C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Freedom finds a foothold in Russia

Russia is a significantly changed country. And though the degree of that change falls short of what many Russians would prefer, the fact of it is indisputable.

There could be no clearer evidence than the recent demonstrations by citizens challenging the results of the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

There is widespread conviction, on the part not only of Russians but also international observers, that only undue Kremlin meddling – less delicately called “rigging” – enabled Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia Party to maintain a slim majority.

Astonishingly, the Moscow city government had issued a permit for an outdoor public assembly of 30,000 people. The actual size of the gathering was reported by The Associated Press to be nearer 50,000.

The protest was peaceful, and though some demonstrators were arrested, the police reaction was said to be generally restrained.

Such a show of public opposition is utterly unprecedented in the 20 years of the post-Soviet Russian Republic. The last time Muscovites took to the street to assert their will was Aug. 29-30, 1991, and the turnout on those dangerous days was not tens but hundreds of thousands.

The issue then was the attempted coup by a cabal of Communist hard-liners, whose purpose was to roll back the reforms of the Gorbachev era and reconstitute the old Stalinist-style dictatorship.

I was in Moscow with my family during that historic event, and I spent part of a night in the immense multitude at the barricades erected to defend the parliament building and Boris Yeltsin against the usurpers.

Armed only with their courage and determination, the Russian people defeated the conspiracy and made possible a different future for their country and the world.

Last year we were in Moscow again, wanting to see how the lives of the people had been impacted by the end of the Communist era. The difference can only be described as dramatic.

Where before they’d been hesitant even to be seen spending time with foreign visitors, out of concern about who might be watching, Russians today are wonderfully warm and welcoming.

They have no hesitancy at all about voicing their complaints and criticizing the system.

The lead article in a magazine that greeted us in our hotel room – a publication written, printed and distributed in Moscow – characterized Josef Stalin as a thoroughly evil man, a murderer of millions and “an enemy of freedom anywhere in the world.”

At outdoor cafe tables, one could see people enjoying meals and wine with friends. Laughter was heard, and musicians were playing New Orleans jazz. Book stalls lined the sidewalk, and artists sketched portraits of passers-by.

Those changes might be dismissed as purely cosmetic, but there are others far more substantive.

Religious practice no longer is subject to suppression or punishment. Some religious sites destroyed by the Communists have been restored or expanded.

Entrepreneurship has dramatically flourished, and private ownership of property is routine.

The legal system still is compromised by politics. Corruption is the way to riches. Press freedom is more or less a joke.

But for ordinary people, life is sweeter, amenities are more available and the paralyzing fear of authority is almost a memory now.

Any suggestion that life for Russians has relapsed to those grim days of the Soviet era is at serious variance with the facts.

It is the change that flowed from those events of 20 years ago that made possible this month’s massive protest of an election, which, if not quite stolen, was at least seriously fudged.