Two months into my study abroad here in Moscow, I have this to say: Russia is a depressing place, even if there is and I admit there is beauty in its melancholy. On rainy days, when gloom and doom is the order of the day, I can almost taste the dolefulness that hangs in the air.
The further one goes from its capital Moscow, the more depressing it gets a point made with great poignancy by a recent New York Times feature titled “The Russia Left Behind.” Signs of physical decay all around seem too eager to remind one of the profound political and social decay that Russia is going through. It is as if the sun has left for another planet.
And if Russians are one of the most pessimistic and disenchanted people in the world, they have reasons to be. Few peoples in the world can be said to have experienced a history as dramatic and traumatic as the Russians’. For every generation since 1917, the only constant has been change: not incremental, gradual changes, but sea changes that continually sent the country down topsy-turvy vortexes.
First there was the October Revolution in 1917, which promised colossal changes meant to shift Russia’s autocratic paradigm to a liberal parliamentary system. Alas, that was hijacked by another form of autocracy in the shape of communist despotism.
When the myth of the communists’ messianic mission evaporated, tectonic policy shifts through Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika sought to put Russia on a new path to modernization. But then came 1991: the Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards, and the Communist project was pronounced dead.
Boris Yeltsin staged a coup shortly after, and this time an anti-communist revolution took Russia by storm, promising democratic and economic reforms. For a moment Russia looked primed to set off on its own path to modernity, democracy and free markets, but instead of prosperity and freedom the Russians got economic meltdown, crime and ethnic strife.
The pendulum swung between autocracy and liberal reforms as revolutions upon revolutions put the Russians on a seesaw of hope and disillusionment. Reforms gave way, time and again, to the resurgent tradition of autocracy.
All that seems to be left now is a sense of disenchantment, summed up disgruntledly by ex-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin: “We tried better, but it went the usual way.” Everything has changed, but nothing has changed.
Except, perhaps, the people’s appetite for change. “Don’t talk to Russians about change or revolution,” a Russian friend told me. “They are sick and tired of it. People want evolution, not revolution.” But the “evolution” that the Russians so desire is not going to happen on its own. As with any social and political changes, incremental improvements can only be realized with painstaking persistence and a healthy dose of idealism. But judging from the political apathy manifest in low turnout rates in the recent Moscow mayor election and the sore lack of new political contesters, the younger generation has almost neither.
The general attitude of the populous is to “wait and see,” which, unfortunately, is probably the only smart thing to do. “There is no way you can get to any political position of importance without playing dirty,” my friend reminded me. “Every level of the system reeks with rank corruption, and it is so hard to break in because it is an absolutely closed system.”
In Russia, it is almost impossible to enter into the political game unless you are already part of the existing power structure. Attempting to challenge the system from the outside is like running up to a concrete wall and bashing your head against it a pointless and dangerous venture. Change, it appears, has to wait.
But for how long? Four attempts to save Russia from decay have failed, and a lot of time has been lost. The rich are leaving for better places, and the less well-off stay put because they can’t afford to leave.
Social mobility continues to decline and is on its way to proving a point about post-socialist societies that initial accumulation of capital is also final. Seeing little incentives to change the status quo, the Russian oligarchs continue to sit comfortably on Russia’s oil wealth, overlooking a glamorous decay.
Each morning, on my commute, I come across this portrait I now consider to be distinctively Russian: potholes on the roads, slabs of concrete lying about on unkempt earth, open construction sites from which clouds of dust rises up with each passing of an old rickety Lada, chipped tessellations on the exteriors of apartments worn off by a combination of age and negligence.
At the academy where I study, an entire skyscraper stands despondently upon a wasteland with no past glory to speak of, for it had been abandoned before it was even completed. Yet despite all the profound decay and general gloominess, there are days when the sun peers through the thick cloud cover to cast a silver lining, bestowing upon Moscow a gorgeous radiance.
Perhaps Russia’s silver lining, too, lies in wait beneath the depressing cover of rank corruption. One thing, however, is quite certain: If Russia were to succeed in lifting itself out its slow road to ruin, it would have done that in spite of its government, and not because of it.
Chi Ling, Chan is currently studying abroad in Moscow, Russia and is contactable at chiling ‘at’ stanford.edu.