THE PLANK MARCH 3, 2008
Yesterday in the New York Times Magazine, Andrew Meier profiled one of the perennially thwarted Russian opposition leaders, Eduard Limonov. “[President-elect] Dmitri Medvedev … is little more than a proxy,” Meier writes, but “there remains one genuine opposition force, the Other Russia.” To be blunt about it, no there doesn’t. At least from where I stand--literally.
I spent the final hours of March 2 in the closest place Moscow had to an opposition HQ that night: a party at Mayak Café organized by a dissident web site called grani.ru. Every notable Other Russian in the city was present. Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister, chatted with Vladimir Ryzhkov, the former Duma speaker. (Both had wanted to run against Medvedev and were barred on sadistic technicalities). Former TV star Viktor Shenderovich, now blacklisted from all but one networks, milled about cracking jokes about Putin’s agents infiltrating the party. The atmosphere was that of an iconic Khruschev-era Soviet kitchen: smoke-swathed intelligentsia exchanging cracks about how screwed they are. Quite a few of the guests were old enough to have sat in those kitchens.
For a gathering with at least two viable candidates in attendance, notably absent was anything resembling a plan, a platform, a blueprint for moving on. The organizers showed a satirical cartoon. A woman moved through the crowd distributing plastic bags that said “I’m Taking No Part In This Farce,” made famous hours ago by Garry Kasparov, who toted one to a photo op in St. Petersburg. Then they showed the cartoon again. At 9 pm, when the last polls closed, everyone whipped out a mobile phone and checked the results: Medvedev in a landslide, shocker. A new round of unfunny jokes followed. (It’s 2026, and Putin says to Medvedev: “Wait, I forget, who am I this time, Prime Minister or President? Medvedev: “I think I’m Prime Minister. You’re President.” Putin: “Then fetch me a beer.”) The event’s official peg was the launch of a new opposition web site, granitv.ru, which, activist Yulia Berezovskaya explained, was meant as a riposte to the lavishly funded pro-Putin site russia.ru. That it was being launched on the night of the elections, and not, say, three months earlier, speaks volumes.
“I had a shot,” Kasyanov told me. “I had a shot, and this exactly why Putin gave the order to create the bureaucratic details that resulted in my removal.” And yet even Shenderovich, standing ten feet away, placed Kasyanov’s chances, in a hypothetical squeaky-clean contest, at ten percent. To call The Other Russia disorganized or rudderless is to hugely understate matters. It is a desperation move and a political leftover stew--conflating social liberals with near-fascists, “edgy” aesthetes drawn to fringe iconography, and literally everyone who isn’t a Putinist or a Communist, in one of the least organic alliances in history. Given any measure of power, it would fracture in seconds. Most importantly, it has no candidate to offer up: Kasparov wasn’t it. “Our very way of life has to change before that person even has a chance to emerge,” said sculptor Lidia Gandlevsky when asked if there’s anyone, anywhere, capable of outweighing a Putin endorsement. Many add that the last person capable of inspiring (and financing) a liberal movement was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed since 2004.
This is the key paradox of today’s Russia: Unlike in the Soviet Union it's beginning to resemble more and more, the malaise is deep but not wide. Those that think that the Putin-Medvedev regime (is that what we’re calling it now, by the way?) is quashing a potent opposition movement are humoring themselves, because the alternative is too nauseating to consider. We’re not exactly sure how to deal with a narrative of near-unanimous voluntary submission to autocracy. Russia is as conclusive a repudiation of the idea that every nation hungers for the democracy-capitalism combo as Iraq (if not as tragic). More conclusive, in fact: In Iraq, various species of idealism are still butting heads. In Russia, people give up their liberties out of well-considered pragmatic self-interest. No wonder the U.S. hasn’t had a coherent Russia policy since 2000: we’d rather not think about what this behavior means.
By 1 a.m., the party was down to two journalists, a film star, the editor of a major daily, and the owner of Mayak, all uproariously drunk and singing folk songs. A mile or so away, on Red Square, a triumphant state-sponsored victory concert was winding down.
Staggering into the street, the dissidents could hear a faint thumping and see a diffused glow of the floodlights rising over the Kremlin. The election was over.