Column 3 Opinion

Opinion: Muscovites Play While Political Freedom Disappears

“Our fatal troika dashes on in her headlong flight, perhaps to destruction, and in all Russia for long past men have stretched out imploring hands and called a halt to its furious reckless course.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

If you’ve never been to Moscow — go. It is one of my top three favorite cities in the world.

In addition to the fantastic population, filled with a youthful energy and a zest for life and anything bling, the Russian capital in the last decade has seen a miraculous transformation. Moscow is truly an adult playground, filled with chic restaurants, theaters, parks, clubs and entertainment. The main problem for the local residents is what concert, art show or other type of entertainment to partake of over the weekend.

There is an aristocratic feel to the city. The subway is as absolutely over-the-top functional and beautiful as ever, with new lines and stations seemingly added every week. There is Wi-Fi everywhere on the trains — and it works. The trains are spotless and the underground infrastructure strikingly artistic, something Washingtonians might envy.

The city’s parks, like the famous central Park Gorkova, have been transformed into cruise ship-like attractions, with dazzling offerings of theater, gardens, outdoor lounges, cafes, lagoons and skate parks. It really is an amazing thing to see. One could spend an entire weekend day at Gorky Park, and many Muscovites do.

There seems to have been a conscious effort by the municipal government to transform Moscow into a “shining city on the steppe” in order to take the public’s mind off of other problems, a trade-off along the lines of: “We’ll give you a nice city to live in, if you give up your political freedom.”

And this political freedom is going away fast. Russia’s new anti-terrorism law gives the state all kinds of new powers to fight “extremism.” In other words, if government officials deem your viewpoint extreme, they can now legally put you away in a Siberian penal colony.

The Kremlin has also announced after Sunday’s State Duma elections, which saw President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia cement an overwhelming majority, that the state security services would be elevated to a position in government on a par with the old KGB.

The political opposition in Moscow has been marginalized by the Kremlin, not only prevented from organizing and protesting, but also painted as unpatriotic, which can be the death of any movement in Russia. Opposition media outlets have been systematically dismantled.

All of this has taken place in full view of the public, with scarcely a whimper of protest. Muscovites are much more worried about putting food on the table, paying for medicine, finding a hospital to treat their loved ones, or repairing their automobiles. These are the unavoidable, daily demands of existence that take precedence over demonstrating in the streets — or even voting.

Ordinary Russians just don’t see that political activism will make much of a difference. And that is just the way the Kremlin wants it.

So far the deal is working. The mayor of Moscow continues to put lipstick on the economic hardship his constituents are facing. Muscovites are buying it and enjoying the respite from the weekday grind, they revel in the house music thundering from the stage as the laser shows delight. They play in the cafes and tony restaurants cut out of the Stalinist buildings of the center city.

However, with oil prices continuing to stagnate, winter may be coming to the capital in more ways than one. The Kremlin hopes that events in Syria and the EU may cause the current punishing sanctions, levied after the Crimea annexation, to go the way of President Obama’s red lines. Russian leaders hope that the end of sanctions and an eventual recovery of the crude markets will save Russia’s economy, and the distracted public will stay distracted. They may be right.

But even if the economy recovers, political freedom in Moscow will still be a thing of the past.

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