We’ve all heard about the ongoing recent political protests in Russia, from Pussy Riot’s trial to activists taking the streets shouting “down with Putin!”. But last weekend the infamous Dima Yakovlev law, which has banned adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans, has led to something slightly different: the emergence of social protest.
The satirist Dmitry Bykov recently wrote in an otherwise darkly humorous essay that “fears about [Putin’s possible departure] are understandable, because after Putin, we won’t get to take him to task for anything, we will have to take ourselves to task – and nobody is ready for that responsibility”. And it seems that many people who attend political protests, or even lead them, may not be ready for any kind of major responsibility. That’s because Russia has always had a centralised power model, even in the so-called wild 1990s.
But Sunday’s protest march, referred to as the March Against the Jerks (the jerks being the politicians who bent to the Kremlin’s will and passed the adoption law), was different. It was emotional, yes, but it was also more down-to-earth: it centred on the basic idea that the immediate needs of orphaned children are more important than politics.
The march was criticised for being “pro-American” or even “pro-selling-our-children-to-the-evil-Americans,” but then again, I was there and didn’t see any fervent Uncle Sam worshippers. In fact, while shooting a video there with my colleague, I felt self-conscious about speaking loudly in my obviously American English. Who knows? We might have been accused of being provocateurs or “American pigs”, as we were at a previous protest.
Still, this march had a friendlier atmosphere. The people who were marching were debating ethics, for one thing. Last autumn, sociologist and lapsed United Russia member Olga Kryshtanovskaya said that what Russia really needs right now are “lofty ideals”, because the idea that “money decides everything” has become tiresome for everyone. I see no better representation of Russia’s emerging ethical struggle than the debate over the adoption law.
The march featured no stage and no impassioned speeches from the leaders of the protest movement, and this was a good thing. The problem of finding new homes for orphans in Russia will not be solved by shouting slogans. This is an issue that adoption experts and adoptive parents can speak about with the most authority – and they are not the people who can or should be climbing a stage to fire up a crowd. And while I also believe that banning adoptions by Americans is unethical (this is personal for me – as an American, I am also now banned from adopting, and as a young mother, I find something seriously wrong with this), I also believe that Russia’s orphan problem can be solved by making changes that must happen on a local level, and not as the result of a top-down decree. There must be viable social programmes, for one thing (and the government appears to be moving in that direction, though only time will tell how successful they will be). Society must simply evolve, become better, become – to borrow Kryshtanovskaya’s word – “loftier”. It’s the only way.
Sunday’s march goes back to the notion that Russia needs an evolution, as opposed to a revolution. Of course, some people will say that the former is not possible without the latter. I’m not sure about that. For a society as painfully divided as Russia’s, the principle of “do no harm” is most crucial. Particularly when we’re talking about protecting said society’s most fragile members – its orphans.