Today is going to be a hard day. Everyone I know is going to be voting and watching the exit polls and sweating the dips and wobbles of the numbers and staying up late and arguing with the television and maybe lashing out at those dear to them because they are all nerves after taking part in (yet another) election of a lifetime and worrying that it didn’t go their way and that life for the next four years may become just that much more unbearable politically and, scanning one’s cocktail-party knowledge of Roman history, may begin worrying that this day likely heralds the end of the great American experiment. And, for the first time in my life, I won’t be doing all those things. Instead, I will spend the day explaining to my colleagues and friends why I didn’t vote, as I did to my outraged and disappointed parents last night. So instead of voting and instead of hitting the “play” button on my forehead every time I deflatedly tell someone I didn’t vote, I decided to write up my explanation and make my new employers publish it.
Dear friends and family, please do not be ashamed of me and please try to understand. I am not voting today not because I am a bad citizen and not because I am the old editor of the Washington Post, but because I just spent three years living in Russia and covering its politics, and it’s given me a strange and probably cloyingly naïve perspective on life back home. I’ve written about how it shaped my experience of hurricane Sandy, and now I’ll tell you about why it’s convinced me not to vote.
On December 4, 2011, I reported about how Russians went to the polls to vote in a new parliament. Given the pains that the Kremlin goes through to engineer the outcome, this is usually a boring and useless day, but two months prior, Vladimir Putin had shocked the world by announcing that he would be coming back for a third presidential term. The relative thaw of the four years of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency were now obviously a cruel joke. People—especially the educated, the affluent, and the urban—were angry, but when they saw the absurd levels of electoral fraud that went into electing a loyalist parliament that December day, they took to the streets for the first time in decades.
These people had lived through the age of Putin in what is called “internal emigration.” Seeing the corruption and lawlessness around them, they took solace in their rapidly improving lifestyles. They bought cars and swarmed the warm spots of the world; they became Apple groupies. They stopped participating in politics and became consumers par excellence. They did not vote, they did not protest. The only thing they expected of their government was to leave them alone. Their silence, bought with petrodollars, was a crucial half of the Russian social contract. It allowed Putin to rule how he wanted, but to do so without resistance. But Putin’s announcement after Medvedev’s talk of modernization suddenly changed things: they had been taken for fools, and they were pissed. Tens and tens of thousands of these middle class Russians, minted in Putin’s first decade in power, came out in peaceful protest against him in December.
It’s hard to explain the euphoria of those December days. The Western press scrambled to put a label on it—Russia’s Tahrir Square, the Russian Spring, a Snow Revolution—but all it was was a class of hyper-educated people finally waking up and demanding respect. They did it with wit and sentimentality, they used the big, weighty words—freedom, democracy—that the neocons have ruined for us, and they meant it. It was exhilarating; it was deeply, and profoundly moving.
It was especially so for Russian journalists, who were the vanguard of this new and amorphous movement. Long the only civically minded and conscious people in the country, this renaissance was their moment. And very quickly, things got far into the gray. Russian journalists helped organize the protests and gave speeches at them. One prominent journalist introduced opposition leader Alexey Navalny at a December rally as “our leader.” The anchors on RainTV, an independent television channel, came out to read the news wearing white ribbons, the symbol of the new movement. By May, Rain was the unofficial and unabashed station of the anti-Kremlin protests.
That month, the protests picked back up as Putin was sworn in. They took the form of roving flash mob-style “walks” through the city: no signs, no chants, we’re just here. The police arrested participants anyway. Many of my friends in Moscow were Russian journalists and they rushed into the squares—not to cover the events, but to participate. They left their press cards at home, saying that today they were there as citizens. But when they were arrested, a few of them taped a promo for their show (on Rain) from inside the paddy wagon. I picked a fight on Facebook, where all such debates take place: how could journalists protest one day as private citizens, and show up to the next one as a journalist with a press card? The point that many of my Russian colleagues made was that this was the one form of civic activism that had been left to them, and that the fate of the country hung in the balance. If they didn’t fight in this fight—fight clean, or fight dirty—their country would lose. My argument that they would do their country a greater service by reporting objectively than by being one more person in a hundred-thousand-person crowd fell on deaf ears.
This has happened before. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president was facing a tough reelection campaign. His approval rating was in the single digits and, in the chaos that the instantaneous introduction of a free market had wrought, a Communist stood to win the presidency just five years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Liberal Russian journalists could not stomach this possibility and they decided that, with the fate of the country hanging in the balance, they could not sit idly by. They fought for Yeltsin, and they fought dirty. A profession that had only existed for five years died with that decision. When Putin came to power in 2000, it was easy enough to nationalize television: It had been a partisan tool, so why not make it his own? So by the time RainTV came along to act as a counterbalance to Putin’s television, its niche was clear, too, especially when the anti-Kremlin protests broke out. Today’s media landscape in Russia makes American political polarization look like a grad-school colloquium: in Russia, there are only two poles—only Fox and MSNBC—and nothing in between. Most journalists are warriors and cheerleaders in one of the two camps.
After that fight on Facebook, I made peace with the journalists who taped the promo from the paddywagon on one condition: that I, the spoiled émigré with an American passport to protect me from Putin’s excesses, would not vote at home if I cover American politics. I had to agree to live by my own logic. A month later, The New Republic offered me a job in Washington, covering American politics. I was shit out of civic luck. Moreover, I was at risk of being lumped in with the handful of U.S. journalists who had ostentatiously declared, in the name of high-church bias-aversion, that they wouldn’t even deign to have opinions.
When Len Downie was leaving the Post, he was asked if he would register to vote now that he was a private citizen. “I didn’t just stop voting,” he said. “I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage. It may be hard to change.” Like I said, I am not Len Downie. I do not have his stature and impact, and I am not an objectivity machine. For all their weaknesses, I sympathized with the Russian protest movement. Similarly, for all their weaknesses, I have always sympathized with the Democrats. I voted for Gore in 2000, for Kerry in 2004, for Obama in 2008, though I did so grudgingly: I was a hardcore Hillary supporter in the primaries. But I was not writing about American politics back then. I was a college student, I was working in academia and on the editorial side of things, I was writing about Russia. That’s about to change, and I can tell you from personal experience that it feels fundamentally different to sympathize and to participate. And, as personally difficult as it is, I have to remove myself from this fight. I have to make myself a foreign observer here, too.