When journalists interview Muscovites outside polling stations, you often hear the same solemn phrase: “I have fulfilled my civic duty”. It means that the person has voted. But it does not mean she or he necessarily sees themselves as citizens. The Russian citizen is really not a citizen, but a free atom that makes its way in a society filled with traps and trip wires. Such a person feels no solidarity with a society that does not feel any solidarity with its citizens. In Russia, society, and particularly its representative authorities, are perceived as things one should keep at arms length. From them, nothing good can be expected, only problems in different forms.
There is a problem when applying for a passport and you are left to stand in a queue. There is a problem when paying taxes (that is, if you bother to do it). There is a problem in getting your child into the right school and therefore you must buy the school some new furniture. There is a problem when you have surgery for kidney stones and have to get into the right hospital to avoid the risk of dying on the operating table.
The only way to solve these problems is often to go the unofficial route. This can be about bribes, but can also be just about knowing the right people. There are no civil rights or obligations. Here, there are just different ways of navigating in a sea filled with hazards.
When the Russian citizen says he has fulfilled his duty as a citizen, it is thus a phrase without content – a relic of a Soviet era where ‘citizen’ (grazjdanin, grazjdanka) was a common word. The concept was ubiquitous in the official language of power, but it meant nothing. It was part of the liturgy in a society where the citizen, although not without rights – everyone had the right to work and housing –lacked power over their own lives.
The celebrated poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, wrote a long poem dedicated to the Soviet passport, which ended with the pretentious phrase: ”Read, envy – I’m a citizen of the Soviet Union. ”
Today, the Internet is full of satirical travesties of this poem, such as: ”Read, envy – I am a citizen and not medusa”. Former Soviet schoolchildren, who were forced to learn the poem by heart, enjoy ridiculing it, but the satire is also significant for their view of Russian citizenship. That, which for Mayakovsky was the source of deep and sincere pride – the Soviet passport – is seen today as a burden and an obstacle. Having a Russian passport means that you get to stand in the longest queue for non-EU citizens at all border crossings in Europe. Today’s travelling Russian citizens perceive themselves as being constantly relegated as second-class travellers. It is no coincidence that almost all of my Russian friends are thinking of ways to appropriate an EU passport and they ask constant questions whether they really cannot become Swedish or Finnish citizens by purchasing properties in Sweden or Finland.
The Russian view of citizenship is thus distinctly utilitarian. They want the benefits of different nationalities, it’s not that they want to belong and contribute. It is, namely, an experience that Russian society, for historical reasons, lacks.
The leitmotif of the entire Western social structure – civisRomanus sum (I am a Roman citizen) – implies participation in a community where all have the same rights and obligations. No such foundation has ever existed in Russia – an empire that has been built on entirely different allegiances than civil.
The Russian empire has, for most of its existence, been ruled by an autocratic emperor. By the year 1861, the majority of the population lived in serfdom. The farmers were not citizens; they were a commodity that could be bought and sold and were brought up with a fatalistic worldview, where the individual’s ability to influence their fate was nonexistent.
In ancient Rus, the precursor to the Russian Empire, society’s upper layer lived in something that was called kormlenie. Author and journalist, Anna Arutunjan, describes in detail this system in his book, Czar Putin. In order to control the kingdom’s outskirts, the prince speculatively sent out his vassals, who were expected to earn their living themselves. This was done by taxing the locals, that is to say, simply stealing food, furs, horses and supplies from them. In an expanding kingdom without a functioning central administration, this was a practical form of government.
When the feudal society evolved, nobles came to own most of the land, which they were awarded personally by the Tsar. This meant that the Russian nobility was not loyal to the state – it was loyal to the emperor’s person. The serfs were, in turn, loyal to the lord to whom they belonged.
Everything was based on personal ties, nothing on written agreements. Everything was changed as needed. Institutions in Russia developed much later than in the rest of Europe, and the idea of civic identity is relatively new.
When the masses of serfs were freed in 1861, they formed a new lumpenproletariat that moved to the big cities in search of work. The Bolshevik coup in 1917, and the new communist empire, would transform the proletariat to free people.
In reality, the opposite happened. Soviet society effectively undermined the trust in the system’s inherent morality. The system was corrupt and everything was available to sell and purchase – a principle that instantly became supreme when the Soviet Union collapsed. It has led to a population of cynics, who dares not trust that a single elected official means what they say and sees any attempt to express social ideals as untruthful and laughable.
The foundation of any functioning society is trust. Trust is a prerequisite in order to be able to enter into contracts – if missing, nothing can be done in common. That, in turn, means that the basis for building a civic identity is missing. Civil society requires that you dare to act in ways that may not yield immediate benefits, but will have common benefit in the long-term.
This is a starting point that, in Russia, is perceived as naive. Why take an uncertain decision that ultimately can benefit everyone, if you have the opportunity to make a decision that will definitely benefit yourself?
Today’s Russia operates according to the interest maxim. Agreements are entered into only when one can be sure that the other person has a personal interest in following it. Therefore, rarely is anything written down – it is controlled instead of having to have a hold on each other. Based on this principle, among other things, is the widespread and often very sophisticated corruption in state and municipal management. One popular method is otkat, which means that officials responsible for such purchases, for example, of building materials or paint get an unofficial sum from the company. It is also common that officials starting their own companies then get the exclusive right to provide the authorities with different types of raw materials.
Corruption is not visible because it is inbuilt. At the same time, it is so well known that everyone talks about it openly – Putin noted recently in a sardonic tone that the otkat system in many regions have known tariffs that even follow currency fluctuations.
According to Anna Arutunjan, this system is a continuation of the ancient kormlenie principle.
Officials see it as their right to ‘tax’ the citizens by various methods. It can be done in a very everyday place, for example in schools and hospitals. Students are expected to give the teacher a certain amount each semester to celebrate his birthday. Doctors and nurses expect a gratuity from the patient’s relatives to ensure good care.
There is nothing immoral seen in this, as it is both their interests; the doctor gets the money, the patient gets care. That the physician receives a salary from society does not figure in this constellation. Society does not exist, all that exists are unofficial, temporary contracts between individuals.
Today, Russia is moving towards being a more open society. The Putin regime has never tried to restrict the Internet nor the free movement of citizens, which has led to the country being constantly modernised. Above all, the major cities are now connected to the global community in the same way as large cities in Europe and Asia, and this is not insignificant: Russia has fourteen cities with a population of over one million.
For nearly a decade, worked the truce that the Kremlin made with the people: you take care of your business, we’ll take care of ours. The authorities did not interfere in what the citizens did, and the citizens refrained from making demands on the authorities. The Putin regime concentrated on consolidating its power, citizens rebuilt their lives, acquired cars and travelled abroad on holiday.
For a limited time, they were all happy. Then came the inevitable. The citizens were not satisfied anymore with new cars, Ikea furniture and ski trips. They wanted something more.
When up to 40,000 people demonstrated against electoral fraud in December 2011, I stood in the midst of them in the jam-packed BolotnajaPloshchad (Marsh Square) in Moscow and could not believe my eyes. For years, I had been reporting from puny little demonstrations, where the number of Western journalists was often larger than the number of demonstrators. I had even asked myself if I was doing the right thing regularly watching these manifestations, given that there were so few participants. It gave the impression that the opposition had a support it really lacked.
Now, I have watched several large demonstrations involving tens of thousands of participants over almost a year. It was a breathtaking feeling. The demonstrations were peaceful, and often very humorous. Muscovites held up homemade placards of Putin and Medvedev being mocked in exquisite, satirical terms. I interviewed every imaginable kind of person: accountants, artists, small-business owners, doctors, and drivers.
It was quite clear that here we had a big, mixed and self-aware middle class that was tired of electoral fraud and being treated like cattle.
The word Bydlo, namely cattle, mob, became a common term in the jargon – a symbolic word for that which people refused to be. We are not cattle. We are people, voters. It is we who have the power, not Putin, who does not understand who we are.
A slogan that stayed in my mind was: ”Putin – you can not even imagine us”. In Russian, this sentence has a double meaning: ”you cannot imagine what we can do” but also ”you do not know who we are.”
The question remains whether these people really wanted to be citizens. Despite the fact that tens of thousands were prepared to go out in the street and demonstrate against Putin, there were only a few who responded when the only credible opposition candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, was disqualified as a candidate in the presidential election of 2012. There was simply no connection made between the protests against Putin and the opportunity to vote him out.
The turnout was not higher than just over 65 percent. Despite repeated giant demonstrations in Moscow of up to 80,000 participants (Sakharov Avenue on 24.12 2011), the belief in change was in fact weak. Why?
The problem was formulated very precisely by Ksenija Sobtjak. She is a journalist, former socialite, and native in the Russian elite. Her father, Anatoly Sobtjak, was St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor and Putin’s boss and private friend. Sobtjak’s mother, Lyudmila Narusova, sits in the upper house of the Duma.
Although Ksenija Sobtjak, therefore, has a lot to lose, she became one of the opposition’s most important figureheads in protests. She was one of the few who constantly urged for concrete plans to transform the protests into political action.
– We must stop talking about what we are against. We need to articulate what we are for, what we want. Otherwise, we will not progress, she said.
– Here, right here, the Russian democratic process stalled. Many protest against Putin, but few are interested in creating a common platform. They demonstrate, but do not sit in meetings. They sending each other links with caricatures of Putin and Medvedev, but they do not join any parties.
When I interviewed all these accountants, artists and small-business owners who participated in the demonstrations, almost all were upset about the same thing: the Kremlin has stolen my voice. It was always about me, my voice, the future of my children. However, it was still not about us, about our common society.
That’s because most Russian citizens still do not feel that they are citizens. They are individuals trying to live in a society that does not serve its members. Now they are starting to get tired of not getting the service they feel they have a right to. To get there, they must become citizens. The process has only just begun. It will be a long one.