The Putin Paradox: Less evil is More

Paul Goble reports:

The regime in Russia is undergoing a transformation, Grani commentator Dmitry Shusharin says, but not, as many expect, toward dissolution or collapse. Rather, it is seeking to “isolate” itself from society, a development that is likely to make the achievement of any positive changes there more rather than less difficult. Indeed, Shusharin suggests, Russia would be far closer to a breakthrough to a better future if the powers that be were more openly oppressive, whereas Moscow’s current approach can be countered most successfully only if the opposition is willing to engage in acts of civil disobedience.

Shusharin begins by quoting with approval the argument of Vagif Abilov that “the present situation in Russia is in many senses worse than it was in the years of totalitarianism” because when one can speak freely but not have any influence on the state, “the process of stagnation can turn out to be longer than when the knouts are brought out.”
“The experience of all previous years testifies,” he goes on, “that the internal problems of such regimes are manifested in thaws and perestroika rather than in great terror and in ideological pogroms.” People can “say what they like, write what they like,” and so on, “but Khodorkovsky has been jailed, is in jail, and will be in jail.” (Shusharin does not employ the term in this essay, but his argument resembles in many ways the one American Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse made almost a half century ago about “repressive tolerance,” the ways in which he suggested regimes build their own power against societies by tolerating a great deal of criticism.)

But he goes on to say, “these are general considerations.” In Russia now, one can point to specifics: “The powers that be are combining violations of the Constitution with the adoption of new completely extra-constitutional laws,” and they are doing this shamelessly, showing their “firm intention to isolate themselves from society.” Shusharin gives as an example of this pattern the new press law. “Had such a law been adopted under the last tsar, Russia would not have found out about Azef. And if these limitations had been introduced in the 1990s, then the ‘Ryazan training exercises’ [in which the secret services were seen placing explosives in an apartment house] would have remained a secret.”

The adoption of such legislation, the Grani commentator continues, does not suggest the coming apart of the existing system but “on the contrary, its planned and consistent strengthening.” And this has another implication as well: Those who oppose it must be ready to engage in civil disobedience. That is, they must be “ready to violate laws.”
“If up to now it was possible to limit oneself with the old slogan that has no prospects, ‘Observe Your Constitution!’ then now,” he argues, “the preservation of civic and human dignity becomes incompatible with law abidingness,” thus creating a Rubicon that only some in the opposition are going to be willing to cross.

According to Shusharin, “civil disobedience is an adequate form of protest against the adoption of laws which are converting Russia into a totalitarian state.” And consequently, those like Marat Gelman, the organizer of the Forbidden Art—2006 exhibit, who say they are willing to do so deserve more attention and respect than they have received. Described by some as “a career non-conformist,” the commentator continues, “Gelman like both Pavlovsky and Surkov, is a typical personage of the 1990s” who now finds himself in a country which shows some disturbing “parallels with what happened in the USSR at the border between the 20s and 30s of the last century.”
Gelman says he “intends” to resist. But that leaves open the question, Shusharin says, “Is the opposition prepared for civil disobedience?” Especially at a time when “the regime, in spite of its expectations is not disintegrating or collapsing but only strengthening, including with the support of the West.”

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