What does a hearing aid have to do with democracy? My Russian friend Igor Kokarev stopped by a a few days ago and told me a story that explained the connection.
I was introduced to Igor in the early 2000’s at a backyard barbecue in West LA. Igor was on a research tour of the United States working to deepen his understanding of how “intentional” communities in America organized themselves. He came to the subject as a student of American film, having served as the second in command at the Soviet-American Film Initiative while still a member of the Communist Party. In that role, he organized many filmmaker exchanges both in Moscow and the US which piqued his curiosity about democracy. He admits that American political traditions confounded and fascinated him at first, but film and filmmakers ignited something powerful in him and fortified his eventual pursuit of democracy-advancement and community development efforts.
He came to my office because he’s conducting interviews for the next edition of his book “Confessions of a Foreign Agent” that recounts his pioneering efforts at introducing civil society into Russian culture on the heels of perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. We talked about the creation of Citizen Foundation, the organization Igor founded as a vehicle for engaging average Russians, newly liberated from communism, in understanding the theory and practice of community development.
Casting about post-perestroika for ways to help his countrymen and women grasp the precepts of democracy, Igor began convening public meetings. He discovered that a lot of people in the groups he spoke to had hearing trouble, probably the result of abysmally poor Soviet health care. By happenstance, he got to know the owners of a hearing aid manufacturing company and tried working through them to equip people with hearing aids so they could participate fully in the vibrant discussions about what the future held for Russia at the time. The effort fizzled, but not before Igor had developed a better understanding of what kinds of ideas and practices people needed to understand democracy. Igor’s Citizen Foundation emerged as a small but mighty training institute that acquainted a generation of young people with how grassroots democracy can take root in communities.
Charmed by Igor’s hearing aid story, I was struck by the brilliance of the metaphor. If citizen participation and public debate lie at the core of civil society, then listening to – and fully hearing – the views of other people represents the sine qua non of a democratic system of government. Igor’s lovely though faltering initial step embraced the excellent insight that if democracy had a chance of taking hold in Russia, then everyone first needed to hear one another clearly. We like to think about citizenship as acting in a particular way, but we often forget that action in the absence of listening to the words and experience of others can lead to short-sighted results, suspicion and even chaos.
As the initial wave of perestroika-driven democratic fervor aged in Russia, the country’s new leader, one Valdimir Putin, began labeling people like Igor running ventures such as Citizen Foundation (which was funded by American foundations) as “foreign agents.” As Putin consolidated ever-greater autocratic power and began silencing enemies, Igor inevitably felt the pinch and the threat to both his training and organizing efforts as well as his personal and family well-being.
Igor has since voluntarily exiled himself in America because the current Russian leader – oh, by the way, still Vladimir Putin some 20 years later and counting – regards listening to anyone but his own ex-KGB cronies, sycophants, billionaire oligarch buddies and narrow nationalist base as an existential threat to the country. And now we in America seem at the threshold of embarking down a similar path.
I buy that we’ve stopped listening to one another, maybe even stuck our fingers in our ears and started shouting la-la-la like petulant children. No question that a barrier to clear understanding across our many seemingly intractable disagreements separates us as a nation. The channels on one side of the political divide are as unplugged from those on the other as Liberty’s light yanked from her power source. Aware of the lasting dangers that can come of wandering too long in a wilderness of shouting without listening, it will be those souls brave enough, intrepid enough – Igor enough – to grope about and find a hearing aid who are our best chance for surviving these dire days, and then thriving beyond them.