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Watching US nail-biter, many Russians bemoan the state of their ‘democracy’

Several thousand people gathered in central Moscow on July 29 on a second consecutive day of protest against the Russian government's plan to raise the retirement age. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Many of Russia’s politicians and state-media commentators have done little to hide their schadenfreude over the bitterly contested U.S. presidential election.

“The spectacle of a collapsing superpower is bewitching,” pro-Kremlin lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, the outspoken grandson of dictator Josef Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, said on state-run Channel One television.

The overall official Russian take on the U.S. election has been to emphasize the prospect of chaos and even violence, against the serene background of stability under President Vladimir Putin.

However, many Russians have taken to social media in recent days to offer different takes, some mocking Russia’s heavily managed elections or depicting Putin-era “stability” more as stagnation.

One frequently shared meme shows Russian Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova laughing under the caption: “When you found out that in the United States they count the votes.”

The satirical Russian Twitter account Stalker posted on November 4 a riff off the fact that former cosmonaut and State Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova successfully lobbied a constitutional amendment that could enable Putin to remain in power until 2036 and mocked the fact that Putin does not debate election opponents and rarely engages in ordinary campaigning.

“In order to become president of the United States, at the very least you must participate in debates and visit all the states. In Russia, all you need are a few letters from Tereshkova and then you don’t have to stick your rear end out of your bunker,” the tweet said.

As officials in the United States were counting out razor-thin margins of votes in swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, the headquarters of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk posted a photograph of former Mayor Aleksandr Sokolov, of the ruling United Russia party, who has been accused of owning six homes in the United States that opposition figures say were purchased with the proceeds of corruption.

The photograph was accompanied by a note reading: “Well, how are things in the U.S.A.? Have they finished counting in Michigan yet?”

Residents of Khabarovsk have been holding near-constant protests for more than 100 days since their popularly elected governor, who trounced the candidate from United Russia, was arrested in connection with several murders that happened more than a decade ago. Supporters claim that the charges were trumped up to remove an independent-minded, popular regional politician.

Several social media memes and cartoons played off the close vote counts in U.S. states — a highly rare occurrence in Russia, where Putin claimed 78 percent of the nationwide vote in the 2018 presidential election amid suspicions of widespread fraud and, according to official figures, received more than 90 percent in some regions.

This political cartoon by Sergei Yolkin shows two poorly dressed Russians, one carrying water from a well. The man tells the woman: “They haven’t finished counting in Pennsylvania and Michigan.”

Journalist Oleg Pshenichny of The Insider wrote: “How is it going in Tuva? And what about Kaliningrad? I dream that someday we could wake up with such questions instead of wonder about Florida or someplace like that.”

Lev Shlosberg, an opposition member of the Pskov regional legislature, posted on November 4 on Facebook that despite all the problems with the U.S. electoral system, it is an attempt to reconcile the conflicting values of democracy and federalism, something the Russian Federation has never really attempted. The high turnout in the U.S. election, Shlosberg wrote, demonstrates the public’s “confidence in the electoral system.”

“Not having any possibility of seeing honest elections in Russia, people here are watching a completely different reality, and that living reality is attractive and alluring,” he wrote.

Other posts poked fun at the tendency of Russian politicians to blame the United States for all the country’s woes.

“Today is a very important day for all of us,” one meme states. “Today the Americans will pick the person who will be responsible for all our problems for the next four years.”

Boris Vishnevsky, a liberal member of St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly, took up this theme on November 3: “Now Americans are choosing the person who for the next four years will cut Russian pensions, raise prices, dig holes in our roads, turn off our gas supplies, close down our hospitals, throw litter in our playgrounds, and piss in our entranceways. They just don’t realize it.”

Another meme shows a photograph of some derelict Russian apartment blocks on a rutted and littered alley with the caption: “Russia if [Donald] Trump wins.” Next to it is the same sad image with the caption: “Russia if [Joe] Biden wins.”

Summing up the mood, journalist Pshenichny posted on Facebook a photograph of Putin on a dreary and empty Red Square on November 4, greeting a group of olive-clad youths holding Soviet red banners.

“Clicking this photograph, the TASS correspondent in one second captured exactly why Russians are much more interested in the American elections than in affairs at home,” he wrote.