A Method, Yet a Madness: Understanding Russian Democracy

Anna Pivovarchuk | When Nikolai Gogol wrote about the winged troika in his 19th century masterpiece on provincial corruption, The Dead Souls, little did he know that he was creating a perennial image that would come to represent Russia for centuries to come. Three powerful animals, a fury of motion, never to be overtaken, like a lightning bolt crashing from the skies. Where was it going? To that, alas, there was no answer.

What Gogol was referring to was the “mysterious Russian soul.” A strong-willed, passionate people, we are never quite understood, because we are unpredictable. It is indicative of how we view ourselves: unique, unbeatable, great.

At the close of the Sochi Olympics in February, President Vladimir Putin said the games had been more than an open door to Russia — it was the opening of the Russian soul to the world. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore, Putin told journalists, we are ready for cooperation.

What the Olympics revealed, however, was a very dark side of that inner sanctum — a darkness that appears to have been eclipsed by the smooth success of the games. The thousands of migrant workers who have not been paid, the forced evictions in Sochi to make way for construction, rampant corruption, environmental damage and anti-gay vigilantism, all created a picture of Dorian Grey all over again: a presentable façade with a sinister collection of skeletons, not in the attic, but instead spilling from behind the front door.

Despite initial scrutiny by the world press before the Olympics, the release of Pussy Riot members and Mikhail Khodorkosvky from prison in February, the euphoria of Russia’s Olympic performance and later the crisis in Ukraine have taken the spotlight off Russia’s slow but steady crawl toward a humanist abyss. As controversy over Crimea was raging in the press, and while the world became absorbed in trying to predict Putin’s next move, a number of remarkable violations received less attention than they deserved.

 

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