Whenever something major happens in Russia, I wish it were a lot easier to get over there and witness conditions on the ground. For instance when Boris Yeltsin died, I really wanted to visit his corpse as it lay in state in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to see for myself how people were reacting to this man who had caused so much chaos in his 8-year rule.
Right now I’m feeling the same frustration. Important events are taking place in Russia, the greatest symbol of which (for me) was the sight of Sergei Udaltsov tearing up a picture of Vladimir Putin at last weekend’s protest rally. Not so long ago only Eduard Limonov’s kiddie army did that sort of thing and they’d get arrested, beaten and jailed for their troubles. So what is the likelihood of meaningful change? How substantial is the protest movement?
The problem for those of us outside the country is that mass media (certainly in the U.S. and UK) are fairly hopeless when it comes to Russia. Moscow correspondents either live in a hermetic bubble inhabited exclusively by “Ekho Moskvy” radio listeners; or they succumb to pressure from their editors to deliver trite, Cold War-esque narratives, featuring noble dissidents struggling against the Evil Empire, etc., etc.
But that’s not the choice on offer here; it hasn’t been for a long time. Years ago a friend of mine who supported Moscow’s then-mayor Yury Luzhkov explained that she was sure he was corrupt, but didn’t care. The important thing was that he wasn’t evil. “Better a thief than a drinker of blood,” she said. That was the choice in Russian politics. I believe she was quoting Brodsky.
That being the case, I felt conflicted when I watched a report on Euronews regarding the two rallies last weekend. From the pictures, the anti-Putin protest looked bigger and a lot more boisterous than the pro-Putin assembly. But then it’s much more exciting to challenge the status quo than it is to rally in support of it. The contrast was starkly visible in the two protestors the journalist interviewed.
The anti-Putin protestor was a red-haired kid in his early 20s who wanted lots of good things: human rights; democracy; an end to corruption. He reminded me of those Russians who bemoan the fact that they don’t live in a “normal” country, by which they mean: a liberal social democracy like Denmark or Sweden. In fact, those kinds of places are highly abnormal. The rule for human society, both today and throughout history is corruption, violence and authoritarianism.
The pro-Putin protestor was a driver in his 50s. He wanted stability and continuity, both of which, he said, Vladimir Vladimirovich had brought to the country. This man had lived through the collapse of the USSR and the ’98 default. He lost everything twice, and watched as his country was devoured by rapacious wolves. The red-haired kid was either unborn or a small child when all that happened. He was unburdened by memory.
The anti-Putin crowds clearly have no idea what they want besides getting rid of Putin and working from there. Or rather, they want lots of different things, but that’s the one idea they have in common. But Putin remains popular with many millions of voters, and who’s to say that if he were to leave something more “normal” would emerge? You have to lay the groundwork for a positive transition, or you'll wind up like the Ukrainians, electing a pair of populist incompetents, only to wind up back at square one again, or worse. In post-revolutionary Libya the torturers are sharpening their blades; in Egypt religious reactionaries are coming to power. In Russia, Western-style democrats are a teensy tiny minority. Compare Putin to some of the knuckle draggers in the Duma and he is the height of sophistication and liberalism; the country does not want for aspiring nationalist and communist strongmen.
I spoke to a friend, no lover of the current ruling elite. He’s 30:
“What side I’m on I’m not sure. I’m not a Putin supporter by any means but at the same time any instant change of president, let alone revolution, would throw us back for many years. Two regime changes in my lifetime is not really desirable.”
Indeed the chances of democracy emerging from the collapse of the current order are nil. Some of the protestors are aware of this; the author Boris Akunin called for unity and some kind of positive program. But many of the movement leaders have been hanging around since the late 80s or mid-90s; they have never been able to unite before. Some are still tainted by their connections to Yeltsin’s regime. I put all this to another friend who has been attending the rallies:
“All very true,” he said. “But that's not how it feels on the ground sometimes. Euphoria is a very powerful drug.”
And doubt and ambiguity are not very potent antidotes. But disappointment, when it comes, can be soul-destroying.