The Beginning of Decency
The loss of fear is the most important factor on Russia’s road to a more civilised state.
The most important moment in Russian modern history has occurred shortly before the presidential elections of 2012, independently of the result of yet another rigged show: the Russian people decided to act to demonstrate their rejection of the customary Big Lie. They did it, and are still doing it, in quantities that constitute a critical mass, thus making the ongoing change irrevocable. This is the beginning of a long and hurdled road towards democracy and freedom, given the country’s dimensions, its population size and its historical traditions, but it is also a fundamental change in the social psyche and behaviour of the Russian people. It is also the most important result of the elections of 2012.
Farewell to fear
Many observers talk about the awakening of the masses in Russia who are protesting and demanding political changes, but this is not a quite accurate definition of what is going on. The Russian people were never stupid or blind; we all knew the real state of affairs and we felt the zeal of the country’s leaders to keep its citizens rightless all the time.
The defining moment in the personal and social behaviour of the Russian people depended on the amount of personal courage needed to overcome natural human fear – fear for your own life or the life of your loved ones, fear of arrest or imprisonment, fear of being made a ‘vegetable’ with psychotropic injections or being forced to live in one or another particular place, fear of losing the possibility to study and work, let alone to travel, read or see the world freely. People seem to be forgetting it, but this ubiquitous fear is exactly what defined the mentality and behaviour of the Russian people.
The most dramatic episode in the life of my generation, and possibly for the following generations too, was connected with the seven people at the Red Square who went out to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. They were the real heroes. Any normal country experiencing a post-totalitarian period would give them all the highest national award and endow them with the status of national heroes as we see happening in post-totalitarian societies around the world from South Africa to Poland and back. Not in Russia though, nothing close to that.
The overwhelming feeling that accompanied the crucial episode then, and is still felt now, was shame – shame that it was just seven out of the 265 million people in the whole country or even of the 6.8 million living in Moscow at the time. But it also taught a lesson to us that a free human spirit could be fearless even under the hardest dictatorship.
At the end of 1991, I wrote in my book Shattered Generation or the Ten Commandments in the USSR, which described the Soviet and Russian mentality formed by totalitarianism, that it would take at least a generation after the collapse of the Soviet regime for people to be able and willing to act freely. Now, twenty years on, this crucial moment has finally occurred in Russia, although it has happened quite late in comparison with most of the countries that Moscow loved to control in a suffocating way for decades, both in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Observing the growing protest movement of thousands all over Russia from December 2011 onwards, one can see that the principal phenomenon there is the loss of fear.
What we witnessed three months prior to the rigged presidential elections were the Russian people being threatened or frozen, insulted or put under pressure, challenged emotionally and quite directly career- and job-wise. Now a human being in Russia is feeling devoted, willing and able. All he needed was to straighten his back and to lift his head up. The best part of the ongoing farewell to fear is that the number of those people has multiplied so many times compared to the seven bravest ones on the Red Square 44 years ago. In terms of demography, it has taken two generations though.
Genes and genes
It has to be admitted that the strata in Russia, mostly represented by the ruling United Russia party and embodied in their presidential candidate, still constitute a quite large part of the country’s population. The majority of those people were never taught the desire for self-respect versus fear. They can hardly comprehend it as they try to use the classic method of mirroring the reasons for the ‘weird’ behaviour of the protesters for themselves and others, which reflects on their own world – a world, which is sadly often that of Sharikov’s, to allude to a key personality in Bulgakov’s novel Heart of a Dog.
“This [victory] is in our genes! We are victorious people!” This was a highly charged and fiercely punctuated statement with a matching expression on the speaker’s face and the self-explanatory fist raising – as we remember, “Pobeda budet za nami!” (“We will prevail!”) was the exact wording of Stalin’s famous cliché, which was invented by Molotov. At his most spectacular public appearance just ten days prior the voting date, candidate Putin knew precisely what he was saying and doing.
The speech was symbolically set on the Day of Defenders of the Fatherland, which is still known to everyone in Russia as the Red Army Day. The Russian leader just could not keep his cool and the expression on his face, together with the fist swinging, seemed nothing but furious and exceptionally antagonistic for our days. The re-candidate to re-presidency has thus fully and consciously identified himself with Stalin. This came as no surprise, as this particular parallel was quite obvious from the day when he was brought to the throne for the first time back in 2000.
In this symbolic speech on that symbolic day, the leader of Russia declared war on anyone who dared to disagree. There was nothing amusing in that. “A nightmare” – that was the immediate reaction by many Russian people all over the Internet.
And it was not even an ordinary show during an electoral rally because it can happen anywhere these days. Candidate Putin was nervous and he gave himself away. That 7-minute speech demonstrated to the whole world what Russia could be like for up to 12 years as he would re-install himself as president, shamelessly using the enormous existing administrative resources and machinery.
History shows us that all real and aspiring dictators helplessly fancy the governing models of the Roman Empire. All of them, blinded by the enormity of their power, repeat the same mistake over and over again: they are unable to recognise the moment when a ‘crowd’ in front of them is transformed into a gathering of human beings. As we all saw on that very occasion when amongst the people who were brought to the stadium en masse to support the leader of United Russia, there were some holding the signs ‘WE WERE BROUGHT HERE BY FORCE!’ Seventy of them were arrested for a brief period, all of them happened to be Uzbeks who had come to Russia to work. They were treated by the Moscow police as ‘foreigners disturbing a public event’. As if a foreign way of disturbing is different from a domestic one.
This and many other extraordinary situations all over Russia on the eve of the rigged elections should become an X-moment for Mr Putin to make him realise that he should stop assuming that the 145 million individuals of 85 ethnic origins who are the citizens of the country – which is no longer an empire – represent only one gene combination, the only one he knows. A very large and ethnically, educationally, culturally and socially quite heterogeneous country like Russia objectively consists of many different genes. The more, the better – as such diversity does not only produce a lot of talent, a trademark of the Russian people for centuries, but it also keeps up the high level of their potential capacities. It is obviously counterproductive for anyone at the top of the political hierarchy to try to simplify the large and diverse population of his own country in accordance with his personal mediocre standard of Russianness, even if he happened to be ‘more of a presidential candidate than the others’.
There is also something in our people’s genes – as we are seeing it every single day from December 2011 onwards – that could be described as a conscious pursuit of freedom. Quite characteristically, you can see among the protesters both young and more mature people, students, engineers, bankers, managers, writers and journalists, singers and military men – all in all a quite broad cross section of society. Importantly, this is also a process that paves the way for decency to become a recognised value, not just a virtue of certain individuals – it does not matter how many – but also a practice accepted in public life in Russia, one of the country’s characteristics.
If achieved, this would be major news for those who have been rehearsing in full seriousness the elections in Russia a week before the actual date, with ‘Peter the Great’ officially declared as the winner in that surreal exercise. Those officials seem to believe that Peter the Great is far better than Iosif Dzhugashvili, but it just indicates once again their lack of knowledge of history. Did anybody tell the geniuses behind the hilarious idea that it replicates exactly the practices applied only recently in Egypt, in Cote d’Ivoire and in other countries where dictatorships of many decades had just ended or in new countries with no democratic tradition whatsoever where election proceedings had been introduced for the very first time?
For a member of G8 and other leading world organisations, this behaviour is quite amusing. Russia’s right to lecture the rest of the world on whatever issue should be evaluated in correlation with the degree of development of civilised society in Russia itself.
The yeast of change
Twenty years after a major disruption in the lives of hundreds of millions, caused by the abrupt collapse of Soviet Communism, it begins to become clear that it has indeed taken a generation for the spores of freedom and self-awareness to start to mature to the next stage of personal and social development of the people. The atmosphere in the beginning of the 1990s in Russian society was very much in tune with Vladimir Vysotsky’s bitter line: “I’ve been given freedom yesterday; what shall I do with it?”
Today, in hindsight, the last twenty years could be seen as a true transition period for Russian social psyche – a period of growth in terms of awareness, knowledge and experience. We have got first-hand experience of phenomena we could not even dream of before, including unrestricted travel, reading and watching both consciously and subconsciously a wide spectrum of things and events as we make use of a massive information flow – the way it always happens when a totalitarian, closed society opens up. When some defenders of Putin’s regime insist that it all happened ‘thanks to him’, their reasoning is simply unsound. Putin and his club did not come to rule Russia for ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And when they did, they themselves thoroughly enjoyed everything mentioned in the list above. Being very much the products of the Soviet totalitarian system, they were genuinely happy to live normally after it, as was everyone else.
And then, with this new team in power – it is important to point out that they were not elected, but installed in their positions by an extremely ill-thought plan of Messr Berezovsky in the framework of his ‘little fixing operation’ – what could they have done against a new era in communications, despite their initial desire and some actual efforts to control the Internet and the rest of the social communications in their own interest?
The Russian political and business elite was eager to send their children to study abroad for years. That seems to have been the right decision, as we can see now. Being brought up in the free world, these kids are different from their parents. Anyone who saw the protesters against Russian election fraud in London, in Berlin, in New York, in Paris and in many other places worldwide, even in Tokyo and in Canberra, must have noticed that the majority of them were young people who knew precisely why, and what for, they were flocking to the protest spots.
Being morally defeated in their own country – it is not easy for the leadership to withstand such amount of mockery and bitter irony from an outraged public for three months non-stop, a practice which will apparently continue after the March elections – Putin and his team are facing a very serious decline in their power and influence on the international stage too.
After massive changes in the Middle Eastern dictatorial regimes that were traditionally close to Moscow, the only serious power Russia could now befriend is China. But the Kremlin knows all too well that China might support them – or is it actually the Kremlin who increasingly has to support China? – only if it perceives Russia’s actions as useful moves in their own game of xiangqi.1
The Kremlin can no longer master Afghanistan as they used to, neither can they do the same in Iraq. They cannot count on their very useful friendships with Libya or Egypt anymore or to keep supplying arms to the rest of the Middle Eastern regimes now lost to the Kremlin. Syria’s fall is underway and they would be against the rest of the world – with the Chinese continuing their own plays – over Iran. Where is the Kremlin’s place in the grand global game? Its international power has shrunk substantially as a result of too direct, too short-sighted, too militarist policies, with which they still treat the world because they are unable to recognise the change the world is going through.
This is, first and foremost, an intellectual defeat for Putin and his team. And bringing people like Dmitry Rogozin to leading positions in Russia’s defence sector – with good prospects for him to become not just the most probable next minister of defence, but possibly also prime minister in the foreseeable future – will only further distance the country from the international community and will make the defeat even more palpable. This is what Russian protesters in growing numbers at home and abroad are telling their leaders who just cannot stop cheating their own citizens: “We would like to be respected and to have reasons to respect our country. Enough is enough.”
The talented and the untalented
Anyone who is observing the unfolding of an articulated and concerned resistance to the Great Cheat in Russia can see that there are now two countries in Russia. The United Russia party and the forces behind and around Putin are trying to challenge the people who do not want to be fooled and used once again in a nasty and fake way. The pro-Putin camp has been slow in its response. They have only been able to produce a shameless and talentless copy of practically everything that the White Ribbon camp has tirelessly been creating.
When White Ribbonistas were successful in calling rallies of unprecedented quantity, Putinistas, with some delay, started to bring people – all on the government payroll – on buses and trains to their staged and sickening copies of Soviet-style forced marches against ‘international imperialism’. When free people invented car rallies against the system and its representatives – and it was a real aesthetic pleasure to watch a fleet of Audis and Lexuses decorated all over in white – the pro-Kremlin crowd went to the streets too... just before the start of an anti-Putin rally. When the main slogan of the protest movement was decided early on to be ‘Za chestnye vybory’ (‘For honest elections’), a week before the vote a new movement was registered in a hurry by the opposite side under the name ‘Za chistye vybory’ (‘For clean elections’). In Russian language, the two phrases sound almost identical.
Perplexed and stunned by the openness and scale of the anti-Putin protests, the pro-Putin camp hurriedly and angrily tried to confuse the wider Russian audience, to spoil the success of the protests and to prevent them from growing. But this race, organised in a dirty and arrogant way, has been quite unsuccessful. Their arsenal turned out to include the dusty old tricks of the KGB school of thought and practice in second-hand use.
A little more than twenty years ago – just before the collapse of the Soviet Union – one of Putin’s close friends and allies, the chief ‘dissident-hunter’ in Leningrad and KGB General Victor Cherkessov, made himself famous by insisting that “both fax and Xerox are US-invented equipment designed to undermine the Soviet regime.” Twenty years on, the rhetoric of Putin and his allies is so strikingly similar to that spectacular quote that it seems that these people still live in a time capsule. They have felt so comfortable in it for their decade of power usurpation that they refuse to recognise that their capsule has been eaten up by their own lies, crimes and boorish contempt of their people and country. Now it is their turn to become despised.
Regardless of the recent rigged election results, there are growing numbers of people in Russia who learn and develop, who are witty and inventive, who do not harbour hatred while expressing their opinions and who smile at rallies, thus bringing a factor of normality and decency into Russian public life.
And there are also those who try to grab the power they were never elected to have in the first place and to keep practicing their mediocre instincts at the expense of others. It is clear to me who will prevail in the end in this great rally for decency. In predictions like these, one goes for a conscious choice, for convictions that encourage us in our existence. In this context, the real winner of these utterly farcical ‘elections’ are the hundreds of thousands Russian voters who are wearing the White Ribbons of decency today. They are paving the way for a more decent tomorrow for their country.
1 Chinese chess.