Today at the Cat’s Pajamas English Club I met with a group of students and adults to talk about the 2016 US election. The club is pretty casual and loosely organized, but I was able to identify a leader-type-girl and I wrote to her a few days ago to request the topic. Unfortunately, through the course of our conversation tonight, one of the guys revealed that this organizer-girl had misinterpreted or else exaggerated my intention. She advertised the meeting in an inflammatory way: “Sasha, an American, wants to get together to tell us all why Trump and his policies are insane!”
I felt surprised and also a little betrayed to hear this. I can take it with a sense of humor and I realize that the girl didn’t mean any ill will toward me, but frankly, the words she put in my mouth go against the philosophy guiding my year in Russia: I’m here to listen, learn, and offer my perspectives to those who want to hear it. Not to proselytize, and certainly not to label people and ideas I don’t like as “insane!”
Thankfully, the people who came to the club didn’t bring any aggression or ill will with them, and they also didn’t seem to be expecting a show. We had a thoughtful and fun conversation, led in part by my stellar colleague Katie who’s also here on a Fulbright ETA fellowship. In short, I’m SO glad that we did it! We were able to explain the electoral college to the group (which is no small feat considering how hard it is to understand even for ourselves :D) and, I hope, to show them some perspectives on the election that they simply didn’t get from the mainstream Russian and US media. As for me, after listening to their thoughts, I feel that I better understand their political attitudes toward both of our countries. Now I’m here to share that perception with you! In general, I can break down my impressions into observations on attitudes, knowledge, and reactions.
Let’s start with attitudes, in terms of how Russians treat serious issues. (Spoiler: It’s with a sense of humor.) Going back to the organizer-girl, I can give an example of Russian irreverence toward our politics. She was the first person with whom I interacted once the results were known. When I woke up late on Wednesday morning and saw that Trump was certain to become my next president, I was devastated. I was literally shocked: it took hours for me to feel anything and two days for me to start to fully grieve. Please don’t be turned off by my strong words; I say “grieve” with care and intention, for when I saw on Facebook how my LGBT, black and brown, and female friends reacted to the news with horror and pain, I felt more hurt and betrayed by my country’s people than I had ever felt before. I am a critic of my country, but I love our people and the freedoms we stand for, so for me to see that so many Americans had voted for Trump in spite of how he marginalizes all those groups and more — it devastated me, and I grieved.
Then, when that girl texted me, she said: “Hi! Are you going to move to Canada because of Trump? :D”
Now, put yourself in my shoes: A man who I believe is toxic has been democratically elected as my country’s leader. I’m in Russia, far away from my friends and family and also in a country where hardly anyone shares my views toward my country’s issues of equality (racial, gender, marriage and otherwise). All I want to do is go home and grieve with my like-minded peers and then act to defend us all from the impending damage. Failing that, I would at least be happy to be able to vent to some Ulyanovsk friends about it — but I don’t have Russian friends here, so that option is just as far-fetched. And in this moment when I’m quite vulnerable, a girl that I hardly know is joking with me about abandoning my country to run to Canada. (And the grinning face with which she punctuated that comment was the icing on the bitter cake! :P) This stranger was completely unaware of how upset I was by the results and was in fact joking with me about them! So, how would you respond?
I think I handled the situation not badly. I told her in very short terms that I want to go home and fight for what I believe is right, and I did mention that her joke struck me as insensitive. I suggested that she refrain from joking about it with Americans if she wasn’t sure of their political views. Reading over my messages again, I don’t think I was rude, although at the actual club meeting I learned that this exchange had also been shared with the other Russians. (I wish she hadn’t done that either. Sigh.) This made me uncomfortable, as if I my emotional reaction had made a negative impression and even a reputation in their eyes. But I won’t dwell on it. TL;DR: Either way, I’m used to my emotional reactions being questioned by Russians who tend to be more apathetic and mocking about the issues I care about the most. (I’ve even become ever so slightly better at monitoring my emotions thanks to the scolding and advice of a close Volgograd friend.)
To wrap up my bit on Russians’ sense of humor and apathy toward politics, here are some of my mental notes from all my experience with Russian people and culture:
- Many of my students as well as these English club participants were surprised that I didn’t know who the next US president would be, and indeed many polls were mistaken when they projected that Hillary would win. Several Russians have told me that here, they know which candidates will win their elections and that elections don’t bring change. Their apathy and their humor comes from the perceived futility of their elections.
- Here’s what The Guardian reported about the Duma (legislative) elections that just took place in September: “Turnout in the election was just 47%, the lowest in the history of modern Russia. In major cities, the turnout was even lower, with just 28% of eligible voters making it to the polls in Moscow.” Every one of the dozens of Russians I’ve asked about voting has answered me with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Of course we have similar sentiments in the US, where we’re no strangers to general distrust of politicians, but the attitude in Russia is marked by less hope.
- With less hope comes a lower likelihood of demonstrations. It seems to me that in Russia, activism is more likely to land you in danger or in jail. I’m going to pass on searching for statistics at the moment, but at the very least I can say that my observations and conversations support this.
- If you’re curious about what Russians say when they joke about politics, the comments range from innocuous and offhand to vulgar and riotously passionate. From a coy smile when they say “we know who will win” to a mat-flavored description of how the system f**ks us all. 🙂
Moving on to the knowledge that Russians have about the US in general, I am certain that most US Americans would be surprised by how much they understand about us and just how well they speak our language. I’m not arguing that Russians are smarter; I know for a fact that there are higher qualities and quantities of English-learning resources and opportunities available than there are for learners of Russian. I also think that Russians prioritize learning about us more than we do about them, and even Russians who don’t try to learn about the US nonetheless pick up on some things through consuming our media. Just as examples, they might find politics in rap music and pop culture references in TV shows. Take it from my experience that finding good, interesting, and enjoyable (and therefore encouraging) means to study Russian and Russian culture is quite a bit more difficult.
I don’t think I have to linger on this subject. Many Russians know our geography, literature, history, and key people from past and present, and thanks to that, conversations like the one we had today are easier to sustain. Good on you, Russians. I wish my countrymen could know as much about you!
And last, I want to describe some reactions to things that Katie and I said. I’m SO grateful that no one was condescending or inflammatory at this meeting, and that means that there are no explosive reactions to tell about. Instead, there was interest, some confusion, and a hint of awkwardness inspired by yours truly.
- Katie and I called a vote to see who they would have chosen in the election. (They laughed when I suggested we do it anonymously. “This is Russia! No one cares!”) Only one or two of them voted for Clinton, another one or two chose Jill Stein on the sole basis that she is the most communist (and I should note that these people voted with a hint of irony), and the other dozen or so people chose Trump. Mostly, they made this decision because they knew that Clinton spoke harshly of Russia and Trump did not.
- I’m very open with people, even here, about my opposition to Trump, so I’m often asked by Russians how I could oppose him when he’s the only candidate that might work with Russia. I’m glad that they’re concerned about it, and I answer that I simply don’t believe that Trump will improve our countries’ relationship (although I suppose one can hope). Sometimes I also add that although I am concerned about US-Russia relations, I’m more worried about the damage Trump can do domestically.
- Russians are often surprised to hear that the US is a flawed country, or perhaps they’re just surprised to hear me admit it. The costs of health care and education were important topics in this election, and Russians are intrigued to hear that these two costs are our two leading causes of debt. In Russia, the number one cause of debt is purchasing an apartment or home; health care and education are largely paid for by taxes, which of course are higher here than in the US.
I took a minute to speak from my heart about the people marginalized by Trump’s rhetoric and to ask the group about their thoughts on it all. The struggles of women, people of color, Muslims, disabled people, the LGBT community, and other less commonly named groups are risky to mention in Russia and are not often met with the kind of compassion or even tolerance I hope to find. I explained, in as few words as I could, that many people are not only deeply hurt by the election results, but also frightened by them for reasons both tangible and symbolic. Some of my best friends, my most esteemed peers, and my favorite teachers face the possibility of losing the legal status of their marriages, religions, and their very existence in the US (if they’re at risk of being deported — and for the record, it’s not only Latinx people facing this threat.) Perhaps a deeper fear is for their very safety, as Trump’s multifaceted bigotry is now justified and normalized by his presidency. Hate crimes are up. The KKK is stoked with their new president (The Guardian, BBC). Trump’s VP, Mike Pence, believes conversion therapy can traumatize children into heteronormativity (Politifact). And the only actions that those opposed to this hate can take, for now, is to regroup, wear a safety pin on their lapel as a sign of solidarity, and try to push forward. Going back to my bullet points on reactions, I ask: How did the group react to all this when I brought it up?
Unfortunately, they hardly reacted at all. One man pointed out that many women voted for Clinton. I cited the normalization of sexism (“boys will be boys”) and no one followed up from there. Black Lives Matter didn’t come up. Considering the status of LGBT rights in Russia, the risks to marriage equality were stripped of compassion and reduced to Katie’s quick note that marriage equality is a good example of how laws are often adopted by states before being applied to the country as a whole. A little later in the conversation I tried to bring up the discussion of social and emotional impacts once more, but no one took the bait and the conversation again turned to things they considered more interesting. I wanted to at least try to talk about these things, and even though it didn’t work out, I’m not bitter, and since I wasn’t expecting it to work out anyway, I’m not surprised.
In total, we spent two and a half hours discussing education, infrastructure, attitudes toward politics, legislature, health care, our two-party system and many other great topics from both countries’ perspectives. I can’t express enough pleasure with how civil and engaged they were. And if you can’t already tell by how much time and thought I’ve put into this short essay of a blog post, I am inspired and intrigued by this fruitful opportunity for intercultural discussion. Katie and I brought our very best and we were welcomed. This is what a Fulbright fellowship is all about!