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An Americans' Guide to Regime Change in Russia

I can't look at America's own democracy the same way after having returned to Russia.  This is my story.
I was born in St-Petersburg, Russia, and I emigrated to New York with my family when I was 12.  Politics surrounded me in my racially heterogeneous high school.  I had a bright idea that I voiced in class when I was sixteen or so:  since black people are not as successful as white people, why not embed a white person in every poor black family so that he or she could transmit their values and culture?  I was certainly not a racist!  At the time I also thought that if I hear a racial epithet, it was my duty to punch the person in the nose as hard as I could.  For better or worse, I never got a chance.
Soviet Union fell in 1991, four years before my family's departure.  I was young, so most of the politics passed me by.  I was much more traumatized at the time by the fact that everybody's mother gave them bubble gum and some insanely trendy American-style blue baseball hat, and mine—the curse of intelligentsia!-- took me to music lessons instead.  It was impossible to miss:  everyone was in love with America and what it stood for:  Snickers and sneakers, B-rated thrillers and laundry detergent, everything.  “Imported” was as coveted a label in the 90s Russia as “Organic” is in the US today.  After Communism fell, we were looking forward to Bright Future 2.0, covered in dollar bills and Heinz ketchup.
I will explain what followed using a uniquely Russian institution of intelligentsia.  You can write books about it.  There are many, in fact.  The first rule of intelligentsia is that it loves to talk about intelligentsia.  Today these people are viewed with a mixture of respect, boredom, and benign humor.  I'll make it simple:  Americans work, so they don't have time to think.  Working brought little benefit in Soviet Russia, so people spent their time reflecting on themselves and their country.  Since people could not distinguish themselves by wealth, they organized hierarchies instead by the purity of their intelligentsia-mojo.  And some mojo it was.  Soviet communism is connected, via Marxism, to George Hegel, a major 19th century German philosopher.  You had to understand him well to graduate from college.
Now, imagine this:  we've got a social class of brilliant thinkers who foresaw their native Soviet Union's decline over the years, but all they could do is whisper to each other, lest they get caught.  On top of that, we've got a class of would be unscrupulous entrepreneurs waiting for their chance.  And in 1991 they were both suddenly let loose.
So there was chaos, economic and intellectual.  You think my ideas for race relations were bad?  Russians who strongly supported the market economy in 1991, realized that most of their countrymen lacked the initiative to thrive in one.  The solution?  Kill them, so they don't get in the way of progress.  On the other side, I heard an older Communist say the other day:  “Lenin was a good guy.  He only had one suit to his name.  Stalin was a crook, but he ensured social justice.  His repressions... well... it's a complicated story, but people lived well under Stalin.”  Each and every member of the intelligentsia was confident that over the decades of clandestine reflections he and he alone found the way to put the country on the right path.  
So much for exporting the American dream.  After ten years yelling at each other, while they were robbed in broad daylight by the semi-criminal “entrepreneurs” that cropped up everywhere, Russians decided they had enough.  They elected Putin, a strongman who, aided by the high oil prices, brought a measure of stability and prosperity to Russia, at the cost of democratic freedoms.  Finally there was some room to breathe.  And many Russians felt cheated.  It was America who put them up to breaking up the Soviet Union, many realized, so that they could keep Russia on its knees and steal its oil.
The immigrant community remembers everything.  Everyone has a story of unfairly losing a job or else having to put up with avaricious bosses  under the Soviet regime, or maybe they have a story of abject poverty and rampant crime after its fall.  The older generation wrote Russia off:  no matter how good or bad the government, the people, their wanton selfishness, raw emotionality, and plain stupidity will mess everything up.  “We wanted to do better, but it turned out like always,” a phrase from those days goes.  Yet when I returned in 2011 after a seventeen year absence, Moscow felt like any other modern Western city.  It is quite rushed, but increasingly safe.  People are hard-working and relatively friendly and attentive to others, considering the tight space.  Younger folks are fashion-conscious, and pay attention to the trends while trying to remain unique.  Putin's stability was paying its dividends.
When you dig a little deeper and talk to them, the picture changes.  Putin lost his luster over the years.  Official corruption was getting worse, and incomes stagnated.  People became so jaded by all the broken promises, they lost hope of anything ever changing for the better around them.  They feel like they have no control of their destiny, and any positive story about their country was met with a wall of aggressive suspicion, like this:  “They didn't build a road?  I knew it!  The officials stole all the money for themselves.  They built a road?  I knew it!  They made up this useless boondoggle to philander even more money out of the budget!”
But at least they now knew something most Americans have long forgotten:  democracy is more than a mark on a ballot, it's a delicate balance of institutions and individual consciousness.  Show of hands, who's heard of a Rhode-Islandism?  This was America's first trick in the election-rigging book.  Back when only landowners could vote, a person would get a title to a piece of land the day before the election, vote, and then hand the title back.  And if you think we've perfected democracy since then, think again.  Granted, I'll take gerrymandering over ballot stuffing any day, but the truth is, most Americans don't get a real choice of congressmen.  Don't forget this next time you want to liberate some Burqastan.
The Russians certainly have not, and let me tell you, real democracy is on its way here.  It's feisty and bare-knuckled, but it's indigenous, the result of the growth and development of civil society over the last twenty years.  We went from every man for themselves to the dominance of bureaucracy.  There are a great many good laws here, and whatever shenanigans take place, they have to look good on paper:  if a citizen makes a request, it must either be granted, or a formal reason given for its denial.  While only people's innate honesty will ultimately put an end to corruption, this system makes the task considerably harder.  
Last week's election was conducted in this bureaucratic spirit:  per legal requirements, it was monitored by many observers from the opposition parties.  The ruling party kicked out as many as they could, but enough remained for evidence of systematic rigging to flood the social media.  More than 5,000 Muscovites came out to protest the following day, and we are expecting ten times as many this Saturday.  By local standards, the government is not even putting up much of a fight.  It feels more like habit than conviction on their end.  I'm confident the protests will be peaceful, the government will, sooner or later, make a major concession, and the situation will dissipate.  We will have set a precedent for a nonviolent protest that betters people's lives while maintaining the country's strength and stability.
As all this is happening, the sting of betrayal towards America is alive and well here.  The main debate is town is between those who believe democracy is in Russia's best interest, and those who believe it's an American tool to destabilize and weaken it.  People who cooperate with the West are called embassy coyotes and grant whores.  So, the best thing you can do is stay out of it.  You just can't win.  “Hillary criticized Putin?  I knew it!  She's out to destabilize us.  Hillary did not criticize Putin?  I knew it!  She knows it will not go over well, and she is keeping mum while her minions here destabilize the country.”    So the best thing you can do right now is find yourself a Russian, and listen to what they have to say.  Things aren't well at home, and you've lost trust abroad.  Be respectful, and learn from your neighbors.  It's not America's best quality, but it's never too late to start.

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толик зачет, оч понравилось . Коля белогорский.

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