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.
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?
–Michael Idov, Lessons From Putin’s Russia for Living in Trump’s America