By the time I returned to the United States, around Christmas, Putin was readying Russia's response to the U.S. human-rights measure. Named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009, the law set travel and financial restrictions on Russian human-rights violators. Moscow's answer parallels the Magnitsky legislation by sanctioning U.S. citizens involved in human-rights violations against Russian citizens, banning them from entering Russia and freezing their Russian assets and investments. On top of that, the measure suspends the activities of nonprofit organizations that receive money from the United States and bars Americans from adopting Russian children. Russians see Washington's Magnitsky law as a political move, and they accuse the U.S. of casting the first stone. Americans see the Russian response in much the same way--as pure politics.
On the day my family left Moscow in 1991, we drove to the airport at 4 a.m., yet we still passed a long bread line on a snowy street. My mother looked out the van window, sanguine she would never see something like that again. In California, she never did. But 13 years later, during a visit to modern Russia, she found herself in another endless line. The hot summer sun beat down on us as my family stood with other obedient foreign tourists waiting patiently to enter the amber room at Catherine the Great's Tsarskoye Selo palace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Then something snapped in my mother. She remembered where she was. She grabbed some dollar bills, and after a short "conversation" with the guards, we had an exclusive tour of the palace. In Russia, some things never change.
Small reminders of corruption are still sprinkled everywhere, because at this point the graft is a way of life. During my visit, my American colleagues and I wanted to see the Bolshoi Ballet. One day, a fellow reporter e-mailed me, disappointed: "called Bolshoi box office ... all tickets are sold out until January." I knew better. "Sold out" in Russia doesn't always mean sold out. I asked around at my host publication, an editor made a few calls, and suddenly I had second-row tickets waiting for me at the Bolshoi box office. We saw Spartacus. Written by Armenian composer Aram Khachutarian and choreographed by Yury Grigorovich, it is one of the most iconic Russian ballets because its fallen revolutionary hero was an appropriate figure for Soviet propaganda.
The next week, in Lubyanka Square, I witnessed another failed revolt. Muscovites took to the streets for an unsanctioned rally on the one-year anniversary of large-scale anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin protests. In 2011, many thousands had braved subzero temperatures to shout across the street from the headquarters of the FSB, the KGB's successor. Afterward, Putin's government cracked down on pro-democracy groups, election watchdogs, and opposition figures. This time, despite rumors, warnings, and a massive police presence, the rally was calm. Police officers with megaphones gently asked protesters to "please" make their way to the Metro. Only opposition leaders were targeted, arrested, and fined. The almost-civil reception enervated the crowd.
At dinner with my parents' middle-class Moscow friends a few days before the protest, I asked about the rallies. They had marched in a few in 2011, but they didn't see the point of going again. They live in an apartment just outside central Moscow and regularly griped about corrupt officials. They said everyone knows about the fraud in last year's parliamentary elections, which set off the protests. "None of us voted for [Putin]," Ira said, as she prepared dinner. "But," she added, shrugging her shoulders, "apparently we did." The system isn't just rigged for tourists; it's rigged for the people who live in it every day.
The Metro was closed at 2 a.m., so when three of us left an expat party across town, we needed a car. I walked out to Leningrad Avenue and stuck my arm out; within seconds, a dark sedan pulled over. "Arbat [Street], Hotel Belgrad, 200 rubles," I told the driver confidently, in Russian, as I opened the passenger door. (That's about $6.)
"200 rubles exactly?" the driver asked.
"200 rubles exactly," I confirmed, as my American journalist friends piled into the backseat. Taking my new role as gypsy-cab facilitator seriously, I sat in the front seat next to the driver and left my seat belt unbuckled, as I had seen others do before. I didn't want to arouse any suspicions that I followed the rules (and was therefore foreign).
The driver and I chatted in Russian, sticking at first to mundane, safe topics like traffic and the weather. Eventually, noticing the silence from my friends, our driver asked, "Where is your group from?" I cautiously responded that we were from America, gauging whether that was OK. "Oh, wow! And it's so easy to talk to you," he said, genuinely surprised at how well we got along. "Back in the day, if people knew I was talking to Americans, they would have accused me of being a Jew." I let him go on. For the rest of the ride, he told us how he had worked his way up in the Soviet bureaucracy and followed all the rules, stopping repeatedly to express his shock at how normal we, Americans, appeared to be.
Small reminders of corruption are still sprinkled everywhere, because at this point the graft is a way of life.
This reminded me of a story my mother tells. Her first-grade teacher instructed the class not to take or accept any bubble gum, a symbol of America, from American visitors, because they put razor blades in gum for Soviet kids. Faced with a contradiction made flesh, a nighttime cab driver could shake a lifetime's brainwashing. But could an entire nation?