It seems like no one wants to talk politics here. Okay, not no one, but, often, if I try to instigate a conversation that involves politics, or make a comment deploring the current rise of the right-wing across the Western world, people will proactively suggest “let’s not talk about politics”. When figuring out which topics appeal to my tutees, a reply that I have had on more than one occasion is “anything but politics”, as they crinkle their noses at this, a most dull and uninspiring subject. When sitting around a dinner table and someone in the party dares to mention a new foreign policy that has been introduced or utters keywords like “Putin”, “Trump”, “policy” or “elections”, they are shot down by one of their fellow guests who might sigh and beseech them, “nooo, let’s keep politics away from the dinner table”. Do people genuinely not find anything of interest to discuss when it comes to politics and why the supposed indifference? I find it difficult to believe, and insulting to my well-educated Russian peers, that this disinterest is rooted in naivety or voluntary ignorance, and I may have found another reason.
When I say that people do not want to talk politics, I mean women. Not to make any sweeping generalisations, since of course there are also men who have little knowledge about or interest in the way politics impacts current events, but all of the above examples, and others that I have come across, have come from women. I had assumed that this curious observation was connected to an impression, which I have generally gauged in Russia, that women are expected to, and often conform to, the 1950s genteel feminine ideal – to be seen, but not heard, and to fulfil the role of the wife and mother, leaving the “real work” to the men (interestingly enough, I would say that this ideal is very much a Western stereotype, and women in the 1950s Soviet Union were far more ‘equal’ to their male counterparts than women in 1950s Britain – but more about the complex male-female relationship and Russian gender roles another time).
Everyone has the right, of course, to be interested in whatever it is that they are interested in, and I hate prejudices connected to interests and hobbies (eg she loves fashion, she must be an airhead) but I was genuinely surprised and a little frustrated to find how few women, certainly intelligent and cultured, were willing to talk openly about politics and current events. However, an innocent remark from a colleague recently led to a new understanding of this supposed aversion to politics. A remark about how the Soviet mindset of looking inwards as a nation, and moreover, as a nation of people who had very little input into the ruling of their country, continues to affect today’s society.
Much of modern life in Russia has very little to do with the politics, culture or mentality of the Soviet Union. It is a memory that is neither oppressed nor overtly celebrated, at least not in everyday life and with the exception of national holidays that began in the USSR. But it’s easy to forget that there are still generations of people living in Russia today who spent the majority of their lives, or at least grew up, during these times in the 20th century. A time when outward opposition to political leadership could lead to very serious consequences for individuals and their loved ones. A time when people could often not trust even their closest friends and neighbours for fear of being informed upon to the secret police. As such, entire generations grew up with neither the ability nor the inclination to speak about such matters in public. Entire generations of people who continue to live in Russia, but for whom the importance of having knowledge about and an opinion on topics such as governmental activity was not only undervalued, but actively suppressed.
Perhaps then, the reason for this apparent lack of interest in the world beyond Russia, is not genuine apathy, it is just a force of habit.