Anti-democracy: A letter from Russia
Documentary film director Andrei Nekrasov writes on the plight of modern Russia, in the grip of nationalist zealots
By Andrei Nekrasov
The following is the complete transcript of a letter sent to Helsingin Sanomat by Russian documentary film director Andrei Nekrasov from the bedside of his poisoned friend Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko, a former officer in the Russian FSB, died in hospital on Thursday evening, apparently the victim of poisoning, allegedly for his criticism of the Moscow government. In his letter, which was published in slightly abridged form in Finnish in the print newspaper, Nekrasov blames Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West for the fact that Russia has been left at the mercy of nationalist zealots.
"There are corpses in the foundation of the new stability [in Russia], ghosts that speak to those who risk to venture into the night to heed them", writes Nekrasov.
Democracy seemed a problematic concept when I found myself in London at the time of the war preparations in 2003.
Back home I would tirelessly point to the British model of liberal democracy in my arguments with the supporters of the strong, "vertical", state. But here I was amid the people I wanted so much my fellow Russians to imitate, and everybody around me appeared to share just one sentiment: disapproval of the obstinate intent of the leadership to take the nation to war.
Disapproval with a growing whack of resignation. He will go ahead and invade regardless of what we think. It suddenly sounded very Russian, except in Russia we say they, instead of he, which is of course even more hopeless: the faceless "they", as omnipotent as they are anonymous, even if there is always a face, omnipresent in its pictorial, sculpted, or televised form, to exemplify them.
What subsequently happened in Iraq and in connection with Iraq, has been a disaster for Russia, even though Russia is possibly the last thing that springs to mind in connection with the disaster Iraq has become for the West.
There is now a new tagline in the argumentation of the Russian strong-state faithful: we are not only different and entitled to our own Russian way, but we are more democratic as well.
When we go to war, it is supported by an overwhelming majority. We are also more honest. We don't spread, scandalously, on the highest level, a lie as a pretext for attacking a sovereign state. We are even less ideologically indoctrinated, something that makes us very different from our totalitarian predecessors, while the West looks increasingly similar to them in this respect; ideology, the cause, even emotion, takes precedence over facts and laws.
The moralist incantations of the Bush-Blair crusade have an uncanny prototype in Brezhnev's political verbiage and tonality used to justify his invasion of Afghanistan. The gist of the Politburo's message, too, was making the world better and safer. Which is in stark contrast with the sparse and dry putinisms on the "anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya. No gleeful eruptions there, no humdrum preaching, no pseudo-philosophical generalizations. And instead of all that - success.
Innocent victims of Iraq, and of Afghanistan, of Lebanon, of Gaza have made the Chechen war-crimes irrelevant (there are of course innocent victims in Israel, but that's certainly none of Russian propagandists' business).
But Putin has not really taken to referring to the consequences of the Iraq war, either because of a tacit parity deal with Bush, or out of sheer confidence of his strength in all positions of the current geopolitical round. And yet, in the light of certain observations, and in the wake of some recent events, the Russian leader's success appears unsettling, if not doubtful.
Putin is to a large degree a creation of the media, which could be said of most leaders, except that the Russian is a creation of the media that are not free. The nature of the lack of media freedom in contemporary Russia is quite seriously misunderstood in the West.
There is, for starters, much less freedom now than in the last five years of the Soviet regime, and the kind of restrictions that are imposed on society today have a more drastic impact on its development than communist censorship in the post-Stalinist period.
With the reign of total terror gone under Khrushchev, a slowly but unstoppably growing number of people were on the quest for truthful information. The regime continued to control the press, but it was losing the control of the minds.
The KGB, the Communist Party's thought police, routinely accepted that it had no arguments against unselfish criticism of the system and just required to keep intellectual dissent private.
The rulers of Russia today operate in a very different way and have indeed much less in common with Brezhnev's regime than with that of Stalin. Putin aims to control not so much the mechanical modes of influence, stopping up the leaks in the decaying vessel as they appear, but the active core of society, which could itself be trusted to maintain creatively all the "correct" principles and serve as an ideological buffer between the leadership and the masses.
Some elements of that modus operandi in the media are referred to as self-censorship, but it hardly describes the scale of the problem. A complex of incentives and fears, conscious and unconscious, is responsible for keeping the image of society on the artificial-sweetener support.
There is a tangible material prosperity, but it is limited to a minority required to misrepresent the whole of the nation´s reality as prosperous, free and democratic.
Stalin had the material means to keep a whole social class of totally obedient educated helpers, while Brezhnev did not. That was one of the conditions for the partial re-emergence of the pre-Revolutionary class of intelligentsia in the late 50's, whose emancipated minds eventually put it on the ideological collision course with the dictatorial regime.
But there was one decisive factor: the West with all its authority of humanist civilization was providing massive spiritual and practical support for anyone who dared to be free.
The botched democratization of the 1990s was a historic disappointment to the majority of the Russians, not only because it led to a system of unprecedented social injustice, but also because of the West's perceived abandonment of its humanist principles in its positive attitude towards the new oligarchic order.
That could only exacerbate people's resentment of the government, and did so under Yeltsin, but soaring oil and gas prices gave Putin an opportunity to pay for a caste of unprincipled operators who are apt and willing to act in a democracy farce while reciting the strong state propaganda lines.
That is the kind that inhabits the glamorous overpriced Russia that blows away foreign visitors these days.
Apart from a smaller number still, the super-rich of the nineties who survived Putin's selective mini-purge, many in the elite of 2006 have seen their fortunes arise and mature in sync with the post-Yeltsin political power of the champions of the strong vertical state.
This particular double process started as recently as just seven years ago, when the popularity ratings of the leadership were close to zero, and the price of a typical Russian blue chip share (say, Norilsk Nickel) was two hundred times less than it is today.
And it is the same process that involved the major shake-up in the main institution of political influence in Russia, television, which changed beyond recognition as a result.
An obscure official from St. Petersburg (where he had been accused of corruption by respectable independent experts, such as Marina Saliye), Putin gained prominence in Moscow by conducting an undercover operation which helped to save Yeltsin, his family, and some of his entourage from the crashing corruption investigation by the Prosecutor General Skuratov (supported by Carla del Ponte, then the Prosecutor General in Switzerland).
The revelations of mega-scams on the highest level were set against the financial crash of 1998, which robbed people once more of their savings (and bankrupted scores of businesses), and threatened to provoke a popular uprising.
Putin was instrumental in stemming it, starting by setting up the Prosecutor General with prostitutes (taped and shown on TV), and ending by taking advantage of the mysterious Moscow apartment block bombings in 1999 to invade Chechnya, which finally diverted people's attention from corruption.
Since then corruption in Russia increased sixfold, yet a similar rise in the price of oil is enough to lend the places frequented by foreigners an air of "economic miracle".
If Putin owes his very rise to power to the ruthlessness with which he was willing to pounce on Chechnya, his rancour against some key Yeltsin-era liberals is directly linked to TV.
Putin's first victim was Vladimir Gussinsky and his famous network NTV, which dared to investigate the bombing plot in Ryazan in September 1999, which followed the Moscow attacks and was foiled by the local police catching Federal secret agents who had planted the explosives.
The hair-raising accusations of the State-organized terrorism were so well founded, that the FSB (the new KGB) decided not to deny its involvement, alleging instead that the attempted attack was an exercise.
The NTV investigation showed that claim to be unbelievable. Soon after the running of the investigative programme, the NTV owner Gussinski was accused of financial irregularities and detained.
My film, produced and narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, on the child victims of the army in Chechnya, was one of the last independent shows on NTV. In early 2001 NTV ceased to exist in all but name.
Then came the turn of Putin's political godfather Boris Berezovsky and the TV channel he controlled, the ORT.
Berezovsky, who, ironically, first used the ORT to promote Putin, became increasingly put off by his protégé's authoritarian bent, and ended by sanctioning the uncensored coverage of the events surrounding Kursk submarine accident with Putin appearing as a heartless cynic.
As a result, Berezovsky narrowly escaped the fate subsequently allotted to his fellow dissenting oligarch Mihail Khodorkovsky, while the ORT became a state propaganda outlet run by sycophant admirers of the President.
It is well known that Putin's popularity ratings (quoted by the state controlled sources) are incomparably higher than those of Yeltsin during the most years of his presidency, and yet one cannot shrugg off a feeling that the origins of Yeltsin's presidency were legitimate, while those of Putin's are not quite.
And it is that feeling that leads a Russian to the explanation of something people find rather puzzling in the West: why a seemingly modern and enlightened, presumably popular chap like Putin would go to such lengths to gag every free voice in the land.
There are corpses in the foundation of the new stability, ghosts that speak to those who risk to venture into the night to heed them. Yet physically taking the media away from society, as taking a life of a journalist, is not sufficient. And it can even boomerang, as the murder of journalist Gongadze did in Ukraine, ultimately leading to the Orange Revolution.
An ideology, re-authorizing a strong state and marrying it to a figure of a strong leader - that is what was needed in the case of an unknown volunteer for a restoration job on an ex-dictatorship.
Pro-state politicking and getting rich have become almost synonymous in Russia, but even for the lower layers of the upper class, professionals and business people with no direct involvement in politics, the demand for the buttressing of the idol of the state is associated with immediate material gratification as in a Pavlovian reflex.
Corruption is a well-worn nickname for Russia's main economic principle, but under Putin it became inseparable from the corruption of political and social conscience, the protection racket of paternalistic - "patriotic" - ideology imposed on and embraced by anyone who counts on being in the business of living life to the full.
Hence this strange mixed feeling a sensitive soul gets in the light- flooded central Moscow: that of the breathtaking verve of consumption, so uncharacteristic of Soviet lifestyle still echoed in architecture and infrastructure, and that of the underlying sclerosis of spirit.
The communist paradox of servility in the name of freedom has been replaced by materialistic freedom in the name of servility; a profoundly misunderstood freedom, that is.
A lot of it may be ascribed to the general condition of modern man, but it takes one attentive look to see behind the thin mesh of international brand names and well-groomed appearances of the "New Russian" women and men an amazingly outdated bigotry, boorishness, and xenophobia in the contemporary mainstream Russian culture.
"Foreigners from the South are coming here for the easy gains and with criminal intentions". That is not a political slogan of a right-wing party, but a tagline of a prime time "information" programme, and you can bet with reasonable safety that none of those slick young people filling that fancy overpriced café would find such televised prejudice in any way questionable.
It's cool, it's fashionable to be nationalistic, to be anti-Asian, anti-"Orange" (Ukrainian revolution), and it is, actually, even more fashionable to be anti-West.
The West is the past, we are the future.
Never mind that the brand names are Western, never mind that the statistics say that the Russian population is on course to a demographic crunch. We have rediscovered faith in ourselves, in our state and our president, and our faith is stronger than your logic.
Logic says that the rediscovery of faith coincided with or followed the surge in oil prices and the war crimes in Chechnya; logic also says that the monstrous corruption (clearly on the increase under Putin) and persisting gangster rule is wrecking the country as a whole, its prospects, its strategy, even that somewhat cryptic mission we Russians believe our country has in history.
But for the visible minority cultivated by the present regime such logic has no validity. Logic in general is not in vogue here at the moment, just as human rights are not recognized as a value by some humans who are very protective of their own rights.
These generalities have a tangible relevance to the everyday Russian life. In Russian so-called democracy, an official representative of the people does not really have to refer to any human or civil values other than patriotism.
Even the fight against terrorism is no asset, as people know that in every single major terrorist standoff, it is the government troops that killed innocent civilians en masse, not the terrorists.
The hospital hostage taking in Budennovsk, the Nord-Ost theatre siege, the Beslan school massacre – all are the sources of extremely damaging revelations, not to mention the popular suspicion that the most politically significant terrorist attack, the 1999 Moscow explosions, was masterminded or countenanced by the secret services.
As I was making a documentary about those explosions it was enough to mention (to a member of the establishment) the film's subject, without implying those suspicions in any way, to be placed firmly into the "anti-patriotic" camp.
The Nord-Ost theatre siege, or the Beslan tragedy, are in political speak antonyms of 9/11. Instead of being the leadership's most powerful argument, they turn ordinary people against the government and therefore are virtual taboos.
In the United States, the terrorism issue may look to have been appropriated by the President and his party; in Russia it is associated mainly with the murdered investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and ex-KGB whistle blowers, the jailed Mikhail Trepashkin and the poisoned Alexander Litvinenko.
The problem with the fashionable patriotism is that it is perfectly phony, which has one grave consequence, among others. It turns many of the more sincere patriots into nationalists, and even national socialists (or National Bolsheviks, as the most famous group are called).
Seen from a district of endless identical prefabricated block buildings where the majority of the Russians live, the upper class is an alien race engaged in a twofold subversion; it subsists on the blood of the ordinary people by running a ubiquitous network of unfair money skimming, and it is selling out Russian geopolitical interests in some impervious arrangements with the West.
The export of raw materials and various trade agreements are benefiting the West and the Russian upper class, but not the Russian majority. The nation's huge fiscal surplus is stashed away as deposits benefiting US banks while the country is tottering in the cash-starved disintegrating infrastructure.
And instead of the due indignation about the policies of the U.S., Britain, and Israel, who treat the world as their private hunting property, the upper classes show polite understanding whose real nature is a complete and utter disinterest in anything unrelated to money.
Contrary to the appearance of total apathy, millions of ordinary Russians are passionate about the values our great literature and - with some reservations - the Orthodox Christian tradition, have preserved for us. In Dostoyevsky's words "our people continue to believe steadfastly in the truth, to accept God, and to shed tears of compassion. The upper classes are quite another matter".
For now Putin himself, to a large - though not total - degree is exempt from such popular brickbats, as his role, according to the tenacious Russian tradition, is perceived as a purely enunciating one.
He is only to show his impenetrable face and utter a glib phrase or two, for his boyars to be blamed for making mess of the tsar's good intentions.
In the IT age such an archaic attitude is probably doomed, and a Putin-like figure would hardly be safe in the long run, but what we have already is a nationalist energy rising from the impression of the complicity between Russian oligarchy and the international capitalism against the interests of the Russian people. Those western officials, entrepreneurs, and journalists who describe Russia as a more or less united entity that is by implication more or less evenly benefiting from the alleged "boom" do not have to face any of those ordinary Russians who greet such descriptions with scorn and resentment in the gloom of their asbestos-infested habitat.
The real source of nationalism is in that resentment, but you won't see it of course in the grinning face of someone able to afford coffee at 8 dollars a cup, the type you might benignly mistake for average if you circulate mainly in Central Moscow. It is not easy, therefore, to grasp the phenomenon of nationalism even for some of the keener observers of Russia today.
Left-wing nationalism, for example, is something one sooner associates with Italian, German, or Balkan history, and yet it is a real force in contemporary Russia, probably the only one which the seemingly unchallengeable regime is afraid of.
As a broad ideology it is shared by such disciplined organizations as the Communist Party and the banned National Bolshevik party. It is ironic that not only is the Communist-Bolshevik left by far the most significant opposition to the KGB-inspired ruling party today, but they are also the only political force with massive membership based on conviction, and not on incentives offered by a presidential think-tank commissioned to create a decoy opposition party. Conviction was of course a very rare commodity in the Communist Party of the latter day USSR.
The tenets of workers' international solidarity, though not completely forgotten, are marginalized by patriotic agenda; there is an additional paradox in the communists' "imperialist" sympathies: they are largely inspired by the nostalgia for the Soviet empire, which is lauded as an example of a successful multinational coexistence.
But there are paradoxes of a more significant and perhaps more ominous kind: nationalists on both left and right belong to the most active part of society and while they clash, and even fight violently, their slogans and discourses are often identical.
Another peculiarity: the traditional sociological rule of thumb with regard to the proportion of racial and national prejudice among different social strata, which claims that the lower an indigenous group's place in society the more it is prejudiced against foreigners, does not really work in Russia's case.
It may have something to do with the inapplicability of the term "educated classes" to the influential clans which control the dominant public discourse.
"Intelligentsia" has no more than an evanescent, nostalgic meaning in Russian reality, as the role of the cultured folks has digressed from that of the nation's conscience and driving social force it used to be, to that of a melancholic spirit fighting shy of the glittering Russia of Putin, Gasprom, and that growing number of billionaires childishly and illogically portrayed (in the West as well) as a sign of prosperity.
In the glare of their palaces and television studios there is at least as much indulgence, and often plain incitement, of xenophobic prejudice as in the economically-depressed quarters of the kind one traditionally, in the West, considers to be the home of right-wing resentment.
At the same time, I would assert that most ordinary Russians, people in Kostroma and Novosibirsk, Ryazan and Irkutsk - in whose name the chauvinist TV anchors such as Leontiev, Pushkov, Markov (all frequent speakers on Western podiums as well) bawl out Georgians, Ukrainians, the Kyrgyz, Americans, and whomsoeverelse - are at least as open-minded and unprejudiced as any of the champions of political correctness in the West.
What do these paradoxical impressions amount to? There is a singularly vigorous source of social energy in Russia - patriotism-nationalism, which political forces on the left, the extreme right, and at the very apex of power are drawing on.
One could go on to discuss differences between nationalism and pan-imperialism, but those distinctions are less significant in our given context than they were, for example (in Hannah Arendt's poignant analysis) in the development of German Nazism.
It is simply there, the ghost of nationalism, loitering like another, famous one, out of Marx's manifesto, did some 150 years ago. Russia's cynical rulers, capitalist connoisseurs of Western luxuries, are just using it to put up a fireproof barrage round their orgy of consumption.
Russian fascists are gripped by its extreme paroxysms, without realizing that the very emergence of Russian far-right nationalism in an oversized country of hundreds of different nationalities is a symptom of its disintegration, not its consolidation. Russian nationalist left-wingers, stuck with misnomers and contradictions in their slogans, are realizing that the real cause of people's unhappiness is not "the foreigner" but the politics and the propaganda, the actions and inaction, of the self-serving oligarchy.
They don't believe the "patriotic" ideology of the rulers who wallow in the courtship of the obsequious Western business people and politicians. And they justify their nationalist mottos by their hatred of those foreign guests and hosts of the Russian citizens' tormentors, i.e. government ministers, some Duma members, regional governors, "business leaders", and yes, increasingly, the President himself.
If big capital is international and internationalist (never mind the arbitrary attacks on Western partners, they'll swallow everything), we shall be nationalists.
If plutocrats of all countries unite, like once workers were supposed to, we will be appealing to the masses of our own people. People and nation can be synonymous; the profanation of democracy by the regime and its Western allies makes for the Russian translation of democracy into nationalism.
The new Russian nationalism has long ceased to be a marginal, if worrying, curiosity. Perfectly respectable political parties and movements of a social democratic or even a centre-right cast, such as Yabloko, Kasparov's United Civil Front, the forces around the potential presidential challenger, Putin's ex-premiere Kasianov, well-known human rights organizations such as the Helsinki Group, are all to various degrees considered to be allies of the National Bolshevik Party.
This is not because they are impressed by the juvenile wit of anti-capitalist rhetoric, let alone such NBP mottos as "Russia is everything, the rest is nothing". What the ever-increasing numbers of very different but reasonably sincere members of Russia's struggling civil society share is the resentment of the cushy ride the KGB-school adversaries of civil liberties get in the West.
Those initially disjointed critics of the regime who - at considerable personal risk (as at The Other Russia forum last summer) - meet and succeed in making Putin and his camarilla take notice of the reality of opposition, they seal their unity by the very viciousness of verbal abuse and even physical aggression their legitimate claim to freedom meets on the orders of those who report (to loud applause) on progress in "reforms" at international summits.
And even if it is impossible to reason with the regime which is determined to snuff out every impulse of critical expression, why is there no hope to impress on the representatives of old democracies that in Putin's Russia they are dealing with an anti-democracy?
With the appalling exception of Chechnya, Mr. Putin has not been witnessed ordering mass repressions like many of his predecessors in the State Security apparatus, which he declares to be proud to have served.
What he has done, however, amounts to the unravelling of the process of unification of the Russian nation in a single cultural and linguistic entity.
The serf-owning elites of the Napoleonic Wars era had much more culturally in common with the French invaders than with their own people: the upper minority and the vast majority simply lacked a common language.
In a figurative sense we are reverting to that feudal division in an active anti-democratic process. Many Russians consider this process to be supported by the West, while many in the West consider Putin a bulwark against nationalist promoters of instability, a catch-22 dialectic further catalyzing the process of the people alienated in their own country rallying to the nationalist cause.
The other catalyst, paradoxically, is Putin's own resorting to nationalist propaganda at home, admittedly (from the optimistic Western point of view) to monopolize and control the demand and dispensation of the inevitable amounts of nationalism.
What makes Putin's internal politics a catalyst of an uncontrollable process, rather than its decelerator, is the concurrent corruption and profligacy, irresponsibility and cynicism of the upper classes, which is increasingly impossible to ignore.
In the preface to a novel by a popular young writer, I read: "My hero is a passionate young man who loves his people, but he is also cool-headed enough to suspect that those guilty of the people's misfortunes inhabit the historic palaces in the heart of Moscow, the exclusive country villas, and castles in England, France, and Switzerland. They have become so removed from the people that they have in many ways ceased to be a part of our nation. And yet they own most things here. For now there is nothing we can do about them; the walls and guards that separate them from us are unassailable. And so my hero's anger turns against others, those who do not belong to our people either, but have been unlucky enough to get in our way, here, in our neighborhoods, our street markets, our railway stations…"
One of the reasons history cannot be predicted lies in the irrational component of our actions. Nationalism in Russia today is, among other things, a temptation for a democrat, infuriated by those who espouse democracy in theory and yet betray it in practical deals with the anti-democratic regime that may have all the justifications in the world, but miss one point: democracy is about people's real representation in the apparatus of power, and about an individual's fair chance of justice in this imperfect world.
Well, people are at least as poorly represented in Putin's power structure as they were under Brezhnev, and a citizen is as exposed to the arbitrariness of the authoritarian state (with the addition of mafia violence) as in the time of the Soviet Union.
With democratic values now considered a spent force at home, and a hypocritical cover for promoting U.S interests worldwide, nationalism beckons with a chance of a real challenge to the status quo. The only chance, it seems.
The irrational energy of destruction will manifest itself in a brutish smashing the head of a dark-skinned passer-by; but something of a similar irrational nature may push an educated person into ideological mimicry with the brutes, only to be able to threaten the existing order in which ruling oppressors and their upper-middle-class collaborators have a stake.
Such "tactical" allegiances happened time and time again in the past. It is happening now, as a justification for terrorism, it is in the process of gestation in Russian nationalism. Even if Putin, his party, and his potential successors have so far been half-heartedly trying to keep this energy at bay, they clearly do it out of a sense of self-preservation and not out of service to humanity: they are afraid only of the left-wing nationalism, that is who they go after with all their force, while the far right is tolerated, though it too has to be watched as a potential part of a united nationalist anti-oligarchic force.
But the far right wants more than merely being tolerated, it wants Russia for itself.
Its only weapon is murder. Political murder.
Not murder to prevent an information leak or to get rid of an awkward witness. Murder to shock, to provoke, to frighten, to denigrate. Both in Russia and the West.
With murder's help the West shall be shown its place – that of impotence in the face of new Russian power and old Russian values. The more universally respected the victim the better.
International recognition used to be a protection for Soviet dissenters; it has since become a liability for Russian defenders of human rights.
And while Putin's very own balancing act - which some call "stability" - goes on, while humanist democracy has no following, support and the passion that nationalism seems to have, one thing is certain: innocent people, courageous and honest people will continue to be murdered.
People like Anna Politkovskaya. Because she was murdered in a tug of love between Putin and the far right. Fascists vying for power kill to claim - with the spectacular impunity of their crimes - Putin as their ally.
They kill to watch him go through the exercise of refusing to feel shame. They kill to test a comrade before taking the field in earnest.
All signs are that Putin has passed that test.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print, in abridged form, on 24.11.2006