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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love What's Happening in Russia

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty

Members of the Russian opposition unite! You have nothing but your composure to lose!

To be fair, Russia's a surprising and dispiriting place these days, especially if you're in the opposition. You turn around for five minutes, and Russia has suddenly grown a new peninsula. You go to bed a “liberast”—the Kremlin bots’ preferred nomenclature for us, a hybrid of “liberal” and “pederast”—and wake up a “national traitor,” a “yid-fascist,” or a member of a “fifth column.” You open Facebook and see people dumping boiling cauldrons of emotion on those who dare to criticize our imperial achievements.

Still, my fellow liberals are doggedly hanging on to hope: Open the pages of Vedomosti, the last independent Russian newspaper, and see yet another public intellectual sinking his teeth into Putin and counting the days until his regime collapses.

And yet, stubbornly, it doesn’t collapse. In fact, it only gets stronger, day by day. Putin’s approval rating is through the roof, while Russia’s standing the world is slipping steadily in the opposite direction, as if these numbers are being ladled from the same pot: The more one gets, the less is left for the other.

It’s hard to observe what’s happening with the cold, rational eye of a cyborg. I can’t do it. At first, I laughed. Then, when it stopped being funny, I got angry. I protested, I gloated, I despaired and gave up, I flew into a rage—and not one of these reactions helped me make peace with Russia’s new political reality.

The solution came to me suddenly, and it’s such a good one that now when I look at the news each morning, instead of muttering “motherfucker” to myself, I gleefully rub my hands together.

I make bets. I look at all the possible ways a situation can unravel, pick the worst one, and make a bet on it. Last fall, I won the entire wardrobe—every single piece of clothing, down to the last T-shirt—of the well-known Russian journalist Oleg Kashin. He was sure, you see, that opposition leader Alexey Navalny had a chance of winning Moscow’s mayoral race. I, on the other hand, bet my collection of sandals that Navalny wouldn’t even be allowed into a run-off with the Kremlin candidate.

I was right.

Oleg acknowledged my victory, but refused to hand over the loot. Ever since, I’ve been stalking him on Instagram, commenting on every photograph he posts as follows: “What a nice shirt!”

Recently, I had an interesting debate with an acquaintance who works for one of the ministries of the Russian Federation. I was asking him about the inner workings of the executive branch, about the motives of bureaucrats of various ranks, about Russia’s attempt to boost its attractiveness for investors, and about how a normal person working there refrains from standing up in the middle of a meeting and jumping out the window.

“It’s not so simple,” my interlocutor said, hinting at the existence of reasonable people in the government. “Many people understand that without radical liberalization, the economy won’t rebound. I retain my faith in the sanity of people up there.

Because I’ve spent the last few years looking for sanity up there and finding only a heady mix of idiocy, vanity, bald-faced lies, and complete incompetence, I immediately suggested a bet.

“Do you want to bet,” I asked, “that there won’t be any liberalization of the economy? That in its place, we’ll get only isolation and five-year plans?" 

“I still think there will be liberalization.”

“Then I bet you a case of Veuve Clicquot Rosé Brüt that, in six months, the economy will be up shit creek.”

What’s amazing is that I win regardless of the outcome. If I’m right—which in itself is a wonderful psychological reward—and we’re about to experience a worsening economy, then my deteriorating living standards will be brightened by twelve bottles of champagne. If I’m wrong, the Kremlin will stop hammering nails into the coffin of the economy to the tune of near-Soviet rhetoric. Maybe they will even start stimulating the thing. I’m ready to spend $700 to see such a positive outcome, but just in case, I’ve already found the spot in my apartment where I plan on putting my Brüt.

The topics for bets are endless, though this is, of course, a tragedy: 

“Wanna bet that they’re going to pass a law that defines bloggers as news organizations, which will introduce de facto censorship?”

“I doubt it. It’s such a spectacularly stupid law, they haven’t thought it through, it’ll be unenforceable.”

They passed the law on April 23, and now I’m not a blogger, but a media magnate.

“Wanna bet that Pavel Durov”—CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook—“will be forced out?”

On April 24, Durov was fired by the board and fled the country.

“Wanna bet that, in half a year, they’ll ban Facebook and Twitter in Russia?”

So far, I’ve only won Kashin’s stuff. The other bets are longer-term, anywhere from six months to a year. But I don’t discount the possibility that, by the end of the year, either the government leaves the Internet, the NGOs, and small business alone, or I’ll have a free ticket to New York, a fancy new set of badminton rackets, a Persian rug, and a dozen new books.

Where do I derive such confidence in my future winnings? From history, from the papers, from backroom conversations, from my own sad experience. I’d be thrilled to be wrong; my loss would be much more profitable than a win. But take a look around, listen to what people are saying, analyze the motives of those calling the shots—you know what the odds are. 

Why don’t my sparring partners believe in the onset of the shitstorm and prefer to defend the sunny side? Because it’s terrible to live with the knowledge that the government is consciously cutting you off from your network of peers, destroying your life’s work, stopping you from doing what you love, not letting you out of the country—I have a bet on this, too, that soon they will introduce Soviet-era exit visas—and questioning your continued existence in Russia-not-Europe. (For this is the latest conception of our country: Russia isn’t Europe.) Russian liberals don’t want to make peace with the reality of Putin’s revanchist wave. They’re not even ready to acknowledge that there aren’t very many liberals like them and that no one needs them.

And yet they must know it, deep down. I fear I won’t be able to get rich on the collapse of the Russian state because the optimists and the patriots are reluctant gamblers, even though the optimists talk a good talk about how great everything is going to be, about how we’re moving forward, and about how the whole world envies us. For some reason, most of them are not ready to put a single ruble behind their wager that their beloved government will blossom. Instead, I’m increasingly resigned to making bets with like-minded friends and acquaintances who wager on an optimistic prognosis not out of robust confidence, but despair. Because, they think, it just can’t be that everything will be that bad.

Wanna bet?