The streets were flooded with thousands of people. They marched for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and against racism. But above all, they marched in protest of a dangerously bombastic leader — a man who had targeted journalists and alienated their country from much of the world.
No, this wasn’t downtown Seattle three weeks ago. It was Moscow five years ago. And I’m not the only one making these unlikely comparisons.
“I thought it could happen,” says Andrei Kozyrev, on President Trump’s election, “because I’ve seen it before.”
Kozyrev, is a former Russian Foreign Minister who worked towards improving diplomatic relations with the West in the 1990s. He was in Seattle last week speaking on the relationship between Russia and the U.S. in the Trump era.
But much of our discussion, over tea at a downtown bar, focused on the sometimes-surprising parallels between Trump, Putin, and the political situation of our two countries.
“Putin’s base is mostly outside of big cities. He does not have much support in Moscow or St. Petersburg,” says Kozyrev. “Outside big cities, the population has particular difficulty in coping with modern cultural and technological aspects. These are people who are losing because of globalization.”
I was struck by this similarity when I was in the former Soviet Union on a reporting project in 2012. Many of the young people I spoke with in small town Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan complained of being locked out of economic opportunity — no longer able to make a living in dwindling agricultural or manufacturing sectors.
I recall one man in Ukraine, about my age, who still lived with his parents and described decades of dead-end jobs.
“Everyday is a Monday in my life,” he said trying to make a joke of his frustration.
Kozyrev says this dynamic can be fertile ground for autocratic leaders who blame economic problems on outsiders and create the sense of a “besieged fortress.”
“There’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ and ‘they take advantage of us,’” says Kozyrev who left Russia for the United States in 2010 when he says “It became clear we [Russia] were moving in an authoritarian direction.”
Kozyrev says there is a predictable pattern followed by new leaders looking to consolidate power.
“The media becomes the enemy. The free media, the opposition media is denounced and then controlled,” says Kozyrev, who notes that President Trump’s antagonistic relationship with journalists and the rise of “alternative facts” is particularly alarming.
This concern was echoed by a former translator of mine (the very one who helped me navigate those protests in Moscow) when he sent me a recent piece by a Russian blogger sarcastically “congratulating” the American media on their first press conference with an authoritarian leader.
After the media, the hunt for enemies is on, says Kozyrev.
“It might take different faces, but the essence of this is looking for scapegoats and looking for somebody to blame,” says Kozyrev counting off examples. “The liberals, or maybe just intellectuals. It might be minorities, or sexual minorities, some ethnic groups probably.”
My visit to the former Soviet Union was not my first experience reporting under authoritarian regimes. Reporting from places like Syria, Pakistan and Russia showed me we’re all more vulnerable to political turmoil than most Americans would like to believe.
But I’ve naively imagined a distinct moment when people of conscience are given the opportunity to understand the scope of the political forces they face. A signal that it’s time to leisurely walk over to the right side of history.
Which is why Kozyrev’s next words chilled my blood.
“It (authoritarianism) comes creeping,” he said, warning in his voice. “It’s not coming in one day, you just sense it.”
He added to be particularly wary of a rapid series of events — like a tipped Supreme Court, a compliant Congress and a beleaguered Fourth Estate — that coincide and quickly erode the checks and balances you assume will protect you.
“It’s probably too early to be panicked,” he says, adding that the United States has stronger democratic institutions and traditions to draw on. “But many things, unfortunately, look very, very alarming.”
And when it comes to our democracy I’m willing to err on the side of caution.