Grigorii Golosov: Dissecting Dead Elections

What to Expect from Dead Elections
Grigorii Golosov
Proekt
June 7, 2021

In journalism, there is the well-worn cliché of “dissecting elections.” This is when experts explain to the general public how the electoral system works, how election campaigns are run, and how votes are tallied. In a democracy, this knowledge is ordinarily not in high demand, because voters, as a rule, don’t care about such subtleties. People who go to the polling stations have preferences and emotions that they express by voting. The fine points matter a narrow stratum of politicized intellectuals. Rank-and-file voters regard elections respectfully, as one of the foundations of the democratic state, which they value, but they are not keen about its anatomical details.

Under authoritarianism, it would seem that elections merit no interest at all. After all, they don’t make it possible to change the government, let alone influence it in any tangible way. Their impact on the make-up of representative political bodies is insignificant, and on politics, negligible.

They are dead elections. And yet they are anything but inconspicuous.

On the contrary, the most high-profile events of recent months in Russia have been related to elections indirectly (like the crackdown on opposition organizations and activists) or directly (like United Russia’s so-called primaries). They have gone unremarked only by people who have completely isolated themselves from the daily grind of the Russian state and the propaganda servicing it. This is, of course, quite a healthy thing to do, but not everyone has the luxury of doing it.

Naturally, the hype will only increase over the summer, because presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has already promised us a literally red-hot campaign. Indeed, elections — and just such dead elections — are vital to modern authoritarian regimes. Elections perform many useful functions for autocracies. I could list all of them, but it suffices to point out their main function: unless the regime triumphs at the ballot box, it is difficult to explain why the people in government occupy the high-ranking posts they do.

Their power is not warranted by the right of succession, nor by their outstanding personal qualities, nor by their crystal clear vision of the prospects for social development. Naturally, there are other contenders for power, ready to take it simply because they want to. So the common idea that elections will be canceled as unnecessary is mistaken. This means that there is some point in dissecting dead elections, just as there is a point in dissecting dead bodies.

The basic principle of election pathology is simple: dead elections should look like the real thing, but still keep those who already hold power in power, allowing only a minimal rotation of minor figures. In keeping with this principle, authoritarian elections involve four main areas of tampering: (1) voting systems; (2) voter behavior; (3) voter choice; (4) vote counting. Let’s examine each of these areas separately.

In Russia, messing with the electoral system in the narrow sense of the term is a thing of the past. Readers may remember that for a time we had a purely proportional electoral system, in which we could vote only for party lists, not for single candidates. Its introduction was no accident and no matter of good intentions: it was meant to facilitate the emergence of the United Russia party and eradicate independent MPs. However, the 2011 State Duma elections, in which United Russia nearly lost its parliamentary majority, showed that a mixed system was more convenient, so they went back to it.

There is nothing particularly innovative about this. If we do the numbers we see that that mixed systems are more popular among autocracies than among democratic countries. And we know from experience why: even if United Russia fails to gain a parliamentary majority via its party list, it will make it up for it by winning in the single-member districts. It was the single-member districts that gave United Russia a constitutional majority in the current State Duma. We know what the consequences for the Russian Constitution have been. But, admittedly, room for further tweaking of the pathological particulars has mostly been exhausted. Going any further would involve embracing electoral systems in which all semblance of democracy is forfeited.

But there is still room for creativity when it comes to manipulating voters. Take, for example, United Russia’s “primaries.” Many people ask why the powers that be must play this expensive game at all, if it is known in advance and has been repeatedly borne out by experience that, ultimately, only those candidates approved by the Kremlin end up on the party lists. I will answer this question with a question of my own. Is there a better way to test the ability of the regional authorities to get voters to an event that is not even an election, whose meaninglessness is obvious to everyone involved? Primaries are an ideal vehicle for turning out the segment of populace dependent on the authorities and thus doing a practice run before the parliamentary campaign kicks off in earnest.

Turning the dependent populace out to vote has been the primary tool of the authorities in recent years. I should stress that we are talking about a mobilization of voters that can be carried out regardless of a campaign’s particular circumstances and definitely produce the expected result. It’s a myth that people who vote under duress can give the authorities the finger behind their back. These people are forced to go to the polls in order to vote for United Russia and that’s exactly what they do.

Sometimes op-ed writers wonder why, since the authorities are so interested in voter turnout, they don’t introduce mandatory voting, which exists in many (mostly democratic) countries. The electoral forensic pathologist answers this question as follows: because the authorities are not interested in turning out all voters, only those who can be expected to vote “correctly.”

If you drive everyone to the polls, it will irritate the populace. Then, perhaps, the “giving them the finger” scenario could come to pass. No, the authorities have to facilitate the turnout only of the most reliable voters, and these are the voters who are forced to vote a certain way.

When such innovations of recent years as multi-day and electronic voting are discussed, attention is often paid to their role in falsifying the results. However, another thing is equally important. It is much easier to administratively enforce turnout and control the behavior of voters if the vote is held over several days. And we have heard a lot about the effectiveness of using screenshots in electronic voting following the results of United Russia’s “primaries.” Perhaps new tricks will also arrive in time for the September elections. The scope for creativity, I repeat, is still wide.

Manipulating voter choice, of course, mainly involves limiting the number of parties and candidates allowed to stand in elections. The conditions for this were created at the dawn of Russian electoral authoritarianism, in 2004–2006, and have been continuously perfected since then. At first, as you know, the authorities tightened the screws to such an extent that the remaining parties could literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. The 2011 campaign, in which the opposition pursued the “vote for any other party” strategy, showed that this was not the optimal path for the authorities.

There are a lot of registered parties this time round. Among them, there are no truly oppositional parties, completely independent of the authorities, nor can there be. However, careful work is being done to generation the illusion of choice, as exemplified by the comic rebranding of the Communist Party of Social Justice as the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice.

Of course, the “big three” parties (i.e., the LDPR, the CPRF, and a Just Russia) remain the favorites among the “legal opposition.” Even the half-forgotten Just Russia has been patched up for the elections: it has been renamed and strengthened with valuable new personnel. The calculation of the authorities is simple: United Russia’s administrative advantage + propaganda + the scattering of votes among “projects” and spoilers + the refusal of opposition-minded voters to go to the polls = a United Russia majority even on the party-list votes alone.

The problem has come from unexpected quarters: from the single-member districts. Again, the mixed electoral system does generally benefit the authorities. However, it generated an opportunity for so-called smart voting – that is, for strategically choosing to vote for candidates who have a chance of defeating United Russia candidates, rather than trying to elect candidates preferred by opposition voters.

Smart voting is bane to the authorities not only because it can achieve its immediate goal, but also because it encourages opposition voters to turn out for elections. And if they show up, they definitely won’t vote for United Russia on the party list ballots.

Crackdowns have been the main way of solving the problem this year. They enable the authorities to remove potentially strong and at the same time genuinely oppositional candidates from the elections. The efforts of the authorities on this front have been striking and attracted wide attention, but the principal target, in my opinion, is different. Smart voting is a complex strategy that requires organizational infrastructure and systematic guidance. The politicians who are currently targeted by crackdowns are vital not so much as potential candidates — the authorities could have prevented them from running using any number of tried and true methods — but as crucial figures in this infrastructure. The same applies to independent media, as well as (and especially) the few remaining opposition organizations in the political arena. Over the last year, they have been literally torn up by the roots.

Of course, the authorities cannot completely eliminate the threat posed by smart voting. It is a flexible strategy that relies on unconventional methods of political mobilization. Moreover, the impact made by the current scale of crackdowns on public sentiment and on the behavior of voters may go against expectations. In my opinion, hysteria about “foreign agents,” “undesirable organizations,” and other horrors is counterproductive in terms of the regime’s survival, since it erodes its claims to adhere to the democratic principles, driving it into the trap in which Alexander Lukashenko now finds himself. However, the authorities are trying their darndest to do just that, and if they break their own skulls in the process, you cannot blame them for their lack of diligence.

This zeal is fueled not so much by fears of losing, but rather by the well-founded notion that the desired outcome can be achieved only through fraud.

Let’s not harbor any illusions: the outcome will not be honest in any case.

Given the direct disciplinary responsibility of regional governors for getting the “correct” percentages at the ballot box (percentages that are known in advance), Russian elections generate irresistibly strong incentives for skewing the vote count. The federal authorities, in principle, have a stake in ensuring that the scale of the fraud is not off the charts and is not particularly conspicuous. But I don’t think that this is a matter of serious concern to them. Unlike in 2011, there is simply no one capable of recording violations due to the lack of independent monitoring.

The pathology of authoritarian elections is universal. Nothing special is happening in Russia compared to other regimes of this type, from Chad to Singapore. And yet, the current events, especially in terms of pre-election crackdowns, seem a bit too much. However, the cause of the overkill is clear. The parliamentary elections are quite important, but they would hardly be worth the effort if there were not a much more important event happening in 2024. The presidential election will complete the “reset” operation, extending Vladimir Putin’s term in office for at least six (and most likely twelve) years. The authorities must prepare for this in such a way as to completely rule out surprises.Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist, dean of the political science department at the European University in St. Petersburg, and author of the book Autocracy, or the Loneliness of Power. Photo courtesy of Proekt. Translated by the Russian Reader

The No Choice Movement

putin bench

President Vladimir Putin announced he would be running for president in 2018. He made the announcement at a meeting with workers of the GAZ auto plant in Nizhny Novgorod. The occasion was the plant’s 85th anniversary.

“This is always a very responsible decision for any person. Because the motive in making the decison can only be the desire to improve the lives of people in our country, to make the country more powerful, better protected, and forward looking. And these goals can be achieved only on one condition: if people trust and support you,” he said, as reported by Rossiya 24. Photo by the Russian Reader

Why Putin’s Announcement He’s Running for Re-Election Doesn’t Matter
The only mystery of the 2018 presidential election, already purely symbolic, has died
Maria Zheleznova
Vedomosti
December 6, 2017

The deed is done. On December 6, Vladimir Putin told workers at the GAZ auto plant in Nizhny Novgorod he plans to run for a fourth term as president. “GAZ supports you” [GAZ za vas], the workers chanted in reply. Thus the slight suspense generated by the 2018 presidential election came to a trivial end.

No, there was no mystery as to whether Putin would run. The bashful talk about the hypothetical possibility of his not running died several days after it was born, leaving a slight sense of embarassment. The only mystery was when and where he would say he was running. There were many options, and lots of discussion, and the pros and cons of this or that date were numerous, but there was almost no point to any of it. What the GAZ plant workers heard in Nizhny Novgorod on December 6 could have been said today, yesterday or December 31. It could have been said in Moscow, Penza or Tynda. It could have been said to soldiers, schoolchildren or cooks. On the eve of the announcement, his spokesman said we could expect Putin’s throwing his hat in the re-election ring any day. We had to be ready to hear his annoucement every day. The spokesman sure said it. People waited and waited and grew weary of waiting. Now they can cease waiting.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov dubbed December 6, 2017, a “historic day, a festive day,” of course, but it is unlikely to go down in history as much as September 24, 2011, when it transpired Putin would seek a third term as president, and Dmitry Medvedev would be a one-term president. That was a fundamental choice. Today’s choice was formal, and indeed there is no choice.

On December 6, 2017, the only mystery of the 2018 presidential election, a mystery that was purely formal anyway, died. Yes, we still have the official announcement of election day, the campaign’s kickoff, and the nomination of other candidates to look forward to. (Although Alexei Navalny, who is really trying to win the presidency, is unlikely to be amongst them.) This will be followed by campaigning, the usual refusal to debate the other candidates, voting, and, finally, the vote tally and announcement of the results. But none of it means anything to anyone, except the official election chroniclers and Central Electoral Commission. All these obligatory but purely technical stages and their circumstances are seen by many as a needless hindrance, in particular, by liberal economists, who are forced to wait, first for the election, and then the new old president’s inauguration, as a signal to launch long-overdue reforms (or reject them). Everyone else regards Putin’s self-nomination as something like the coming of the New Year. The next day, life will go on as before, irregardless of New Year’s Eve’s irrational illusions.

Russia faces another six years of life under Putin. We must imagine they will be more or less like the previous seventeen years of Putin’s rule. The workers at GAZ will assemble cars, liberals will talk about the need for reforms, Kadyrov will praise the president to the heavens, and Navalny will fight for the right to get his name on the ballot. While this goes on, people who were born when Putin was already president will become adults, meaning full-fledged voters. An entire generation will come of age, a generation for whom the principal suspense of presidential elections is the choice of the day and the place when the president says he is running for re-election, an announcement they must anticipate every day.

Commentary
Dead Moroze, 7:27 p.m., December 6, 2017
As a “democratic federal state, based on the rule of law, with a republican form of government,” the Russian Federation has ended. So, no announcements regarding Putin really mean anything in this context.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Authoritarian Democracy”: Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

“I Don’t Impose My Opinion”
Maria Bobylyova
Takie Dela
April 11, 2017

Just as in Soviet times, schoolteachers are now forced to hold political information lessons, to talk with schoolchildren about the current political conjuncture. But a new generation of savvy schoolchildren has emerged. We talked with two teachers about their political stances and how they argue with pupils.

“We Must Raise Mentally Healthy Children with Traditional Family Values”
Thirty years old, Natalya lives in Stavropol, where she teaches history and social studies at school. She supports the current regime and teaches children to think freely, love the Motherland, and practice correct family values.

I support the current regime and the policies of our president. I don’t like everything that is done. For example, I don’t quite understand why the regions are not entirely rational in spending federal money. But basically I’m satisfied with everything, especially our foreign policy. I’m insanely proud that Crimea is now part of Russia. I believe this is historically just. If you look at past wars, about forty percent of them were over Crimea. I believe that when Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, it was a big mistake. Crimea is strategically important to us and we cannot let our enemies make the region a sphere of their influence.

You don’t think it was done illegally?

Why illegally? Ninety-three percent of Crimeans voted in a referendum to join Russia. There was no pressure or coercion.

Are the subsequent sanctions fair?

They are inevitable consequences. If you want to take something, you have to understand there will be consequences. We are paying for them even now. But they’re trivial compared to the benefits: the Black Sea, Sevastopol, and the navy. We didn’t annex Crimea forcibly. We didn’t send in troops. There’s a propaganda campaign against our country underway in the world. We live in the provinces, but we have free access to all sources of information, and that’s good. Generally, having access to information is empowering, and the recent elections in the US have shown that.

You’re happy with the outcome?

Very much so. I supported Trump from the beginning. He didn’t voice such an anti-Russian stance as Clinton did. I don’t like her at all.

You weren’t embarrassed by his sexist attacks?

They’re trifles. He’s such an eccentric, extravagant man. Moreover, this is not only America’s sin but Europe’s as well. Things are far from normal when it comes to morality there. Their so-called tolerance alone suffices. They call it tolerance. I would call it something else.

They didn’t call Trump’s outburts tolerant.

It doesn’t matter. They’re in a state of degradation. Take, for example, all those same-sex marriages. They will cause the death of mankind, although I can’t say I’m against such relationships. Everyone has the right to a private life, and I won’t be the first to cast stones at such people. By the way, this topic really interests my pupils as well. For example, in social studies, we cover the topic of marriage, and we say that it’s a union between a man and a woman. Yet every time in class there is someone who says, “But what about same-sex marriages”?

How do you reply?

That it absolutely contradicts our country’s and our mentality’s moral foundations. And that it will cause mankind’s extinction.

But same-sex couples can also have children.

I believe this is wrong and has a bad effect on the children. If a child grows up seeing this example, he will think he can repeat it, too, and that there’s nothing wrong about it.

You believe homosexuality can be taught?

Yes, to a large extent. Even if there is something innate about it, it can either emerge or not under society’s impact. So society is obliged to beat it in time.

Do you have any LGBT pupils?

Absolutely not. I would have noticed. A girl once came to me for tutoring who didn’t hide the fact she was a lesbian, and she was clearly different from other children.

In what sense?

She openly told me she believed same-sex unions were normal.

What would you do if there were a same-sex couple in your class?

I would definitely tell the parents, as I did in this girl’s case. But her parents were aware: her family had given her a liberal upbringing . If parents consider it normal to raise their child that way, there’s nothing I can do and I won’t intervene, nor do I have the right.

What if you had the right?

I would talk with the teenager and find out the cause of the problem, probably more for myself, so that I would know how to raise my own children later. Because I really wouldn’t like my future child to turn out like that.

What would you do then?

I would have a talk with him. I would take him to a psychologist. I would do everything possible to fix it.

What if nothing helped?

That wouldn’t happen. In adolescence, children don’t have a clear position that cannot be broken. I would break it.

What if you found out a fellow teacher was gay?

It wouldn’t affect my relationship with him, but I wouldn’t let our families become chummy so my own child wouldn’t be exposed to his example. Children really do copy the behavior of adults. We must raise mentally healthy children with traditional family values. There are things we had nothing to do with devising and that we have no right to change: family, patriotism, and decency.  What kind of family can there be without children?

As I already said, same-sex couples can and do have children.

How is that? How can two men have a child? Only through a surrogate mother. But I don’t think you’ll find many women willing to bear a child for two gays even for money, not in our country, at least.

What about adoption?

That’s impossible in Russia, thank God. I think it is extremely wrong. Children should be raised in normal, full-fledged, traditional families.

What if you had to choose between an orphanage and same-sex parents?

Who said that an orphanage is necessarily a bad thing? I know many children from orphanages, and they are full-fledged individuals who are grateful to their minders and to the state, which provides them with both real estate [sic] and material support.  Many of the children in our school come from orphanages. They are all well adapted both in terms of education and in terms of socialization with other children. Our work involves smoothing out the differences and avoiding bullying and conflicts. We’re good at that here in the Caucasus.

You probably have multiethnic classes?

Yes, and different religions. It’s a very complicated topic, because we have many different ethnic groups. Turkmen, Chechens, Armenians, and even Syrians go to our school. Teachers have to deal with the topic of religions and ethnic groups delicately. Someone puts on Alisa‘s “Sky of the Slavs,” and you’re immediately on the lookout, because the song can provoke very different reactions and feelings from children. You always have to think before speak. Children react instantaneously. You aren’t able to reverse time or take back what you said. But religious topics really interest children.

Alisa, “Sky of the Slavs” (2003, dir. Oleg Flyangolts)

What exactly interests them?

They closely monitor the material well-being of priests, for example, the story about Patriarch Kirill’s watch and all that. They come to me and ask whether it’s true.

What do you tell them?

That I don’t know myself. Like them, I read the same news. But I think when it comes to religious issues there can be no freedom of interpretation.  No wonder we have a law against insulting the feelings of believers. Believing or not believing is a personal stance, but there shouldn’t be any blasphemy or mockery. What happened to Pussy Riot is indicative in this sense.

You think the verdict was fair?

One hundred percent fair, of course. If anyone would be able to go into a church and do as he wishes, what would become of us? We need to respect the feelings of believers, especially in our country, where Orthodoxy has always played such an important role. Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality: that’s how it was, and it’s still that way to some extent. Yet all religions are respected equally in our great country. I’ve never heard Vladimir Vladimirovich give a single speech in which he called on everyone to become Orthodox.

Do you like Putin?

A lot. He’s a charismatic leader, in my opinion: this is obvious to everyone. He arrived at a complicated moment and immediately won people over. There is something attractive about him. He always finds a way to get out of any complicated situation gracefully. He can joke or scold, but he always comes out the winner. He deserves to be the most influential politician in the world, and he is the most influential politician. The western media accuse him of being an authoritarian, but I would call it authoritarian democracy. It’s not the worse option for Russia.

Do you following the corruption scandals plaguing the regime?

Of course. Be we have to understand that corruption is a mindset in Russia. In my history lessons, I always tell the children about how Peter the Great decided to eradicate corruption and asked Prince Alexander Menshikov’s advice. Menshikov replied, “You’ll run out of rope and be left without subjects.” We know that Menshikov was the biggest embezzler in Peter’s court. So there has always been corruption and there will always be a corruption. Do you think that if Navalny took power he would beat corruption without getting bogged down in it himself? On the other hand, these stories are not always true. They are often just PR campaigns to tarnish someone who has fallen out of favor. Besides, I think corruption thrives partly due to our political passivity and popular legal illiteracy. If you decide to go with the flow, don’t be surprised when you get to the river bed and see what you see. You have to start with yourself.

How do you start?

Don’t give bribes, for example, even it makes things simple and quicker. Obey the law even in those particulars where you imagine you can violate it. However, there is much more order than before. I remember what happend under Yeltsin. [Although she would have been twelve when Putin took power — TRR.] Those were horrible times. I grew up in a village. There were five children in our family, and Mom traded hand-me-downs with the neighbors. We took turns wearing them out. Dad wasn’t paid his wages for months at a time, Mom couldn’t find a job, and Grandma wasn’t paid her pension. We had a garden. We grew what we could, and it was our only means of survival. I remember well how everything changed with Putin’s arrival.

In the material sense as well?

Of course. When I went to work at the school, I got a young specialist’s bonus for three years. Although I didn’t go to work at the school right away. I put in time as an administrator and a real estate agent, and I worked in management. So I have something to compare it with. I have worked at the school for six years and I sense the state’s support. I get a decent wage and I am able to satisfy most of my material needs. I feel calm and confident. I live in a country where there is no Chechen War to which soldiers could be sent.

Soldiers can now be sent to other wars.

If you mean Ukraine, I have no information our troops are fighting there, except for professional or special units. All the rest is western propaganda. I don’t like the war in Ukraine, just as I don’t like any war.

What about Syria?

What about Syria? Yes, we’re fighting there, but it’s not our country. Everything is calm within Russia. There are no longer any separatists sentiments, as there were under Yeltsin, and I am personally grateful to Vladimir Putin for this. Historically, we have been attracted by strong individuals who can establish order by any means. In this sense, I see Putin as a man of his word. He never makes promises he doesn’t keep.

Who is your favorite historical leader?

Peter the Great. Russia flourished under his reign. We got a navy and an empire, and we were victorious in war. Of course, there were excesses, but there is not a single politician in the world who doesn’t have them. Basically, you should always look at things objectively. So when we cover Ivan the Terrible, I always teach the children that besides the bad things there were also good things: centralization, the annexation of Astrakhan and Kazan, and the conquest of Siberia. Expanding territory is a good thing. It means resources, people, culture, borders, and a geopolitical position.

Do you think that Russia has its own way?

I really like the position of the Slavophiles. I like thinking that our history and our people are typified by a certain exclusivity. History proves it. We have never been ready for a single war, but we win all the wars we fight. This makes me proud, and I teach the children to be proud of this, to be proud of their country, its heritage, and its great culture. That’s what real patriotism is about. My pupils and I look at the facts together and learn to analyze rather than just label things and divide them into black and white. My job is to provide the children with full access to all historical information. I never impose readymade conclusions. For example, in the tenth grade we’re now studying the Emperor Paul. My children love him terribly and feel sorry for him. They say he was unloved by his mother, and then he was killed. Although I relate to him coolly, to put it mildly.

Do discussions arise a lot during your classes?

Constantly. I think it’s very important to let children speak. Our job, after all, is to educate individuals, not homogeneous clones. Our country needs strong, independent people who are able to think. Teachers who don’t let children speak undermine their own authority. If you’re not willing to argue, you’re a despot who imposes her own opinion, not a teacher. Children fear and hate you, and I don’t want that. One of the places that history happens is right outside the school building. So I never stop lively discussions, because they teach children to think and analyze. Of course, if a discussion goes on for three classes in a row, I’ll find a way to get back to the lesson plan. But I really like lively discussions. It’s so great when you see individuals growing up right before your eyes.

Are your pupils interested in politics?

Very much so, especially the upperclassmen. They watch the news, ask questions, and argue. Political debates happen both during lessons and recesses. They are interested not only in politics but also in everything that is going on, for example, the recent story of Diana Shurygina really agitated them. But they are also interested in the elections. They can’t wait to vote for the first time.

Do you voice your own political views to them?

I express my viewpoint, but I never impose it. I think children have a right to their own opinions, so I let everyone speak. There are lots of different children among my pupils, and I wouldn’t say all of them support the regime. They read RBC and Life and Meduza. I have a boy in the ninth grade, Yegor, who is an ardent oppositionist, and I find it fairly interesting to discuss things with him. He never descends to demagoguery,  but reads and watches lots of things, and supports his opinion with facts. I also watch TV Rain and listen to Echo of Moscow to be familiar with a different point of view and be able to rebut Yegor.

Are you trying to change his mind?

He and I just discuss things: he’s not going to change his mind, nor should he. It’s not my goal to impose my opinion. Although, of course, when my pupils grow up and become patriots, I’m pleased. It happens that a child transfers from another school. He sees everything in a bleak light and is quite unpatriotic. But then he learns to think critically and gradually realizes what a great history Russia has and what a great country it is. When I took over my own class from another history teacher, the children constantly referred to our country as “Russia.” But when, several months later, they said “We” instead of “Russia,” I was so proud I got goosebumps. Fifteen Armenians, three Turkmen, and five Russias are seated in front of you, and they all say “we.” They’re genuine patriots.

“I Feel Lonely, Insecure, and Misunderstood”
Olga lives in a regional capital in the central part of European Russia. She is fifty-four years old, and she has taught at a pedagogical college her whole life. Students are admitted to the college after finishing the ninth and eleventh grades, which means that Olga deals with teenagers between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. She is a liberal, but she tries to hide it, because most of the people around here don’t understand her.

I didn’t always have liberal views. When the Soviet Union collapsed and life got bad very fast, I was opposed to it and voted for the Communists. But then there was some trouble in my family and I came face to face with the system and the state. I saw from the inside how the laws and state agencies function in Russia, and my eyes were opened as it were. I realized what mattered is that a person has freedom and should have freedom. People in Russia are fond of saying that what matter is one’s health, while we can put up with the rest. I think that people should not have put up with anything and then they’ll be healthy. But if there is no freedom, health won’t be of any use to them.

Why do you hide the fact you’re in the opposition?

At first, I tried to talk with my colleagues and voice my disagreement with the current regime. They didn’t understand me. They would say, “Aren’t you Russian? Aren’t you a patriot?” Initially, I would argue. I’d say I was in fact a real patriot, and that Pushkin, Akhmatova, Vysotsky et al., were on my side, while they had only one person on theirs. Then I realized it was pointless. They are seemingly decent, pleasant people, but completely alien. Or I’m talking to a colleague who tells me how a friend of hers has made it big. He works in a company that produces asphalt. They’ve learned to dilute the asphalt somehow to produce twice as much so they could sell it under the table. This same colleague of mine claimed to be a patriot, yet she also was a driver and had to drive on those roads. I don’t understand that. I’m surrounded by people who watch the national channels and don’t want to know a thing. They have university degrees, but they watch Kiselyov and Solovyov and listen to them like zombies. So there is no one with whom to talk.

No one at all?

There are one or two people who will hear me out, and I’m grateful for even that much. However, sometimes I’m aware I’m not alone. Recently, during a continuing education course, I was pleasantly surprised by the progressive woman teaching the course. She talked about our regime’s idiocy and that we had to filter what the leadership was sending down to us from above, because we were responsible for the kind of teachers we graduated. She also advised us to watch Dmitry Bykov’s lectures, can you imagine? I was simply amazed there were people like that in our region.

Who do you vote for?

The last time, I just crossed out my ballot so no one would get my vote. I voted for Prokhorov during the last presidential elections, although everyone tried to prove to me he was a pet project of the Kremlin’s. Now they say Navalny is a pet project of the Kremlin’s,  although I have a hard time believing it. I read and listen to all the opposition politicians, including Navalny and Yabloko. My day begins with Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow. I don’t watch TV except for RBC’s channel. When I catch Mom watching Channel One, I chew her out. But lately I’ve weaned her off it, thank God.

Do you broadcast your views to your students?

Directly, no, and besides, I can’t do it because I could be punished. Yet if you support the regime you can say anything at all. Like the school principal from Bryansk in that video. I’m 100% sure she was completely sincere. People like that can speak out, but I can’t. All I can do is introduce the younger generation to some works and give them the freedom to speak their minds and think. Making someone think like you is the biggest crime. They should think as they see fit. But our teachers sin by imposing their views. I teach Russian and teaching methods, and my students are future primary school teachers. So I can influence them only though quotations and by asking them to read things. Recently, I asked them to listen to Vasya Oblomov’s song “A Long and Unhappy Life.”

Vasya Oblomov, “A Long and Unhappy Life” (2017)

What political views do your students have?

They have different views, but many of them sincerely upset me. Recently, they asked me whether I would steal food and take it home if I worked in the cafeteria. They think there is nothing wrong about it. Everyone does it and it’s normal. I wonder where a sixteen-year-old gets this view of the world. Obviously, at home, although my past communist views had their origins in school. I remember our teacher telling us we had to be like Volodya Ulyanov [Lenin], and I really wanted to be like him. I would go to the library and ask for a book about Lenin, but the librarian would be surprised and suggest a book of fairytales. Later, when the teacher said I was like the young Volodya, it was the highest praise I could imagine.

Do you experience any pressure from up top in terms of what you can say and what you can’t?

There’s no direct pressure. The fact is we have quite heavy workloads. I think it’s done on purpose so we don’t have time to think and approach the work creatively. I’m buried in papers and forms, and there is no time to do anything worthwhile. Plus I’m forced to work one and a half to two jobs just to earn something, and that isn’t conducive to quality, either. Sometimes, we’re asked to go somewhere. Three years ago, we were ordered to attend a pro-Crimea annexation rally, and although I was against it I went anyway. But I don’t go to May Day demos. They ask me to go, but I say I don’t support the goverenment. They look at me funny and leave me alone.

You’ve never thought about changing jobs?

I have thought about it, and more than once, but it’s not so easy to find a job in our region. I really wanted to leave ten years ago or so, when we were buried in paperwork. But now I think, why the heck should I go? I love my work and I’ve been at it thirty years.

Has your life changed since Putin came to power?

You know, I did alright in the nineties, if it’s possible to say that. We got paid on time, and as for everything else our province is half asleep. But in the noughties I started to feel personally uncomfortable. When the old NTV was dismantled, and the news program Nadmedni was shut down, it made me tense. And then there have been all these strange laws, Crimea, and sanctions. I have no hope at all that anything will change.

So you watched the old NTV and yet voted for Zyuganov?

Yes. I arrived at my liberal views the long way around. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t change, she stagnates. Only there is no point in these changes. I feel lonely, insecure, and misunderstood. I look at the people around me, and they’re in a patriotic euphoria. Ninety percent of them really support the annexation of Crimea. I have always traveled to Crimea and I’ll keep on going to Crimea, because I love it and I have family there. But I try and avoid discussing the topic with them. They’re happy: they got a rise in their pensions. I agree that Crimea has always been ours, but the way it was annexed was wrong.

Does your liberalism extend to all areas of life?

Generally, yes. But there should be moderation in all things. For example, it’s wrong if a young woman with tattoos and a shaven head plans to be a primary school teacher. In any case, I imagine freedom as a certain set of internal constraints. Teaching is a conservative profession, and if you choose it, you have to agree to certain restraints.

What other things should teachers not let themselves do?

Rather, they shouldn’t demonstrate them openly. You remember how in Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, the sister-in-law tells Katerina she can do anything as long it’s hush-hush. If this is what our society is like, you shouldn’t rub someone the wrong way. It’s a private matter for everyone. If I were principal, I would not care less about sexual orientation. But I’m against making it a matter of public record and discussing these topics widely. It’s the same thing with religion.

What about religion?

In our country, if you’re a religious person, you can speak your mind freely and often impose your opinion as well. If you’re not, you are forced to keep your mouth lest you offend, God forbid, the feelings of believers. So I keep my mouth shut. I keep my mouth shut about one thing or another. Basically, I’m a cowardly person.

Translation and photography by the Russian Reader