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lunch—brown bread, homemade vegetable spread, and six jars, each containing a different
variety of pickle. Rose befriended the woman hosting us, telling her she bore a striking re-
semblance to Angelina Jolie. Then she befriended Viktor and before I knew it, Viktor had
Rose doing shots of pepper-flavored vodka with him. He had her convinced it was an elixir,
as she had been battling a cold.
Andrei, seeing Rose hanging out with his dad as if they were old-time friends, seemed
unthreatened by me and (mercifully) no longer called me Lokh .
Andrei, thirty-nine, has a graduate degree in economics. More than anyone else I some-
how expected him to believe in democracy the same way I do, especially after the experien-
ce his village had just been through to protect its legal rights. But Andrei didn't draw a con-
nection between the battle his village waged and some broader fight for a different future
for Russia. He watched the news. He knew all about the Arab Spring. But what happened
in Egypt and Libya only scared him. Andrei had lived through the Soviet collapse and then
suffered as boasts of democracy were followed by economic crisis.
“I can see what's happening in Libya,” he told me. “That was our path in 1991. The
Libyan people will live much worse than they used to live. They had social programs, they
got apartments for free. Now this will stop. I already lived through those kinds of changes.”
What Andrei and the villagers of Sagra did was fight when they were pushed to the
brink—they fought on the streets because they believed lives were at stake. They took to
the Internet to fight because otherwise family members might have gone to jail. But there
is no broader confidence in free expression and public activism. In fact there's still a fear
that those things, when used too often, can make life worse.
Meeting Andrei gave a face to some polling that stunned me. The Pew Research Center
polled Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, and people in other neighboring countries.
They asked questions like “would you prefer a strong leader or democratic values?” When
they asked the question in 1991, majorities wanted democratic values. Today the opposite
is true—people prefer a strong leader. Those early poll results came amid the Soviet fall,
when there was a desperate plea for a new system to restore order. But there has never been
any deep or lasting commitment to democracy.
Sagra is in the Ural Mountains, the window onto Asian Russia and the vast region
known as Siberia. Often late at night aboard the train, Russian passengers stand along the
corridors, gazing out at the dark, empty landscape, often glancing at that list of stops to see
when the train would next be pulling into a station. The stops often last fifteen or twenty
minutes, just enough time to jump off on an icy platform and buy some potato chips or,
when we are lucky, dried fish from women selling from baskets outside. The conductors
shovel in more coal to heat the train cars, chop ice loudly from beneath them, and then call
for us to board. And the train sets off again.
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