Daily Archives: October 9, 2007

Another Original LR Translation: More on the Russian "National Idea"

Once again, LR’s professional translator opens a window in the Russian media, this time focusing on the much-discussed concept of the so-called “Russian National Idea.”

Imitation as National Idea

by Aleksandr Prodrabinek

Yezhednevniy Zhurnal

September 26, 2007

What is the deal with this mishmash of politicians and government ideologists stubbornly searching for a national idea for Russia? The choices include a purely Russian path, a clerical government, a consumer culture, a lawful government, a market economy under a harsh authority, a harsh authority with a state-run economy, and God knows what else. Meanwhile, the national idea has actually been existing all along, and moreover triumphing in the minds and affairs of Russians. This idea is the imitation of whatever is in style or one especially likes at the moment.

The Kyivan kings in the tenth to eleventh centuries forcibly implanted Christianity throughout what was then called Rus, dealing harshly with the pagans. Although, what could be more inimical to Christianity than coercing faith through the use of force? Peter I imitated the western Enlightenment in the Russian Empire, at the same time eliminating anyone who expressed their disapproval. Nikolai II imitated a constitutional monarchy, but, openly despising liberal ideas, did not give much leeway to Russian parliamentarianism, and thereby brought the country to a revolutionary boil. Under the Communists, the Russian taste for imitation lost its quality, but they more than made up for it in quantity, making it the primary characteristic of all social and government institutions – as it always is in a totalitarian system.

After the collapse of Communism and a brief period of more or less freedom to find one’s own way, the itch to imitate once again made itself felt. We had to become a great power, and so we now strive to create the attributes of a great country: a powerful army, effective governmental control, a thriving economy, and expansive foreign policy. Even if all of this is only for appearance, we still need to look the part, even if we cannot actually be it. Our ancient strategic bombers proudly plow through the skies along foreign borders, hoping to create the impression of Russian military might. Government control is built in the form of “verticals of power” in the naive hope of achieving effectiveness through strict orders and harsh subservience. Economic success is shortsightedly based on the export of raw materials and subordination of business to government. Assertiveness in foreign affairs is achieved by stubbornly opposing any proposals from our western partners, while dangerously flirting with despotic regimes.

The sickness of imitation is contagious and transient. One after another the institutions of society and government become imitative and inauthentic. The courts cease to adjudicate, issuing sentences and verdicts based on orders from on high or specified sums paid to the judge. Law enforcement officials occupy themselves not so much with fighting crime as enriching themselves through misuse of their official position, taking bribes, and providing cover for organized crime groups. Parliament has ceased to be a place for discussion and instead obediently rubber-stamps laws proposed by the executive branch and president. Plurality is allowed only to those parties that suit the executive. At elections, voters are given the opportunity to choose only from among those who have shown their loyalty to the current political course.

Outwardly, we have everything – courts, police, parliament, political parties and regular elections – but it’s all phony. Imitation is our national idea. This and “Potemkin villages”, built for the visit of Catherine II to Crimea; and the Tsar Bell, which has never been rung; and the Tsar Cannon, which has been fired all of once. This and “open” trials of “enemies of the people” in 1937; and the news nowadays on the central television stations. An imitation of news.

Imitation attracts not only the authorities, but also the opposition. It’s not even worth mentioning the parties that were created from the outset only to imitate an opposition, that’s beside the point. But how can Yabloko and SPS even participate in parliamentary elections, when their leaders, both privately and publicly, say the current election system and Law on Political Parties has turned elections into a farce? Participating in the farce, they too merely imitate democratic elections.

Two leaders of the youth wing of Yabloko, protesting against unjust elections, recently imitated self-immolation, dressed in fire-proof clothing and with friends standing by with fire extinguishers and ambulances. It’s possible that it never occurred to them that this looked like a parody of the Czech Jan Pallach, the Lithuanian Romas Kalanta or the Crimean Tartar Musa Mamut, who immolated themselves for real and died in the course of their personal struggle with the Communist regime.

And how many times have they imitated “to the death” hunger strikes, halted at the first sign of exhaustion or loss of health! How many human rights workers only imitate human rights work by participating in expert and public panels for ministries and presidential commissions? Imitation – this is our national idea, uniting both the authorities and the opposition.

True, to be sure, not all the opposition. There are some who are uncompromising. But the majority consider them marginal, “outside the system” idealists, and twirl their fingers around their temples when talking about them. Thus have we always related to those who have not shared the great Russian national idea. At the same time, these people have not needed their own special national idea. They live or sacrifice their lives for the sake of a common human ideal of freedom.

No matter who you ask, “When was life better, under socialism or now?” – everyone starts by talking about prices, salaries, full or empty shelves, pensions. And maybe one in ten will recall something about freedom. That’s because in the common conception “better” means more full, not more free.

And so we’ll continue to live in the world of imitation, amid the false and phony, full of hopes and disappointments, until the idea of freedom becomes our national idea.

Aleksandr Prodrabinek was a Soviet dissident in the 1970s & 1980s, during which time he served two terms in Siberia for his human rights work. Since 1987 he has edited of number of human rights-oriented journals, and is currently a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta.

Kremlin Arrests Activists to Honor Politkovskaya’s Memory

Helsingin Sanomat reports:

Officials in Russia detained a group of Russian and foreign human rights activists who were to have taken part in a seminar during the weekend commemorating the death of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered a year ago. Five of those who were detained were released on Saturday evening, but the seminar, which was to have been held in Nishni Novgorod, had to be cancelled. The arrests were reported on Saturday by the news agency Interfax, and international human rights organisations. One of those questioned was Oksana Chelysheva, who was in Helsinki last week to discuss the difficulties facing civic organisations in Russia today. The organiser of the seminar was the Foundation for the Support of Tolerance, which was set up to continue the activities of the Russia-Chechnya Friendship Society, which was banned by officials earlier. The foreigners who were questioned included representatives of Amnesty International, the Spanish Human rights League, and the US organisation Human Rights First. The four foreigners – three Spaniards, one British subject, and a German – denied claims of visa violations. The organisers told reporters that the police had confiscated computers belonging to the foundation, closed the foundation’s bank account, and cancelled the hotel reservations of the seminar guests.

Bukovsky on the Neo-Soviet State

The Times of London reports:

A FORMER Soviet-era dissident who wants to stand for president of Russia has likened the lack of free speech under President Vladimir Putin to the repression of communist times.

Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent more than 12 years in camps and psychiatric hospitals before being released in 1976 and moving to Britain, said that Russians were now as scared of criticising the Kremlin as they had been during the cold war.

Speaking as he prepares to travel to Russia for the first time in 14 years to hold talks with opposition groups, Bukovsky accused Putin of turning back the clock. “I follow what happens in Russia very closely and increasingly people’s unwillingness to oppose those in power reminds me of my youth when speaking out was very dangerous,” he said.

“Russia is going backwards and there’s no democracy there. Putin’s regime won’t tolerate any kind of opposition. Clearly this is a system which is scared of any threat and too weak to face the slightest challenge to its rule.”

Bukovsky, an academic who lives in Cambridge, has announced his intention to stand in the March presidential election. However, because of his long residency outside the country he will be barred from the race.

“I know I don’t stand a chance but that is no reason to give up,” he said. “I have views about what’s going on in Russia and I’ll do all I can to air them.”

Annals of "Pacified" Chechnya: The Blood Still Flows

The Moscow Times reports:

Rebels in Chechnya ambushed a convoy of Interior Ministry troops, killing four people and wounding 10 others, police and prosecutors said Monday. The attack was one of the deadliest in recent months and comes after repeated assurances from the Kremlin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov that life is returning to normal in Chechnya. Three police cars came under fire at around 8:30 a.m. Sunday on the road between the villages of Dargo and Vedeno, leaving three Interior Ministry officers and one Chechen policeman dead, police and prosecutors said. Another eight Interior Ministry officers and two policemen were wounded, Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman Magomed Deniyev said by telephone from Grozny. The unidentified assailants attacked the convoy with automatic weapons from a nearby forest, said Oleg Surikov, a spokesman for the Chechen branch of the newly formed Investigative Committee. Chechen separatists claimed on the Kavkaz Center web site that 10 to 15 troops had been killed and that military equipment had been destroyed in the attack. A group of rebels led by Usman Muntsigov had been operating in the area, Deniyev said. “This gang has been affiliated with numerous serious crimes against law enforcement officers,” Deniyev said Law enforcers are combing the forest in search of the assailants, Deniyev said. “In all likelihood, [the attackers] also have their wounded and dead there,” Deniyev said.

The Interior Ministry officers killed in the attack were serving in the Yug, or South, battalion, Deniyev said. He identified the slain police officer as Sergei Narvatov, head of the call center at the Vedeno district police station. Insurgents have been carrying out regular attacks in Chechnya since the spring, while hit-and-run attacks by small groups were adopted as a rebel tactic around 18 months ago, said Andrei Soldatov, a security expert and editor of the web site Agentura.ru. The recent rise in attacks “is connected to a large influx of young men into the mountains this spring” and, in the long term, to “a change in tactics of small groups,” Soldatov said. Soldatov said it was difficult to predict whether an increase in such attacks could be expected. “The forecast here depends on many outside factors,” Soldatov said. Should the situation in neighboring Ingushetia — which has seen a spike in violence in recent months — remain volatile, insurgents based in Chechnya could focus their energy on carrying out operations there rather than in Chechnya, Soldatov said.

A Slanderer Confesses

It didn’t take long for the sleazy smear job on Georgia’s president (on which we previously reported) to come apart at the seams. The Associated Press reports:

Georgia’s former defense minister retracted his accusations against the president, winning release on bail, but other opposition leaders said his statement had been made under duress and vowed Monday to push for early elections to end the political crisis.

Irakly Okruashvili was arrested Sept. 27, the day after he accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of a murder plot and corruption — allegations Saakashvili dismissed as “unpardonable lies.” Okruashvili was charged with extortion, money laundering and abuse of power. Okruashvili was a longtime Saakashvili ally who served as his defense minister until late last year. His accusations and arrest have thrown the ex-Soviet nation into the worst political turmoil in years.

On Monday, Nika Gvaramia, Georgia’s deputy chief prosecutor, said Okruashvili had retracted his accusations and acknowledged that he made them for political gains.

“He said that the allegations he made in the media didn’t correspond to reality and only served one goal — getting political dividends,” Gvaramia said. Gvaramia also said in televised comments that Okruashvili had pleaded guilty to charges of extortion and failure to properly perform his duties. Georgian television stations later broadcast footage of Okruashvili’s questioning in which he retracted his accusations. Okruashvili, wearing a sports suit, looked tense and tired but was speaking clearly. “That doesn’t correspond to reality,” he said grimly when an investigator asked him about his claim that Saakashvili in 2005 tried to encourage him to kill Badri Patarkatsishvili, a prominent businessman. Asked about his corruption allegations against Saakashvili, Okruashvili again said the claims were untrue and added, “I said it in order to discredit Saakashvili.” He also pleaded guilty to charges of extortion related to acquisition of a stake in a Georgian cell phone company. Okruashvili’s lawyer, Eka Beselia, said she was not present during the questioning Sunday and refused to make immediate comment.

A court in Tbilisi has ruled to free Okruashvili on bail equivalent to $6 million, Gvaramia said. He added that Okruashvili would remain in custody until he produces the money. Opposition leaders said Okruashvili had been forced to make his statement. “Let’s raise the money and free the person who spoke the truth but couldn’t stand torture,” said Koba Davitashvili, the leader of the opposition People’s Party who was a one-time ally of Saakashvili. “He clearly gave the testimony under duress,” said Kakha Kukhava, of the Democratic Front. He added that the opposition would go ahead with a planned Nov. 2 rally to push for early parliamentary elections and abolition of the position of president. After Okruashvili’s arrest, 10,000 opposition supporters gathered in front of the parliament, blocking traffic and occasionally clashing with police. The protest was among the largest shows of discontent since Saakashvili was propelled to power in the 2003 mass uprising known as the Rose Revolution.