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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Sunday Sacrilege: Russia is an Amoral Nation

Russian radio commentator Georgy Bovt, writing in the Moscow Times:

Addressing the annual security conference in Munich on Saturday, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was once a leading candidate to succeed President Vladimir Putin, said, "We respect those values that the United States and Europe have cultivated for centuries. They cannot, however, serve as the standard by which other nations should measure their own political systems, national cultures and mentalities."

This was just the latest Kremlin declaration of what it means to be a "sovereign democracy."

Ivanov's discussion of Russian versus Western values reminded me of two incidents that I witnessed recently on Moscow's public transportation.

The first happened on a trolleybus. It was one of those days when the snow and slush turn Moscow streets into a filthy obstacle course for pedestrians. A woman in her 70s was about to step down from the trolleybus at a stop, but she was afraid of landing on the snow and ice on the street. She turned to a well-dressed young man and asked him to help her down. "[Expletive] off" he replied, quite matter-of-factly and without any particular emotion. "What was that for?" the woman asked as tears started to swell up in her eyes.

This concerns the question of values: What is the reason for this unprovoked, groundless animosity toward anyone and everyone that we are seeing in Moscow?

The next scene took place on a different trolleybus on a different day. A young woman tried to buy a ticket from the driver. He shrugged and said, "Don't worry about it." She insisted on paying for her fare. He waved her away and opened the central doors so she could get on without having to go through the turnstile. She then made her way through half the bus and the throng of passengers back to the front of the bus. She knocked on the driver's window and demanded to buy a ticket. He again waved her away. "Just ride for free, " he said. The girl gave in and finally took a seat.

At the next stop an inspector stepped on and began checking the passengers for tickets. When this young woman was found without a ticket, he demanded that she pay a fine. She explained how she had tried to buy a ticket but that the driver refused. She appealed to the driver and some of the passengers joined in, but the driver claimed that he had never seen the woman before. In the end, she paid the fine and started to cry.

To be sure, reports of how hundreds of passersby show complete indifference to someone lying sick on the sidewalk are nothing new. But the two incidents that I saw on the trolleybus underscore how Russian values, ethics and morals have truly deteriorated over the last several years. I have noticed an increase in rage and hostility people exhibit toward those around them and the absence of a basic willingness to help each other.

Moreover, society as a whole seems to have become totally apathetic to politics and the condition of the country. It is indeed a rare occasion when an event stirs people into taking some kind of stance or action.

There is a basic more code and set of laws that help regulate society in most Western countries. The moment they are applied to Russia, however, the ever-resourceful and wily Russian mind will find some way to get around the rules and make a nice buck while doing it. Russians are indeed quite ingenious; they can create illegal schemes that no one could every dream up in other countries.

Society is lacking a basic moral foundation -- an understanding of what is good and bad. Our politicians can attack Western values for as long as they want, but this criticism is nothing more than blowing a lot of hot air -- and this will remain the case until Russia develops some moral values of its own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a truly brilliant short piece, with observations that will leave anyone who has traveled to Russia more than a few times over the years nodding in agreement. A couple of observations for those new to Russia:

1. The punk on the trolley was a Putin wannabe. He was exhibiting what every Russian recognizes as the style of the chekist: rude, crude, gratuitously cruel. He's the guy in the black t-shirt and leather jacket (Putin's favorite attire when he's off duty). Ironically, these very values feed directly into why most Russians admire Putin so much. Is it any surprise most of the young male population of Russia is immitating him (or what they think he is)? Bovt knows this, but is too polite to say it. He also knows that all his listeners know it, so why risk infuriating the authorities by pointing it out?

2. In the case of the young lady on the trolley, the trolley driver was conspiring with the ticket inspector to increase the fines the latter collected - they were splitting the take. I'm almost embarassed to point this out, it's so obvious to any Russian. It was certainly obvious to the young lady, which is why she broke down crying as she realized what she was up against. But readers from the West, especially the U.S., need to have such things pointed out to them, because they're so darn naive. There's a certain beauty to that naivete, but also a vast vulnerability. The fact that most Americans would need this explained to them is indicative of just how desperately in need they are of being protected from Russia.

One final note: These things didn't happen very often in the good ol' Soviet Union. Which is one of the reasons that sad old lady might very well have voted for Putin herself -- she (and a lot of other people) want things at least a little bit "back the way they were", and they're convinced Putin can take them there. When they finally wake up to the horrible fact that Bovt's two examples are symbolic of the entire Russian reality under Putin (bullying and corruption) - and that Putin is centrally to blame for both - watch out. Or, as another commenter on this blog recently put it, "Pass the popcorn."