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Russian Protests Did Not Surprise Everyone

While working on my story for the December issue of COMMENTARY about the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I spoke with Pavel Palazchenko, who was Mikhail Gorbachev’s translator and advisor during Gorbachev’s term in office, and with Robert Amsterdam, who until two years ago represented the jailed “oligarch” Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Both men had something to say about the future of Russian democracy.

Given the steady protest movement and pro-democracy momentum we’re seeing in Russia I think they are worth sharing. Here is what Palazchenko told me about the current Russian “stability” versus the drive for change:

So far as whether this is some kind of stasis and that this is here to stay for a long time, no I don’t think so. I believe that Russia will make another attempt to create a democratic society or a society that is closer to the democratic ideal than what we have now…

Why is Russia less than Turkey or Mongolia or Estonia or other countries where there is democracy today, [even] imperfect democracy?

Russia is not backwards. People are educated, young people have a chance to travel…. Based on what I see around myself, they are no different from others and absolutely, definitely they will–when the circumstances are right–they will not only demand democracy but I think they will be more ready for democracy than people think.

For his part, Amsterdam directly challenged the popular theory that Russians aren’t interested in or cut out for democracy. “Russians have no damage to their national DNA,” he told me. “No Russian child is born with a driving desire to lose his freedom. No Russian child is born desperate to have to pay a bribe in order to reach university. It’s not in their genetic makeup.”

What about those who say a Russian attraction to authoritarianism was forged over centuries of such rule? “Let those people spend a day with Russian democrats, and understand the heroism of Russia,” he said.

Will the Russian public be able to upend the status quo? It is no easy task, but this month’s protests, coming just in time for the twentieth anniversary of the great liberation of the Russian people, certainly doesn’t lack for symbolism.


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