  as long as prosperity continues for the majority.  Interestingly, the common historical interpretation is that Russian prosperity increased dramatically pre-1905 and even pre-1914; it was the decline in this prosperity during the Great War, not the lack of it in the first place, that brought about the downfall of the Tsar.  There's a curve with a name to refer to this historical phenomenon, but I don't remember what it's called.

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