Vermont Public Radio reports:
In Novokuznetsk, an industrial city in Siberia, it seems like a normal April. Snow is melting. People have emerged from winter and are chatting in the town square. And, there is a corruption scandal — involving the mayor, his son and a $3 million housing scam.
“Everybody knows about it,” says Sofia Pinsker, a 22-year-old student. “And it’s not surprising.” Such is life in Russia. Citizens accept that to avoid a ticket for an illegal left turn, or to get a passport to travel abroad, it may require making a bribe. “It’s really easier to do something like that than to do something by law,” Pinsker says.
And Russians, she says, have a history of acceptance when it comes to their leaders.
“Even if he was bad or cruel — for example, Ivan the Terrible — it didn’t matter and it doesn’t matter. He is our father, our king, and that’s all. We are supposed to do what he tells us,” Pinsker says. In other words, for much of Russia’s history — from the czarist era to the Soviet days — it wasn’t a question of whether to trust. There were no questions: Russians went about their business and expected the government to provide.
Battling Legacy Of A ‘Tough Hand’
Vadim Rechitsky, editor in chief of the local newspaper, argues that not much has changed. “People still want a tough hand,” he says, adding that the feeling toward the government seems to be “as long as I don’t get shot in the back of the head, everything is alright.”
It’s a legacy Rechitsky battles every night, when he sends his newspaper, the Kuznetsk Worker, to press. The paper is independent, not state-owned, and contains stories about corruption and local officials. That has brought push-back. In 2006, the paper’s offices were sealed off for several days, the doors bolted by unidentified men. Rechitsky turned to every agency he could think of.
“We appealed to the federal government and local prosecutors. We wrote letters,” he says. “The federal security service simply told us their job is to hunt for terrorists, it’s not their case.” So when it comes to the government, this editor asks, “How can I have trust?”
‘Slapped In The Face’
And this is why Russia is different: In the U.S., trust or not, there is a belief in the political system, in certain rights. That’s not the case in Russia.
Take the case of Lyudmila Balkovaya. The 66-year-old and the pensioners in her building have spent years trying to force their landlord to make repairs. “You know what judges tell us?” she says. ” ‘It’s unlikely you’ll prove your situation.’ That’s the attitude. So we started struggling against the system, and got slapped in the face.”
But Balkovaya and her allies did find some help.
Viktor Smirnov, a housing advocate, fought for the repairs they wanted. Among scores of angry residents, Smirnov became so popular last year that he won a seat on the city council. That is, Smirnov says, until the local election board declared the vote invalid. Now that council seat is vacant. And the tenants demanding repairs have no ally in office. “I guess we Russian citizens truly don’t have anybody to turn to,” Smirnov says.
Frustration And Nostalgia
But how much do Russians care? Irina Perminova, a 49-year-old secretary at the local university, says Russians are struggling to define what they want from their government. “Our interests are not taken into account at any level,” she says. And that kind of frustration explains the occasional anti-government protests around Russia.
Still, to an outsider, the level of anger in Russia is surprisingly low. And another surprise: People look back on even the most difficult times with a kind of nostalgia. “There was a lot of good in Soviet days,” as Perminova puts it. “We didn’t know what was happening abroad. We were ignorant. But the Communist Party was helping us.”