Russia Protest

A woman holds a poster reading: “It’s we who choose here!” during a protest in Moscow Aug. 10. Thousands turned out to protest the exclusion of opposition and independent candidates from the ballot for Moscow’s city council.

By Samuel McKnight

McKnight is a senior International Relations major at Roanoke College. He is originally from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Russia is not a monolith. It never has been, and it never will be. I’ve spent six of the past twelve months in Russia, and I submit that in the wake of the recent protests in Moscow, America needs to seriously reexamine its dialogue about Russia. We must stop taking the Russian leader as an archetype of all Russians. We must not assume that ordinary Russians — those who bear the consequences of his decisions — blindly follow him as some hero of anti-Americanism. America and Russia are at a pivotal crossroads: the first generation with no direct experience in the Cold War is coming of age to lead. America has a chance to build trust among Russia’s youth, and thereby plant seeds for future reconciliation. However, if our political dialogue continues to write them off as part and parcel to autocracy, to presuppose them as enemies, then the relationship may not improve for decades to come.

The recent protests in Moscow are the face of a different side of Russia. Three times in the past month, demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands flooded Moscow’s streets. Russia’s youth are making their political presence known to demand election reform. They seek a fair test of ideas, a legitimate check on executive power, and greater agency in political life. But police respond harshly over and again. To be sure, these inhumane tactics deserve the condemnation they have received. But blanket condemnation of these actions should not be our only response. Let us not forget that the victims of these crackdowns may be Russia’s future leaders.

America should take such events as opportunities to build its rapport with Russia’s youth. We must own up to our own ignorance about Russia and seek new ways to connect our culture to theirs. Validate their pursuit of substantive liberalism in government, on their terms. Nuance the American dialogue about Russia by placing the Cold War into the bygone era of history that it is. Reject analyses that place all Russians into the outdated, twentieth-century mold of Russia as a monolithic “evil empire,” and remember that they are our equals. Stop the undue vitriol and show that we are worth trusting. Give Russia’s youth a chance, a seat at the table, and remember that what has been between our countries must not always be. America has a chance here and now to build a relationship with Russia for the future. Let’s not mess it up.

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