What Comes First in Russia: Democracy or Trust?

Every nation gets the government it deserves. This old saying, which implies that the autocratic nature of the Russian state matches the meekness of its people, is attributed to the Sardinian ambassador to Russia in 1811. It seemed absolutely truthful here until Monday, when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin answered questions from Russian citizens in an unprecedented, two-hour live town hall-style nationwide TV session.

The country was glued to television in disbelief. After 10 years of the false promises of Boris N. Yeltsin's democracy--which resulted in poverty and inequality for most of the nation, with only a handful of enriched oligarchic and state structures--people now are blind to the authentic democratic practices unfolding before their eyes.

In the late 1980s, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev declared glasnost and initiated a near-revolution among Russian leaders by authorizing the transmission of live political discussions and not canned (and usually nauseating) Soviet speeches, the country was also glued to its televisions.

Yet while Gorbachev was listened to with hope--after the years of ideological secrecy, could glasnost be for real?--Putin was listened to by a people grown accustomed to questioning their government's actions and motives, an audience skeptical about the new leader's desires, let alone his ability to do something for them.

In a "normal" country, which Russia aspires to be, a direct dialogue between the leader and the nation is seen as normal, even routine. Yet in Russia, Putin's attempt to exercise a promised democracy and to build a better sociological basis for his future policies was taken by many "democratic" analysts and some opposition media as just another trick to assert his authority.

However, their accusations cannot undermine the necessity of this well-organized exercise in democracy.

Instead of deciding by decree what the country needs (as the Soviet leaders and Yeltsin did), instead of listening to hysterical media that value breaking news over levelheaded reporting, instead of waiting until social problems sparked rioting in the streets (as in Argentina recently), Putin wisely used TV to allow the public to vent its frustrations.

Yet the post-Yeltsin public, disillusioned with anything that sounds or looks democratic, was unwilling to give Putin the benefit of the doubt.

In Murmansk in northern Russia, for example, many people regarded the TV session as a setup: Questions were prepared, censored and screened for government purposes.

Pointed or not, however, the questions that were aired concerned pensions, wages, racketeering, corruption, drugs, education, science and health care subsidies, the future of oil prices and Chechnya--all vital issues.

Prepared or not prepared, Putin tried to give some honest answers, or at least coherent ones, yet another precedent for any Russian leader.

Russia's worst problem today is not that it can never seem to have or do anything good, or that it remains an odd mutant, an aggressor and victim all at once. Russia's problem is that it can't see when it has it good. The country never trusted its government because it never trusted itself to withstand the government's pressures.

On Monday, the Russian president went on TV to ask his people's opinion, but they still didn't trust his trust, dismissing this new democratic step as a blatant public relations move.

In the West, which is Russia's democratic role model, public relations is good. When Colin Powell advances Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers from promoting Uncle Ben's rice to promoting Uncle Sam's smile, we in Russia were all in favor. When the Russian president answered questions on the radio in the U.S. during his November visit, we were all happy.

Why then do we see a similar act taking place within Russia as an exercise in autocracy? Because democracy and freedom of speech are still viewed as someone else's virtues, virtues we believe we are incapable of possessing ourselves.

Today, the question of Russia's democracy and freedom of speech is not a question for its leader but a question for its people.

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Nina Khrushcheva teaches international media at New School University in New York and Moscow State University in Moscow.

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