Following the outcome of the 2020 election and the inauguration of President Joe Biden earlier this year, I feel confident in saying that the majority of my Williams peers and I have since let out a long-awaited, liberal sigh of relief. It was refreshing not to have to constantly worry about whatever scandal or Twitter feud the president got involved in, since, as far as I can tell, there seem to be much fewer of them since Biden assumed the role of POTUS.
However, if you spent your winter break surrounded by your Russian immigrant family, you were probably bombarded with political news of a different nature: the trial of Alexei Navalny. Allow me to summarize: Navalny is a Russian anti-corruption advocate and perhaps Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic. He was poisoned in August 2020 — reportedly on Putin’s orders — and flown to Germany for treatment, where he spent several weeks in a medically induced coma.
Upon returning to Russia in January, Navalny released a video outlining his investigation into the corruption of the Russian government, titled “Dvoretz dlya Putina” (“Putin’s Palace”), which has since received over 100 million views on Youtube, and fueled an already existing movement of angry citizens. On Feb. 2, the Moscow City Court charged Navalny with 2.5 years of prison for violating parole by leaving the country for poison treatment, a decision that has since led to protests in Russia for his release. We even had a few demonstrations — albeit pathetically sized in comparison — in the US’s own NYC Times Square.
Having only recently started to contemplate my relationship with the diverse range of news media and their respective political biases, I decided to take a look at Navalny’s video before my parents’ descriptions of current events could cloud my interpretation. In honesty, it was so dense with information and so heated in tone that I started to Pepe Silvia a little the longer I watched it. The video paints the current Russian government as an oligarchy rather than a democracy, where the interests of those in power trump the interests of the people. The main area of discussion, naturally, is Putin’s $1.4-billion estate on the Black Sea coast. Drone footage of the palace, receipts for elaborate expenses, interconnected webs of Putin’s close acquaintances, and schemes used to finance the operation all unfold on-screen. The investigation outlines how those in power cheated citizens to pay for their own lavish expenses, falsified election results, and silenced anyone who dared to criticize them — and warns that this will continue if citizens remain complacent on the matter. Navalny is one of many voices in a crowd of unhappy citizens — a rather loud voice, for sure, but a single voice among many, nonetheless. He represents a much greater movement of Russians trying to understand the truth and fight a corrupt system, with the endgame of fair elections and accountable leaders.
In a world rife with “fake news” and wild conspiracy theories, it isn’t difficult to be skeptical of the news that is presented to us. Back home during the winter break, the TV station shifted between Fox News and CNN; the constant contradiction of which has since made me cautious in my selection of accurate and unbiased news media. “Putin’s Palace” could be interpreted as conspiracy theory, but the attempt on Navalny’s life suggests there must be truth to his words, as he is truly seen as a threat to current Kremlin officials’ grasp on power. This, as well as some rather shady actions made by the Russian government in the past (you may remember when the Russian Constitution was amended to extend Putin’s term as president), is why I, though a skeptic when it comes to certain news sources, lean towards believing what is outlined in the video.
Now, let’s emphasize the American part of my identity. How do the politics of my parents’ mother country affect me, overseas and seemingly out of reach of the corruption? This dive into Russian politics has revealed quite a few lessons for those of us in the United States, the most important one being that we have a duty to hold those in power accountable for their actions. Such a duty was upheld last summer, when millions of people marched against police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in February, when we had a second impeachment trial for Trump’s apparent incitement of the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021.
Contrary to Russia’s stark polarization of political media, the United States has a plethora of news sources that fall closer to the middle of the spectrum from far-right to far-left. This does not minimize the persistence of propaganda; there’s just a greater diversity of perspectives now. I know how susceptible people can be to misinformation and how inviting conspiracy theories are to those who refuse to accept certain truths (something I was painfully reminded of through pandemic-deniers and “Stop-the-Steal”ers).
As college students still growing into our roles as citizens of a democracy, we must thoughtfully consider the type of information we’re consuming, the sources that provide that information, and how the sources’ biases shape our own understanding of the systems governing us. As the situation in Russia illustrates, we are all individual voices part of a larger crowd. We have a responsibility to each other, and to ourselves, to obtain reliable information, check those in power, and ultimately work together to maintain a just society.
Katya Ulyanov ’24 is from Stamford, Conn.