New York Magazine

Russia: Life After Trust

Once you lose faith in one institution, you start to lose faith in them all. Lessons from Putin’s Moscow.

ON ONE OF MY first reporting trips to Vladmir Putin’s Russia—of which there’d be so many that they’d blend into residence—my friend Alex and I got stuck in Moscow traffic a few cars ahead of an EMT van. The siren wailed, the lights whirled, but no one would budge: The ambulance crawled along at the same pace as the rest of us. When I noted this, Alex scoffed. Everyone knows that ambulance drivers make money on the side selling VIP airport rides, he said. Who knows who’s in that van right now? Fuck ’em.

What struck me most, at that moment, was how little difference it made whether his allegation was true, an urban legend, or something that had occurred only once or twice. All you needed for it to matter was for it to be plausible. The moment you lived in a society where someone could conceive of an EMT van used as an Über-Uber, you lived in a society where ambulances no longer received the right of way.

One tends to imagine life in an autocratic regime as dominated by fear and oppression: armed men in the street, total surveillance, chanted slogans, and whispered secrets. It is probably a version of that picture that has been flitting lately through the nightmares of American liberals fretting about the damage a potential autocrat might do to an open society. But residents of a hybrid regime such as Russia’s—that is, an autocratic one that retains the façade of a democracy—know the Orwellian notion is needlessly romantic. Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear

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