Rachel Polonsky

Stop flattering Putin

Rachel Polonsky says there is no reason why the West should indulge a brutal and repressive regime

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Russia’s Duma election was not an irrelevant farce. It marked an important stage in the continuing struggle between President Putin and the enlightened few who are striving, with talent, energy and courage, to create democracy and a civil society in this country. Though the political events in the preceding weeks sometimes looked like impenetrably intricate clan wars within ‘the elite’, they exposed this struggle in all its simplicity.

Beguiling imagery covers the surface of the city. This month’s big prize at the Shangri-La Casino on Pushkin Square is a ‘prezidentsky kortezh’, a familiar sight for Muscovites. Get lucky and you win two Mercedes-Benz saloons and a boxy jeep, complete with blacked-out windows and blue lights for cutting through traffic. For most of the year, members of the Russian parliament entering the Duma building have been watched from up close by the lynx eyes of a BMW on a poster covering the condemned Moskva hotel on the opposite side of the street. Now, Putin is watching. As soon as the state Duma election campaigns began this autumn, the slinky headlamps disappeared from the face of the soon-to-be demolished Moskva, to be replaced by a vast advertisement for United Russia, the majority party whose political platform consists solely of loyalty to the Kremlin. In place of the sleek foreign car, that wordlessly eloquent image of the material seductions of the politics of graft, appeared the words of Putin, equally rich in coded significance. ‘Together we must make Russia united, strong...,’ said the President, reminding parliamentarians of the price of power in an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

The word ‘unity’, relayed so resonantly around the land before Sunday’s vote, has sinister undertones in this political environment. One election poster in the Metro (where advertising tended to be more populist, xenophobic and crypto-totalitarian than on the highways) featured a map of the Russian Federation, superimposed with the heads of great figures from the national past. Victims of the Soviet system and their persecutors united in unconsenting support for the President’s favoured party: Lenin, Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founders of the police state and the Gulag, appeared with the dissidents Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Iosif Brodsky. The Russian past is unified; all plurality, dissension and conflict erased.

The most potent electioneering image for the ‘party of power’, as United Russia calls itself, was not an official campaign poster but a stark image of national disunity. A photograph released in mid-November showed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head shaved, staring through the bars of a cage into a CCTV camera at the closed hearing that denied him bail. Accompanying the picture was a warning from the deputy prosecutor, who spoke as though Khodorkovsky had already been convicted. ‘Those who are not yet jailed must think hard about what they are doing,’ he said. Russia’s new rich may not have had to think hard about this public political blackmail by a member of the judiciary, but they thought fast. The day after the publication of this graphic indication of the consequences of powerful dissent, the President appeared before the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. In regard to state-business relations, Putin declared, there will be no going back to the past. The tycoons greeted this remark with ‘stormy applause’, as the editors of Communist party proceedings used to say. As several commentators have since pointed out, Putin failed to specify which past he had in mind. Did he mean the Soviet era of nomenklatura criminality in the name of the communist state, or the Yeltsin era of criminality in the name of capitalism? No one mentioned Khodorkovsky. After the meeting, many businessmen vocally distanced themselves from the President’s humiliated enemy, and lined up to pledge commitment to United Russia. Many others kept quiet.

Meanwhile, in the conversational life of Moscow one of the noisier themes has been the nature of Khodorkovsky’s intentions. As in all good conversations, there is no unity of interpretation. Though Khodorkovsky’s purposes fall into the area recently defined by Donald Rumsfeld, in admirably plain English, as the ‘known unknown’, they are a fascinating subject of speculation. Many who have done business with him find it impossible to see him as a political martyr. Nonetheless, two days after his arrest, a senior Western Yukos executive, stoical in the face of his company’s falling share price, feelingly described him to me as ‘a patriot who does not want to see his country go backwards’. A former KGB official-turned-banker at the same table dismissed Khodorkovsky’s defiance of Putin as deranged. ‘This is Russia,’ he said, ‘he knew the rules.’

To human-rights activists and independent-media advocates whose work he has sponsored (and who now live in fear of the tax police), ‘Misha’ is a persecuted genius. Seasoned Western officials who have worked with Khodorkovsky on philanthropic projects have high regard for his professionalism and doubt that his commitment to civil society can be fake. An elderly friend told me she feels no pity: ‘He didn’t pay his taxes.’ ‘Nor did you, Mama,’ her Westernised son retorted. ‘No, but they won’t catch me,’ she replied. When a gentle prince of one of the noblest Russian dynasties, sceptical of the ‘sleazy oil man’s talk of “open society”’, described him to me as a marionette of forces working against Russia, I dared not pursue the question lest he mention America or the Jews.

Last month, the dissident newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an interview with an anonymous FSB officer involved in the Khodorkovsky case. He is ‘a jerk’, the officer says. ‘He was asking for it.... The worst part was when he said he would rather be a political prisoner than a political refugee.’ Khodorkovsky is ‘clearly oriented toward the United States. He shouldn’t be in Russia.’ ‘All Jews are traitors,’ he continues. ‘They all lean towards the West.’ And Roman Abramovich? ‘He’s the smartest of them,’ says the FSB man. Once his gubernatorial term is up, he will leave quietly. He’s already sold everything here and bought everything there.’

What does it mean for a Russian to lean towards the West? Khodorkovsky answered this question in an interview with a New York Times correspondent weeks before his arrest. For Russia, ‘the West means a high value on human life; for us the West is civil rights’. ‘This has nothing to do with property,’ he added. ‘We’re talking about whether we will have a society with civil rights or a society without.... I don’t know how serious a choice that seems to you, but as a citizen of my country it is a very serious choice.’

Some ‘serious’ Western commentators on Russian affairs have recently remarked in knowing tones that we should observe Russia’s political evolution in silence, that the West has no place lecturing this KGB-loving president on democracy and the rule of law. Their view implies that authoritarianism is somehow inevitable in Russia and that a ‘peculiarly Russian’ political order is naturally evolving under Putin. They do no justice either to Russia or to the West by construing Western values as primarily, even exclusively, the values implied in the coarsest capitalist economism.

Russia and the West are not as distinct as they often seem. The ideas that underpin liberal democracy and the rule of law have not been successfully realised in Russian history, and have often been viciously suppressed, as th ey are now under Putin. They are, however, as integral to Russia’s intellectual heritage as the messianic, xenophobic and irrational ‘national idea’ that seethes elsewhere in the culture, and is achieving increasing official expression. When we speak of ‘the West’, we should not overlook the place of Marxism, national socialism and fascism in the intellectual and political history of Europe. Many Europeans and Americans take for granted, even despise, their political and civil freedoms and obligations. This does not devalue those freedoms and obligations. Nor does the fact that many Russians have no experience or understanding of civil liberties and responsibilities mean that they are unworthy of democracy.

We have flattered Putin enough. There is no reason to believe that a corrupt, repressive corporate state will produce significant economic and social improvements for the third of the Russian population that lives in absolute poverty. Political freedom, justice and official accountability are more than just optional decorations for a market economy.

So what could they mean to ordinary Russians? Well, the people who live away from the smooth roads that lead to the dacha compounds of wealthy bureaucrats might write to a local newspaper about the potholes that make their main streets impassable. The newspaper would not be self-censored or state-owned. Parents would not have to bribe academic bureaucrats for their children’s degrees. Mothers would not watch silently as their only sons are conscripted, knowing that they will be underfed, sadistically bullied, and then sent to murder civilians in Chechnya. The birthrate and the price of vodka might go up; the HIV infection rate might go down. There might be a public investigation into the ‘apartment bombings’ of 1999, in which 300 Russians were killed in their sleep, to establish whether, as much evidence suggests, the FSB planted them to create a pretext for the Chechen war which made Putin popular. Liberal Duma deputies who proposed such inquiries would not, like Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, be murdered. The survivors of the bombings would speak publicly about their suspicions; those who have dared to speak would return from political asylum.

When Khodorkovsky talks of civil rights, he talks of ‘the West’, but he reaches into his country’s own intellectual past. Repeatedly, he echoes Alexander Radishchev, the most important Russian thinker of the late 18th century. Like Radishchev, Khodorkovsky believes that Peter the Great (Putin’s ideal tsar) is wrongly credited with bringing Russia closer to the West. Peter, Radishchev said, did nothing to promote individual liberty. He devalued human life, says Khodorkovsky. Like Radishchev, Khodorkovsky idealises the Novgorod veche, an ancient Russian parliamentary assembly that guaranteed citizens democratic as well as property rights, until it was broken up in the late 15th century by a Muscovy prince who saw himself as sovereign over all Russia. Like Radishchev, Khodorkovsky admires England and the US for their traditions of civil and political freedom. Radishchev considered George Washington a political hero, and autocracy ‘the system most repugnant to human nature’.

In this vein, the Moscow academic Dmitri Furman has suggested that once Khodorkovsky had made his money, he may have wanted self-respect. He chose prison over the degradation of service to an authoritarian state, refusing to become a new Homo sovieticus, an enslaved bureaucrat showing up for United Russia rallies. Furman’s theory would at least make sense of the laconic statement that Khodorkovsky made after his arrest. ‘I do not regret what has happened today,’ he said simply. Here too, Radishchev set an example. On his way to Siberia, where he was exiled by Catherine the Great after self-publishing his subversive Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, Radishchev found peace. ‘You ask who I am and where I am going?’ he wrote. ‘I am as I was and shall be forever:/ Neither beast, nor log, nor slave — but a man.’

Rachel Polonsky is an academic specialising in Russian literature.