The day the first wave of protests broke on January 23, my boyfriend and I had to stay in. I had a haircut appointment made in the late afternoon, but the entire area around Pushkinskaya was blocked off to traffic. Later, I needed to get some beef and spices for tacos—a first for my Russian boyfriend—at the store. He refused to let me go alone—just in case. A couple weeks later, my boyfriend wouldn’t answer his phone after a night out with his friends. I wasn’t quite sure of the protest activity planned for that day, but I was panicked, convinced he’d somehow gotten tangled up with some meanderings protesters and been subsequently arrested. See, protests are different here. There’s a real threat of arrest, of the kinds of consequences that seem for many Americans to be relegated to the world of spy movies—and I don’t just mean rubber bullets and tear gas. In fact, when the first wave broke, some friends of friends decided it would be safest to leave Moscow completely.
Now, the politically savvy in the US probably know that something’s been going on in Russia the past few weeks. Those within the D.C. bubble might even know a few details: the leading figure of the Russian opposition movement was arrested upon his return to Russia.
What few probably know is that it took a mere couple of hours for state-sponsored media and the government to draw a parallel between the Russian protests held in support of Navalny’s freedom to the Capitol protests. The argument goes something along the lines of, “How can the U.S. government condemn the Capitol protesters but support the dissenters in Russia? Their aims are the same.” Of course, they’re not. The situations are apples to oranges, but I do think the juxtaposition is worthwhile—even important.
Because it shows Americans what they’re at risk of losing.
Here’s the truth: I’ve been angry. It’s been the kind of anger that no matter how fast you run, you just can’t shake it. The kind of anger that leaves you grinding your teeth without realizing it until there’s an ache leftover in your jaw. It started about the time Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and Mitch McConnell decided to cap off his term of hypocrisy on a high note and rush a confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. It’s been almost four months since that day and, while Biden is in office, I’m still watching as at least half the country’s leadership inches closer to the leadership of a country they’ve claimed for so long to be so far above—and they’re taking America with it.
On February 15, the Senate voted not to impeach Trump, and those who did vote for his impeachment were actually censured by their state GOP committees. Main party members welcomed Trump with open arms at CPAC, enthusiastically applauding as he spouted the same election fraud falsehoods we’ve been hearing for months. I guess everyone forgot about the insurrection. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, considering Republican legislatures in various states have been hard at working introducing sweeping new legislation to limit voting rights dare a repeat of 2020. I guess they’ve decided it’s not important anymore whether or not they win fairly.
Maybe they’re just taking a cue from Trump. After all, there was something very “Russian” in the way Trump campaigned. His use of fearmongering tactics—decrying Biden would transform America into a bastion of communism—reminded me of a widely circulated video on social media encouraging Russians to vote for the amendments to the Constitution, lest the country be overrun by gays. And, while, perhaps it looks a bit different on the surface, the attempts to disenfranchise parts of the US population evoked memories of the protests that erupted in the summer of 2019 in Moscow when opposition candidates were not allowed to run for city council. The goal was the same: not to eliminate the voting process in its entirety, but to change the rules just enough that you’re guaranteed a victory. Of course, Russia has a lot more finesse—and I’m pretty sure a majority of the population does actually support Putin.
As the election inched closer, I started to use a shorthand to refer to all the tactics being put in place to limit people’s ability to vote—attempts to stop deadline extensions during a pandemic to the absolutely ridiculous removal of ballot drop-off boxes in a state where it’s notoriously hard to register for mail-in voting. I would read these stories and say, “That’s some Russia-level shit.”
Then, a day or two before the election, I had a work meeting with a Russian colleague and another in America. As the discussion turned to the election, she said something that put the offensiveness of what was being done by the Trump administration into sharper focus. “It’s so cool that you guys actually get to choose. I’m kind of jealous.”
Isn’t that the kicker? We have a choice—an opportunity craved by people all the way across the Atlantic—and there are people trying to take this choice away. Even worse, more than 70 million voted for the very man leading the charge.
And it’s not just our democracy at risk.
Living in America gives you a powerful gift—one I wasn’t even fully aware existed until this past election. It gives you the power to look at the world through a different lens—through the lens that change is possible, that you can make a difference, that what you do matters. It’s a lens that lends itself to optimism. These may seem like cliched ideas, and they may be viewed with skepticism or disregard (and yes, I recognize these ideas are more of a reality for certain groups than others), but you can’t grasp the true weight of this privilege until you look at the world through someone who doesn’t possess it.
My boyfriend is a good man—a kind man. He was born in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia, not long after the Soviet Union fell. Eventually, he and his parents moved to Tver, a city about two hours outside of Moscow. However, they didn’t leave until he was 18, meaning he was living in the country at the time of the Tulip Revolution. It was a movement full of big ideals and lots of violence, a revolution that led to a change in who held power but not much else. Life is still hard. People are still poor. In fact, at this point, he and his entire family have all but written off the country.
These types of experiences have definitely left their mark. My boyfriend would describe himself as a realist, while I would call him a pessimist. I’m a passionate person, and when there is a cause I care about, I try to do something. I spend a good portion of my free time volunteering, while my boyfriend views public service as an inefficient use of time. After all, people are assholes, and you aren’t going to change anything. You’re better off focusing on moving up in the world.
At first, I found his beliefs incredibly insulting—an affront to values I hold so dear. Then, on Election Night, we had a watch party with two of my American friends in Moscow—one of whom is married to a Russian man. It was then that I realized how pervasive my boyfriend’s views were throughout Russia. My friend’s husband had the same attitude: of course, you can’t change anything; people are terrible. When we discussed the Russia-level shit that had been happening, they laughed and said, “Welcome to our world.” In fact, one of my friend’s students had chastised her for daring to complain about Trump’s refusal to concede. What did she have to be upset about? At least they had a real election. At least they got to vote.
I can’t blame them for their views. After all, you don’t have a voice in Russia. Dissidence is suppressed and should the government decide they want to do something to which you are opposed, you have little recourse. They want your kiosk removed? They’ll say you obtained your lease illegally, and your shop will be gone. You’re told you have to work five more years to receive your pension? Well, you’re SOL.
I don’t want America to turn into a place where that’s the reality. A place where paying off porn stars or rampant nepotism or federal corruption is seen as just par for the course. Where you have to get government approval to protest the government. I don’t want to ever feel like the actions I take are an “inefficient use of time”. I don’t want to ever feel like I can’t change anything.
More importantly, I don’t want my kids to grow up feeling the way my boyfriend does about the world. However misplaced hope sometimes is, being forced to look at the world without it is an awfully hard way to live.
Whether the energy of the initial protests will remain or rise again at some point down the line is anyone’s guess. Since the beginning there have been echoes of “it won’t change anything”. Things are uncertain and repercussions are swift—and a little scary. And, truth be told, only a small segment of the population has the energy or desire for the kind of change Navalny is calling for. The fervor may die out as quickly as it began. That’s what it’s like when you feel truly powerless. I wonder how long it would take that kind of reality to take hold in America.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been more convinced of how similar Russia and America are, and while I love both countries, that’s not a good thing.
I know I’ll never change the minds of the diehards, of those who have succumbed to the cult of Trump. That’s fine. This piece isn’t for them. This piece is for those who are merely complacent, who shrug off what’s been done with the easy excuse that, “Well, all politicians are corrupt.” This is for the people who are still focused on taxes more than anything else, who just can’t handle Democrats having a win. Who think, well, everyone is just overreacting and look at what a great job Trump did with the economy. I’m here to tell you that everything that’s happened does matter. It goes beyond politics, and it should bother you.
And something needs to change.