Odd topic isn’t it. I decided it was time to write about it because of all the stories I have read this week about oppressed Russian people and how everyone who disagrees with Putin meets a grisly end.
We’ve all seen the movies and heard the stories about the knock on the door in the middle of the night. We’ve all seen it on late night television. American media runs at least one story a month about some reporter or enemy of Putin being shot down in the street. We all know that Russians cower in silence and never speak above a whisper for fear of disappearing in the middle of the night.
Like virtually everything else you know about Russia, that’s totally wrong. One of the things I most appreciate about being in Russia is the sense of personal freedom.
Now, I’m a guy who likes Russia, so I could be lying, stupid, or just totally naive. I could be so caught up in making my wife’s country look good that I’m a tool fool, but hear me out. You might be surprised.
Ordinary Russians, people like you and me, have far more freedom of speech in Russia, in part, because there are no PC police and no PC rules. When it comes to speech, Russians are rational people who know that calling a cripple “mobility challenged” won’t get him out of that wheelchair. If you tell a Pollack joke, you won’t be sued and no one will gasp with disbelief. If there is a Pollack in the room, you could get a black eye, but no one is calling a lawyer. Same for saying women shouldn’t be firefighters because they don’t have the upper body strength to pull hoses or expressing a belief that some races are just dumber and more violent than others. You can even loudly proclaim that homosexuals are NOT the beloved of God, and even claim they disgust you without being fired, sued, or threatened. Freedom of speech reigns.
Russians are also allowed to tell the truth to people around them. My Russian friends always ask me, “Aren’t all your American friends constipated all the time? When you know you should tell the bastard to shove it up his butt, you smile and act nice. You must all suffer terrible, always holding your feelings in.” A Russian will tell you what he is really thinking. If you are man enough, or woman enough, to handle blunt truth, it’s refreshing, but if your feelings are easily hurt, better stay home.
Russians also have the advantage that no one cares what they say. The secret police died somewhere around the Khrushchev era and no one is paid to listen to you, or record what you say, or care what you say. The right to be your own brand of jackass, jerk or nerd is highly respected. The biggest danger in shooting off your mouth is if you forget that Russians are a patriotic people. Odds are that if you stand up in the local bar and start criticizing Putin, or the Russian Army or much of anything else Russian except the local politicians, you will go home carrying some of your teeth in your pocket. The secret police aren’t listening but the other guys in the bar are, and even the old drunks are tough in Russia.
So, with no PC police, an expectation of basic honesty and the Russian attitude that your opinions are your own damned business, the average Russian has a lot more freedom than we do. They may not have much say about who the next president will be, but no one is going to jail them if they refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding. We have become so used to watching every word we say that freedom of speech isn’t even a distant memory in the states, but it is alive and well in other countries.
I would like to leave the topic there, but I don’t need all the emails I’d get. We all know there have been some significant exceptions. You’ve all heard that Russia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for a reporter. They drop like flies. You know that a desire for suicide is a high recommendation for an investigative reporter in Russia. It’s also not a healthy place for whistle blowers. As in America, whistle blowers are paid off, but in Russia the payoff is likely to involve your body never being found.
Yep that’s really the way it was, but things have changed a bit.
When communism died, there was chaos. No rules, no laws, not even any gas for the police cars. It was not unusual in those days for armed men to walk into a business, put a gun to the owner’s head and make him sign over the business to them. I remember a case in the early days when armed men walked into the biggest Cadillac dealership in Moscow and announced that they owned the place.
Unfortunately for them, the owner was no fool and he had his own armed guards. A gun battle broke out and several people called the police. According to the newspapers at the time, the police response was “They’re better armed than we are. The owner is on his own.” and they refused to leave the station. It wasn’t just dangerous for reporters; the leading cause of death of businessmen was other businessmen. In those days, it was easy for a reporter to get killed for exposing a mafia business or writing an expose about an oligarch or government corruption. Over a hundred reporters died of not-to-mysterious causes.
Those Wild West days are over now. Police got better armed and developed some backbone and central authority was reestablished. People get tired of chaos and even the oligarchs and thugs who benefited from it got tired of worrying about dying every time they left the house. Russia rapidly re-civilized and joined the modern world, but some of those men are still around and they own a big chunk of Russia.
Since 2009, only seven reporters have been killed and all but two were either garden variety muggings or the normal outcome of covering wars and conflict.
The difference between the truth and what you read in the American news is that reporters or opposition figures being killed is very rare now, and Putin isn’t the one doing it. It’s not that he is such a nice man; it just wouldn’t make any sense. Putin isn’t threatened by anybody. In a bad month, his approval rating drops way down to 80%. There are very few people in Russia who want to criticize Putin and even fewer who want to listen. He doesn’t need to kill anyone.
So, who did? Those people that we just talked about, who came up through a system so violent that Al Capone would have been considered a soft hearted amateur. They have been civilized, mostly, now but sometimes old habits are hard to forget.
It isn’t totally over. Last February the Chechens assassinated Boris Nemtsov. He was a political activist and has-been who announced a press conference in which he was going to expose corruption and dirty dealings by Chechen officials. Pulling the sheets off a Klansman would have been safer. Despite the accusations and speculation in the US media, it is certain that the assassination was a Chechen plan. One of the Chechen suspects even blew himself up with a grenade to avoid capture.
One week after the assassination Putin disappeared from public view for almost two weeks. The Russian watchers that I follow believe that he was kicking butt and taking names in private. The top people involved were too powerful to accuse publicly, but they could be threatened in private. A public murder was bad enough, but killing someone within sight of the Kremlin was beyond stupid. That is not the way things are supposed to be done today. These days, troublesome reporters are sued for libel, framed for income tax evasion or fired, and opposition spokesmen like Nemtsov are framed for tax evasion or embezzlement and sent to a nice quiet jail to ponder their errors. There is less fuss, less mess and you don’t have to clean up the blood afterward.
So, if you hear about Russians being afraid to speak, it’s pure fiction. If you hear that reporters have died for crossing the wrong people, damned right they have. If you hear that it is dangerous to your life to be a reporter in Russia today, you are probably wrong, but the jury is still out.
Russian Tip of the Day:
Russians have a lot more fun than we do. Probably has something to do with vodka, but who cares. If you have a chance to go to Russia, go to YouTube, search “Russian wedding”, and see why you should never turn down an invitation to a Russian party. Then search “Russian traffic accidents” and find out why you shouldn’t drive to the party.