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The Russian Question in St. Louis: “Why Did Hillary Go to This Debate?”

Sergey Parkhomenko
The Russian Question in St. Louis: “Why Did Hillary Go to This Debate?”



In a Facebook post last week I bragged that I’d likely be traveling to St. Louis to see with my own eyes the second round of presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The unanimity of the comments I received astonished me at first. Against the background of congratulatory messages wishing me to enjoy what would surely be a fascinating adventure, the same question arose again and again: Why is Hillary going to the debate anyway?

“Is it not better for her to refuse defiantly to participate in this debate? That would make so much sense!” marveled my puzzled commentators.

“Why wouldn’t she just walk out and slam the door? Trump’s obnoxious bragging has shown him for what he is. There is nothing to debate with him about.”

“Anyway, she is in a great position now, isn’t she, with more than 80% chance of victory. All the key states are in her pocket, while Trump is losing his backing, with influential Republicans taking flight. Any minute now, his own running mate will flee.”

“And what if Trump does have some kind of a ‘political nuclear bomb’ in his back pocket that he might try and drop on Hillary? Why push her luck? Better to stay away from him.”

There is never a public discussion between the power and the opposition in Russia. Power simply does not deign to stoop to that level.

With some 150,000 subscribers, my account is among the largest in the Russian-language segment of Facebook. Even if we allow for ad bots and fake profiles, some 50,000 real people likely read my posts. I was taken aback at the thought that I would need to explain to all these readers that the very notion of declining to participate in a presidential debate is unthinkable for an official nominee of one of the two largest parties in the United States.

U.S. presidential debates are impressive both for an observer of the clash and a TV viewer. Without a doubt, there are plenty of people in Russia, as in any other country, who could appreciate the power of this event. The strict protocol, well thought out in advance; the solemnity of the setting; the professionalism of the anchors, commentators, analysts, and reporters; the gargantuan preparatory work on the part of both teams, which shows in the candidates’ speech and behavior; and finally, the incredible psychological tension and human drama, the concentration of will and passion. To be sure, you could feel all of that vividly in the audience, but the broadcast conveys them too. It is stunning and captivating.

Yet U.S. presidential debates can also bewilder many Russian viewers and even prompt sarcasm on their part. Some may see the very fact of the debates and their intensity as evidence of a strange weakness of U.S. politics, of its inadequacy and childishness.

Over the last few years, it has become a staple of Russian social media to make fun of U.S. leaders, presenting them as thoughtless and incompetent simpletons, so unlike their highly efficient Russian counterparts, who always know exactly what they want and can be relied on to achieve the desired outcome.

Take, for instance, President Obama. It’s been eight years since he entered the White House, and in all that time not a single cellist friend of his has become a billionaire. Neither of his daughters has acquired a large landholding in the District of Columbia or billions of dollars from the state or federal budget to develop the property without supervision.

Nor has Obama made the slightest effort to take over the Labrador Peninsula from Canada, set up even a mini-referendum there, or sent non-uniformed U.S. marines without insignia there. Nor has he attempted to organize an all-American “Labrador Is Ours!” movement. Nor has he tried to establish, say, a Tijuana People’s Republic in Mexico, the emergence of which, so close to the U.S. border, would have so delighted the residents of San Diego.

I am, of course, referring here to President Putin’s takeover of Crimea and establishment of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine. The comparison sounds entirely grotesque. But millions of people in Russia today would not see any irony or exaggeration in such thought experiments.

On the contrary, they would earnestly try to convince you that President Obama is not determined enough as a politician, that his entire administration is not that efficient, and that a politician cannot survive in today’s world without tight control over the press and a firm hold over legislators and judges.

So he would do better, they might say, to take his cue from President Putin, who has achieved a much more convincing result. Look, they’d say, Putin’s old friend, the cello player Sergei Roldugin, suddenly turned out to own massive offshore assets with gigantic turnovers. And it looks like his daughter, Ekaterina Tikhonova, is managing a mammoth construction and investment fund in Moscow. And Crimea … and Donbass.…

And when it comes to elections, these people would surely continue, all is in perfect order too: 100 percent reliable and efficient.

It is at precisely this point that the official pro-Kremlin press would join the blabbering bloggers and lend the full might of Russia’s massive propaganda machine to their yackety-yak.

According to today’s Russian great-power doctrine, appropriate elections that are “good for the state and the people” (in that order) are, first and foremost, “reliable” elections, ones that leave no room for the unexpected, that guarantee “stability” for the country, that do not “rock the boat” and, of course, do not “swap horses in midstream,” to use all the favorite clichés in one fell swoop. In short, the kinds of elections that a serious and responsible politician can manage with confidence.

And now, such a Russian political analyst and strategist would say, let us repeat the same question again, seriously: Why did Hillary go to this debate? Why did she miss such a great opportunity to decisively end this irresponsible circus?

In a system governed by such a political philosophy, no one takes power and no one gives it away. The power is carefully handed from one person to another based on prior thoughtful consideration and amicable agreement—nice and easy, with no unexpected moves.

Clearly, in a political space governed by such principles, there is no room for such nonsense as debates between candidates. How can there be a debate when the debate organizer may not even know how it will end? Why all this bombastic and wasteful charade—the procedure, the rules and regulations, the opinion polls before and the analysis after, the organizing committees, the audience with baited breath, the focused journalists—if the final result is not guaranteed?

And now, such a Russian political analyst and strategist would say, let us repeat the same question again, seriously: Why did Hillary go to this debate? Why did she miss such a great opportunity to decisively end this irresponsible circus?

The truth is that, rather than coming across as comical, all of the above argumentation appears quite convincing in the context of Russian politics and the surrogate that has for decades substituted for a true electoral process. It’s not only social media but also professional media, analytical centers, the State Duma, and executive power bodies, not to mention the special services whose task it is to ensure the so-called “complex security of the constitutional order,” that are full of people who understand political efficiency exactly in those terms.

There are enough commentators in Russia whose memory is long enough to remember that it was President Yeltsin who was the first leader to choose the strategy of demonstratively refusing to engage in a public polemic with his opponents and to make it the golden standard of Russian elections and Russian politics in general.

In the spring of 1991, Yeltsin, the head of the parliament of the Russian Federation, which was still part of the USSR, became the front-runner of the first “real” electoral campaign of the first nationwide elections for the first Russian president, when the ballot was for the first time direct, equal, and secret.

Six candidates took part in the elections and were expected to participate in the public debate. Yeltsin vocally, decisively, and demonstratively declined. He won the election in the first round with over 57 percent of vote—three times more than the runner-up from the Communist Party.

This meant, among other things, that the voters accepted the recognized opposition leader’s political calculation. Yeltsin made the decision against participating in the debate from the position of power. In doing so, he demonstrated his superiority and a condescending, almost tsarlike attitude toward his opponents. And in a way, Yeltsin had a right to such an attitude: he wasn’t just popular, he was a brilliant leader of the new political generation and new political reality. The “one versus all” strategy was a natural choice for him, who represented the only true opponent of the entire Soviet political machinery.

However, today, a refusal to engage in open political debate in Russia has a very different nature. It is always the representative of the ruling political party who gets the right condescendingly to decline to participate in the debate. The government apparatus creates numerous advantages for such a candidate, one of which is the privilege not to engage in public discussion with opponents.

This translates into a privilege to ignore demands to disclose information that is of public significance, not to have to defend one’s decisions, not to have to explain the reasoning behind one’s actions, not to present results, not to reveal intentions and plans. The privilege not to have to report one’s income and taxes or respond to allegations of corruption.

This is a crucial part of the “administrative resource” that a pro-power candidate can always rely on during any Russian elections. As a result, there is never a public discussion between the power and the opposition in Russia. Power simply does not deign to stoop to that level.

Moreover, during the fifteen years in which President Putin has been Russia’s leader, a new tradition has emerged, which would be puzzling to any unprepared observer: the so-called “direct lines” that the president uses to communicate with the nation. They are, in essence, a fantastically pompous form of “debate with oneself.”

This debate seems deliberately to mimic the tradition of public discussion in the U.S.: moderators are selected from among TV anchors, questions are submitted by the audience via videoconferencing, an elaborate script exists, exaggeratedly scrupulous calculations are made of approval ratings before and after the broadcast, complex forecasts of the most likely discussion topics are issued, the responses are meticulously analyzed—all of this is there.

Just one minor detail is missing: an opponent.

Vladimir Putin has indulged in such self-debating 14 times, sometimes stretching the pleasure out to four and a half hours and more. Notably, these shows have had nothing to do with elections or any kind of political competition—which is why the “direct line” always ends in guaranteed triumph, in complete victory of the single participant over an empty seat. And this is precisely the purpose of the whole thing.

I know that in American society today there are many who will accuse the organizers and participants of U.S. presidential debates of insincerity, pomposity, and a predilection for didacticism. Their criticisms are probably fair and appropriate.

But as an outsider and a spectator who is not burdened with voting responsibilities, I find it hard to distance myself from a lifetime of observing Russian mores. It was my generation, after all, that witnessed the Russian political system first reject the idea of competitive elections as such and then cynically replace them with a hypocritical surrogate of a dictator’s specious polemic with himself.

Against this tragicomic background, U.S. elections, despite all their theatrics, seem to me a demonstration of a certain kind of political humility. I see them as a solemn—and, in its own way, austere—ceremony in which a huge country reiterates its commitment to the fundamental values of democracy: a person’s sacred right to choose, a politician’s everlasting duty toward the voter.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

About the Author

Sergey Parkhomenko

Sergey Parkhomenko

Senior Advisor;
Journalist, publisher, organizer of civic projects

Sergey Parkhomenko is a Russian journalist, publisher, and founder of several projects aimed at developing civic activism and promoting liberal values in Russia. Since August 2003, Parkhomenko has been presenting Sut' Sobytyi (Crux of the Matter) on Radio Echo of Moscow, a weekly program making sense of the events of the past week. When the radio station was shut down by the Kremlin immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, he became the host of his own YouTube channel under the same name.

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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more