A Struggling Civil Society, Moscow

By Jaisang Sun, B.A. program alumnus.

Insight from Moscow, Russia.

My last day in Moscow was supposed to be a fun tour around the beautiful city by myself, since the entire delegation left the day earlier. I was hoping to finally get some rest and catch a little tourist fever.

The day started off well, as planned. I slept until 9:30 a.m. and skipped breakfast so I could eat my fill at multiple restaurants in Arbat District over lunch. After leaving the hotel, I took the Metro to the Kremlin. Even though it was my second time seeing it, I still found it magnificent. St. Basil’s Cathedral was just as breathtaking as every tourist review said it would be. It was a lot colder than the previous days. Snow was beginning to stick, but everyone there seemed not to care. Maybe that’s because snow is nothing new in Moscow.

Right across the famous Red Square, there is a big department store called “Gum.” It took me nearly two hours to tour that place, an entire hour spent at the grocery section. It was so much fun peeking at the ordinary lives of Russian people. The food court was fantastic even though I think I was ripped off. I ordered one dish, and the bill was 900 rubles or about $30. Are you kidding me? ONE DISH WITH PEPSI WAS GOING TO COST ME $30? I was pretty bummed to pay that much. But, the food was good and I told myself it was better than if I had to pay $30 for a McDonald’s meal in Russia.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat, I left Gum and headed towards Manezhnaya and found myself surrounded by a few dozen anti-war protesters. The protesters were holding a demonstration against Russia’s “illegal” military intervention into Crimea. It was a very short-lived protest, as 50 or so people were detained on the spot. I was among the few people who immediately pulled out their phones and began to take pictures of the protest. It didn’t go as planned, and the Russian police came shouting to not take pictures. One of them tried to knock my phone out of my hand, but failed to do so, and I didn’t take my phone out again.

Despite the brevity of the protest, I was shocked for many reasons, primarily because I had just witnessed a moment of Russian civil society in action that completely changed my perception towards a former Soviet country.  Most of my perceptions were derived from a preconceived notion of an underdeveloped or lagging civil society in a post-Soviet space. I suppose the methods, the size, and the degree of the protest was not like that of the Occupy movements or the ones I have seen and been a part of in Seoul and the United States. Nonetheless, I was able to connect with the people’s cry for peace.

I don’t know how many of you have watched someone being detained in Moscow before, but it’s not a pretty scene. After seeing people’s rights to free speech and gather be crushed, I lost all my appetite to tour. I headed to the airport to catch my 21:15 flight home. What a gloomy Sunday and end to my visit.

My first trip to Moscow yielded only two memorable accounts worthy enough to share on Facebook, but it was a great success because I had a chance to reconfirm why I go through the seemingly meaningless hours and trouble of being in graduate school.  I want to better understand the significance of those cries for peace, rights and more rights.  I’ve heard them in Russia, the U.S. and Seoul.  They are global in nature and express a universal yearning for social change.  This leaves me with one answer: keep going. I’m back in Seoul now, ready to embark on another adventurous semester full of work and sleepless nights. It’s weird coming back home to a bed that doesn’t feel like it’s mine because I can’t remember the last time I had a good night sleep on it.


Jaisang Sun is an alumnus of the B.A. in International Studies Program. He is currently an MA candidate in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Seoul National University, where he is also a teaching assistant to Dr. Shin Beom-Shik and Dr. Chun Chae-Sung for an education exchange program sponsored by the Korea Foundation. Jaisang traveled to Moscow as part of a delegation representing the Asia Center at Seoul National University to visit universities in Moscow.

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