As the space for debate in Moscow shrinks, the options for the country’s future look ever narrower.
The news and the invitation were waiting for me, both, when I got off the plane from London to Moscow. I saw the invitation first—from a long-time colleague, to attend a workshop on the future of Russian politics later this month at Memorial, the venerable Russian historical society and human rights organization. I saw the news two hours later: 17 days after that workshop, Russia’s High Court will hold a hearing on the government’s demand that Memorial be liquidated.
That is the condition of life in Russia these days: two hours in which an invitation takes on a funerary pallor, 17 days in which the world becomes immeasurably smaller. Rarely has the distance between today and tomorrow been so great and so fraught as it is now.
Putin's intolerance of independent rights groups extends even to Memorial, which documents Soviet atrocities. http://t.co/Hk6LSRIdho— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) October 18, 2014
Tweet from Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.
Memorial, of course, is hardly an existential threat to the power of the Kremlin, but that is of little importance. Whatever the motivations behind closing this organization and pushing its outspoken activists into a corner, the result will be the disappearance of one of the few remaining forums to discuss the country’s domestic political landscape in open, intellectual dialogue.
Forums such as these were not always so scarce. The first iteration of the workshop to which I was invited was hosted some six years ago, not by Memorial, but in the offices of the Carnegie Moscow Center, an American-backed think tank that, for most of its existence, was the preeminent place to freely discuss politics and policy in an honest setting. But even as Vladimir Putin’s power grew and democracy waned, Carnegie wasn’t the only place for such debate. The Kennan Institute, affiliated with its head office of the same name in Washington, provided a similar environment. Universities like the Higher School of Economics, the Russian State University of the Humanities and a handful of others provided platforms for adventurous academics to host wide-ranging public discussions. And there were Russian think tanks, like the Gorbachev Fund, the Gaidar Institute or the Liberal Mission Foundation.
But more recently, over watery cappuccino in a faceless coffee shop, another long-time colleague ticked mechanically through that list: in the course of the last six months or so, Carnegie has wiped domestic politics off its agenda, and Kennan has closed shop entirely; the universities have reined in their public events, for fear of unwanted publicity; and the think tanks have seen their funding and their freedom curtailed. The physical space for open debate in Moscow has for all intents and purposes shrunk to the Sakharov Center—named for the physicist and dissident who challenged Brezhnev and lost—and Memorial. By the end of next month, it is likely to shrink even further.
Among Moscow’s intellectual circles the irony of retreating to the confines of Memorial and the Sakharov Center is lost on no one.
Among Moscow’s intellectual and analytical circles—the kind who used to populate all those late-night workshops—the irony of retreating to the confines of Memorial and the Sakharov Center is lost on no one. To hold a Russian politics workshop at either place is a retreat to history, placing the discussion of the fraught present and the uncertain future in the midst of archives chronicling the crimes of the past.
It is also a retreat from engagement into dissidence—a place that is perhaps noble, but that is also marginalizing, and a place my colleagues truly believed they had escaped forever.
After receiving the invitation to the workshop and before finding the news about Memorial, I thumbed through the day’s edition of Vedomosti, the only daily newspaper in Russia consistently worth reading. (By the end of the year, Vedomosti, too,will almost certainly be either shuttered or neutered, under a new law banning significant foreign ownership of Russian media; the newspaper is majority foreign-owned).
In it the columnist Andrei Babitsky remarked on comments made earlier by Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev, criticizing a law making its way through the State Duma that would force the state to compensate Russian citizens and corporations for assets seized by foreign governments. The law, known in Russia as the Rotenberg Law, was drafted after the Italian government froze assets belonging to Arkady Rotenberg, one of Russia’s richest men and Putin’s former judo sparring partner. Were it to pass, the economy minister complained to Vedomosti, the law would create unsustainable liabilities for the budget and encourage damaging capital flight (Babitsky also raised the question of why the Kremlin seemed more interested in protecting the oligarch’s property abroad than at home, but that’s another story.)
It is hard to think of a major Russian policy initiative in recent months that has made Ulyukaev and his comrades in the economic bloc of the cabinet happy. The fact that these highly competent and worldly technocrats feel compelled to express their frustration in the pages of Vedomosti might suggest that they are not getting an adequate hearing in Putin’s office. However, given that Russian policymaking rarely occurs in the public domain, a different explanation seems more likely: the technocrats have stopped caring. As the economy slips into recession, as increasingly scarce resources are poured into the military and into Crimea, and as international isolation drives up the cost of capital, they can see the inevitability of an unhappy tomorrow just as clearly as my workshop colleagues.
That, perhaps, is why recent comments by Ulyukaev and his colleagues have something of the quality of what Russians call a krik dushi, a cry of the soul—a brief, brilliant outburst of lucid frustration that is as honest as it is futile.
Today there is still space for a workshop like the one to which I was invited. Tomorrow, there almost certainly will not be. Today, those Russians who spent the last 20 years of post-Soviet history mapping more prosperous and democratic pathways for the next 20 years can continue to do so, but tomorrow they will almost certainly have to stop. Today, Memorial’s mission to remind Russians of the horrors of the past so that they do no repeat them is as relevant as it has ever been. Tomorrow, the point will almost certainly be moot.
The arrival of tomorrow, when it comes, will be a catastrophe not only for Russia’s dissidents (and we may as well reacquaint ourselves with that term), and not only for the economists and businessmen who would have preferred a more liquid future. The arrival of tomorrow will be a catastrophe for Russia’s leaders.
The tomorrow whose arrival now seems inevitable is not a return to the Soviet past, even though ‘Iron Felix’ Dzerzhinsky will stand again outside the headquarters of the secret service he founded. The Soviet past included a story of progress, of the construction of socialism and the eventual establishment of communism, of an unstoppable march of history towards the betterment of mankind. Even if that ideology, in the stagnant 1970s and ‘80s, had faded into absurdity, it was still the basis for the regime’s legitimacy. There is no such imperative in the tomorrow that awaits Russians now.
The tomorrow whose arrival now seems inevitable is one in which the archives of Memorial and the Sakharov Center disappear, to be replaced with a single national history textbook and a single national literature textbook, so that the past may have no bearing on the future. It is one in which policy analysis disappears from the public space, along with honest reporting, so that the present may also have no bearing on the future. Tomorrow, when it arrives, will bring one sole purpose: to preserve and protect the status quo. It is a tomorrow after which there are meant to be, politically speaking, no more tomorrows at all..
What the designers of this new tomorrow may not realize, however, is that, once freed from the paralysis of a pointless today, the despair of disaffection becomes the desperation of dissent. Dissidents, pitted against a regime that can never fall, take risks that are unnecessary in a more fluid system. They speak at all costs to demonstrate that they have no voice, and they go to jail to demonstrate that they are not free. Once today becomes tomorrow, and there are no more tomorrows for which to wait, the imperative of immediate action reemerges.
Is the Kremlin ready for an opposition that, because everything is already lost, has nothing left to lose?