Lessons from a broken democracy

So much of what animates Russo- American dialogue today is politics. Russian involvement in the past year’s election cycle, the solidi cation of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime in the Kremlin, and the geopolitical clash between the U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe and Central Asia all illustrate the rising tensions. Seldom considered in the popular imagination today is the life of ordinary Russians, separate from the politics — their culture, society, and humanity.

graphic by John Liang

Over the summer, I had the privilege of traveling abroad with the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth, or NSLI-Y, to study Russian in Moscow. While undoubtedly the meeting between President Donald J. Trump and President Putin at the July G20 Summit in Hamburg and continuing debates regarding the conflicts in the Ukraine and Syria were discussed; what surprised me most, however cliché it may be, were the intensely human connections that bind Russia and America together at this moment in time.

Architecture, like many aspects of a country’s society and aesthetic sensibility, speaks just as much to the universality of the human experience as it does to a divergence of history and values. While individual family homes are common within our Central Jersey region, I saw none in my time in Moscow. Muscovites lived in block-long apartment complexes, worn down with age and cracked by the pressures of cold and heat. These buildings reflects a spirit of communality and strength in numbers far more potent in Russian society than in America’s broad stretches of strip malls, suburban sprawl, and white fence backyards.

As intimidating and impersonal as these buildings appear from the outside, each one hides within a piece of Russia’s complex and tumultuous history, along with the intimate human history of the residents, with their struggles and triumphs. Professor Yuri Slezkine of the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke recently at the Princeton Public Library on his new historical novel, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017). It chronicles an apartment complex that was inhabited almost exclusively by Bolshevik apparatchiks from the end of the Russian Civil War to the Purges and World War II. The building I stayed in was public housing for the newly homeless in the aftermath of World War II. Hidden within it’s walls and staircases, behind the oppressive sting of lingering tobacco, one can still almost hear the whispers of those who suffered so, stuck between a rock and a hard place, a flailing Soviet state and the Nazi war machine.

graphic by Avery Hom

In Russia, the sheer monumentality seen in every building easily distracts from the drama of the turmoil and tragedy of Russia’s past century. Perhaps this is intended. A century ago, three-hundred-and-fifty years of Tsarist history were swept aside by a fanatical clique of revolutionaries, led by a certain V.I. Lenin, intent on reorganizing society from the ground up on the basis of Marxism. Militarized by a Civil War, subjugated in all but spirit through Stalin’s purges, and hardened by a war against fascism that killed one in eight of their Soviet compatriots, Russians saw perhaps only forty years of stable leadership before another revolution swept aside the old order and brought in the new.

History remains at once omnipresent and too painful to consider in full. Russians are hardly unique in this. Grappling with the trauma and exceptional, institutionalized brutality entailed in America’s long history with genocide and race-based class structure is an intimate part of the American imagination. For all we, as Americans, pride ourselves on being free-spirited and open-minded, we would do well to stare down our own problems, and not turn a blind eye, watching our country descend away from the exceptional ideals of liberalism and constitutional government.

But beyond that, there is hope in Russia’s one hundred years of hardship. Even in the worst of times, whether it be under the iron rule of Stalin and the doctrines of war communism, or in the free fall of market liberalizations that caused a near complete collapse of the social fabric in the nineties, Russians were able to carve out a space uniquely their own, even within hostile and unforgiving circumstances, and retain some sense of normalcy in their lives.

It is said that one of the great virtues of a liberal democracy is that political engagement is no longer necessary. The experience of Russians informs us that while we can make it through times of hardship and oppressive political reaction, it takes focused engagement and activism to break cycles of social and political dysfunction. We ignore these lessons of history at our own loss.

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