We recently traveled for the U.S. State Department to Moscow, where we spent a week meeting and speaking with journalists, university students, political consultants, attorneys and political science professors.
Our job was to help explain the U.S. presidential contest, which is like trying to decipher the impossible-to-decipher Voynich manuscript.
Before every talk, we bestowed temporary U.S, citizenship on audience members, then asked them to vote for a president. In every case, Donald Trump won, buoyed no doubt by his bromance with Vladimir Putin.
“We like Donald Trump in Russia,” said one audience member at the U.S. Embassy’s American Center. “He’s a strong leader.” A student at the Russian State University of the Humanities asked, “Will Hillary send tanks to take back Crimea?”
Another question was about the popular television series “House of Cards.” We assured them that American politicians don’t typically push reporters into speeding subway trains, no matter how tempting.
That aside, the people we spoke with were well-informed and fascinated with American politics, more so than many Americans. They’re paying attention because it matters to them.
Both of us had visited Russia in the 1990s, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The change was remarkable. Instead of drab state-run stores with nothing to buy, designer shops are now found throughout Moscow. Religion has made a comeback, new construction is everywhere, and city dwellers enjoy a colorful nightlife. It wasn’t so in the 1990s.
Putin, who is popular in Russia, is an important part of this renaissance and the rekindling of national pride.
But as one of our hosts pointed out, below the surface Russia is still a police state. Freedom is limited. Human rights violations are many. Sometimes they make headlines, like when members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot spent nearly two years in prison for performing an anti-Putin “prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. But the intimidation of regular citizens typically doesn’t make news. Free speech isn’t free in Russia, and real political choices are limited.
While there are in theory opposition parties, in practice Russia is a one-party nation, dominated by Putin’s United Russia Party. Candidates from the lesser parties rarely win. And if they speak too freely, they can find themselves in prison, or they can’t be found at all.
As frustrating as the American political system can be, it gives Americans real choices, the ability to upend the status quo without violence. Unlike some other countries, bullets aren’t the driving force of change in modern America. Votes are.
As we Americans turn inward to decide who will lead the nation for the next four years, it’s good to remember that the world is watching, and not just governments. People are paying close attention, too, because how we vote will have a dramatic impact on their lives, security and economic well-being. They know this isn’t just about sound bites and political ads. This is serious business.
After one of our talks, an earnest young Russian came up to us and said, “No matter who you elect, I hope your new president will work with Russia and China on the problems of the world.” And that’s what it’s really all about. The decision we make in November will be far bigger than America.
Republican Ray McNally, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Democrat Steve Maviglio, email@example.com, are Sacramento political consultants.