Back to the Past

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On the eve of Easter, Russia ceased to be a democratic state. On that day, the hope of freedom of speech disappeared, as the nation's only private national television station Ч one that had dared to criticize President Vladimir Putin and his drive toward totalitarianism Ч was destroyed. This act was the culmination of a concerted attack by Putin on freedom of speech that has been going on since he first became prime minister.

The death of NTV has transformed Russia into a qualitatively different state. The Western world simply cannot continue treating this new Russia as if it were the same country that it was just a few weeks ago. It only makes sense now to relate to Russia with the same suspicion and caution with which the West treated the Soviet Union.

Russia has passed through a transition point and has, in effect, returned to the place from which the country's democratic transition Ч painfully and motley as it has been Ч began. Outwardly, Moscow still looks like a thriving city, a hub of reform. Foreign cars still whiz through the streets and colorful advertising is everywhere. It seems a far cry from the sedate, gray city of Soviet times.

But somehow our television broadcasts have already taken on the gray tone of Soviet times. The central channels show less and less criticism of the authorities and less and less bad news generally. Watching these broadcasts is already becoming as dull as watching the Soviet news was, except now our boredom is compounded by the knowledge that we have been defeated.

The authorities have now demonstrated complete contempt for domestic public opinion. For months, intellectuals, activists and common citizens had been urging the government to protect the private station. In the days before the takeover, many thousands of people in Moscow, St. Petersburg and cities across the country attended demonstrations in defense of NTV. Their concerns were blithely ignored, just as public opinion is generally ignored in an era of political repression.

Click here to read our special report on the Struggle for Media-MOST.

Finally, the Kremlin also demonstrated its contempt of the West, which had expressed growing alarm over the fate of NTV, which it correctly saw as part of an effort to suppress democratic freedoms in Russia. At the same time that the Kremlin has been tightening the screws at home, it has been steadfastly pursuing a foreign policy aimed at isolating Russia from the West. It is symbolically significant that the first high-ranking foreign visitor to Russia in the post-NTV era was the deputy prime minister of Iraq.

Russia has changed immensely in the year since Putin came to power. Do you think that NTV was just a business dispute? Then how do you explain the fact that as soon as the station's journalists sought refuge at THT, criminal investigations into that station's managers were immediately opened?

And is there any appeal? "Do you want to complain to Stalin about Stalin?" friends used to warn their naive comrades who took it into their heads to write appeals to the Great Leader and to inform him about the lawlessness in his realm. "Do you want to complain to Putin about Putin?" was the first thought that came to my mind when the journalists and the "public council" of NTV appealed to the president for defense from the unjust assault of Gazprom. We see where these appeals got them.

I have also been struck by the Kremlin's use of people with compromised reputations. I don't know, for instance, whether the accusations of corruption that have been made against Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov are true, but the fact that no one is investigating them and Ustinov's silence throughout the NTV affair makes me wonder. I am reminded of Ustinov's predecessor under Stalin, Andrei Vyshinsky. Vyshinsky had served under the provisional government and had once even issued an arrest warrant accusing Lenin of being a German spy. This past made Vyshinsky a useful tool for Stalin. He would do whatever he was told, knowing full well that he could himself up against the wall at any moment. I wonder if Alfred Kokh and Boris Jordan have thought about this.

The overtones of the Stalin era do not end there. When Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky was first arrested last summer, Putin acted as if he didn't know anything about it and claimed that he had not been able to reach Ustinov by telephone. Stalin too loved to pretend that he had no knowledge of the repressions being carried out by his regime and the people tried hard to believe that this was true. Such faith, however, is only possible in a country that strictly controls information Ч such as Russia is now fast becoming. The recently adopted "information security doctrine," approved by the Security Council under Sergei Ivanov, is the ideological foundation for this effort. Now Ivanov is defense minister and I fear that this appointment signals the further militarization of society and heightened confrontation with the West.

More and more the events of recent months have forced me to remember the early days of the establishment of Soviet dictatorship. The destruction of the nonstate-controlled press that Lenin carried out immediately after the Revolution. The destruction of the Academy of Sciences as a locus of independent thought in the early 1930s. The beginning of the era of show trials Ч the left deviationists, the right deviationists, any sort of deviationist.

And most distressing of all Ч the public reaction has been the same as back then. "I don't know what to think," people have been saying to me. "I don't have enough information." At this rate, they never will.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky is a retired KGB lieutenant colonel. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.