Key state

What do Russians think about Joe Biden’s election? What does it matter? As someone pointed out on Twitter, living conditions in Russia are not going to get any better or worse after Pennsylvania came out against Trump. The picture stays the same.

The Kremlin’s interest in the results is obvious enough. But the keenness with which many ordinary Russians, like you or me, refreshed their browsers to catch up on vote counts in Nevada and Georgia has a special poignancy.

Biden’s election comes at the end of an emotional six-month tide in Russian public life. Like everywhere, responses to the coronavirus epidemic have been a source of division and controversy as well as unity and acceptance. But Russia has had a unique summer and autumn.

At the end of June, a constitutional referendum, whose flexible rules and social media campaigns were widely parodied by sceptics, approved changes to the constitution that allow President Putin to stand again for office twice more.

In July, good-natured protests began in Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East, following the Kremlin’s removal from office of the region’s popular governor, Sergei Furgal. The demonstrations mobilized the whole of the town and its population, week after week.

Then Svetlana Tikhonovskaya flat-footed the Belarusian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, and united much of Russia’s neighbour behind her in an unexpectedly competitive presidential election. Her beautiful and optimistic campaign brought hope across the region during July and August. Lukashenko responded by claiming victory in the face of widespread evidence that he had lost. Ever since, he has deployed his body-armoured, helmeted and well-paid security forces to repress and torture unarmed protestors. Many Russians were emotionally hamstrung. Sympathizers looked on with utter sadness but unavoidable inaction at the fate of their fellow-east Slavs.

What followed was the August poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure and anti-corruption campaigner. He was in Tomsk, campaigning for ‘intelligent voting’ in local elections and preparing corruption exposés. The poison was from the Novichok group, and the assumed source was a state facility.

Melancholy and hope collided as he recuperated in Germany and promised to return to Russia, where his task, he said, was to be a person who was not afraid. His staff continued their campaigns in Moscow throughout the autumn. Their irrepressibly forceful tone did not change, even in late October, when their offices were raided again and the Duma began to ponder a law that would turn former presidents into lifetime senators, immune to any prosecution.

And then in November, someone on Twitter imagined the world watching a presidential election in which it was Barnaul (in the Siberian Altai), not Michigan, that was the key state on a candidate’s path to the presidency. I read the tweet on the Meduza news site and didn’t see its context on Twitter (I closed my account last year), so perhaps I missed an inside joke. No matter.

I was poleaxed by its dismal, literal, witty truth. I stared at the picture of ‘Barnaul – Key State’ and saw for a moment a completely different world. Russians will lace together a narrative of the last six months in a million different ways, but that tweet might focus their analysis. I saw it and my heart jumped and sank. What a picture! Worth a thousand words.