“The situation is dangerous, unpredictable, and usual,” my friend Olga said.
She was describing the Russian government’s new restrictions against, well, against anything substantive with a foreign flavor. Recently it’s been a prohibition of Americans adopting Russian orphans. Less publicized is that now any Russian nonprofit that accepts foreign funds can be closed without reason.
Threatened now could be a Russian project, funded by Quakers around the world, helping to create in one city a model for a foster care system in Russia. Most under-age wards of the state are now usually sent to orphanages in Russia. Simply because these foster care pioneers receive donations mainly from the U.S. and Great Britain, their project could be closed down without notice, for any reason or no reason at all.
This unpredictability has been part of Russian life for at least a century. During collectivization (Stalin’s centralization of Russian agriculture), peasants were exiled to Siberia for having a couple more cows than their neighbors. I once admired a family photo of an stoic looking woman, lines of hard work and age deeply etched on her face. My friend told me it was a picture of her grandmother, who lost all her property and was sent to Siberia with her husband and eight children. The crime? They had worked hard and been able to buy and tend two cows.
“Don’t worry about me, Judy,” a young adult friend of mine said to me recently. “The best people in Russia always go to prison. It’s a Russian tradition!” Sergei – not his real name – is active in opposition politics, and knows well that the current authorities could use against him the same tools as the czars and the Communists used: exile, prison camps, etc, all applied arbitrarily, without an independent court system.
What’s new in my friend’s tone is not the laughter or the ability to see humor everywhere, however darkly. It’s his determination. It’s the steely sense that he is prepared for whatever sacrifice is necessary to non-violently advance Russia toward real democracy, toward less corruption, toward a rule of law. “It’s my duty,” he says.
Sergei is unusual, but one trait is characteristic of his generation – a freer mind. Russians born before 1980 or so often have a sense of resignation that tends to astonish and infuriate western visitors, and not just “can-do” Americans.
“It’s the government. What to do?” another friend who’s just turned forty shrugs. It is not simply in the sphere of politics that many, although far from all, older Russians face with resignation. This sense of “however it may fail, I can do nothing about it and I may as well enjoy the sunset” probably served them well in the Soviet years. But for these same people, these days of competition for jobs can be bewildering. People now in their thirties were on the cusp of adulthood when everything seemed to dissolved around them – country, economic system, superpower status.
This resignation, however, now makes it more dangerous for the activists who can see a freer future for Russia. People like my friend Sergei are the nails sticking up, easily seen, vulnerable to being ripped up, bent and thrown away.
I am a foreigner, so I can do little to protect him. Adding my voice to the opposition movement would be counter-productive. I would only be giving a face and a name to the ‘foreign provocateurs” the authorities say are behind every protest sign, undermining Russian society.
I have realized I can do one thing – to help Sergei develop a spiritual life which will help him endure whatever may come. Prison, exile – or even routine, arbitrary harassment – can turn anyone bitter and paralyzed for life. Or the same experience can be used to see a deeper meaning, to develop a deeper compassion.I will do all I can to help him deepen his experience of the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus, who will help Sergei live fully, no matter what comes.
Contributed by Judy Maurer, Reedwood Friends