Moscow’s lesson: Don’t be a cynic.

A miniature of St. Basil’s Cathedral in an abandoned corner of Izmailovo Market, Moscow. 

Before going to Moscow, I had a wonderfully naïve, holier-than-thou attitude towards Russia. Russia was a corrupt and backwards country, and I—the diligent young journalist—was going to uncover all its problems from a lofty bed and breakfast. In case my flippant self-deprecation didn’t give it away already: I had the wrong attitude.

I spent six weeks studying Russian culture and politics through the PIIRS Moscow Global Seminar program, hoping that it would help inform a career in journalism. I learned a lot: Russians love the circus; when it comes to the International Space Station, the U.S. and Russia are on relatively good terms; and Moscow mules taste no different in Moscow than they do in the U.S.

Most importantly, however, I learned that Russia is a democracy on paper, that laws alone don’t guarantee freedoms and that Russia’s problems aren’t exclusive to Russia.

During one of the first classes, Peyton Cunningham ‘20 brought out a stack of nearly 50 sheets for a five-page reading.

“Yup” said Peyton, reading my confused face, “the printer divided up the pages.”

Sure enough, the pages were all nearly blank with a small piece of the text pasted in the middle. The hotel, it turned out, had charged by the page and had taken the time to divide the reading neatly across 10 times more pages than necessary.

We were all swindled once or twice over the six weeks, but we kept a good sense of humor about it. Were Muscovites taking advantage of us because we were foreigners? Probably. Nevertheless, we got the impression that trust is not the cornerstone of Russian society.

As we soon discovered, a Muscovite never asks the police for directions. Always have a friend take a picture of your taxi driver’s license plate. Drivers don’t pull over for an ambulance. The reasoning? The ambulance driver is simply late for work.

“People here in Russia don’t follow the law, and then they complain there is no law,” a guest lecturer explained to us with a smile.

Moscow helped me understand how much people—not police—help enforce the laws. Without public trust, Moscow suffers. Either as a cause or effect, this lack of trust feeds into Russian political cynicism.

Sometimes it was faster to walk the half hour to class than to take a bus or a taxi. Taxi drivers grumble under their breath about the traffic, caused by construction work. Moscow’s prolific—and seemingly arbitrary—construction raises suspicions that the city’s infrastructure projects offer an opportunity for officials to skim budgets. Citizens’ complaints, however, often begin and end as mumbles behind the wheel.

Either disillusioned or intimidated, few Russians seem to feel like they can change anything; and some don’t even want change. Dissent is frightening to the average Russian. The fall of the Soviet Union destabilized Russia; death rates spiked in the 90s; and many Russians simply want to live out their lives in peace. Putin, despite his dubious record, has stellar approval ratings. When asked why they approve of the authoritarian leader, most Russians parrot the same thing: He provides stability.

Yes, there are legal obstacles, but cynicism has made political change in Russia especially difficult. Unfortunately, a similar attitude faces the Russian press.

“Thank God that Russia doesn’t have any censorship,” one Russian official told us. I can attest to the fact that dropping your jaw is a reflex. In hindsight, the statement is true. On paper, there is no formal censorship in Russia. Instead, intimidation inspires self-censorship.

The Global Seminar introduced us to both Russian and Western journalists whose dedication to the truth was inspiring, especially when one considers how often journalists are attacked. When we were in Moscow, someone had thrown foul-smelling chemicals into the house of Yulia Latynina, a prominent journalist and critic of the Kremlin. In September, she fled Russia; her car was set on fire.

Russia’s constitution guarantees the freedom of press.

If Russia and the Global Seminar program taught me anything, it is that laws aren’t enough. Securing freedom requires constant work, participation and a genuine hope for the future. Russia is flawed of course, but over my six weeks in Moscow, I began to care deeply about its people and culture. I appreciated their love for opera. I went skiing for the first time. I met some incredible people—who didn’t laugh too hard when I fell skiing.

Naturally, these experiences make me more disappointed to see Russians content with a broken government and society; and coming back home, I’ve come to recognize the responsibilities that I have to my own country. In Moscow—not Princeton—the words “in the nation’s service, and the service of all humanity” took on a deeper, personal, and more immediate meaning.