How Russia Turns Liberals Into Authoritarians
- By Yevgeny Kiselyov
- Sep. 03 2008 00:00
|To Our Readers|
The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Another August has ended. One would think that the last month of summer would be calm and quiet, but something dramatic and unusual happens almost every August. This was particularly true during the first presidential terms of Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and now Dmitry Medvedev.
In August 1991, there was the putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the last desperate attempt by the Communist diehards to put an end to Gorbachev's democratic reforms. Yeltsin opposed the leaders of the putsch, and he won the battle. After that, Yeltsin's main accomplishment during his first term was dismantling the Soviet system and preventing the Communists from returning to power.
In August 1999, Putin, who had just been appointed prime minister and Yeltsin's successor, began with a small but victorious war against Chechen insurgents who had invaded Dagestan. His entire first term was spent suppressing rebellious Chechnya and building his vertical power structure. Unfortunately, all of this was achieved at the expense of developing democratic institutions and building a civil society.
Then the Kursk submarine sank in 2000 during Putin's first August as president. And Putin, who couldn't have handled the situation any worse, was rightfully subjected to an avalanche of criticism by the media, which was independent at that time. Because of the attacks against him, Putin developed a powerful aversion to press freedoms, and for the next eight years, he did everything in his power to establish total control over the country's television, eliminating dissent from the airwaves.
The armed conflict between Russia and Georgia began as Medvedev marked his first 100 days in office. The conflict buried any hopes liberals held for a thaw in the political system that Putin built.
To be honest, I also had some illusions regarding Medvedev. A lot of my hope was based on Russia's historical precedent -- when a new leader quickly reverses the political course of his predecessor. Take, for example, Alexander II's liberal reforms after the conservative rule of Nicholas I; Nikita Khrushchev's thaw after Josef Stalin's repressions; Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika after the conservative rule of Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko and Yury Andropov; and Putin's "dictatorship of the law" and his vertical power structure after Yeltsin's liberalism.
At first glance, it seemed that Medvedev was the antipode of Putin and that he would rule the country differently. After all, Medvedev was an honors student as a boy, loved books, and was the son of professors. In his student days, he was a loyal aide to his mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. According to Sobchak, Medvedev was the ideal law student at the St. Petersburg University who voluntarily helped him put up fliers and design election posters.
Moreover, as an adult, Medvedev was not a member of the secret service. He worked as a civil lawyer and believed that democratic society should comprise of equal and free individuals who are bestowed with civil rights. Medvedev's liberal model was reinforced by his many speeches about the virtues of freedom, rule of law, independent judiciary and the dangers of legal nihilism.
But let's suppose for a moment that appearances can be deceiving and that family roots, upbringing, education, life experience and public statements -- however important they might seem at first -- do not determine a person's character.
Take for example Yury Andropov, who led the Soviet Union in the early 1980s after Brezhnev's death. The liberal faction of the Soviet elite hoped that Andropov would become a liberal reformer -- quite a paradox since he spent many years heading up the repressive KGB. Nonetheless, Andropov surrounded himself with liberal advisers, many of whom later played prominent roles in Gorbachev's democratic reforms. He also supported freethinkers, such as Yury Lyubimov, the prominent theater director whom he saved several times from punishment by Communist authorities. Moreover, Andropov -- much to his credit -- played an important role in pushing Gorbachev to become general secretary.
Despite these hints of liberalism, however, Andropov was better known for tightening the screws. Under his rule, the human rights movement was decisively crushed. Moreover, the Kremlin's standoff with the West reached its peak during his two-year rule, with the Soviet Union deploying SS-20 missiles in Europe, escalating the brutal war in Afghanistan and shooting down a South Korean airplane full of passengers.
A more modern example of this dualism is Oleg Dobrodeyev, the head of Russian state television. From 1990 to 1991 Dobrodeyev created the Soviet Union's first alternative, independent news program, "Vesti," which served as a groundbreaking counterbalance to the "Vremya" news program, the state's propaganda mouthpiece. Several years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed, Dobrodeyev helped create the maverick NTV television network, which I once ran as general director and which was renowned for its openly critical coverage of the government.
Nothing about Dobrodeyev foreshadowed the radical metamorphosis he would undergo during Putin's presidency -- not his past career, his circle of relatives and friends, nor his personal appearance that many likened to Tolstoy's likable Pierre Bezukhov character.
Having started out as one of the founders of Russia's nascent free and independent media, Dobrodeyev became the man who later did so much to destroy it. Under Putin's presidency, Dobrodeyev was appointed general director of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company, which owns the Rossia television network. In this capacity, he served as the Kremlin's chief censor, a figure similar to the head of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's "1984." And it was under Dobrodeyev's direction that the conflict between Russia and Georgia was presented to the Russian people on state television in such a Soviet fashion, explaining Russia's invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the recognition of these breakaway republics in such primitive East-versus-West and good-versus-evil terms.
But this type of dualism is quite typical in Russian history. Take Konstantin Pobedonostsev, for example. For 25 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was considered the most influential grandee of the Russian Empire, the recognized leader of the reactionary wing of the ruling elite who spoke out against the slightest manifestation of liberalism and even the most cautious reforms. It is not widely known, however, that in his youth, Pobedonostsev secretly corresponded with the editors of the oppositional Kolokol magazine, which was published in London. History gives many examples of people who were liberals in their youth but became conservatives as adults -- people who, once they held the reigns of authority, turned into reactionaries. But the opposite also happened. There are individuals who began their careers as loyal servants of the regime, but later became its reformers. Gorbachev is one of the more vivid examples of this.
There is still some hope that Medvedev will return to his liberal roots at some point during his presidency. But judging by the way that he handled the Georgian crisis, this is become increasingly unlikely.
Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.