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Russia's Non-Democracy

By Anna Borshchevskaya

If it weren't so sad, it would be funny to read Russia's President Medvedev's recent interview with Novaya Gazeta, in which he said, "Democracy [in Russia] existed, exists, and will exist."

Human rights still appear to be a luxury in Russia. Recently, Lev Ponomaryov, director of the Moscow-based Organization For Human Rights, and a leader in the new political opposition movement Solidarity, was reportedly beaten by a group of men outside his home . Stanislav Markelov, whom the Wall Street Journal called one of Russia's top human rights lawyers, was murdered in late January, as was Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old freelancer for Novaya Gazeta, which, according to the New Zealand Herald, is the last major publication critical of the Kremlin. Novaya Gazeta also lost three other journalists in the last decade-- Anna Politkovskaya, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Igor Domnikov.

When I read about a journalist or a human rights activist hurt or killed because of their work, it hits a little too close to home. My father, who never joined the Communist Party, was a journalist at the Ostankino radio tower in Moscow until the end of 1993, when, after several years of trying to get permission to leave the country, my family and I immigrated to the U.S. with refugee status. I grew up knowing that certain opinions I heard at home were those of the minority and repeating them outside our apartment was not a good idea.

Several analysts have observed that Medvedev's recent interview with Novaya Gazeta, in addition to meeting with human rights activists in the Kremlin and hosting a new human rights council, is little to celebrate. Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe reported that Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent Soviet-era dissident, said, "Experts are already telling us that Medvedev is for liberal reform and Putin is the bad guy. This is how politics is played here. Now everybody is placing their hopes in Medvedev. If something bad happens they say it is Putin's fault. If something good happens, Medvedev gets credit. It is an old game that I have been watching for 40 years, and it is a game that I have grown tired of."

The problem runs very deep in Russian culture, stemming back centuries with only one person in charge. It is one dilemma that will not be resolved for a very long time. Shortly after our arrival to the U.S., my parents attended several job search skills seminars for recently arrived immigrants. In one of these sessions, the issue of employee rights and how they are treated in the workplace came up. My parents were surprised to discover how much respect for individual employees was emphasized--the idea was so new and foreign.

When I spent a week in Moscow this past March, a journalist, and a friend of my father, told me that I'm lucky because I can say what I think, implying that is still not possible in Russia - at least not without the fear of persecution that could potentially follow. He proceeded to explain how Pushkin would veil certain criticisms of the czar in his poetry, since it was not possible to do so outright.

It is true--a publication like Novaya Gazeta could not have existed during the Soviet era. But the Russian government mainly allows it to exist because it serves certain purposes, such as creating an appearance of free press. In a country that was built, after its last czar was killed, on the idea that everything was "for the person, by the person, and in the name of the person," as one Soviet slogan went, it seems everything still is indeed "for the person"-- the same person whom, according to a Soviet-era joke, one man from rural Russia saw for the first time when he went to the Red Square.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a graduate student in Middle East Studies, International Law and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (19)

shrug Author Profile Page:

"If it weren't so sad, it would be funny to read" the comments to Anna's article lamenting conditions in the country from which she emigrated. Truly amazing how she inspires hatred and bigotry towards America, Jews, Bush, Champaign IL, and herself, particularly from emigres whom the US has warmly welcomed, adopted, and offered freedom and opportunity.

whistling Author Profile Page:

Anna is

undoubtedly Jewish, one of those who want
to push Russia into revolution. They just keep at it, no matter how foolish.

That it's not in the interest of the US never phases them.

The eight jewish oligarchs that stole
Russia's natural resources in the 70s were to take over. Georgia with it's Israeli "advisors" start the progross.

And America pay for it. Odious. More of the same.

Silly_Willy_Bulldog Author Profile Page:

Dear Anna,

As a 'political refugee' your family and yourself have been on the payroll to badmouth Russia - and admit it, the venum is in your blood. You just can't change yourself. Rojdennui polzat' letat' ne mojet'.

realtimer Author Profile Page:

Dear Anna:
Thank you for sharing your family's 'reality' with us. As you read the comments in response, I'm sure you will be surprised at the number of Americans who simply don't get it. They can't vizualise that Russia is now in the hands of RasPutin and his apparatchiks. To you and your family I say, Zhelayu vam vcevo khoroshyevo i spacibo!

ovs13-ripe Author Profile Page:

For all former russian. If Your love to homeland is so deep. Why You leave it? Why You could fight for Russia only from other counties like Lenin from Switzerland?

ovs13-ripe Author Profile Page:

Dear Anna,
Could You point any country where democracy is presented really? May be New Zealand, Greenland or other sleepy calm place.
A wise people could survive his brain's independance under political pressure. But couldn't do the same under money's pressure.
From this point of view USA equal EU, Russia and others.

dwilliams2 Author Profile Page:

I have problems understanding many of these comments. In June, I will go home to the U.S. after teaching in China for two years. I am told that I live in a "one-party democracy." Years ago, I was told in West Africa, that I lived in a "military democracy." Could it be that there are people in the world who have no idea what a democracy really is? But now I'm being told by Americans that I can't criticize other countries because there are problems in the U.S. When do we carry self-deprecation too far? People even say that the U.S. is "corporate fascist state!" Nonsense!!! I don't think a lot of people who constantly bash the U.S. know what they are talking about. Try living in Russia or China for awhile and then see how things look. Believe me, the U.S. is a democracy, warts and all, and it doesn't deserve much of the bashing -- and wouldn't get it if the U.S. didn't have freedom of speech. Remember that, please, the next time you sling mud at the Americans, OK?

aepelbaum Author Profile Page:

China is not in USA backyard, Champaign, Illinois, is, though, one. I was not allowed to teach mathematics in Champaign, Illinois, because I was labeled "overqualified". What does this label means for any teacher nobody can understand. Any teacher can be either qualified or non-qualified, no other alternative is available. Now, I was trying to participate in local art festivals, as I am pretty noticeable amateur- singer, poet, translator, musician, etc., but the same sentiment, which did not allow me to teach, inspite of the obviousl need in the knowlegable teachers, my possession of all necessary creadentials, my obvious willingness to do it, etc., seems to prohibit my participation without any explained reason, and obviously in violation of laws. So, why to the hell we have guts to teach Russia how to deal with their problems, if we have even worse ones here, in our own backyards? USA has no rights to dare to do it, especially after the obvious demolition of WTC on 9/11, as the entire world has opportunity to watch on numerous video records. This is the densest hypocrisy, nothing less. By the way, the death from a starvation, as the result of the permanent artificial unemployment is more painful than the death by a bullet and/or knife. That is about USA own legal reality on the subject of human rights!! And also about allowed and not allowed torture!

krescera Author Profile Page:

Before we lament the lack of democracy in any country we should carefully examine how good is democracy in those countries that flaunt it as one of their greatest achievements.For example,the performace of the American media during the last presidential campaign hardly inspired confidence as to objectivity and impartiality.Similarly,the packing of the U.S Supreme Court and other courts in the country with ideological favourites is another dubious hallmark of American democracy.It would therefore be necessary not to judge the democracy or lack of it in any country with an American benchmark.

steviana Author Profile Page:

As the author is hopping on Russian's "nondemocracy" may I ask how about China?

MPatalinjug Author Profile Page:

Yonkers, New York
19 April 2009

I fully sympathize with the author of this op-ed, Anna Borschchevskaya, who laments the fact that Russia still has not evolved into the kind of democracy she finds in the United States where people have the right to say what they want, where there is freedom of the press and of assembly, and where they can hold demonstrations to air their grievances against the government.

For centuries, the people of Russia have always bee ruled by despots and tyrants on top of despotic and tyrannical governments.

It may be safe to say that despotism and tyranny are already deeply ingrained in the national psyche of Russia. A Michael Gorbachev and a Boris Yeltsin may emerge on the Russian scene once in a blue moon and introduce reforms which they characterize as "democratic."

But, Anna, old habits and old propensities die hard. Like a 200,000-ton tanker which needs many more miles before it could be turned back, it may take many decades for Russia to evolve into a real democracy on the U.S. or the European model--if it does.

It is also possible that Russia will revert back into despotism and tyranny. The real power in Russia is not president Dmitry Medvedev. He is Vladimir Putin, who now holds the position of prime minister.

Not long ago, Mr. Putin lamented that the greatest catastrophe to befall the Russian Empire was the dissolution of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--which, as the whole world knows, was despotism and tyranny pure and simple.

It is not totally outside the realm of possibility that Vladimir Putin is fixated on bringing back to the fold of Russia former members of the U.S.S.R. If this is the case, then Mr. Putin must be determined to resurrect the Russian Empire in all its glory under Alexander the Great--with Mr. Putin as the modern Russian Czar, of course.

Mariano Patalinjug

MarinaNY Author Profile Page:

Russia does not have democracy, because Russians do not need democracy. It sounds rude, but it is true. There are media sources with liberal, free information in Russia. They are not popular. This is not government's fault. People want to read and hear how great their rulers and their country is. They would rather love their authorities than dissidents. This situation is based on deep Russian tradition, when people would yield all their rights to authority to get some minimal livelihood. For disclosure: I came to US from Russia, too.

anvor Author Profile Page:

Having been a dissident journalist in the Soviet Union and having lived in the West for the last 20 years, I think I know the situation with the press on both sides. And I can't agree with Ms Borshevskaya. Yes, propaganda TV is ubiquitous in Russia, but it is also omnipresent in the West, especially in the United States, where I live for the last decade. The journalists’ fear of touching on the powerful interests in the local (state-wide) media in the state I live is all too obvious and, in private conversations, among friends, they admit it almost freely.

Meanwhile, the irrational anti-Russian (or anti-Iranian, anti-Venezuelan, anti-Belarus, etc.) bias is so obvious in the American national media that I often wonder: do these journalists, who profess the first rule of journalism being "If your mother says she loves you - check it out", have a critical bone in their body?

The utter lack of erudition and oh-so-willing conformism to the prevailing opinion taints all too many areas of American journalism.

And thus, in this sense, if I were an American journalist, I wouldn't poke the current Russian media in the eye for something that exists, perhaps in a more sophisticated form, here as well.

Ah, and Politkovskaya and some other journalists killed in Russia: yes, killings by criminal interests exist. Violence in that country – on order or not – is far more wide-spread. But I would never blame Putin/Medvedev for it, like too many Western media outlets did, clearly without much thinking. Anna and others had far too small a voice for presidents of the country to pay attention and order their security apparatus to kill her. And I say it as a person who had run-ins with the Soviet and Russian security apparatus, and despise them far more than people like Anna Borshevskaya, who clearly grew up here, can imagine.

So, let’s stop overstating the case of Russian press' "unfreedom" vs. the "freedom" of American press. Unless they are government-owned, media outlets on both sides write/air what their consumers buy. It isn't what I (and perhaps you) want, but we can not impose our views on the reading/viewing public in Russia any more than we can impose our views here, on the Fox News and their viewers, for example.

Actually, WaPo has a better chance of succeeding changing Faux News than the Russian TV channels. Better still, it can address its own multiple (and sometimes bizarre) biases. Let’s start at home.

magnifco1000 Author Profile Page:

From recent travels to Russia, I can tell you that nationalist forces there have certainly benefited from American policy toward Russia. That includes relentless and sustained NATO expansion and the USA's siding with Georgia during the conflict with South Ossetia. It will be up to President Obama to change this, but President Bush was a gift to those in Russia who wanted a stronger military and more aggressive foreign policy. As for freedom of speech, Russia practices no censorship of the internet, like China does, and it's certainly not like how things were in the Soviet era. You also have to remember that the average Russian citizen is not necessarily a fan of democracy, many of them are very pro-nationalist and see an authoritarian government (by our standards) as the best form of government. So, if America is to change this, she will have to engage Russia in a much more constructive and positive way then how things were done during the Bush administration.

Poodle1 Author Profile Page:

I wonder why none of the commenters so far have mentioned or commented on the fact that journalists keep turning up dead in Russia.

Eugene10 Author Profile Page:

Good Afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am Russian myself (probably that's why I am going to make lot's of mistakes in this comment, that's why I beforehand beg you pardon) I am student of Public Administring Academy and as you can see I am not afraid to put my comment under such a contradictory theme. More over we are learnt English by the American books, not adopted for Russia. And I've learnt from that book that "the freedom of speech is the lifeblood of any true democracy" and that "any democracy depends upon the unrestricted flow of information and ideas". It sounds great, doesn't it?? Like many in our country I may be unsatisfied by some news agencies which may be biased, but there are numerous other chanells, magazines, papers and so on. But when I saw British and American journalists where just telling cock and bull stories about the Georgia-Russian conflict, paying no attention what the real witnesses were saying (about that girl from South Ossetia who has lived in US for the last years and was visiting her relatives when it all began, if I'm not wrong about the details). I've just doubted about freedom of speech in your countries.
Let's just hope that what is there written in your books will one day eventually come true...

"Citizens of democracy live with the conviction that through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will eventually win out over falsehood, values of others will be better understood, areas of compromise more clearly defined and the path of progress opened"
Let's hope you won't violate my freedom of expression and ban this comment.
Yours faithfully, Eugene10

Dements Author Profile Page:

Articles like these are always a little sad for me to read. They are basically classic misinformation, designed to skew the view of people who just don't know any better. The problem is that Ms. Borshchevskaya, and people like her, make their living by bad mouthing the country they came from and insulting its culture. Does anyone remember the Iraqi National Congress? that groups of Iraqi immigrants that took millions from the US government and assured them that US troops will be welcomed as liberators, that the Iraqi people were united and wanted to be free, etc, etc, etc? Well congratulation, Ms. Borshchevskaya and her ilk are the Russian INC equivalent. Is it not obvious that anyone with such a view of themselves and their history will never amount to anything?

The reality of the matter is that Russia is a developing country, that is still relatively poor, roughly on the same economic level as Brazil for example. The kind of social problems and corruption that is seen in Russia can be seen in all countries that have the same level of economic development. If the Russian economy continues to be stable and grow over the next decade or two, many of these problems will be dealt with.

On the question of the media in Russia, the press in Russia is free, certainly freer then it has been in the last 50 years. Having gone to school, worked and lived in both US and Russia, there is no information or opinion that I cannot freely and easily access in Russia. If anything, the Russian press as a whole has a much greater breadth relative to the US press.

venik4 Author Profile Page:

Just as media in any other country, Russian media is regulated – not controlled – by the government. Quality of work of Russian journalists is another matter altogether, but this problem has nothing to do with government regulations.

Russians have unrestricted access to the Internet, satellite TV and radio, foreign newspapers and magazines. In fact, you have wider Internet access from Russia than you do from, for example, the US, because many US ISPs block thousands of online resources they deem illegal, harmful, or otherwise undesirable.

It’s not access to information or freedom of the press that is the problem in Russia. The problem is the quality of work by Russian journalists. In the last couple of years of the USSR and during the decade following its collapse Russian media enjoyed unprecedented freedom bordering on anarchy. Newspapers could print any nonsense they wanted. And they frequently did. With a few exceptions, there was little regard for the accuracy of information.

In 1990s, when I saw some interesting news item in the Russian media, I always had to go online and verify it against foreign news sources. I had absolutely no confidence in the accuracy of reporting by Russian journalists. It was as if The Star took over every Russian newspaper. Headlines consistently and purposely misrepresented the content. Facts were non-existent or unverified. Street language and poor editing were common. Headlines and editorials were frequently bought and paid for by interested parties. If ten years ago every major Russian newspaper was to close down, I don’t think anybody would have cared or even noticed.

Since 2001 the quality of Russian journalism has been gradually improving through higher standards and adherence to existing laws regulating the media. Today I can pick up a Russian newspaper or go to a Russian news Web site without having to double check the information. Some of the less responsible Russian journalists, who got used to the 1990s free-for-all, are screaming bloody murder because now they actually have to work for their money.

dparkins3 Author Profile Page:

Of course nowhere in the world is the press "free" or "independent" but on a comparative basis Russia fairs quite favorably to the United States. The US certainly does not have the equivalent of Novaya gazeta, nezavisima gazeta or Echo Moskvy. Our press toes the corporate and or elite(neo-con)line completely. Think Iraq war and Palestine conflict - almost no one questioned the legitimacy of the Iraq war and the Israel inside was of course portrayed as the victims when they were the aggressors. Another example would be the heinous economic policy which led us to this point and the massive transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to corporate America. We are now the very definiton a corporate fascist state, a country run for the benefit of Corporations and those whom they control in the political sphere. Every step of Putin and Medvedev is harshly criticized by the above named media outlets, not so in the US.

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