Lessons From Putin’s Russia for Living in Trump’s America

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On one of my first reporting trips to Vladmir Putin’s Russia — of which there’d be so many that they’d blend into residence — my friend Alex and I got stuck in Moscow traffic a few cars ahead of an EMT van. The siren wailed, the lights whirled, but no one would budge: The ambulance crawled along at the same pace as the rest of us. When I noted this, Alex scoffed. Everyone knows that ambulance drivers make money on the side selling VIP airport rides, he said. Who knows who’s in that van right now? Fuck ’em.

What struck me most, at that moment, was how little difference it made whether his allegation was true, an urban legend, or something that had occurred only once or twice. All you needed for it to matter was for it to be plausible. The moment you lived in a society where someone could conceive of an EMT van used as an Über-Uber, you lived in a society where ambulances no longer received the right of way.

One tends to imagine life in an autocratic regime as dominated by fear and oppression: armed men in the street, total surveillance, chanted slogans, and whispered secrets. It is probably a version of that picture that has been flitting lately through the nightmares of American liberals fretting about the damage a potential autocrat might do to an open society. But residents of a hybrid regime such as Russia’s — that is, an autocratic one that retains the façade of a democracy — know the Orwellian notion is needlessly romantic. Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge. This cynicism, coupled with endless conspiracy theories about everything, was at its core defensive (it’s hard to be disappointed if you expect the worst). But it amounted to defeatism. And, interestingly, the higher up the food chain you moved, the more you encountered it. Now that Russia has begun to export this Weltanschauung around the world, in the form of nationalist populism embodied here by Donald Trump, I am increasingly tempted to look at my years there for pointers on what to expect in America.

Having been born in the then-USSR but having spent most of my life in New York, I moved to Moscow in 2011, ostensibly to edit the local edition of GQ but also to be closer to the fascinating protests that had engulfed the capital in the wake of a crooked parliamentary election. After years of political catatonia, the people hit the streets, in numbers that swelled in a head-spinning progression (7,000 on December 5; 50,000 on December 10; 100,000 on December 24). What’s more, this time the leaders of the protest did not come from the permanent political class; they were people much like me — novelists, bloggers — some of whom I personally knew. It was the year of Tahrir and Occupy; I didn’t quite expect, or even want, my friends to gallop into the Kremlin with guns blazing, but I half-expected the Kremlin to meet them halfway. That didn’t happen. When Vladimir Putin was elected for the third time, in 2012, he quickly moved to suppress the protests; since the opposition had never settled on a platform or a leader, it wasn’t hard to do. By 2013, life returned to “normal.”

On the surface, the Moscow crowd with which I ran was part of the emergent global liberal class: cosmopolitan, English-speaking, and worshipful of New York the same way their New York counterparts used to idolize Paris and now do Berlin. An outsider might imagine these free spirits living in some kind of perpetual combat with the regime, especially as the latter began to embrace Russian society’s most backward strains: clericalism, homophobia, anti-Americanism. But no such thing transpired. Instead, ingeniously, the particular structure of the regime (and its particular corruptions and enticements) allowed Moscow’s elites to build for themselves a kind of scale model of an idealized Western society atop Moscow’s rough basis — what one friend of mine had termed “Copenhagen in the middle of Karachi.” This scale model is what you see every time a Western publication goes gaga over the urbanist wonders of the renovated Gorky Park, profiles the latest batch of Russian fashion’s “It” girls, or applauds Moscow’s restaurant renaissance.

As long as I picked the right routes and stuck to them, it was possible to keep up a near-complete facsimile of my New York life. In fact, many Muscovites lived like this: ate and drank in places owned by friends (the highest praise for a Moscow restaurant being “This doesn’t feel at all like Moscow”), shared cleaners and babysitters among friends (or used cool apps developed by friends), rode the new bike lanes across the city’s few model neighborhoods, pointedly used Facebook instead of its more populist local clone VKontakte, watched American movies in the few theaters progressive enough for subtitles, and filled the rest of their time with Netflix.

It was a comfortable illusion. But it fell apart as soon as anyone needed anything from the state or encountered it in any way — especially in the form of the police, who became the practical face of the problem. A traffic stop, a lost passport, even an altercation with a konsierzhka (Russia’s doormen, traditionally elderly women endowed with the superpowers of snooping and snitching): Any of this could feel like swallowing the red pill and waking up outside the Matrix. Suddenly, you were in the world of institutionalized sadism alleviated only by bribery. When you needed to solve a problem involving the state, you used the same ruchnoe upravlenie (“manual control”) as Putin exercised over the country itself: You asked friends of friends. When the director of photography on a TV show I had written suffered a brutal street attack that put him in a coma, the assault was suddenly refiled as a minor misdemeanor 24 hours later: The attacker had evidently paid off the police. Racing against time, his film-industry friends found a personal connection to a higher-ranking officer — and, just like that, the case was re-refiled. Another friend had an apartment stolen from her through a phony sale facilitated by a crooked bank employee; the police would be useless had she not found someone to call the daughter of the bank’s CEO. Moscow, in that sense, was a very small town. But what about the Russians more than a handshake removed from generals and bank CEOs — that is, most of them?

And what about someone who dared step over the line? Even if you set aside the conspicuously unsolved assassinations of reporter Anna Politkovskaya and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, it was clear which way the system leaned. I didn’t have to go far for examples. Oleg Kashin, a leading journalist who contributed to the political blog I established at GQ, was beaten within an inch of his life in 2010; the detectives on the case began by asking his friends, “Well, did he use his head when writing [about politics]?” (Even a public promise of manual control by Dmitry Medvedev, the president at the time, didn’t help convict the ultimate culprits, believed to be working for Andrei Turchak, a regional governor whom Kashin had offended in a blog post). My friend Andrew Ryvkin, who wrote for the same blog, was also attacked — in broad daylight, by two well-known pro-Kremlin writers, for a Twitter slight; his attempt to report the case ended when the detective told him, “Come on. They’re famous guys. You must understand.” That last sentence was telling. There is a Russian word, ponyatiya, which literally means “things that are understood” — i.e., unwritten rules. Like many phenomena of modern Russian life, it comes from prison culture. And to live by the ponyatiya means not only to stay within the lines but also not to acknowledge the lines’ existence out loud: a version of the wrestling world’s kayfabe. And, just like with wrestling, this pretense takes as much effort, if not more, as the real thing.

This, perhaps, was why the Muscovites around me were furiously building as many intermediaries between themselves and the state as they could, effectively privatizing government functions but only for their own benefit. Media managers established private medical clinics; frustrated university students, disgusted with ever-worsening “official” education, organized private student circles, online lecture courses, and educational start-ups. Tidy, modern, for-profit “document centers” proliferated, offering the functions of, say, the DMV without the rudeness and corruption (though, ironically, the only way they could function was by moving this corruption up a few levels). I was beginning to understand why so many Russians who called themselves “liberal” were, in fact, anarcho-libertarians in the Western sense, distrusting the government to perform even the simplest jobs. Even the protest leader Alexei Navalny, whose quixotic campaign for the mayor of Moscow in 2013 briefly regalvanized the movement, ran on a promise to, among other things, privatize the police force. In that sense, the Russian anti-Putinists and Donald Trump have more in common than either side would care to admit (though there are many, many things Trump would privatize before the police forces that helped elect him).

Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, January 18. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik via AP

There was, however, one thing from which no creature comfort could shield you: the general breakdown of trust. Wealth may or may not trickle down, but normalized corruption certainly does. Each day of the three years I spent in Russia nibbled away at my archetypal Brooklyn do-gooder instincts. First, of course, I stopped recycling. Waste-sorting bins occasionally appear here and there in Moscow — but, naturally, no one trusts them (“It’s a PR stunt to create a green image for the Moscow government,” declared Greenpeace Russia in response to the latest campaign), and carefully sorted recyclables are generally assumed to end up in the same landfill as toxic waste. So why try? After years of unsuccessful attempts to sign freelance contracts as an American citizen (which would mean a huge tax liability for my Russian clients), I began accepting cash. I also began handing it out — to traffic cops.

That was the genius of the system. It didn’t need a giant security apparatus. It needed only you, the citizen, to be implicated just enough to have something to lose but not desperate enough that you’d be tempted to lose it. In 2011, reform-minded Russians faced this dilemma head-on, realized no one was ready to actually storm the Kremlin or even protect the opposition leader from unlawful arrest, and backed down — and were legislatively and legally beaten into submission. That process continues to this day, aided by Russia’s ever-shrinking civic life. Now people may get arrested for single-man pickets where, five years ago, 100,000-person marches were fine. The new restrictive laws — such as the “gay propaganda” one, or the notorious Article 282 that reinterprets hate speech as anything anyone can take offense at — are shoddily written and full of holes on purpose; their true message is that anyone can be found guilty at any time. This moves justice fully into the realm of ponyatiya and obliterates all need for mass repression: One or two show trials, such as the Pussy Riot ordeal and the fabricated cases against the protesters of May 6, 2012, ensured that everyone else got the message.

That message? Again, it wasn’t to operate in totalitarian fear. More like: Sit quietly, enjoy your new bike lanes, or face a carefully randomized punishment. Living in Moscow meant a constant background calculation as to how much this or that transgression against the ponyatiya would cost you, whether it would be worth it or not. Probably not jail. Just your career. Your name on a “stop list.” Maybe. No one has seen these lists. But how much would you be willing to bet that they don’t exist?

The accommodations I made were often quite small. The first time I was asked for an interview by Russia Today, the Kremlin’s notorious English-language propaganda channel, I debated whether to go. Swept up in the excitement of the rallies, I justified going by pinning the white protest ribbon to my chest. The cameraman simply framed me from the shoulders up. After the Russian legislators rubber-stamped the vile law against “gay propaganda,” the magazine’s in-house lawyer suggested we delete the words love and family from a review of the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra (the logic: Gay people can have sex all they want, but calling it love “creates false equivalence between traditional and nontraditional lifestyles”). I threw a fit, threatened to quit, and we published the review. Somehow, the system weathered the blow. These meaningless little gestures belied an overall acquiescence. All they did was make me feel temporarily better about myself.

Activism offered less and less of that kind of comfort. After the protests failed, the Russian liberals turned their resentment on themselves, with all solidarity vanishing down the rabbit hole of intramural recriminations. Charges flew, of collaborationism and selling out; almost no one was willing to face the idea that these terms simply didn’t apply to a system where even the opposition newspapers, TV channels, and radio stations were on an indirect hook (the independent TV Rain lost nearly all its advertisers at a snap of Kremlin fingers). Some cocooned themselves in the state of so-called internal emigration, a natural M.O. for the Russian intelligentsia since czarist times. Some packed up and left for real. Yet others developed their own version of ponyatiya, circling the wagons in a mirror image of how the Kremlin operated. When a teacher at one of Moscow’s few progressive schools, where the liberal elite sent their children, was revealed to have conducted affairs with students, many parents heaped outrage not on him but on the whistle-blower: Don’t you understand that you’re giving “them” ammunition to demonize us even more? And, of course, every time the opposition attacked itself, corruption won. Every time an exhausted artist or scientist asked for asylum abroad, corruption won. Every time a young person declared all politics equally dirty and all governments corrupt, corruption won. The regime could just sit back and keep winning, in a self-propelling loop of triumph — because everyone else had lost this battle long ago, perhaps when they forked over their first 1,000 rubles at a traffic stop.

These days, I am writing for Russian movies but doing it from Berlin, where glass is recycled according to color. With Germany being the last global bastion of liberal democracy (now, there’s a sentence I never imagined I’d write), the ethical compromises I’m involved with are much more familiar ones — the ones I’d internalized long before I moved to Russia. The truth is, there is absolutely nothing unique about my Russian experience. To live a privileged life in the West also means to engage in daily hypocrisy and selective blindness, no matter who’s in charge. It means not thinking too hard about the kind of regimes our elected representatives prop up, the kinds of deals they strike, and the kind of strikes they deal. We know, though we often pretend not to, that things like democracy, liberty, and corruption exist on a continuum: Russia’s direct presidential elections are by definition more democratic than our Electoral College, for instance, but bribery in America is still, in most cases, a risky proposition. Yet corruption gradually shades into a culture of lobbyists and expediters and so on.

Trust, on the other hand, is trust. It’s either there or it isn’t. Regardless of how strict or liberal a society’s rule book is, the people either agree to Tinkerbell it into existence or they do not. A wailing ambulance contains either someone who needs help or someone taking you for a sucker. Post-Soviet Russia is a spectacular modern case of what happens when that basic trust between the individual and the institution, any institution, breaks down. And it may now — we shall see — provide some useful lessons for the brave new world the U.S. has just entered.

*This article appears in the January 23, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Lessons From Putin’s Russia for Living in Trump’s America