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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Freedom to Hate the Party




"I think the world is ending," sighed my friend Natasha the other night.


"Global warming, environmental pollution - it can't lead to anything good.


There will be other civilizations, other planets. We're doomed."


Well, it certainly puts things in perspective, doesn't it? What's a small economic collapse or a minor political upheaval when the whole mess, from the Garden of Eden to Red Square, is about to become a footnote in the chronicle of another galaxy?


It's tempting to take the long view. I could then go back to bed and wait for Doomsday. Or, better still, blow the rest of my cash on a trip to Paris or a night on the town.


Maybe this explains the curious atmosphere of gaiety in Moscow these past few days. I returned from a short vacation to find that The Crisis had gone into hiding. Stores are full again, there are queues at the more popular cafes. Even the telephone lines to Jack's pizza delivery are jammed, which means that the foreign community, at least, has solved its cash-flow problem.


I'm happy for everyone, really I am. I'm just bewildered. What has changed? The banks are still a mess, companies are folding, there are increasingly frequent reports that people in the regions are freezing, and the government seems able to do nothing but talk. So why are these people smiling?


Perhaps it's mass hysteria, a sort of Pushkinesque "Feasting in a Time of Plague." Or maybe everyone else is as much at a loss as I am.


There is a strange sort of paralysis at the core of Russia these days. For the first time in more than a decade, the country is not moving in any discernible direction.


Democracy and capitalism seem to have led to a dead end; communism wasn't really that much of a hit, either. So where's that "Third Path" that all the 19th century philosophers were so fond of talking about?


I haven't seen any traces of it. Russia seems firmly mired in old habits. Take, for example, the recent suggestions by journalists and politicians that the Communist Party is ripe for banning.


It sounds like a great idea, in theory: The Communists, by refusing to censure the rabid anti-Semitic ravings of one of their own, Albert Makashov, have transformed themselves into a fascist party, and hence should be outlawed.


I would love nothing better than to have Makashov jailed for his noxious comments, which called for the extermination of the Jews. If the law against inciting interethnic hatred means anything, he should be in a cold cell, on bread and water, contemplating his sins.


But calling for a ban on the Communists is nothing more than political grandstanding. Intolerance has led Russia down some pretty ugly paths in the past. Should we start shipping Party members to Magadan?


Anti-Semitism is an abomination, but it was not invented by Makashov, or the Communists, and a legal ban will just inflame passions further.


Popular consciousness cannot be legislated away.


Almost 10 years ago, in the spring of 1989, there was a demonstration that pitted Memorial, the human rights organization headed by the deceptively mild-mannered scientist and activist Andrei Sakharov, against the black-shirted Pamyat, headed by the hate-spewing, rabble-rousing Dmitry Vasilyev.


I missed the action - it was one of the few times in the past decade when I was out of Russia. But the newspapers reported a confrontation between the two men in the center of Moscow. My memory may be faulty, and the entire conversation may be apocryphal, but it has stayed with me over the years.


Sakharov, in his scholarly, gentlemanly way, said to Vasilyev, "We should be thankful for the new freedoms; otherwise we wouldn't be here, able to speak our minds."


"No," Vasilyev spat back. "If it weren't for these new 'freedoms' you wouldn't be here."


That's the rub, isn't it? The pleasure of being able to say whatever you want is considerably dimmed when your enemy is afforded the same luxury. So is it better if everyone is gagged?


The Communists certainly deserve all the opprobrium we can heap on them for refusing to censure Makashov. They should be cursed, and ridiculed, and held up as an example to all decent people of how not to act.


But ban them? Why bother? In a few years, or millennia at most, we'll all be dust anyway. The world is ending, haven't you heard? I think I'll just go back to bed.