The Salience of Banality

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Moscow, September 20th. sunny early fall Saturday afternoon at the Memorial Park near Sokol. A brand-new playground, asphalt replaced with rubberized padding, jungle-gyms and merry-go-rounds proudly imported from Finland. Mothers in sweatshirts from the Gap, but also from Harvard and Oxford; one grandfather in a baseball cap from the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is not the sort of picture from last weekend in Moscow most people have been talking about for the past few days. Most people have been talking about the Peace March against Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. And rightly so: the march gathered somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 people, just about as much as the first anti-war march in the spring, and, while nowhere near enough to make a difference, still a significant number, given the decimated state of the Russian opposition and the overwhelming power of the official media message.

But the picture above – the picture in which you can’t tell the country is at war, the picture in which you can’t see the sanctions or the animosity or the bile that has infected the political discourse – is in some ways the more telling picture. It is a picture of parents and children enjoying what was probably the last warm weekend of the year, a picture of laughter and lightness and the soft, green sunlight filtered through the birch and linden leaves.

To find the conflict in Moscow – the conflict with Ukraine, the conflict with the West, or the conflict within Russia – you have to go looking for it. You have to turn on the television, at the very least, or browse your Facebook newsfeed, or read Vedomosti, or go to the Peace March. The war isn’t hard to find, but it isn’t hard to ignore, either. It is surprisingly easy not to notice Russia’s creeping isolation, or its creeping ideologization. The park, both literal and figurative, with its sunshine and fresh air, is a much more pleasant place to be, and it remains as accessible as ever.

When Sergei Guriev left Russia just over a year ago, he remarked on how easy it was to get used to the changes going on around him (and anyone else living in Russia at the time), how easy it was to see the increasing power of the Kremlin and the decreasing power of the citizen as incremental, tolerable, reversible. How easy it was to ignore the forest for the trees.

It is harder now not to notice the changes afoot in Russia, so rapidly do they come. A year ago, the arrest of Evtushenkov, the reappearance of the Dzerzhinsky statue at Lubyanka, and the passage (on first reading, at least) of a law restricting foreign media ownership would each have dominated the headlines for a week or more. Now, each of those stories must vie for attention in a single news cycle.

That leaves Russian citizens with two choices. One is to declare the situation intolerable and head for the Peace March, or whatever other opportunity there is to voice dissent. The other is to declare the situation intolerable and head for the park. It would be a mistake to ignore the salience of that difference of approach. But the bigger mistake would be to think that much of anyone in Russia finds the situation even remotely tolerable.

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