Discussing corruption in Russia isn’t as difficult or as taboo as one might think. In fact, people are pretty open about it. A theme that spans so many areas of life in Russia today, it is one that seems to be accepted, or at least tolerated, as part and parcel of living here. In the public library, there are signs about how to prevent corruption. People often mention the word offhand when discussing politics. I have been told about first hand experiences of corruption in various spheres of everyday life, namely concerning education, healthcare, voting and the police. I was quite surprised that people should be so unguarded in discussions about this subject, always telling me with a wry smile, “But this is Russia”. Whilst continuous financial struggles shape the way that people live in Russia today, acknowledgement and understanding of the source of such problems is surely the first step in making a change.
Last weekend, the largest political protests in 6 years took place across the country. People came together in support of Alexei Navalny, the leader of the “opposition” (though in reality this concept is still non-existent), to demand answers about the reputed wealth of Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and simply to feel part of some developing movement against the corruption rampant in everyday life from Moscow to Vladivostok, the sheer number of participants in the rallies will have surely worried the Kremlin.
For those that argue that the people who took part in the meetings were paid or coerced by American powers, or that Navalny himself is but a pawn to undermine and eliminate all opposition, I would say that the actions of the government after the protests suggest otherwise. Arresting over 700 people in Moscow alone, including foreign journalists, along with alleged attacks on foreign press members reporting on the meetings thereafter, the fact that people were prepared to stand together in an anti-government rally, aware that such consequences would most likely occur, is quite important. And I say ‘anti-government’ in the broadest sense – this was not a protest against Putin. Far from it, it would seem that Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, in other words, Putin and Medvedev, are not really linked in any tangible way in the minds of the people. This anger towards economic inequality was directed towards individuals, not the state machine as a whole. Putin continues to rise above such links to corruption and is still mostly viewed as a positive figure. I would not bet on Navalny for President anytime soon.
State media refused to report on the protests, with many outlets keeping silent both during and after the events. Freedom of the press and the relationship between the press and the government is highly problematic and only results in hindering societal progress. People continue to be fed only the information that the government chooses for them, and as such, the cyclical implications of corruption are swept under the rug. However, the power of state media could be on the demise. Whilst many people, especially those of older generations, either acknowledge societal problems but are unwilling or unable to attempt a change, or do actually fervently support the government, the youth, informed not by state media but by social media sites, are far more aware of life beyond Russia and of Russia’s place on an international level. And here perhaps lies an explanation for the rising political interest of the youth – the Internet. Updates and photos were shared during and after the events on VKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook), Twitter and on independent news sites such as Lentach and The Moscow Times. The news can no longer be kept private, and social media has been shown to be a powerful tool both in informing and engaging the public with various plights.
I have always felt that Russia is a very hopeful country. I believe that future generation of leaders, the generation composed of my students and other young people whose minds are far more open than those who came before them, will change this country for the better. I was reminded once that democracy in Britain developed over the course of the entire 20th century and continues to develop today, whereas in Russia, the idea of democracy found its beginnings under the most strenuous of circumstances in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR and is still barely understood. In the same way that such an idea as a democratic and egalitarian nation did not take hold overnight in Britain, nor will it in Russia. When people begin to recognise the ills within society so openly, and to fight against it without fear, it surely ignites a movement fighting against such ills, which can only become stronger.
The ‘c word’ is no longer unspeakable. It is uttered everyday and plays a role in everyday life. Understanding how corruption has forced itself so fervently upon society is undoubtedly vital, but time alone can combat it. In my opinion, political activism, such as that shown by thousands of Russian people last weekend, is entirely positive, certainly favourable over apathy, and indicative of a will for democracy.