Russian Demonstrations and French Illusions
It is fairly easy to explain to French students the reasons for the Russian demonstrations.
All you need to do is ask questions to Russian exchange students in the lecture hall: “Can students strike at your university?”, “As Russian citizens, do you have the right to live and work in Moscow if you live in the provinces?”, “Have you ever been confronted with corruption?”, “Do teachers, doctors, and policemen accept bribes?”, “Do you believe that the elections in December and March were honest?”
The answers and expressions of these young Russians allow their French peers to understand a way of life which is very different from their own: a life that is marked, in particular, by increasing corruption and constant violations of the rights and dignity of a person, especially if the latter has neither money nor power. Therefore, the demonstrations which have been taking place in Russia since December 2011, have easily aroused the sympathy of French students, who are also charmed by the fun and the aesthetics of these protests and have difficulty understanding why such actions were not started earlier.
Indeed, the French like to think that they are relentless defenders of freedom and human rights, and that they are particularly independent. We are often thought of in the world as such, not only because the French Revolution gave birth to the declaration of a person’s and citizen’s rights, but also because our tendency to strike is almost considered a national characteristic! In reality, things are a little more complex, as has been revealed by the reaction that the Russian demonstrations have created in France.
In theory, the French and Russians who demonstrated on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue (leaving the nationalists aside) share very similar values: they are not satisfied with having enough to eat, and want to be free and responsible citizens. They want to have an influence on the way their country is ruled (if only through their one voice during elections), and they want to be protected by laws. The Russian protesters claim that they are “Russians” (rossijane) and thus East-Europeans and that they want to live “normally” in their country; opened up to the world, without violence, cheating, or abuse of power.
However, some French people keep their illusions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia and accept the official practices, even though they would never tolerate them in France. Some in France think that Russians actually “want an iron hand”, and they do not understand that such affirmations are marked by a special kind of racism. More are still fascinated by power, which they consider to be strong, provided by the concept of a “providential man” who is able to solve all problems. I guess that we can speak here of the “Pétain-Laval syndrome”, which has not yet completely disappeared in France (Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval were heads of the authoritarian Vichy Regime during the Second World War – editor’s note).
Even more important, and this appears very clearly in comments on the internet, some French (mostly on the extreme-right and extreme-left, but not only) remain extremely hostile to the United States. Therefore, the idea of a Europe which includes Russia and thus is capable of “resisting” the US, is as seducing for some people as Putin’s violently anti-American speeches.
The French did not experience Soviet-style totalitarianism and most of them suffered less than other people under Nazi totalitarianism. Therefore, they do not always fully understand what a freedom-limiting regime means, especially if this regime presents appearances of respectability (well-tailored suits, for example…). If certain illusions have fallen over the last few decades with, for example, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (author of the The Gulag Archipelago – editor’s note), Vasily Grossman (Soviet writer – editor’s note), other numerous dissidents, as well as the testimonies that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the USSR, many French people have not yet taken the full measure of the Soviet past and poorly understand the current Russian realities. This is why the demonstrations which have been happening in Russia since December 2011 (and before), do not only show Putin’s state as it is: incapable of engaging in dialogue with its own society. They also reveal ignorance and choices in the West, and clearly demonstrate who values democracy and the rule of law, and who estimates that they are both worth fighting for.
Cécile Vaissié is a professor of Russian and Soviet studies at Université Rennes 2. (France)