MOSCOW (JTA) – My former college classmate, Igor, wears expensive designer watches, zips through Moscow traffic jams in his new white Mercedes-Benz and estimates his personal wealth to have increased several times in the past few years.
Igor is a top manager at a small yet well-positioned Moscow financial services firm.
Like most of his fellow countrymen, Igor likes Vladimir Putin. Igor believes his well-being benefited tremendously from the nearly eight years of Putin’s rule – or from the record-breaking oil prices that coincided happily with Putin’s presidency.
Indeed Igor, whose mother is Jewish and who wears a cross as “a symbol of faith” – not of any particular religion, as he puts it – has all reasons to be pleased with the years of Putin’s rule.
On Sunday that rule came to an end with the presidential vote in Russia. Putin’s second term in office expires this spring, and the Russian constitution allows a maximum of two consecutive terms as president.
So for whom did Igor vote to replace Putin?
Actually, Igor didn’t make it to the polls Sunday.
It’s not that he didn’t approve of Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev – he did. Yet Igor found it pointless to spend any of his precious weekend time on voting.
Medvedev easily won the support he needed, receiving two-thirds of the vote.
“You see,” Igor said, smirking, “they have chosen the right guy, even without me.”
He has a point.
During the years of Putin’s rule, most Russians, including many of the more educated and better off financially, gradually became immune to the idea of democracy. Russians who first were deprived of the right to any television other than state-owned, then to elect local governors and now to choose their nation’s president have become desensitized to the idea that ordinary Russians – not only some Kremlin or business-interest groups – also should have a say in choosing and shaping their country’s future.
Last month, a Moscow tabloid held a children’s art contest called “Draw a Future President.” Not surprisingly, nearly every entry featured Medvedev’s likeness. In many of the drawings Medvedev was depicted side by side with ordinary Russians: visiting with a newborn at a maternity ward, launching a new pipeline that would bring gas to a remote village or helping a young couple with a baby to move into their new home.
While the drawings to a degree mirrored the naivete of the young artists, in a way they reflected what these children picked up from the grownups at home, at school or on television: That there is someone “up there” who is always right and can help us when we need it, and he certainly knows what president is the best for Russia.
This despite the fact that Medvedev hasn’t said much on any of the major issues facing Russia, nor did he bother to campaign and, similar to his patron four years earlier, refused to debate with his rivals. Instead, he rightly relied on generous television coverage from the state-run television channels.
Without a doubt Russians, including their minorities, live a far better life today than at any period in the last century. But this assessment carries a few simple conditions: Like my ex-roommate, one has to stomach the idea of Russia as a self-styled “managed democracy”; must reconcile with the situation that someone who remains unaccountable to the public decides the country’s fate for the next four, eight or 12 years; and should not feel any disgust when turning on the television to see a rosy picture – as if it were painted by a child artist.
With Sunday’s vote, Russians again have entrusted their future to those whose true intentions, motives, political views and plans at best are unknown to them.
In the absence of any political opposition to speak of, those Russians who disagree will give their new leader the benefit of the doubt. Yet the future raises even more questions if Medvedev indeed will co-run Russia alongside his new prime minister, Putin – a scheme apparently created to perpetuate the soon-to-be ex-president’s power position.
Speaking about the future, Igor is certain his wealth can secure his two teenaged children an easier entry in life. They both attend a boarding school in a Western European country and are preparing themselves for years of college abroad.
Why doesn’t Igor want them to stay and study in a Russia that has been so generous to him lately?
“What have they lost here?” he responds with a question.
I couldn’t argue with him.
Igor, who without a doubt has a better understanding of the Russian political mechanism and enjoys almost limitless possibilities in life compared to most of his fellow Russians, seems to know where the future is. Or where it is not.
(Lev Krichevksy is a former JTA Moscow bureau chief. He now lives in New York.)