Sunshine Recorder

Link: From Pushkin to Putin: The Sad Tale of Democracy in Russia

The “other” Russia, the Russia of poets and writers, the Russia of culture, destroyed in the Soviet Union, was preserved underground and in emigration. Will it help to give Russia its third chance at democracy?

It was only a century ago that Russia was the center of world literature. Writers streamed from all over the world to Yasnaya Polyana to bow before Tolstoy, like pilgrims to Jerusalem. And in Russia the authority of this writer was so great that, should he, the great writer, have decided, say, to be elected czar, it is doubtful that Nicholas II could have held on to his throne. The snag is that Tolstoy didn’t consider power to be worth a brass farthing—and that it is impossible to be elected czar: in Russia, legitimate power is derived only from God. It is also impossible, I should add, to be elected a great writer. But where did this power of literature come from in Russia?

At the time that Shakespeare was penning Hamlet’s monologue in the West, in Russia there were no poets or writers to speak of. There were only czars and holy fools. God gave the Russian people the king-emperor and the fool-in-Christ. The former held sway over the lives and deaths of his subjects, the latter was the only one who could speak truth to the tyrant. Recall the famous scene in Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, when the holy fool exclaims: “It is forbidden to pray for Czar Herod, the Holy Mother forbids it!” The counterweight to the sanctity of power was the sanctity of Christian conscience.

Back then, the Russian atlas of the world looked something like this: the holy Fatherland in the center of the world, the only truly Christian country, surrounded on all sides by an ocean of enemies. Centuries-old servitude to the czar meant a confiscation of body and will and mind, but in exchange it elevated the soul and conferred a righteous purpose on existence. What looked to ambassadors from the banks of the Rhine like Russian despotism and slavery seemed on the banks of the Moscow River a committed participation in a common fight, in which the czar was the general and everyone else was his child and soldier. The absence of a private life was compensated for by the sweetness of dying for the homeland. The stretch of the Fatherland across geography and time was the down payment for personal salvation; the unconscious slavery was bitter for the body but life-sustaining for the spirit. Russia, like Noah’s ark in the flood, fulfilled the mission of saving sacred life on Earth.

But everything changed with Peter the Great. He wanted to “cut a window to Europe,” but instead he cut a hole in the Russian ark. Russia’s regular historical paradox is that its rulers want one thing but the result is often something entirely different. Peter the Great wanted to strengthen the empire, but instead he placed a bomb beneath it, which destroyed it. In our time, Gorbachev wanted to save communism and instead he buried it.

The point of Peter’s reforms was to obtain military technology from the West in order to do battle against that very same West. In the eighteenth century, a torrent of Gastarbeiter came to Russia from enlightened Europe. The Russians had invited engineers and specialists, but those who came were people, and they brought with them European ideas of individualism, personal rights, and human dignity. Modern technologies demand education, and education inevitably brings with it the concept of personal freedom. And that is how Russia got its intelligentsia.

Many have tried to define the Russian intelligentsia, and none have been able to convey the full constellation of nuances in this very curious phenomenon. Most likely, the Russian intellectual is he who, having read plenty of books and seen plenty of Russian life, exclaims, as Pushkin did, “Why the devil was I born in Russia, with brains and talent!”

Poets appeared in Russia in the eighteenth century. They wore officers’ uniforms and mostly wrote odes for the accession of German empresses onto the Russian throne. In a country where life was lived according to the wartime principle of unity of command, everyone including poets served the government, which was personified by the autocracy. But everything changed with Pushkin. Born in a country where serfdom was only the formal expression of a deep internal psychological slavery, he achieved the most important Russian coup, the greatest Russian revolution: in opposition to the pyramid of power, at the head of which the Czar administers the fates of individuals and nations, he created an alternative pyramid, at the head of which stood the poet. The juxtaposition of the czar and the holy fool—the old divided paradigm of authority—was exchanged for the juxtaposition of the czar and the poet.

Against the omnipotent traditional Russian system—for which a person was, in the words of Peter I, “a soldier of the Fatherland,” and in the formulation of Stalin’s executioner Beria, “concentration camp dust”—Pushkin posited another, as yet unknown power in Russia: the power of a free, artistic spirit. The hierarchy of the imperial consciousness, where everything depends on rank, now had a rival hierarchy, legalized by no one, but recognized by all, including the czar:

I’ve set up to myself a monument

not wrought by hands. The public path to it

will not grow weedy. Its unyielding head

soars higher than the Alexandrine Column.

Those lines of the poem “Exegi monumentum” became the poet’s declaration of independence, his appointment of himself as head of another Russia. The state in Russia fears the poet because, beginning with Pushkin, he (or she) is a power independent of the state and insubordinate to the state, a power just as sacred—the representative of another country, but one that falls within the borders of the same empire. The resulting duality of power led inevitably to conflict: how can two powers, both appealing to a higher divine authority, coexist in one totalitarian state? This was the ultimate question of Russian literature, to which every generation of Russian writers painfully sought an answer: should the poet be with the czar, or against him?

Pushkin’s muse was a tyrant-fighting muse, or, to use the contemporary terminology, a terrorist muse. The poet was exiled by the czar’s edict to his family’s estate. His poem “The Dagger” was copied and passed around among the Decembrists, officers who had carried out the unsuccessful plot against the new czar, Nicholas I, in December 1825. Among those planning the regicide were some of Pushkin’s friends.

The new czar summoned the exiled poet to the Kremlin on the occasion of his coronation, and asked him: with whom would he have sided that December day? Pushkin answered honestly that he would have been with his friends. It was the moment of truth for Russian literature. The czar could have destroyed the poet with one stroke of the quill. But Nicholas sensed that czarist power in Russia could not exist without the blessing of the other supreme power. The wise Nicholas was forced into a compromise and named himself the First Reader of the First Poet. That discussion in the Kremlin between the poet and the czar was the beginning of the diarchy in Russian culture and consciousness. The young Pushkin, author of “The Dagger,” ceased to exist. He was replaced by a mature Pushkin, Russia’s national poet. The former praised violence as the path to freedom. The latter knew that violence led nowhere.

Pushkin gave an answer to the “cursed” Russian question that occurs to every Russian born in an empire that is constantly waging war against foreigners and against its own people: how should one view this government and these people who are constantly waging these wars? The study of Russia’s history, the history of its czars and its popular uprisings, as well as his own healthy understanding of reality, led the poet to the conclusion that the worst that could happen in Russia is revolution, a “pointless and merciless” uprising, and that the government is “the sole European in our country.” Pushkin saw that in Russia the choice between dictatorship and democracy was beside the point: the only choice was between bloody chaos and ruthless order. He grasped that a weak Russian government would not bring about a grassroots democratic system, but only anarchy, and that its first victim would be culture. He also foresaw that the restoration of order would become the task of an even stronger and more ruthless dictatorship. It’s as if Pushkin had intuited what would happen in Russia in the twentieth century. It was this logic that informed the decision of Russia’s first national poet to choose the side of the czar and his strong hand, which became the guarantor of both private life and culture. Pushkin studied the history of the Pugachev peasant revolt, the brutal popular uprising in the eighteenth century, and he understood that, in a Russian revolution, the first things to burn will be the libraries.

Russia had a strange situation on its hands: one territory now contained two nations, completely different in spirit and culture, though they both were Russian and both spoke the same language. One part of the people, millions and millions strong, lived in the provinces, poor, uneducated, slowly drinking themselves to death, and mentally still residing in the Middle Ages. The other part was concentrated in the two Russian capitals. They were educated, well-off, well-traveled, and with a European understanding of the democratic organization of society. For one set, only the czar-father and his iron fist can bring order to Russia. For the other, the entirety of Russian history is a bloody swamp, from which Russia must be pulled into a liberal European system. What was happening in Pushkin’s Russia, in sum, is extraordinarily reminiscent of what is happening in Putin’s Russia. In my country, we are still playing the same game with the same rules for three players: a people that (in Pushkin’s words) “exude silence,” a nascent society that demands “Swiss” democracy and declares war against the government, and a government that is left with two options: to retreat or to tighten the screws.

Czarist Russia retreated in the face of democratic Russia to the point that the pyramid of government power disintegrated. In February 1917, Russia experienced a bloodless democratic revolution: the “other” Russia had won. But the chances of survival for this newborn civil society were nonexistent—after all, they were in the middle of a world war. So the first Russian democracy existed for only few months, during which the country sank into chaos.

The capricious muse of history used the communist ideology to rebuild the old patriarchal order under its guise. But compared with Stalin’s dictatorship, the old czarist “prison-house of the nations” came to seem like a gingerbread house. The “other” Russia was destroyed in the most literal physical sense: millions of people emigrated, millions more were eliminated in the Gulag. And the national atlas looked once again like it had in the Middle Ages: the sacred Fatherland with the one true communist ideology at the center of the world, surrounded by an ocean of enemies.


The Turn Against Nabokov
On a snowy night in early 2013, “Lolita” went up once again, unchanged, but it had suddenly become the most scandalous show in town. The performance had been postponed since last October amid threats to Mozgovoy and others. In January, three men jumped the play’s twenty-four-year-old producer, Anton Suslov, giving him two black eyes and a concussion while calling him a “pedophile”; a murky video of the beating was posted online. The same libel was slashed in spray paint across the walls of the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg and the writer’s ancestral estate in Rozhdestveno, about fifty miles from the city. Anonymous activists had petitioned to have the play banned, the museum closed, and Nabokov’s books purged from stores. The author, whose novels thrum with ironic recurrences, might have been perversely pleased with this: thirty-six years after his death and twenty-two years after the fall of the Soviet Union with all its khudsovets, Vladimir Nabokov is, once again, controversial.
These events are some of the more alarming demonstrations of Russia’s rightward tack. Ever since the wave of urban protest that hit the country in late 2011, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party seem to have decided to cut their losses with the country’s finicky élites and focus on demonizing them as Western agents for the benefit of a poorer, older, more rural voter base. So far, this strategy has brought about a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children, harsh prison terms for the punk band Pussy Riot, new tools for policing free speech on and off the Internet, and the banishment of USAid on a fresh wave of anti-American paranoia. A simultaneous emphasis on “traditional values” has resulted in the whitewashing of Stalin’s legacy and the reëmergence of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a major political player. (Nabokov once endowed some of his own characters with a similar vision. In “Pnin” he described the loathsome Makarovs, “for whom an ideal Russia consisted of the Red Army, an anointed monarch, collective farms, anthroposophy, the Russian Church and Hydro-Electric Dam.”) Everything blunt, homespun, and orthodox is in. Everything multifaceted, foreign, avant-garde, or deviant is out. “Lolita” didn’t stand a chance.
No United Russia member has been more active in whipping up this frothing conservatism than the St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov. Last February, he drafted a bill banning “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia to minors,” making it (whatever it is) punishable by a fine of five thousand rubles and up. The bill’s confused language, which blithely conflated gays, pedophiles, and transgendered people into one degenerate bunch, didn’t stop it from passing. The law’s first victim got fined for standing in the street with a billboard that quoted the actress Faina Ranevskaya, who is Russia’s Dorothy Parker: “Homosexuality is not a perversion. A perversion is field hockey or ice dancing.” Soon, a group of nine conservative organizations, with Milonov’s full support, was suing Madonna, who was due to perform in the city, for her gay-friendly stance (the case was eventually dismissed). The legislator had succeeded in making St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital, a lair of reactionary politics.

The Turn Against Nabokov

On a snowy night in early 2013, “Lolita” went up once again, unchanged, but it had suddenly become the most scandalous show in town. The performance had been postponed since last October amid threats to Mozgovoy and others. In January, three men jumped the play’s twenty-four-year-old producer, Anton Suslov, giving him two black eyes and a concussion while calling him a “pedophile”; a murky video of the beating was posted online. The same libel was slashed in spray paint across the walls of the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg and the writer’s ancestral estate in Rozhdestveno, about fifty miles from the city. Anonymous activists had petitioned to have the play banned, the museum closed, and Nabokov’s books purged from stores. The author, whose novels thrum with ironic recurrences, might have been perversely pleased with this: thirty-six years after his death and twenty-two years after the fall of the Soviet Union with all its khudsovets, Vladimir Nabokov is, once again, controversial.

These events are some of the more alarming demonstrations of Russia’s rightward tack. Ever since the wave of urban protest that hit the country in late 2011, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party seem to have decided to cut their losses with the country’s finicky élites and focus on demonizing them as Western agents for the benefit of a poorer, older, more rural voter base. So far, this strategy has brought about a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children, harsh prison terms for the punk band Pussy Riot, new tools for policing free speech on and off the Internet, and the banishment of USAid on a fresh wave of anti-American paranoia. A simultaneous emphasis on “traditional values” has resulted in the whitewashing of Stalin’s legacy and the reëmergence of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a major political player. (Nabokov once endowed some of his own characters with a similar vision. In “Pnin” he described the loathsome Makarovs, “for whom an ideal Russia consisted of the Red Army, an anointed monarch, collective farms, anthroposophy, the Russian Church and Hydro-Electric Dam.”) Everything blunt, homespun, and orthodox is in. Everything multifaceted, foreign, avant-garde, or deviant is out. “Lolita” didn’t stand a chance.

No United Russia member has been more active in whipping up this frothing conservatism than the St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov. Last February, he drafted a bill banning “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia to minors,” making it (whatever it is) punishable by a fine of five thousand rubles and up. The bill’s confused language, which blithely conflated gays, pedophiles, and transgendered people into one degenerate bunch, didn’t stop it from passing. The law’s first victim got fined for standing in the street with a billboard that quoted the actress Faina Ranevskaya, who is Russia’s Dorothy Parker: “Homosexuality is not a perversion. A perversion is field hockey or ice dancing.” Soon, a group of nine conservative organizations, with Milonov’s full support, was suing Madonna, who was due to perform in the city, for her gay-friendly stance (the case was eventually dismissed). The legislator had succeeded in making St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital, a lair of reactionary politics.

Link: Yekaterina Samutsevich: Closing Statement at the Pussy Riot Trial

During the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent or express regret for her deeds, or to enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to express my views about the causes of what has happened with us.

The fact that Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power [in Russia].

Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetics? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, national corporations, or his menacing police system, or his own obedient judiciary system. It may be that the tough, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm. It was here that the need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion, historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

How did he succeed in doing this? After all, we still have a secular state, and shouldn’t any intersection of the religious and political spheres be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of Orthodox aesthetics in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had the aura of a lost history, of something crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present their new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project which has little to do with a genuine concern for preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.

It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long had a mystical connection with power, emerged as this project’s principal executor in the media. Moreover, it was also agreed that the Russian Orthodox Church, unlike the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the crudeness of the authorities towards history itself, should also confront all baleful manifestations of contemporary mass culture, with its concept of diversity and tolerance.

Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national TV channels for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where in fact the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would be pronounced, helping the faithful make the right political choice during the election campaign, a difficult time for Putin. Moreover, all shooting has to take place continuously; the necessary images must sink into the memory and be constantly updated, to create the impression of something natural, constant and compulsory.

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of this media image, generated and maintained by the authorities for so long, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia.

Perhaps such an unpleasant large-scale effect from our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. First they tried to present our performance as the prank of heartless militant atheists. But they made a huge blunder, since by this time we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out their media raids on the country’s major political symbols.

In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. Now the whole world sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, Russia looks different in the eyes of the world from the way Putin tries to present it at daily international meetings. All the steps toward a state governed by the rule of law that he promised have obviously not been made. And his statement that the court in our case will be objective and make a fair decision is another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.

Link: The Magnitsky Law

After Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in a Moscow jail for uncovering fraud by Russian authorities, investor Bill Browder devoted himself to publicising the case.

A decade ago, Bill Browder was flying high as one of the most successful foreign investors in Russia. With $4.5bn under management, Browder had committed his career and a lot of his investors’ money to proving his proposition that the shares of Russia’s newly privatised, resource-rich companies were absurdly cheap.

The cocksure, US-born fund manager aggressively argued to anyone prepared to listen – and to many who weren’t – that President Vladimir Putin had been unfairly maligned in the western press and was intent on bringing prosperity and order to the biggest country in the world, after the rapacious criminality of the 1990s. To the disgust of many, Browder declared himself delighted when Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest and most powerful oligarch, was arrested in 2003 and jailed. “Who’s next?” Browder asked cheerfully.

Two years later, however, Browder’s fortunes suffered a similar convulsion of fate. Returning to Moscow one Sunday evening in November 2005, after a routine trip to London, his visa was rejected for unexplained reasons. He was expelled from the country the next morning and declared a threat to national security. His panicking investors stampeded out of his Russia fund, known as Hermitage Capital Management. He was forced into a fire sale of his Russian assets, reducing his funds to just $50m. Hermitage’s offices in Moscow were later raided by the Russian tax police, amid allegations of fraud.

Browder’s career as an investor in Russia had been wrecked, but worse was to follow. Sergei Magnitsky, a dogged lawyer who worked for the law firm that represented Hermitage, later discovered that the Russian authorities had perpetrated a tax refund fraud, using forged Hermitage documents to transfer $230m of state money to a criminal gang. Rather than congratulating Magnitsky for his assistance, the authorities accused him of orchestrating the fraud himself and arrested him in November 2008. After almost a year’s detention, during which time he was repeatedly denied medical treatment, he was beaten to death in his jail cell.

Link: The Politics of Cynicism

It is a commonplace, at least in the West, that the current regime in Russia is authoritarian, if not totalitarian. A line can be drawn—with caveats about scale and severity—from Putin straight back to Stalin, while others can be drawn sideways from Putin to the dictators he has befriended and supported: Assad, Qaddafi, Chavez, and Saddam Hussein. (If nothing else, Putin seems to have an oddly consistent and unlucky way of choosing his friends.) The recent protests against him only confirm the neatness of this symmetry.

We think we know what authoritarianism is and why it survives, but our notions about it have not changed much since the 18th century, when Montesquieu contrasted the capricious rule of a despot, who holds power through fear, with the bounded governance of a monarch, held in check by law. In our political language, monarchy has evolved into democracy, but despotism remains despotism (or authoritarianism). In comparison to monarchies and democracies, each in their own time, despotism has always seemed archaic. The gleaming military uniforms, Tolkienesque titles, and Orientalized imperial paraphernalia of modern dictators like Idi Amin, Pinochet, and Qaddafi evoke the 19th century; leaders who are truly modern are supposed to wear self-effacing suits.

If authoritarianism is a relic of a pre-democratic age, Putinism, like the late regime of Putin’s friend Silvio Berlusconi, is not authoritarian. Regimes that see themselves as successors to democracy are not rare—fascists and communists were equally convinced that liberal democracy belonged in the dustbin of history. The difference is that Putinism is partly right in seeing itself as post-democratic, which is why the problems it poses are so vexing. It represents one answer to a set of contradictions that exist not just in Russian democracy but also in contemporary democracy in general.

These contradictions are well known in the United States and Western Europe, on the right as well as on the left. One of them is that while democratic discourse constantly represents the electoral process as a canvassing of the will of the people, in reality political and media institutions police the field of acceptable alternatives so strictly that the choices that can be made are rudimentary at best. Moreover, the participation of multinational elites and large-scale capital flows in the political process means that individual electorates are always pitted against forces much larger than they are, as the Eurozone crisis most recently has shown. The old American conservative fear of international institutions like the United Nations reflects a similar worry. The premise of 19th-century liberal democracy, which envisioned national communities as largely self-enclosed and politics as localized debates on the common good, becomes less tenable with each passing year. 

Democracy arrived in Russia with many of these contradictions already exposed. It had long been a staple of Soviet propaganda that American democracy was a mockery controlled by finance-capital puppet masters and served by a craven media, whose business it was to play down racial, economic, and gender inequalities. Soviet ideologists, like Soviet citizens more generally, knew little about real life in the West, but they closely followed the struggles of Western leftists who were making similar arguments. Ordinary Soviet people were not usually skeptical of such claims: to believe in the decrepitude of the Soviet system or the wonders of the free market, as many did, did not demand allegiance to American-style politics. Up until the last months of the Soviet Union’s existence, most reformers (and supporters of reform) thought they were building a social democracy that abolished the unfree aspects of the Soviet system, not buckling to global capital.

Link: Edward Lucas on Putin and Russian History

The international editor of The Economist and author of a new book about Russia gives an excoriating critique of Putinism and explains how Russia’s amoral present is rooted in a failure to come to terms with its past.

Wherever you turn – from contemporary literature to media reporting – there seems to be an unremittingly negative portrayal of modern Russia as corrupt, undemocratic and gangster-run. Is that a fair description?

Well, it’s both better and worse than the popular perception. It’s worse in the sense that I think the country is really run by what amounts to a gangster syndicate which is ruthless in its pursuit of wealth and power, and distorts the machinery of the state in order to achieve that and to perpetrate crimes against the Russian people. So I think Russia is worse than the slightly sanitised picture we get in the media, not least because of libel laws that mean it’s quite hard to write clearly and bluntly about some of the people involved.

But I think things are also better, because you have a new generation of Russians who don’t remember the Soviet Union, except possibly for childhood memories, are living lives largely unclouded by fear and official propaganda, and are integrated into the world in a way in which Russians haven’t been for 100 years. It’s those people who made up a chunk of those protesters who were filling the streets of Moscow and other cities during the weeks after the phony Duma elections in December [2011]. There’s cause for hope there, and the Putin propaganda bubble seems to have popped pretty substantially. Although he’s still in power he no longer enjoys the hypnotic popularity that he’s had over the last 10 years.

Rather than compare Russia with Europe, might it be more appropriate to compare it with other countries whose oil exports make up a disproportionate amount of their wealth and are often ruled by corrupt, undemocratic and potentially dangerous regimes?

There’s a danger of being patronising and deterministic. It’s like saying African countries can’t be democratic or Asian values are antithetical to democracy. Actually, what we have seen in Europe in the last 25 years is that countries that conventional wisdom thought were doomed to poverty and chaos have become very successful ones and countries that we thought were doing very well have fallen into great difficulties. So I’m very hesitant to say that Russia is beset by eternal woes that mean it can never be democratic, prosperous or law abiding.

I do think the shock of the Soviet collapse was very deep, and many people underestimated how difficult things were going to be after that. The country was ruined in so many ways – from brains to bridges – and a huge work of reconstruction is still needed to get over the terrible damage done by communism. I think it was fanciful to think it was ever going to be very easy, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t deplore things that have gone wrong. I think the 12-year Putin experiment in retrospect looks like a very serious wrong turn for Russia, rather than being a gateway to a bright and better future as it was portrayed at the time.

The dominance of the oil and gas sector has allowed Russia to punch above its weight in the world. Without it, the Russian government would surely behave differently.

I think that’s true. The main business of the regime is stealing natural resource rents. Rents is a rather technical economic term, but it’s the windfall money you get from just digging something out of the ground and selling it for a lot of money. There are also what people call bureaucratic rents, which is a fancy word for bribes. I think there are two pyramids in Russia – one of natural resource rents and one of bureaucratic rents or bribes. The regime sits at the top and sucks money up from both of those and then squanders some of it on high living in Moscow but pumps a lot of it into the West, where it’s laundered in places like Vienna and even London and New York.

You’ve chosen five books for us, all of which have been published relatively recently. Is there a single thread that ties your choices together?

I think history and the legacy of the past is something of a thread. The communist party has gone but the KGB is still there, and the difficulty in confronting the crimes of KGB – and the regimes whose instrument it was – is a very big deal. I spent a lot of time in West Germany in the 1980s and was very aware of the very painful and sometimes rather intrusive idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is the coming to terms with the past. It’s always been striking that once you go east of the Iron Curtain, people are often ignorant about the misdeeds of their country’s history or relativise them in a way that is really shocking by the standards of Western Europe.

There is a feeling that the Soviet Union is gone and forgotten, when it shouldn’t be. There should be a memory of the totalitarian past in a country like Russia. Which is not to say that every Russian should feel personally guilty for it, but everything you see is built on the bones of millions of innocent people and that should be a really big deal in Russia. But sadly – and partly because of the Putin regime – it is not.

Link: The War in Chechnya: Diary of a Killer

Every so often a lengthy newspaper or magazine article arrives that all but demands a fuller and even longer treatment. Such was the case in the Oct 31. issue of The Sunday Times magazine in London, which published translated excerpts from the diary of a Russian spetsnaz officer who served for more than a decade as one of the Kremlin’s shadowy fighters in the Chechen wars.

The two Chechen wars, fought since the Soviet Union disintegrated between Russian federal forces and shifting bands of rebels who have carried the banners of separatism, jihad and revenge, have seen waves of violence as chilling as most any accounts of war. Fueled by racism and an urge to settle bloody scores, both sides have joined in a descent to the bottom, engaging in unsparing campaigns against each others’ civilian populations. Untold thousands of civilians have vanished or been killed. A wave of emigration followed, and criminality took hold. The tiny Chechen republic was leveled in the process, only to be rebuilt in recent years as a new police state controlled by a megalomaniacal young Kremlin proxy, Ramzan Kadyrov, who rules the land by collective punishment and fear.

If the paired words — insurgency and counterinsurgency — conjure dark associations, Chechnya is the example that summons some of the most severe forms of political violence of our time: hostage-taking in a theater, a public school and a hospital to leverage political demands; suicide bombings;  indiscriminate shelling of rebel strongholds; assassinations; beheadings of captured combatants and suspected informants; mass arrests and incarcerations; public displays of the dead as warnings to others; systemic use of torture, and more.

Much of this is has been rigorously documented by human-rights investigators and a small cadre of journalists; the shape of war-fighting in and near Chechnya is broadly understood. But accounts of participants have been few. The Sunday Times article prepared by The Times’s long-serving Moscow correspondent, Mark Franchetti, marks a valuable step toward gathering participants’ accounts. In a series of first-person vignettes from an anonymous officer’s diary, it offers a front-line account of characteristic forms of Russian-Chechen campaigns — roundups, torture, extrajudicial executions of detained rebels and the almost casual killing of civilians who happen to be in the way. It also captures some of the frantic energy and sorrow of firefights, in which this officer, who gave his 120-page diary to Mr. Franchetti, was often engaged. The result is a portrait of confused dehumanization, of both relishing in fighting and agonizing over the results.

Soldiers’ memoirs are basic artifacts from which any given war can be further understood. They are also potentially risky to rely on, especially in wars for which a large body of individual accounts are not available. As any veteran knows from listening to fellow soldiers’ bar stool accounts, survivors of war sometimes veer into cartoonish description, and accounts of events can be laden with exaggeration. These risks are amplified in a diary like this one, which in its published form presents a series of undated entries. (The Sunday Times said in the article’s introduction that it had removed locations and dates to protect Mr. Franchetti’s source.) Without the original manuscript available for review, it’s not possible to verify these accounts against a larger body of material.

But Mr. Franchetti is not new to the Chechen wars. He is one of the few remaining Western journalists who has troubled to cover a ghastly beat several years after it slipped from most newspapers’ pages, doggedly returning to his subject when many journalists moved on. And his collaboration with Dima Beliakov, a Russian photographer with rich connections throughout the Russian security services operating (to put it euphemistically) in the North Caucasus, has often granted him insights that have borne out. Questions will linger about this anonymous officer and his motives for coming forward. But any reader interested in comprehending what befell Chechnya will be left with a hope that a full treatment of this diary — with dates, locations, names — will become available with time. Perhaps there is a book to do, which would be a valuable addition to the all-too-thin libraries available on an important chapter in the histories not only of Russia and the Caucasus, but also of modern war.

The diary as available now is a complex offering. It provides a departure point for confronting the ways that war can unravel its participants. Mr. Franchetti’s source appears, variously and by his own accounts, as vicious, grim, bitter, alcoholic, criminal, angry at his country but deeply faithful to his fellow fighters, many of whom were killed and whom he feels he has let down. He departs the stage nostalgic, even aching, for a quiet family life. For those trying to understand the slippery new counterinsurgency doctrine, which has swept like a religion through the Pentagon in the past five years, this abbreviated diary also carries insights into how Russia’s forces have pursued their own Eastern brand of counterinsurgent tactics, unapologetically matching brutality with brutality, seeking less to win, as the tin-eared slogan says, Chechnya’s “hearts and minds” than to exhaust the Chechen population. The article is, on many levels, a deeply engaging and frighteningly realistic view of a world rarely exposed.

You can read the diary here.


The Wrath of Putin
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia when he dared  confront then president Vladimir Putin, criticizing state corruption at a  meeting with Putin in February 2003. Arrested that fall, then convicted  in two Kafka-esque trials, Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned ever since,  the once powerful oligarch now an invisible hero for the growing  opposition to Putin’s tyranny. From Moscow, as elections approach and  demonstrators spill into the streets, Masha Gessen chronicles the clash  of two titans, each of whom has badly underestimated the other.
This is the story of two men who are central to each other’s lives,  though they have neither met nor spoken in more than eight years. One of  the men has spent this time amassing impressive power and untold  wealth. The palace he built for himself sprawls over eight million  square feet. He travels from world capital to world capital. Everywhere  he goes, he is asked about the other man. The other man has spent the  past eight years behind bars, going for months without seeing the sky.  He has lost his business and most of his money. His family, his friends,  and most of his colleagues have stood by him, but the decisive  relationship of his life remains the one with the first man.
It  is a story of malice, cruelty, and vengeance—but more than anything it  is a story of a failure of imagination. Almost a decade ago, Mikhail  Khodorkovsky, then the owner of the Yukos Oil Company and Russia’s  richest man, completely miscalculated the consequences of standing up to  Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president. Putin had Khodorkovsky  arrested, completely miscalculating the consequences of putting him in  prison. During his eight years in confinement, Khodorkovsky has become  Russia’s most trusted public figure and Putin’s biggest political  liability. As long as Putin rules Russia and Khodorkovsky continues to  act like Khodorkovsky, Khodorkovsky will remain in prison—and Putin will  remain terrified of him.
Of his eight years without freedom,  Khodorkovsky has spent more than half in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina  Detention Facility, a 246-year-old jail, where living conditions are far  more punishing than those in a distant prison colony. He has declined  to describe the conditions in which he has been kept in any but the most  general terms, arguing that he is no different from other inmates, but  those who have been held in the same place describe cramped cells with a  hole in the floor that serves as the toilet. Inmates take cold meals  sitting on their cots, a few feet from the hole. Access to the outdoors  is virtually nonexistent. Khodorkovsky has spent a total of nearly three  full years attending his two trials, transported to court and back in  an armored car with a small holding compartment in which he must ride  standing up and bent over. During the first trial, he and his  co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, were made to sit in a cage, behind heavy  steel bars. During the second trial, after a complaint was lodged with  the European Court for Human Rights, they were displayed inside a  Plexiglas cube.
At the root of the conflict between Putin and  Khodorkovsky lies a basic difference in character. Putin rarely says  what he means and even less frequently trusts that others are saying  what they mean. Khodorkovsky, in contrast, seems to have always taken  himself and others at face value—he has constructed his identity in  accordance with his convictions and his life in accordance with his  identity. That is what landed him in prison and what has kept him there.
…
On December 31, 1999, former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin  replaced Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president. Putin moved quickly to  consolidate authority in the Kremlin, taking power away from the elected  parliament and local governors as well as from big business. He cracked  down on the opposition and on the media. People who stood up to him  often found themselves on the run—or dead. Putin made it abundantly  clear what he wanted from the oligarchs: he wanted them to share their  wealth with him and his allies, and he wanted them to stay out of  politics. Those who refused would not be around to complain. Vladimir  Gusinsky had owned a media company, including two television networks  and several magazines; his journalists had been highly critical of  Putin. Gusinsky was arrested and forced to sign over his company to the  state. He was then allowed to leave the country. Once in the West, he  claimed that his signature had been coerced. Russia responded by issuing  an international warrant for his arrest. Gusinsky has spent the last 11  years living in Israel. The stage was set for a confrontation.

The Wrath of Putin

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia when he dared confront then president Vladimir Putin, criticizing state corruption at a meeting with Putin in February 2003. Arrested that fall, then convicted in two Kafka-esque trials, Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned ever since, the once powerful oligarch now an invisible hero for the growing opposition to Putin’s tyranny. From Moscow, as elections approach and demonstrators spill into the streets, Masha Gessen chronicles the clash of two titans, each of whom has badly underestimated the other.

This is the story of two men who are central to each other’s lives, though they have neither met nor spoken in more than eight years. One of the men has spent this time amassing impressive power and untold wealth. The palace he built for himself sprawls over eight million square feet. He travels from world capital to world capital. Everywhere he goes, he is asked about the other man. The other man has spent the past eight years behind bars, going for months without seeing the sky. He has lost his business and most of his money. His family, his friends, and most of his colleagues have stood by him, but the decisive relationship of his life remains the one with the first man.

It is a story of malice, cruelty, and vengeance—but more than anything it is a story of a failure of imagination. Almost a decade ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the owner of the Yukos Oil Company and Russia’s richest man, completely miscalculated the consequences of standing up to Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president. Putin had Khodorkovsky arrested, completely miscalculating the consequences of putting him in prison. During his eight years in confinement, Khodorkovsky has become Russia’s most trusted public figure and Putin’s biggest political liability. As long as Putin rules Russia and Khodorkovsky continues to act like Khodorkovsky, Khodorkovsky will remain in prison—and Putin will remain terrified of him.

Of his eight years without freedom, Khodorkovsky has spent more than half in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina Detention Facility, a 246-year-old jail, where living conditions are far more punishing than those in a distant prison colony. He has declined to describe the conditions in which he has been kept in any but the most general terms, arguing that he is no different from other inmates, but those who have been held in the same place describe cramped cells with a hole in the floor that serves as the toilet. Inmates take cold meals sitting on their cots, a few feet from the hole. Access to the outdoors is virtually nonexistent. Khodorkovsky has spent a total of nearly three full years attending his two trials, transported to court and back in an armored car with a small holding compartment in which he must ride standing up and bent over. During the first trial, he and his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, were made to sit in a cage, behind heavy steel bars. During the second trial, after a complaint was lodged with the European Court for Human Rights, they were displayed inside a Plexiglas cube.

At the root of the conflict between Putin and Khodorkovsky lies a basic difference in character. Putin rarely says what he means and even less frequently trusts that others are saying what they mean. Khodorkovsky, in contrast, seems to have always taken himself and others at face value—he has constructed his identity in accordance with his convictions and his life in accordance with his identity. That is what landed him in prison and what has kept him there.

On December 31, 1999, former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president. Putin moved quickly to consolidate authority in the Kremlin, taking power away from the elected parliament and local governors as well as from big business. He cracked down on the opposition and on the media. People who stood up to him often found themselves on the run—or dead. Putin made it abundantly clear what he wanted from the oligarchs: he wanted them to share their wealth with him and his allies, and he wanted them to stay out of politics. Those who refused would not be around to complain. Vladimir Gusinsky had owned a media company, including two television networks and several magazines; his journalists had been highly critical of Putin. Gusinsky was arrested and forced to sign over his company to the state. He was then allowed to leave the country. Once in the West, he claimed that his signature had been coerced. Russia responded by issuing an international warrant for his arrest. Gusinsky has spent the last 11 years living in Israel. The stage was set for a confrontation.


Upping the Ante
With 100,000 protesters — young, old, and everything in between — out  in the freezing streets of Moscow, the heat is being turned up on  Vladimir Putin’s drive for the presidency.

Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it — or hoping it will all go away. “It’s a bureaucracy, and it works for itself,” Kotler told me. “It’ll take a long time for them to understand that they’re hired.”
But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin — that is, Putin — is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters’ League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition — and the federal television blacklists — on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin’s performance during his annual Q&A with the public.
Now, there is talk in the capital of “tightening the screws,” one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. “They’re waiting for the opposition to make a mistake,” says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. “Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down.” In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov’s phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.
And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.

Upping the Ante

With 100,000 protesters — young, old, and everything in between — out in the freezing streets of Moscow, the heat is being turned up on Vladimir Putin’s drive for the presidency.

Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it — or hoping it will all go away. “It’s a bureaucracy, and it works for itself,” Kotler told me. “It’ll take a long time for them to understand that they’re hired.”

But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin — that is, Putin — is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters’ League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition — and the federal television blacklists — on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin’s performance during his annual Q&A with the public.

Now, there is talk in the capital of “tightening the screws,” one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. “They’re waiting for the opposition to make a mistake,” says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. “Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down.” In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov’s phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.

And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.

Link: Vladimir Putin plans 100-book Russian canon all students must read

Vladimir Putin has laid out his plans to compile a canon of 100 Russian books “that every Russian school leaver will be required to read” in an attempt to preserve the “dominance of Russian culture”.

In an article running to more than 4,500 words in Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, the Russian prime minister writes that “in the 1920s, some leading universities in the United States advocated something referred to as the Western Canon, a canon of books regarded as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture”, adding that “each self-respecting student was required to read 100 books from a specially compiled list of the greatest books of the Western world”.

Putin, who is running for a third term as president in March, says that Russia has “always been described as a ‘reading nation’”, and proposes taking a survey of the country’s “most influential cultural figures” and compiling “a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read – that is, to read at home rather than study in class or memorise. And then they would be asked to write an essay on one of them in their final exams. Or at least let us give young Russians a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and world outlook in various student competitions.”

Journalist Alexander Nazaryan, who is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York, called Putin’s "cultural-unity-through-literature proposal" the Russian leader’s "most chilling [plan] of all".

"Social engineering through state mandated literature: Nothing else that Putin has done has been quite so nakedly Soviet in its desire to manipulate the human intellect into docility," writes Nazaryan, predicting that "the books that will benefit from Putin’s new cultural policy will almost certainly be Soviet-era schlock churned out by Writers’ Union foot soldiers who glorified their compatriots’ miserable existence".

Link: Suddenly We Know We Are Many

Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant.

Political freedom has never existed in Russia. Which is why in our country even critically minded people are not used to thinking about society as a whole. […] Politics is one thing, life is another. Russian society, particularly when it comes to my generation, is extremely unpolitical and this gives the government more or less unlimited freedom. We are not concerned about the government and that suits the government just fine. 

Of course there are people, plenty of them, who very definitely do make this connection. But even they do not get involved. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the entire political system in Russia – from village soviet to federal committee – is based on lies, on the pursuit of private instead of societal interests, and on theft. Even an honest person who ends up in politics has to play the game to some extent, otherwise he will be “eaten by less upstanding colleagues. This is why honest people give politics a wide berth. And engage in civil society in other ways. Such as in the voluntary movement which in recent years has become a mass phenomenon. 

Secondly, there has been neither political nor personal freedom in Russia for a very long time. Throughout the 20th century the totalitarian state wanted to control all spheres of life. This is no longer the case. The state no longer reaches into personal affairs, into the family and into people’s inner lives. Beyond this, many people don’t ask more of the state. People are left in peace, they are no longer shot for reading forbidden poetry, they are allowed to wear whatever they want, listen to whatever music they like, travel the world and even think what they wish about the state – and that’s just fine. It is a sort of silent agreement, a mutual nonaggression pact: leave us in peace and we will leave you in peace. The right to live one’s life in exchange for keeping out of politics in exchange. And for quite some time this seems to have satisfied both sides. 

Of course the state does not waste any time in dealing with those who dare to violate this agreement, who poke their noses into things or disrupt the status quo. The attacks on civil rights activists, the murders of prying journalists, the brutal suppression of demonstrations – these are all as much symptoms of the time as social networking or security checks in public spaces. In other words, it is not only hard work to stand up for your rights in Russia, it is also dangerous. And you cannot blame anyone for not wanting to risk their lives. After all, not everyone is a hero and a fighter.


Russian Election Protests: Over the past week, tens of thousands of Russians, decrying the recent parliamentary election results, attended some of the largest protests since the fall of the USSR 20 years ago. Communists, nationalists, and liberals marched in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other cities, shouting down Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party. They carried signs, calling for the election results to be nullified and alleged vote-rigging to be investigated. Protesters clashed with riot police and over a thousand were arrested, including noted anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The largest demonstration, coordinated on Facebook, was in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. Organizers have announced another mass protest, scheduled for December 24, which they claim will be twice as large. [37 photos]

Russian Election Protests: Over the past week, tens of thousands of Russians, decrying the recent parliamentary election results, attended some of the largest protests since the fall of the USSR 20 years ago. Communists, nationalists, and liberals marched in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other cities, shouting down Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party. They carried signs, calling for the election results to be nullified and alleged vote-rigging to be investigated. Protesters clashed with riot police and over a thousand were arrested, including noted anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The largest demonstration, coordinated on Facebook, was in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. Organizers have announced another mass protest, scheduled for December 24, which they claim will be twice as large. [37 photos]

Link: Mikhail Gorbachev calls for Russian elections to be annulled

Riot police in helmets roughly dragged more than 550 protesters into detention vans Tuesday evening in central Moscow but the opposition warned they would stage a major protest organised via the internet at the weekend. Protesters were planning more demonstrations today. Amid growing international alarm, Mr Gorbachev said the results of Sunday’s poll should be annulled and new elections held due to “numerous falsifications and rigging. The results do not reflect the will of the people,” Mr Gorbachev, president when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, told the Interfax news agency. ”Therefore I think they (Russia’s leaders) can only take one decision – annul the results of the election and hold new ones.” Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party won the polls with a sharply reduced majority, amid signs the prime minister’s once-invincible popularity might be waning.

 

LETTER FROM MOSCOW

On Sunday the Russian government held parliamentary elections. As usual, the results were massaged. But after fifteen years of such massaging, going back to the presidential election of Yeltsin in 1996, voters have finally had enough. A large protest gathered on Monday in the center of Moscow, at Chistye Prudy. Our friends in Moscow write:

What happened today at Chistye Prudy was, unquestionably, a major event. There were five or six thousand people. Most of them were young. For many it was the first conscious political act of their lives. Of course, there were many familiar faces, the ones you see at all the opposition meetings. And of course we got the familiar, empty rhetoric of the old guard of liberal activists: Ryzhkov, Yashin, the rock critic Troitsky. And of course the jokes of Shenderovich and the poems of Bykov.
But the spirit of the meeting, and what followed, was radically new. It was the sense of a new power, a conscious and dignified rage against the government and its police, and a creative willingness to step easily over the narrow bounds of the allowable. And the main thing: a sense of changes happening, not somewhere and sometime, but here and now. On this street, in this square, in this city.I can honestly say: this is the first time I felt the spirit of Tahrir in Moscow. Certainly distant, and certainly for the moment only as potential—but no longer impossible.It’s all happening against the background of an increasingly aggressive and helpless government. Thousands of police, bused into the center of town; their lumbering armored vehicles; fantastical constructions of empty stages with the portraits of our “leaders” and the United Russia bear hanging over them; and most of all, the absurd election results—it all just looks so pathetic. And therefore dangerous. The sense of losing control will aggravate the authorities, will cause them to overprepare. There will be more beatings on the kidneys; more “preliminary conversations” with kidnapped activists; more criminal trials on trumped-up charges.And finally, as never before, one felt today the poverty of the movement’s strategy. No one knew what to do after the protest, where to go, what to demand and of whom. The liberals had no sense that the meeting should not, must not end. The result of the meeting should be a concrete goal: the resignation of the government; cancelation of the election results; the beginning of real change. These goals cannot be stated and then achieved by a narrow group of politicians. They can only be achieved through the will and the conscious organization of a constantly growing collection of people who simply refuse, under any pretext whatsoever, to leave the streets to the police.

LETTER FROM MOSCOW

On Sunday the Russian government held parliamentary elections. As usual, the results were massaged. But after fifteen years of such massaging, going back to the presidential election of Yeltsin in 1996, voters have finally had enough. A large protest gathered on Monday in the center of Moscow, at Chistye Prudy. Our friends in Moscow write:

What happened today at Chistye Prudy was, unquestionably, a major event. There were five or six thousand people. Most of them were young. For many it was the first conscious political act of their lives. Of course, there were many familiar faces, the ones you see at all the opposition meetings. And of course we got the familiar, empty rhetoric of the old guard of liberal activists: Ryzhkov, Yashin, the rock critic Troitsky. And of course the jokes of Shenderovich and the poems of Bykov.

But the spirit of the meeting, and what followed, was radically new. It was the sense of a new power, a conscious and dignified rage against the government and its police, and a creative willingness to step easily over the narrow bounds of the allowable. And the main thing: a sense of changes happening, not somewhere and sometime, but here and now. On this street, in this square, in this city.

I can honestly say: this is the first time I felt the spirit of Tahrir in Moscow. Certainly distant, and certainly for the moment only as potential—but no longer impossible.

It’s all happening against the background of an increasingly aggressive and helpless government. Thousands of police, bused into the center of town; their lumbering armored vehicles; fantastical constructions of empty stages with the portraits of our “leaders” and the United Russia bear hanging over them; and most of all, the absurd election results—it all just looks so pathetic. And therefore dangerous. The sense of losing control will aggravate the authorities, will cause them to overprepare. There will be more beatings on the kidneys; more “preliminary conversations” with kidnapped activists; more criminal trials on trumped-up charges.

And finally, as never before, one felt today the poverty of the movement’s strategy. No one knew what to do after the protest, where to go, what to demand and of whom. The liberals had no sense that the meeting should not, must not end. The result of the meeting should be a concrete goal: the resignation of the government; cancelation of the election results; the beginning of real change. These goals cannot be stated and then achieved by a narrow group of politicians. They can only be achieved through the will and the conscious organization of a constantly growing collection of people who simply refuse, under any pretext whatsoever, to leave the streets to the police.