No Illusions Left, I'm Leaving Russia

Jun. 18 2014 — 20:44

I want to confess that I did something foolish once when I was young. Back in 1993, I abandoned my university studies in California and returned to Moscow. European nations had signed the Maastricht Treaty and I dreamed that Russia would join the European Union.

It seems I was not alone. Former President Boris Yeltsin said, "Europe without Russia is not Europe at all. Only with Russia can it be a Greater Europe, with no possible equal anywhere on the globe."

Disillusioned by Russia's drift away from Europe, prominent journalist and editor Leonid Bershidsky has finally decided to emigrate.

Yeltsin died, as have many other people and ideas since then. After the annexation of Crimea, it became clear that not only Turkey and Albania, but even Ukraine would join the European Union before Russia does.

So, my dream of becoming a European citizen within my own country has vanished. Therefore, I will be moving to Berlin in several days.

The idea of emigrating has tempted and teased me all my life. But here I should make another confession: despite my knowledge of foreign languages and my Jewish ethnicity, I am a patriot, and Russia's ability to "get up from its knees" in the years since 1991 has been a great source of joy to me.

I would love to not only see how future events unfold in Russia, but to play a part in them by helping to create a truly free press — the kind that, as in the U.S., would publish the revelations of men like former National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden.

Now that work has ended for me. That is not to say I accomplished nothing. In fact, some of the media outlets that I had the opportunity to help create remain independent and refuse to compromise to this day.

But overall, my dreams were defeated. Now Russia's mainstream media ranges from the bulging-eyed hyperbole of pro-Kremlin television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, to the intellectual "we're talking but nobody's watching" Dozhd television programs. That's about it. Those that fall somewhere in the middle are not only uninteresting, but bear no relationship to the media's primary function — namely, to protect the weak from the strong.

Now the strong have lost all shame.

Facebook news feeds tell us that a foreign rock star was banned from performing in Russia for "possibly promoting nontraditional sexuality to children," the authorities blame the latest Proton rocket crash on sabotage at the Khrunichev Space Center,  passionate voices say it is time to change the name of Volgograd back to Stalingrad, anyone holding more than just Russian citizenship must report the fact to the authorities, Internet users must officially register their blogs … and so on.

I tell myself that the authorities have thrown all of this into my field of vision to distract me from something even more important. But that is unlikely — their swaggering actions are probably just because nobody speaks out in protest.

Apparently, the political candidates who might have deserved our support have suffered the same defeat that I have — or else were never born. And as for Yeltsin, he is no longer with us.

Those who two years ago made up the political opposition, meanwhile, have today become so completely covered in the muck and scum that others have hurled at them that their odor is enough to drive people away.

I am probably partly to blame for that. Facing similar circumstances, some of my acquaintances in Kiev instead learned to make Molotov cocktails. And they managed to achieve results. True, they were not the results they anticipated.

It would be ridiculous to call myself a political refugee. I have never been harassed, expelled, arrested or imprisoned.

What's more, political immigrants generally mark their time abroad by building up stores of self-righteous anger like layers of subcutaneous fat that they can burn off after returning to the motherland. But I, like many journalists, am not very good at taking sides: every party in any given conflict always has at least some truth on its side, with the weakest party generally holding a little more.

In the confrontation between two such closely related countries as Russia and Ukraine, it is all the more impossible to take sides. That fact has complicated life in Moscow, in Kiev and even on the Internet, where each person is just one step away from cursing each other.

I am not really an economic migrant either, because it would imply that my goal is to find a more advantageous arrangement abroad. In Germany I will have to pay 40 percent income tax in place of the 13 percent I pay in Russia. On the other hand, why not pay more if the results are roads that are so smooth that they reflect the sky and free higher education? Maybe my children will benefit from that one day.

But I have no desire to stay in Russia and pay a single kopek for Crimea. Stolen goods are stolen goods.

A fifth wave of Russian emigration has begun. These are not exiles or political refugees like in the first three waves, or even economic emigrants like those who left in the 1990s. What should we call this new wave? Perhaps, the "disillusioned emigrants."

It seems that my motives for emigrating are representative of most other Russians in this current wave.

Like many of those who are leaving, I was not a rat who jumped ship at the first sign of trouble. I am more a sailor who, seeing that the captain had changed course toward a port of ill repute — and with loudspeakers blaring his intent — quietly, and without panicking, lowered the lifeboat and began rowing toward the port for which all of us had originally set sail.

And yes, I will keep my Russian citizenship. Maybe I will return as an old man, walk to my neighborhood polling station, dust off my beloved red passport and vote for Russia's candidate to the European Parliament.

Yes, people and ideas die, but dreams never do.

Leonid Bershidsky is a prominent Russian journalist and media manager. Bershidsky was the founding editor of Russia's top business daily, Vedomosti, a joint project of Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, and the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes. He also founded the opinion website Slon.ru. He is currently a Bloomberg View columnist.

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