When Americans look at Russia, they see what they want to see. And that's dangerous.
Two of Russia’s most famous dissidents are visiting the United States. I speak, of course, of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, members of the feminist conceptual art group known as Pussy Riot who were recently released from jail by President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. media have been raving. "Pussy Riot gals stun Brooklyn crowd with powerful speech," blared the New York Post about the duo’s appearance at a charity concert in New York this week. "Pussy Riot stole the show from Madonna" was the verdict from Time. They put in a bravado performance on The Colbert Report and even had the New Yorker gushing about their presumed artistic achievements. Pretty impressive.
There’s just one problem. Most of the adoring coverage of the two Pussy Riot stars presumes that their protest is having an enormous impact on the political situation in their home country. If not, why are we (and Madonna) paying such inordinate attention to them?
In fact, though, there is little evidence that they have any sort of influence on Russian public opinion at all. Most Russians regard Pussy Riot with outright hostility. As one recent public opinion survey revealed, the number of Russians who view the prison sentence the two women received as either fair or too soft has actually grown in the two years since they went to jail: The figure is now 66 percent. (A reminder: Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were convicted on charges of "hooliganism" after performing an impromptu anti-Putin concert in a Moscow cathedral in 2012.)
But the overarching sentiment regarding Pussy Riot back home can probably be characterized more accurately as general indifference. The broader opposition movement in Russia has never embraced Pussy Riot — perhaps because members of the group exult in their reputation as radical avant-gardists, a position that is scarcely calculated to gain much traction with the country’s deeply conservative mainstream. (Tolokonnikova once had herself photographed having sex with her husband in a museum as part of an edgy protest against patriarchy, or something.)
Indeed, the remaining members of Pussy Riot have now expelled Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina from the group for sundry minor misdeeds, which means that the two women now represent the outer fringe of a fringe. A caption in a fine story by New Republic reporter Julia Ioffe, who shows how other Russian critics of Putin’s regime regard the group as an irrelevant sideshow, makes the same point: "Pussy Riot, who galvanized Western outrage over Putin’s repressive regime, evokes a more complicated response at home." Andrew Monaghan of the London think tank Chatham House, who tracks public opinion in Russia, puts it with rather less understatement: "My sense is that most Russians just don’t give a damn."
The Pussy Riot episode is just one part of a much bigger recent history of a vast perception gap between Russia and the West. In the 1980s, Westerners went gaga over Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, who, with her designer clothes and outspoken political opinions, seemed to embody the kind of more modern and cosmopolitan USSR her husband was trying to build. Meanwhile, her compatriots back home despised her, seeing in her highfalutin’ airs just the sort of arrogance of privilege they’d come to expect from high-ranking communists. Soon enough, of course, Gorbachev himself fell victim to the same sort of disillusionment. The more Berliners and New Yorkers adored him for dismantling the Iron Curtain, the more Russians grew to detest him for dismantling the empire and presiding over a collapsing economy.
These days, many Westerners, appalled by Putin’s authoritarian airs, find themselves almost instinctively rooting for the opposition. Western reporters covered the big anti-Putin protests of 2012 as if the president’s fall from power was just a matter of days — yet here he is, glibly presiding over the Olympics, and the protesters are nowhere to be seen. Not only that, his approval rating, now hovering at around 65 percent, would be the envy of just about any of his counterparts in the West.
By contrast, the most prominent opposition leader, corruption fighter Alexey Navalny, scores at 1 percent in most current opinion polls — which, one should point out, is less than the usual margin of error. "We look at Russia and often want certain things to happen," notes Monaghan. "Navalny has presented himself very well to the West. He’s undoubtedly a talented politician. But he’s done much better over here than in Russia." As far as Russians themselves are concerned, Monaghan says, the real opposition in their country today is the Communist Party, which regularly garners about 20 percent in elections and opinion surveys and which, unlike the liberal protesters, has a solid organizational infrastructure across the country. This isn’t to say that Navalny isn’t completely irrelevant. It’s just to point out that he’s probably not as relevant as we think he is.
This is not an academic point. If you can’t separate your biases from your analysis, your analyses will usually turn out to be wrong. One might argue that precisely this has been the case over the past few decades. In the 1990s, Westerners (and especially the Clinton administration) trumpeted Boris Yeltsin’s success at leading Russia forward into a bright democratic future — while ordinary Russians were experiencing an everyday existence marked by evaporating savings, rampant sleaze, chronically unpaid salaries, triumphant Chechen rebels, mafia shootouts, and patently unfair privatizations that left just seven men controlling most of the country’s industrial assets. The architect of that privatization effort, Anatoly Chubais, was hailed by Washingtonians as a young, tech-savvy genius (he brought a laptop to meetings!), while most Russians saw him as the nauseating epitome of a corrupt new system that didn’t even trouble to conceal its injustices. Were the Russians wrong? Perhaps. But they had very good reasons for believing what they did.
The post-Yeltsin era has brought more of the same. Americans were appalled when Putin described the collapse of the USSR as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. Russians applauded. In 2001, George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw exactly the kind of soul he hoped he would see there; he was later roundly disabused of this comforting notion. But that didn’t stop the Obama administration from trying to build up President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s seemingly liberal protégé, as an alternative power center — only to discover, to their own chagrin, that there wasn’t anything independent about Medvedev to begin with.
For the record: I would very much like to see Russia become a democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens. I think that Russians deserve this. But the West isn’t going to help them find their way there by indulging in wishful thinking. In some cases, indeed, such dreaming might even make things worse (for example, by allowing the Kremlin’s reactionaries and their ilk to brand all democrats as pimps of the West). So maybe it’s time to stop seeing in Russia what we want to see.