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Anastasia Pupynina grew up between Saint Petersburg, Germany and Austria. The Russian attitude to politics has always been dominated by apathy - until now. She recalls how things have changed, and wonders whether the Russians are right to see European democracies as a model.

Protest!

It took a very long time for me to learn to connect big politics with everyday life. I simply could not see the link between people on the TV screen and anything that was happening to my family. When I was a child, politics always appeared as something distant, something that happened on a different level. It was something that "ordinary" people were supposed to avoid. Big changes and fears were connected with it for everybody during the time when I was little, but it always seemed to turn out just fine: it didn't really matter what was said on the screen, since the everyday routine remained the same and we were still going to our country house on weekends. At least that is how it looked for me during the part of childhood that I spent in Saint Petersburg. 

putin_fishing
Photo: www.kremlin.ru (CC-SA)
"My mother always knew who was going to be elected in Russia." An official photograph of Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia.

During the time I lived in the German-speaking part of Europe, I learned that there are real people who do politics (the parents of some of my classmates, for example). They were not in contact with some sort of dark side, they didn't have bodyguards and their regular job was not necessarily something to keep silent about. It turned out that not everybody saw politicians as bad or fatal or inevitable. People took part in elections and even got different results from time to time. 

Moreover, citizens didn't know for sure who was going to be elected. This was different in my home country: my mother always knew who was going to be elected in Russia. At the age of ten it seemed to me rather a sign of my mother's unlimited intelligence. Later I understood that although my mother was still incredibly smart, there was no real alternative in most cases. 

I remember kids at elementary school in Cologne discussing the fact that Gerhard Schröder had become the new Bundeskanzler. Of course, what they said was nothing more than a replication of their parents' views, but it still highlighted the fact that being politically active was perfectly acceptable, at least in some households.

In Vienna a teacher of politics once accidentally told the class which party he supported. When it turned out to be the Greens, the kids completely changed their behaviour and didn't ever take him seriously again. Apparently their families did not support that party.

I remember the summer after my elder cousin turned 18. She went to the elections and got a sticker with the Russian flag and the text "I voted" as a free gift. She stuck it on her CD-player and I can now recollect how the white stripe of the flag became grey while the other ones wore off a bit over the summer, since the sticker was placed next to the radio button. For her, voting was a way to bring out the energy of teenage protest. She took part in the elections, rather than neglecting the political system, which was the common strategy for most Russians. Thus the gesture was contrary to the general apathetic attitude towards political power.

For my cousin, voting was a way to bring out the energy of teenage protest.

In Saint Petersburg, my home town, the attitude to power was not much different from that prevalent in Russia in general, except that criticism or even absolute neglect of political processes had always been part of everyday life. Going against the grain is part of the strong Saint Petersburg identity.

The reason for this apathy lies not in ignorance or lack of education, it has much more to do with exhaustion after the very hard years of crisis in the 1990s. After all, rules and habits need time to establish themselves.

The political standard which people use as a model during this establishment of rules is the one of European states. It doesn't seem to be too much to ask - after all, the main wish is to have a transparent political system, which is supposed to exist in Europe. People tend to believe that in Europe politics is taken care of by people who are trusted, in other words, that the interests of authorities and citizens are same. This is what they want for Russia as well. The funny thing is that in spite of Europe being a model for many developing countries, people living in Europe do not always see their political system as something to be longed for. They are often critical towards power, and the way the "power-people" relationship looks from the inside can surprise one with its ambiguity.

Still, Europe is an example of how the basic principles of democracy are achieved and reproduced. I don't think it is the only possible way, though. I am sure that there is a different way for each country, because trying to make one country go the exact same way as another is a bit like expecting 1000 monkeys to write "Britannica" – after all, the chances of getting "War and Peace" as a result are just the same.

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Photo: bogomolov.PL (CC-SA)
"Something is changing." Russians protesting against the falsification of election results and demanding reforms in Moscow, December 24th.

It is impossible to overlook the fact that now something is changing in the way Russians treat politics. This became clear in the reaction to the last elections on December 4th. As you may have heard, Russians were not content with the results of the elections and rumours of falsifications have spread rapidly.

This election was discussed much more than the previous ones. Friends of mine were on a trip through Europe and despite Sunday being the only day they spent in Berlin, they took the time to vote. Even those who had never believed in the idea of political change, voted - and still the results were not much different from the usual ones.

The social media were overwhelmed with hundreds of posts. Articles about falsification of the votes, about people's impressions from the process and the wish to do something against the violation of the rights of citizens flooded the internet. People were posting and reposting videos and reports based on first hand testimonies. Many demonstrations were organised all over the world – most of them on December 10th and 24th. Most important is that all of those went peacefully – there are many other examples in Russian history when big political gatherings didn’t.

There is a wish to start participating in politics – through voting and deciding on whether or not to accept the results. By protesting and demonstrating, people are not trying to start a revolution - there is a strong wish to design the new system in a proper way, without resorting to apathy again. The slogans did not ask for an end to the current government: they demanded reforms to the whole concept of state management.

studyingeuropesmall

In this column, we look at places which are "inside out" - where Europe suddenly pops up in a non-European country, or where we find ourselves in a corner of Europe which feels more like China or India. "Inside Out" is created in association with our partner, the M.A. programme "Studies in European Culture" at the University of Constance, Germany.

To find out more, go to www.europa-studieren.de

When I see this interest in politics, for the first time in my life I feel relieved when I think of the political future of Russia. Protests and demonstrations are a healthy reaction when people are not satisfied with the political situation.

A basis for further engagement in politics is establishing itself – it is not change yet, but a necessary condition. Maybe there is even going to be a reevaluation of the image of political power – from the enemy image of the almighty secret services which control each and every institution, to the everyday management of real local problems - such as communal services, snow handling in winter, etc. This, however, remains my humble view on the problem - influenced by the time I have spent in Europe and a strong wish to be optimistic. 

Anastasia Pupynina is a student at the University of Constance, Germany, taking part in the M.A. programme "Studies in European Culture." She was born in Saint Petersburg, but went to school mainly in Germany and Austria, returning to her home town for her bachelor's degree.

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