Oct 24, 2011

Rights and Privileges

“Education is a right not a privilege” was scrawled onto the walls of UCL’s quad during the ‘occupation’ against tuition fee rises last year. I couldn’t resist a smile when I saw that the author had mis-spelt ‘privilege’ but I was more troubled by a bigger mistake underlying this statement, one which we see being expounded time and time again in the ongoing movement against cuts. All 18-21 year olds, apparently, have a ‘right’ to free university tuition (or, as is the case for a significant number of students, 3 years of partying and holidays inconveniently interrupted by lectures and exams). People have a ‘right’ to child benefits, regardless of their income, teachers and lecturers have a ‘right’ to higher pensions, we all have a ‘right’ to be made well by the Health Service, regardless of the cost, the unemployed have a ‘right’ to benefits, regardless of how many jobs they have turned down, young people have a ‘right’ to Education Maintenance Allowance… you get the idea.

Basically, it seems like we all have the ‘right’ to a better life, and we rely on the government to provide it for us. This ‘culture of entitlement’, which encourages us not just to expect, but to demand things which we cannot have, is, for me, the underlying problem with many of the protests. This is not to say that the things I’ve listed above aren’t good things! They are, and I wish the Government could give us all everything we want. But, as Russians have accepted for a long time, it can’t.

Generally speaking, Russians don’t protest against their political leaders. Of course, there are good reasons not to – the omnipresent police are instructed to treat protesters severely, genuine dissent is not really tolerated, and the shadow of “Siberia” may still loom large in the mind of some. Having said that, protesters in the Middle East have taken to the streets against regimes significantly more repressive than United Russia’s, and Russians have plenty of grievances, not least the impossibility of holding Vladimir Putin to account through government, the media or the ballot box. According to the Kremlin, this is because Russians are “mindless”. In a letter to the Economist, an American reader corroborated this, saying that

 “great majority of Russians display no interest in politics, for they regard all politicians, at home as well as abroad, as crooks. How politicians get themselves elected and how they rule is of little or no interest to Russians, as long as they protect them from domestic and foreign enemies.”

He is right to say that they regard all politicians as “crooks” – including our own UK members of Parliament. I have been trying in vain to explain to Andrei, who teaches stranovedenie, my favourite lesson (technically ‘country studies’, but, I usually turn it into a politics forum…) that our political system and our politicians, for all their faults, are not like their Russian counterparts, but he is having none of it. “Ben”, he says “you have to understand: this is politics. This is complicated. This is money.” Given that all politicians are crooks, it is perhaps unsurprising that Russians don’t pin much hope on their Government to improve their lives. This can be negative – it allows the Government to, again quoting the Economist, “treat citizens like cattle”, and it means that ‘revolution’ is unlikely to happen any time soon.

However, there is a positive side to this lack of faith in Government. While we, with our ‘culture of entitlement’, often lean too heavily on the Government to improve our lives, Russians acknowledge that the Government isn’t going to do this, so they set about improving their lives for themselves. They work hard. The 16 year olds in the class I teach on Fridays not only have school on Saturdays, like all Russians, they also come in for 3 hours of extra Maths on Sunday, their only day off! Students seem to have as much homework as we do at home, but they also have 6 or 8 hours of classes a day and they “podrabativat” (work on the side). My host, who is 75, spends most of the summer growing vegetables at her ‘dacha’ so she doesn’t have to buy them. When you are doing all these things, there isn’t really time to build a Western-style ‘civil society’, and, with the current political climate, many Russians would say "I za chem?" – What’s the point?

And you might, quite rightly, be asking “What’s the point in this blog entry?” I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we all need to find a balance between going out and trying to make our own lives better, and applying pressure on our government to do its bit as well. I think that’s what David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea was all about – an attempt to tackle ‘entitlement culture’ by challenging people to “do their bit” to improve society. And if we showed some of the determination and perseverance I see every day in Russia, maybe the next generation in Britain will be able to view as “rights” things we consider “privileges”.


  1. It is the same thought i have about the educational movement here in Chile. I agree