The good weather has had Russian protesters camping out in Moscow. The authorities treated this as yet another fad - it’s just kids being kids, having fun, hanging out on the grass, blah blah. Various observers are darkly warning us that “ZOMG. If the protests aren’t going to be taken seriously - all hell will break loose!” I don’t know, maybe they’re right. What I do know is that as far as an opportunity to have fun goes, nobody quite takes advantage of it like the Russians.
Not just n the European part of Russia, but also in Siberia and the Far East, people know that good weather must be treasured. The late and wonderful Vassily Aksyonov famously wrote that “the sole, yet powerful charm” of Russia’s “wretched climate” is “expectation.” Once said expectation has worn everybody out, with March mostly being springtime in name alone, and April a month of accusatory bareness, with the snow gone and all of the trash it helped to cover up suddenly exposed, May comes and imposes a kind of benign dictatorship. You have to go outside. It’s suddenly a rule.
Of course, I don’t really agree with anyone who says that the Occupy protests that arrived to the Russian capital alongside the good weather are no different from the good old Russian tradition for heading into the woods and cooking sashlyk (BBQ) on a sunny day. But the carnival atmosphere, the element of fun that first emerged in the Russian protest movement during the unseasonably warm December of 2011 is certainly a kind of cultural norm.
For a very long time, a majority of Russians associated protest politics with humorlessness - and believed that protest leaders simply took themselves way too seriously. Now we’re seeing an entirely new trend emerge. Suddenly, it’s the authorities that appear to take themselves way too seriously - what with all of their pomp and circumstance, their riot police, the motorcades that sweep away mere mortals into side streets, and so on. The protesters? They just want a more laid-back country, man.
Perhaps the real difference between the opposition and the loyalists nowadays is a difference in temperament. Loyalists are more intense. “But you DON’T UNDERSTAND, Natalia,” they will say to you. “Issues of NATIONAL SECURITY are AT STAKE. If Putin leaves, the entire country will collapse into warring fiefdoms, to the Americans’ endless delight!” They’re all gloom and doom, and make fun of the opposition for using iPads - because convenient technology makes people forget that life is pain, or something.
The opposition is more like, “Yeah, whatever. Heard it all before. We still don’t have real rule of law, the power vertical sucks, and the rich are getting richer. I’ll take my chances with someone else, k?” Yet neither do they really offer practical alternatives to Putin (and seem to forget that it was Gennady Zyuganov, the communist “dinosaur,” who was second in the presidential polls).
Who does the future belong to? Probably neither. The thing is, my money is on the likes of Max Katz - businessman, municipal council member, and, more recently, organizer of a concentrated legal effort to help people detained by police during mass crackdowns on the opposition (and anyone who dared wear a white ribbon, a symbol of the protest movement, outside). Katz doesn’t call himself an oppositionist, but he’s interested in making Russian cities more liveable, the bureaucracies more manageable, and the streets actually worth hanging out in. He’s a coolly practical person, but is also just sarcastic enough to get through to people who may mistake him for an office drone who made it big. If Russia is going to go through the kind of reforms that really stick, people like Katz will be instrumental in making it happen. If only because they can keep the passions of the age at bay.
I’m all for sitting on the grass when the sun or the stars are out. I’m also for a democratic society in which people are not constantly “put in their place” by an out-of-control police force and government apparatus. I’m tired of long lines at the post office and desperately want Russian customs officials to join the 21st century (or, hey, let them join the 20th, at the very least - by my calculations, they’re still stuck in tsarist Russia). And I think that all of this is going to be achieved with a two-pronged effort.
First of all, it is indeed time to stop taking life so seriously. Life is a farce during the best of times - if anything, the twists and turns of Russian history prove as much. But second of all, it’s also time to accept that reforming Russian will involve a lot of boring, mundane work. The kind of work you do when your grass-stained skirt from the protests is at the dry cleaner’s (though hopefully not Miriam Elder’s dry cleaner’s).
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.