“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. 
God and the devil are fighting there
and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky,

The Brothers Karamazov


Winter came early in the year after the Fall.  All the people’s hopes and dreams and expansive aspirations had not yet faded, nor had the illusions yet dissipated like fog in the mid-morning sun, burned away by the glaring heat of economic, political, and social reality.  Boris Yeltsin had stood on the tank, defending the Russian “White House.”  In his tall figure were embodied all things that any Russian could imagine him to be: patriot, reformer, democrat, man of the people—and traitor, too.  But that image, real and imagined, projected or internalized, was already becoming tarnished in the debris of a collapsed superpower.

I was aimlessly, curiously, foolishly slogging through the snow in distant Khabarovsk, made more remote from European Russia by the collapse of the transportation system.  But I had somehow made my way there from the Pacific coast, where the winds blew strongly off the bay in a place that seemed to be situated on the edge of the world, teetering on an abyss covered by rolling waves of cold ocean waters.  The rusting hulks of the Soviet navy were anchored there, listing, pathetic, neglected orphans of a fallen empire.

An old woman approached a series of steps, wrapped in a shawl; stooping, she dragged her little sled with its mound of broken boards, taken from a fence for heating fuel, her head swaying ever so slightly from right to left and back as she trudged through the accumulating snow.  I half-dragged, half-carried the sled up the steps for her.  She blessed me, and I patted her shoulder ever so gently.  And I smelled the familiar odor of vodka on her breath.

Across this vast country, factories were closing or only partially operating, and the familiar stories circulated—of the engineer selling Chinese watches on a street corner; of the war veteran begging in the street, hobbling on one leg; of Russia’s young women selling themselves to foreigners for hard currency.  All boundaries had dissolved.  And the promise of democracy would be broken in a frenzy of theft.

A newly opened church drew a fair crowd on a forbidding day, the old women crossing themselves, the young and curious entering and partaking of a ritual unfamiliar to most of them, but they seemed drawn to it as amnesiacs experiencing a dawning of vague familiarity from a forgotten past.  Stanislav Govorukhin’s film, The Russia We Have Lost, was released that year, and the young wanted to know: What have we lost?  Something more than grainy images of the czar and old Moscow?  Or something less?

Airplane fuel was short, and passengers were stranded in distant corners of the vast, ramshackle Russian state.  I wondered how long I would be there.

Twenty years have passed.  What has changed and what has not?  What is there hope for, or hopelessness about?  I, for one, can still remember fondly a time (or some part of a certain time, since all memories are selective by nature) when Russians read books and recited poetry.  And the conceit of Russianness, dear reader, was that in every Russian was a poet, while simultaneously, underneath, was an earthy peasant, a broad-natured soul, and that the essence of each of the Karamazovs, sinner and penitent, was in Russia herself.

That state of the heart and mind, I’m afraid, is mostly gone.  So it seems that even the Iron Curtain had its positive uses.

But since last December, the wave of political protests (the chief slogan being “For honest elections!”) across Russia, though mainly concentrated in a few major cities, for a time spurred on the hopes of those who detected—finally, at long last!—the awakening of the slumbering Russian masses.  With relative prosperity resulting largely from high oil prices, a demanding and politically aware “middle class” had emerged, apparently confirming certain theories concerning Economic Man.

There is both a great truth and a great misconception in that view.  Russia is a land of contradictions and complexity, and not a simple place to explain at all.

The protestors, known collectively as “Bolotnaya,” named for a Moscow mass-protest location, had been disappointed by President Dmitri Medvedev.  Medvedev had promised real democracy, free and fair elections, and, this is especially important, an earnest battle with official corruption.

Last September, when Vladimir Putin announced his 2012 presidential candidacy, the mask of the “tandem” was lifted, apparently revealing that President Medvedev had all along been little more than a pawn in the hands of his nominal subordinate, Prime Minister Putin.  Putin was positioning himself to remain president until 2024.  And if he remained, so would the “clans” that had gathered around him, keeping others away from the state budget “trough,” while dominating the lucrative “corruption market.”  This is Russian reality.

Now let us be honest in assessing the protestors: Many of the leaders were also old faces, people like former Vice Premier Boris Nemtsov, and their bargaining with the authorities, vlast, began almost immediately, as they clearly sought a return to their place in the warming light of vlast’s sun.  And certain “oligarchs,” jealous of the proximity of Putin’s favored cronies to the trough, supported them, likely with the backing of key members of Medvedev’s team (and according to one story, Medvedev himself, who ordered that the police not break up the demonstrations).  That is one group.

Another was the motley assortment of anarchists, “antfa” radicals, and the usual rainbow of homosexuals, “performance artists,” and pop-culture figures playing at 1968 activism.  Their antics, including an unauthorized performance of an anti-Putin song by an all-female band called—forgive me, dear readers—“Pussy Riot” within the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, most likely worked against the protestors.  It seems reasonable that many Russians could only ask themselves, Is this what “freedom” means to them?  If so, maybe Putin’s “stability” would be better.

But there are others who had a different agenda—small-business owners, for instance.  This is a segment of “middle class” society often blackmailed (pay extortion money or face a trumped-up criminal case) and victimized by “the state,” meaning whatever collection of clans controls an official department or ministry.  If arrested, an unfortunate business owner might die in custody, or emerge financially, physically, and psychologically broken.  Meanwhile, officialdom lives in resplendent luxury, untouched and safe, so long as a rival clan does not envy their spot at the trough.  The value of the corruption market has soared along with oil prices under Putin, as has the price of the average bribe.  It is sheer fantasy to imagine that the top players do not receive their cut of the corruption take.  That’s the way the game is played.

And, gentle reader, there were protestors who actually believed that they had a right to vote in elections that are not manipulated or stolen, and with a real choice, not the “no alternatives” reality so many have grown used to.  Call them naive if you will, or overly idealistic, but they were there.

We should not leave out another critical factor, usually overlooked by journalists, and that is the disappointment of rising “middle class” material expectations.  The 2008-09 financial crisis hit the middle class hard.  Hopes of an ever-rising economic tide were dashed, and the intrusions of officialdom, once tolerated in exchange for rising living standards, seemed all the more onerous.

In any case, President Medvedev, however hampered by the conditions of his “understanding” with Putin, hoped to purge certain corners of the bureaucracy, making room for his own associates.  This inevitably led to a certain glasnost in attacking officialdom, augmented by Medvedev’s promises to combat corruption.  Thus, usually repressed anger was given an outlet.  Like Gorbachev before him, Medvedev may have mistakenly helped spawn the political protests that took him and Putin by surprise.

It is also a mistake to believe that the Russia-wide Bolotnaya is entirely left-liberal in orientation.  Old-style leftists took part, and there was a sizable contingent of nationalists among the protestors, and within that group signs of a new nationalism that has jettisoned imperialism, along with subservience to vlast and knee-jerk support for the state.  One of the main slogans of the new nationalist agenda is “Stop feeding the Caucasus!”

The slogan is driven by two things: First, the sense that certain troublesome minorities, especially Caucasus Muslims, are granted privileges, including vast federal subsidies, at the expense of the majority; and second, that “Caucasus law” rules with impunity over Russians.  The truth is that Moscow’s writ does not extend to the Caucasus.  And the Chechens and other Caucasian nationalities, saddled as they are with a not-undeserved reputation for irrational violence, terrorism, and criminality, routinely, and often literally, get away with murder.  Many Russians see the police as either corrupt and in cahoots with the “people of Caucasian nationality,” or simply afraid of them.  Unfortunately, both are often true.  It was the death of a Russian at the hands of Kavkaztsy, for instance, that set off the December 2010 riot on Moscow’s Manezh Square.

Putin is not beloved by the new nationalists, who sometimes call him “president of Chechnya,” because of his unwavering support for Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, bought off, as the new nationalists see it, by Moscow’s tribute.  So who is lord, and who is vassal?  Kadyrov’s assassins have been highly successful—mostly unmolested by vlast—in eliminating his Chechen critics and rivals both within Russia and in Europe and the Middle East.  But the Kremlin will look the other way, since “peace” in the Caucasus (a continuing insurgency there notwithstanding) is one of the pillars of Putin’s “stability.”

Regarding popular discontent, a word on what an encounter with law enforcement in Russia may turn into.  In March, an all-too-common type of incident in Kazan set off a round of reports on police scandals, most likely coming to light at the time because Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev was targeted by his “apparatus foes” as plans for a new cabinet were taking shape.  (These intrigues do wonders for glasnost in Russian media reporting.)  Sergey Nazarov was picked up by Kazan police, who accused him of stealing a cellphone.  He died soon afterward, having been subjected to a favorite torture of Russia’s sadistic “men in shoulder boards”—anal rape—this time, with a champagne bottle.  The police claimed the wounds were self-inflicted.

The Kazan atrocity was matched by others in a string of incidents—a drunken policeman kills a female pedestrian, running over her with an apparently stolen car; a 15-year-old boy is picked up off the street in St. Petersburg (accused—by an inebriated witness—of, again, stealing a cellphone) and beaten to death while in custody; a group of drunken policemen incite a brawl in a café and seriously injure a pregnant woman . . . the list is long.  And the officers in question are often repeat offenders.  Yet all had passed police review boards as part of an imitation reform of the Interior Ministry.  We will leave off dozens of stories of police collusion with organized crime, groups of law-enforcement officers operating as professional kidnapping or assassination rings, and other sordid activities.  In Russia, a stop by police can end in a bribe, a beating, or even rape and murder.  But after each outburst of outrage, the reports usually die out as the apparatus intrigues run their course.

How deeply the hatred and distrust of the police runs in Russia!  Look at the story of the celebrated Primorskiy Kray “partisans,” a group of nationalist guerilla fighters, bandits, or folk heroes (depending on one’s point of view) who attacked Interior Ministry personnel in the summer of 2010, killing at least three.  The partisans from Russia’s far east included several young men who themselves, or whose family members, had suffered at the hands of local police—and the authorities were shaken by the support ordinary people voiced for them.  Talk of a “Far Eastern Republic” was making the rounds on internet forums at the time, and some spoke of the partisans as “people’s avengers.”  When the partisans met their inevitable end, two of the six shooting themselves rather than surrendering, a crowd of admirers turned out for their funerals.  Stories of other partisans circulated at the time, and expressions of support and sympathy came from groups ranging from Russian nationalists to Caucasus insurgents.

Thus, life in Russia remains insecure and, in some places, terrifying, more than 20 years after the Fall and 12 years into Putin’s “stability.”

To be continued . . .