Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Twenty years after newly-elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank and stared down a coup, Kojo explores how well democracy has taken hold there and what Russia’s experience says about the prospects for the democratic uprisings consuming so many Arab countries today.
- Leon Aron Director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute author of "Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life" (St. Martins Press)
- Jessica Golloher Moscow-based correspondent; former reporter with WAMU 88.5
MR. KOJO NNAMDITwenty years ago this week, newly-elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin climb atop at tank and faced down on attempted coup. Two decades later, the world is looking to Russia for lessons we can apply to this year's crop of anti-dictatorship uprisings across the Arab world and North Africa. Are Russians enjoying more personal freedom and greater human rights than they did 20 years ago?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAre they feeling good about their relationship with their government? And, most importantly, how long does it take for real change to take root in a nation with a long history of autocratic rule? As Russians are well-aware, and Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and Libyans are discovering, change at the top may be only the beginning.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Russia's Revolution: Essays, 1989-2006." Leon Aron, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. LEON ARONPleasure.
NNAMDIYou just returned from a trip to Russia. How do Russians feel today about their government and their leaders? Do you feel -- do they feel they have greater rights and freedoms than they did 20 years ago?
ARONThe problem -- and, I think, it's a problem for the government, and it was a problem for the government of Tunisia as well and in Egypt -- is that they don't compare themselves to what was 20 years ago. That's forgotten. There's entirely a new generation. You cannot -- and that's part of Putin's problem, is that he's always running on -- well, you know, this is better than it was in the '90s.
ARONI'm better than Yeltsin. Things are stabilized. Well, that's great, and they were.
NNAMDIIf I'm 20 years old in Russia today, I didn't know that.
ARONExactly. Exactly. And through my trip, I traveled for three weeks in July, and I spoke to the leaders and activists of some top social organizations and movements. And from them, but also from the media, general -- more general media, there is a kind of a sense that the country is approaching some sort of a dead end. Yes, the economy is okay because oil is expensive.
ARONBut it appears that, within that current political regime, the modernization that President Medvedev constantly calls for is really impossible because the courts are not fair, because the corruption is rampant, because people are more afraid of the traffic police than they're afraid of the criminals. And there's this general sense of what Jimmy Carter used to call malaise. And it's really pervasive.
NNAMDIWhy are people more afraid of the traffic police than they are of the criminals?
ARONOh, ask any Russian who owns a car -- and, now, there are quite a few of them. Basically, you're stopped in order for them to collect the fine, but, in fact, it's a bribe. If you don't pay the bribe, you're asked to appear in court and argue. And there are several organizations, one of which I investigated, that is actually built to help people to go to court and argue. But very few people want to do it, right? It's your nerves. It's anxiety.
ARONIt's a waste of your time. You have a job. You have a business. So they pay. Similar problem is all over the world, particularly in the developing countries. Mexico is -- used to be one of the examples until they really cleared it up.
NNAMDIJoining us now by telephone from Moscow is Jessica Golloher. She's a former WAMU reporter who is now a correspondent in Moscow. Jessica Golloher, thank you for joining us.
MS. JESSICA GOLLOHEROh, it's my pleasure anytime. Thank you.
NNAMDII know how you drive, Jessica. Have you been getting traffic tickets in Moscow?
GOLLOHERYou know what? It's -- well, A, I'm a terrible driver, and, B, I would absolutely agree with your guest. I was in someone's car about a couple of months ago, and we were pulled over by the traffic police. And I almost had a heart attack because I knew we were going to have to be -- asked to be, you know, to pay a bribe. And I thought, oh, my gosh, I'm a foreigner. I know I'm going to have to pay some money. They're going to check my documents.
GOLLOHERI don't even like to ride in the cars. I would rather walk on the street, but then, of course, I risk perhaps getting stopped by the regular militia on the street asking for my documents. So I would agree with that assessment, absolutely.
NNAMDIJessica, how do the Muscovites that you talked to feel about the way their government and their rights have evolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Are people optimistic? Are they frustrated?
GOLLOHERI think it's a mixed bag. I think it definitely depends on who you talk to. A lot of the pensioners that I have interviewed, they say they'd rather have the old stable Soviet Union back. It might not be, you know, the best government system to them, but at least it was predictable. Then you have the people who pretty much control most of the wealth in the country. You have the oligarchs, government officials, the uber wealthy.
GOLLOHERI think things for them here are fantastic. They have the resources, the means to come and go as they please. They can buy themselves into jobs that they would not normally be able to get to because that still happens here. A lot of corruption in even trying to find a job. You have to pay someone off to find a job. So, for them, things are fantastic here. They have their minor bumps in the road. Of course, there's still bureaucracy.
GOLLOHERThen you have the average person. They're living in one of the most, if not the most, expensive cities in the world. There is corruption rampant everywhere. They're trying to feed their family. They're averaging about $1,000 a month, or 30,000 rubles. So, for them, it can be tricky. Then you have a younger generation who really doesn't have the past history and the institutional knowledge of the Soviet Union.
GOLLOHERSo I think for them, on the average, things are looking pretty good. They have a future. They're young. They're optimistic. So I think it definitely depends on who you talk to.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What parallels do you see between the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring uprising? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Jennifer, it's my understanding you recently -- Jessica, it's my understanding, you recently interviewed a woman who's a neurologist. What was her take on life in Russia?
GOLLOHERYou know, I did. I interviewed her recently. And we got to talking about politics, which sometimes happens. And she looked at me, and this is a very erudite woman. You know, she's had a long career as a neurologist. She practice -- also practices alternative medicine. And she looked at me, and she was really defeated. She goes, you know, what are we supposed to do?
GOLLOHERAnd I thought, well, maybe, you know, you could gather some people together, try to institute a revolution. And then I thought to myself, well, that -- that's really -- I mean, there is no grassroots institution here for gathering together (unintelligible) any sort of those things. And I think a lot of people have that attitude here of, well, I've got my own problems, what am I going to do? We know that there are presidential elections next year.
GOLLOHERThe United Russia Party has yet to choose their candidate, although we pretty much think it's going to be Vladimir Putin. Whoever they choose is going to be president. What choice do they have? At this point, not really much. I mean, opposition candidates tried to register their own political party here. They were not allowed to due to a paperwork error, basic bureaucracy. So, I think, it's just this sort of malaise, but, then again, you never know.
GOLLOHERSomething different might happen. A lot of people didn't predict the collapse of the almighty Soviet Union. So things could change.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jessica Golloher. She joins us by telephone from Moscow. She's a former WAMU reporter, now a correspondent in Moscow. Joining us in our studio is Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006." Leon Aron, when you ask Russians about democracy, how do they generally respond?
ARONWell, not only I, but it's a question constantly asked in public opinion polls. And it's really interesting because, when you ask them about democracy, they immediately -- especially people 40 years and older, immediately associate it with the chaos that accompanied the birth of democracy, the collapse of the old economic system. To them, it's associated with pain and hurt.
ARONOn the other hand, if you don't ask them about democracy as a word, but deconstruct it and say, well, are you for free and fair elections? Are you for the ability to travel abroad? Are you for the freedom of the press, human rights, fair courts and so on? You get, overwhelmingly, support in the polls that's done by the polls. So it's a tricky bag.
ARONBut if I could add something -- comment on something that...
ARON...Jessica said, she's absolutely right with respect to people being very skeptical of organized politics. But they are -- this, in fact, was the focus of my study that I'm hoping to publish. I spoke to maybe a dozen-and-a-half of leaders and activists of -- they're not really underground. They exist legally, social movements. Some of them are environmental movements.
ARONSome of them are legal defense movements, the kind of movements that you see all over the world, including the Arab world. And their take is very interesting. They feel that, absolutely, as Jessica said, you cannot count on change from above anymore. We tried it. We tried it 20 years ago. The only sustainable good will come to Russia from below. We need to do our things.
ARONWe need to defend ourselves against turning of local officials against corruption, against the traffic police. We need to bend it together in order to protect the Lake Baikal or Khimki Forest, and, you know, they're doing it. And what struck me was that it's a totally non-Russian -- historically, non-Russian attitude. There is no hope for the leader or a czar. There is a hope for us.
ARONAnd, in fact, they're saying quite openly the reason the revolution failed and -- by the way, this is very similar to what's happening in the Arab world -- did not deliver, is because the society was not ready for the democratic political institutions. In other words, you have them. You have them, and that's great. What Yeltsin did and Gorbachev did is great. But those democratic institutions were on a, like, permafrost, on a very, very thin soil.
ARONThey were like Baba Yaga's hut on chicken legs from the Russian fairytale. And as a result, you could subvert them. You could poison them. Or you could eradicate them, which is what Putin did. And they are extremely patient in their attitude. You ask them -- one of the questions that I asked them was, well, what is the -- you know, how do you see your organization 10, 15, 20 years? And they will say, pretty much doing the same thing.
ARONThey want to continue until they create what my friend Tom Friedman calls the software of democracy. They have the hardware. They have the parliament. They have the constitution. You need the software when the people control the government.
NNAMDIJessica, how do the Russians, with whom you interact, feel about things like, oh, the freedom to travel, or the freedom to speak out if they're not that optimistic about their involvement in politics?
GOLLOHERI think one of the most positive things that people here feel is definitely their ability to travel. If they can afford it, if they can get out of the big, bad city of Moscow in the summer, they pretty much do it. They might go to Sergach. They might go, if they're lucky enough, out of the country. I think that's a definite positive for things. Things have changed for them since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are still remnants.
GOLLOHERFor instance, if you leave the city of Moscow as a Muscovite, as a Russian, you have to register in the city where you go. Forget it if you're a foreigner. That's a whole other bag of worms. But can you imagine going from Tulsa, Okla., to Dallas, Texas and having to register with the authorities when you do so? So I think it's a double-edged sword.
GOLLOHERI think that they're excited about the slight differences that there are, but they're -- you know, they're very slight. As far as, you know, freedom of expression, on the 31st day of every single month, protesters get together and they protest for article 31 of Russia's constitution, which, ironically, is the right to protest. So you have a handful of these oppositionists gathering near the Kremlin. There are more riot police than there are oppositionists.
GOLLOHERAnd before they can even hold up a sign or utter one word, they're whisked away in vans and arrested, sometimes pretty forcibly. So I think the average person thinks it's good that there are some things that they can do. But, really, I mean, that depends on what your view of democracy is and what your vantage point is. So, yes, there's good and bad.
NNAMDISo, technically, they have the right to protest once they're willing to get arrested immediately after they do it. Leon Aron, a lot has been written about what caused the Soviet collapse. You've said the greatest catalyst was not a failing economy, not foreign pressure, but a desire for greater human dignity and that all revolutions are a search for human dignity. Was that true in the recent Arab uprising?
ARONAbsolutely. You know, what struck me -- I studied it very carefully. And what struck me is that almost -- or I'm saying almost exactly the same words. You know...
NNAMDII'm glad you said that because in the segment that we had before you, in which we had an activist, who was one of organizing for the protesters in Syria, he used those exact words. He said it was about human dignity.
ARONThat's wonderful for me to hear. You know, the slogan with which the Tunisian revolution started was, dignity before bread. It's a -- you know, you could argue, yes, you need bread in order to have dignity, absolutely. But on the other hand, you know, Tunisian economy had been growing by leaps and bounds in 20 years, every year preceding the uprising.
ARONSo you can't say that, just because the economy is growing, people are happy. It started with the abuse of a small fruit vendor as we all know...
ARON...that's correct -- who couldn't take it anymore. Well, I'm sure Jessica will agree with me. These types of things, where, you know, police approaches a vendor or a merchant and say -- you know, not even asking, but just saying, okay, this, this, this and this, this merchandise. There's my car. The trunk is open. Go put it there. My goodness, this is a daily occurrence in Russia. So the question is how long people are willing to put up with it.
ARONAnd this is a miracle. This is like divine providence. You never can predict where the spark is going to come from. But there's no doubt that every revolution, whatever other factors there are -- economic, political, foreign policy, war, famine -- the heart of it is the desire for common people to try and live with greater dignity and with a more equitable relationship with their government.
NNAMDIJessica, these everyday humiliations that people have to go through, whether at the hands of the traffic police or any other corrupt official, is that something you hear about? Is that something people talk about a lot? Is that something that they feel is really an offense to their sense of human dignity?
GOLLOHERAbsolutely. I mean, you get tired of it. I've seen it. I've witnessed it. You know, it happens every single day. How would you feel knowing if you got into your car every single day to go to work, that there is probably an 80 percent chance that you're going to get pulled over by a corrupt official? Then you're going to be late for work. Then you have the anxiety of, oh, my Lord, what kind of a bribe?
GOLLOHERDo I have enough money? Should I offer 40,000 rubles first, and then just get it over with, you know? I mean, it's not a pleasant experience here, and these people have to deal with it on a daily basis. It's not a good feeling. But, also, it takes initiative. It takes -- I think the average Russian will finally get tired, and something will happen. Is it going to be 10 years from now? Is it going to be 20 years from now? Who knows?
GOLLOHERIt all depends on them. But you can't take this sort of clamp-down on a daily basis. You know, even in the media, you're supposed to have -- well, ironically, it's not really freedom of speech or -- and freedom in the media anyway because it's controlled by the state. It's just the average things that Americans and Westerners take for granted, that you don't get here and you have to deal with, and it gets frustrating.
GOLLOHERIt gets really frustrating for me, and I'm not a Russian. And I -- because I've had experience of being able to do things that the average person would not have a problem doing. But, here, there's always a problem. Every day, you wake up. Lord, what kind of a problem am I going to have today? Who's it going to be? Is it going to be at the grocery store? Is it going to be on the street? What's going to happen?
NNAMDIOn to Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi. Thanks for taking my call, Kojo. My question is, what is the lesson for Arab Spring protestors from the Russian experience, in the sense -- like, is there a government to find, oh, that they can go to by skipping the usual democratic -- democracy, electing one person with a lot of fanfare, and before he get to do something, you know, the regime changes and, you know, nothing gets done and people become career politicians and corrupt?
STEVESo is there a government to find, oh, like people went straight to their cell phones without having to go to the landlines, that they can do in this interconnected and, you know, new generation?
ARONYes. It's an excellent question. I think the lesson is this. You changed the political institutions, very spectacular. We were all cheering for people in Tahrir Square. But don't expect the governments to change because you have the national political tradition. This is what hobbled the Russian experiment. This is what's going to try and thwart the Arab Spring, and, in fact, I think we're beginning to see that with how the military behaved.
ARONSo the lesson is try to organize the society. What you said, Steve, was very similar to one of the organizers told me in Russia in July. He said, the moment somebody is elected, the moment they join the government or lead the government, assume that they're going to be corrupt and dictatorial. And, by the way, that's the view of philosophers, starting from Plato and Aristotle.
ARONWhat you need to do is to organize the society so that they control the government. He told me, there's no such thing as bad government or good government. All governments are bad. What you need to do is to make sure that the government is as transparent as possible, that it is as responsive to human needs and, more importantly, that it's controlled by the society.
ARONThat may take decades, but people must be patient. And I think that's the key lesson of the Russian Revolution for the Arab world.
NNAMDIJessica, we only have about 20 seconds left. Do residents of Moscow identify with the Arab Spring protesters or feel any desire for a similar transformation? Do they talk about it at all?
GOLLOHERI think they feel a desire for transformation, but, again, that has to come from the masses. I don't think the masses are ready. I don't expect a big convergence on Red Square anytime soon. But, then again, you know, stranger things have happened. I think they want change, but they have to initiate it themselves. No one else can do that for them.
NNAMDIJessica Golloher is a former WAMU reporter. She's now a correspondent in Moscow. Jessica, thank you very much for joining us. Drive carefully, or don't drive at all.
GOLLOHERIt was my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDILeon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006." Leon Aron, thank you for joining us.
ARONThank you, Kojo. Pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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