One of the many young people in Russia who, according to Anne Applebaum, are leading the latest tiny, Moscow-centered pro-democracy movement there. The slogan on his t-shirt reads, “Fuck off.” Photo by Vadim F. Lurie, who captured this image during the “authorized” fair elections march in Moscow on August 10, 2019.
What was I just saying about leaky arguments on behalf of Russia’s courageous but incredibly tiny fair elections movement?
I always had famous Anne Applebaum pegged as a real Russophobe, not a fake one like me, someone who has constantly run afoul of the liberal and leftist Russia discourse police and been crossed off their Christmas card lists many times over. But it turns out Applebaum is such a “Russophile” she is ready to turn reality on its head by comparing the truly grassroots, popular, massive, well-organized pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong with the minuscule ragtag non-movement in Russia.
In Russia, where propaganda also attacks the West and derides democracy as chaotic and anarchic, protesters have focused very directly on the most fundamental of democratic institutions: they are demanding the right, simply, to vote for independent candidates in local elections. Just as in Hong Kong, Russian protests are being led by younger people [sic], none of whom can remember any other leader except Vladimir Putin: “I am 20 years old, and in my entire life there has not been a single day of freedom,” one of them told reporters, according to Meduza, an independent website that covers Russia. They, too, are well organized, using up-to-the-minute apps to keep in touch with one other, deploying a phalanx of lawyers and a carefully planned social media campaign [sic]. Like the young Hong Kongers, young Russians aren’t just dedicated; they are organized, thoughtful and well prepared [sic].
There are some obvious explanations for this East-West paradox. Clearly, the inhabitants of stable democracies find it hard to appreciate what they have: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” isn’t just a song lyric; it’s an expression of something fundamental about the human brain. Like wealth or health, political freedom may simply be something that people don’t value if they’ve always had it [sic].
But it may also be that the young protesters of Russia and China are simply ahead of us. We’ve gotten used to the idea that political influence flows from West to East, but are we so sure that is still true? A generation of Eastern dissidents has thought harder than we [sic] have about how to self-organize, about how to operate in a world run by secretive, kleptocratic elites who go out of their way to create distraction and apathy. Remember that they, too, are fighting regimes that seem in hock to moneyed interests and wrestling to cope with the pace of technological change. It may be that we in the West simply haven’t thought about what tactics ordinary people need [sic] to deploy to compete in a world where money is offshore, power is invisible and apathy is widespread. It may be that we need to learn from people who have.
—Anne Applebaum, “Hong Kong and Russia Protesters Fight for Democracy. The West Should Listen and Learn,” Washington Post, 16 August 2019
For the sake of rapping the sock puppet known as “the west” on the knuckles, Applebaum conveniently forgets to compare the numbers of people involved in demos and other protest actions in a city of seven million people, on one hand, and the world’s largest country, on the other.
She claims “the west,” where, she alleges, everyone has suddenly given up on democracy, can learn something from “the east.” How is that someone who has written so eloquently about the Soviet Gulag has no clue that the people spearheading the Russian non-movement, people from Moscow and Petersburg, overidentify with “the west” and regard their cities, wrongly or rightly, as European cities, not “eastern” cities?
Wrongly or rightly, and unlike Applebaum, they overidentify so strongly with the nonexistent west that they almost never show any sign they have anything to learn from “the east.” Maybe I have the wrong friends and follow the wrong people and groups on Russian social media, but I have not seen anyone talking about the lessons Russian protesters can learn from people in Hong Kong or, say, Puerto Rico. Forgive me if I don’t spell out, for the thousandth time, the darker side of the disdain many members of the Russian liberal and left intelligentsia have for “non-westerners,” especially “non-westerners” who make them look bad by fighting more fiercely and in much greater numbers for their freedom.
It is only possible to learn a real lesson when our teacher has all her facts straight. Unfortunately, when it comes to Russia and its “western” discourse police officers, including Applebaum, complexity, subtlety, and a basic grasp of facts go straight out the window. For reasons I have never been able to fathom, normally decent editors fall asleep at the wheel when their reporters and op-ed contributors write about Russia, especially when they have the cachet of someone like Applebaum.
It seemingly never occurs to anyone in “the west” or “the east” (i.e., Russia) that this bizarre mixture of total indifference, willful ignorance masked as insider knowledge, and desperate cheerleading does nothing for the minority of people in Russia who have the courage to confront their country’s criminal regime. // TRR