Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the Russian liberal opposition. Not only do they seem to be out of touch with the sentiments of the population, or seem to offer any alternative to Putinism, they also appear prone to something I call historical transfiguration.
Take for example, what “parallels” Grigory Yavlinsky of Yabloko, Leonid Gozman of SPS, and Garry Kasparov of Other Russia see between the Russia of 1917 and Russia of 2007. Yavlinsky said that some of those parallels are “the dominance of corruption and bureaucracy, the absence of inner mechanisms for modernization, the absence of economic and political competition, the absence of a mechanism for the government’s renewal, and the absence of the chance to form a responsible and efficient opposition.” Gozman thinks that like in 1917, today’s rulers have an “absolute feeling of stability, and the tsar also had it. In addition, the opposition is being ousted toward revolution, and the tsar did not want to discuss anything as well. He had his own truth, and this was quite enough for him.” And never to be outdone, Kasparov claims that the “analogies with 1916-1917 are quite explicit.” “The Objective tensions are rising in society,” he explained, “and this is exactly what serves as the main engine of revolutionary processes. For instance, a gap between the rich and the poor has reached an unimaginable size.”
I don’t know what history books these three are reading. Because they leave out one crucial factor: World War I. The war was the number one issue in 1917. All of the instabilities that the above three speak of were exacerbated by it. Russia’s failure at the front is what made the difference between revolution and protest. The Revolution would have gone nowhere without soldiers willingly, and often happily, turning their guns on their officers. Take for example these Okhrana reports from 26 February 1917:
“In the vicinity of the Church of Christ the Saviour, the 4th company met a mounted patrol of 10 policemen; the soldiers abused the policemen, calling them “pharaohs,” and firing several volleys at them, killing one police man and one horse, and wounding one policeman and one horse. Then the soldiers returned to the barracks, where they staged a mutiny. Colonel Eksten came to put it down and was wounded by one of the soldiers; his hand was cut off.”
That same day, Okhrana agents also reported:
“As the military unites did not oppose the crowds, and in certain cases even took measures tending to paralyze the initiative of police officials, as for two days the mobs wandered unhindered about the streets, and as the revolutionary circles advanced slogans: “Down with the war” and “Down with the Government”–the people became convinced that the revolution had started, that success was on the side of the mobs, that the Government was powerless to suppress the movement because the military units were on the side of the latter, that a decisive victory was in sight because in the very near future the military units would opening join the revolutionary forces.”
It was actions like these, not just in Petrograd, but also at the front which made the Russia Revolution, as one scholar argued, essentially a mass soldiers’ revolt.
Moreover, it is no secret that the key to the Bolshevik’s taking power in November 1917 stemmed from the fact that they controlled almost the entire Petrograd garrison and had solid support among soldiers at the front. This why 66.9% of soldiers at the Western front cast their Constituent Assembly votes for the Bolsheviks.
Russian oppositionists might remember these historical facts before they try to draw “parallels” between Russian in 1917 and Russia now. After all, believing in their own analysis of 1917 might end them up on the wrong side of the gun.
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By Sean — 5 years ago
This week’s Russia Magazine column, “The Power of Pavlensky’s Nailed Body,”
The image of Petr Pavlensky sitting on the cold, wet cobblestone of Red Square with a long nail driven through his scrotum is shocking and bewildering. What is the performance artist trying to achieve? What does a spike impaling his testicles symbolize? Titled “Nail,” Pavlensky’s installation, which coincided with Police Day, served as a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.” “It is not bureaucratic lawlessness which deprives society of the possibility to act,” reads a press release, “but the obsession with our defeats and losses which nail us ever more into the Kremlin’s paving stones, creating an army of stuffed dummies patiently awaiting their fate.” “Having forgotten its advantage in numbers,” the statement continues, society’s inaction “brings the triumph of the police state closer.” Pavlensky’shas since been charged with hooliganism which carries a maximum five year prison sentence.
Like many, I too was quick to ridicule Pavlensky’s art. A cock and balls nailed to the ground makes it all too easy to descend into grade school humor. But after I read Masha Gessen’s post on the NY Times, I began to seriously contemplate Pavlensky’s installation. “Each of these actions required the police to deal with Pavlensky’s body — something Russian law enforcement officials almost never have to do, even though they routinely mangle, maim and kill protesters, convicts and perceived violators of rules and laws. Pavlensky uses self-mutilation to point out that the victims of Russia’s policies are human beings of flesh and blood.” I was struck how Pavlensky used his body to alter the power dynamic between the protester and police. But “Nail,” as well as Pavlensky’s other acts of self-mutilating art, points to the centrality of the body in protest.Post Views: 1,791
By Sean — 4 years ago
On August 9, 1999, fifteen years ago, Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, an unknown, ex-KGB man to become Prime Minister of Russia. Then, no one would have guessed that Putin would still be with us today, and likely for many more years to come. For the anniversary, Oleg Kashin has provided long post detailing how the Russian press covered Putin’s appointment. How about the English language press? How did they describe this now historic moment?
Colin McMahon of The Daily Telegraph wrote:
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the man they called “the grey cardinal” in St Petersburg for his careful avoidance of the political limelight, is a blank slate to the average Russian.
For the third time in the last four tries, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has plucked from relative obscurity a bureaucrat to take over the post of prime minister of the Russian Federation.
Mr Putin has the added advantage, or handicap, depending on one’s point of view, of being named Mr Yeltsin’s preferred successor as president. . .
He spoke little, smiled less and, except in the hottest of times, wore over his suit a leather jacket that still says KGB. That deadpan style was on display on Monday night in an extensive interview on the independent station NTV.
He seemed guarded on just about everything, as if the interview were an interrogation and not a get-to-know-you visit.
“I have a wife and two children, two girls, ages 13 and 14,” he said. “They study in Moscow.”
Asked about interests beyond work: “Sport, literature, music. Which sport? Fighting and judo.”
If Mr Putin lacks charisma, say his supporters, it has yet to hurt his effectiveness. . .
Mr Chubais, a Yeltsin confidant regarded in the West as one of the smartest free marketers in Russia, opposed Yeltsin’s plan to name Mr Putin to replace Sergei Stepashin as prime minister.
A source in the political movement Right Cause told Interfax that while Mr Chubais considers Mr Putin a “contemporary politician” and a “powerful leader,” he predicts that public politics will test Mr Putin’s abilities.
At this stage, Mr Putin would be considered a long shot to win the presidency, no matter how much Mr Yeltsin might wish it.
Celestine Bohlen of the New York Times:
Nor do many Russians necessarily believe that Mr. Putin, 46, will still be Mr. Yeltsin’s preferred choice as a successor by the time the presidential elections roll around, several months after December’s parliamentary elections. Russian politics are littered with men who, at one time or another, held the mantle that has now been bestowed on Mr. Putin.
In Prime Minister Putin, Mr. Yeltsin will have a loyal servant — and a recent boss of Russia’s domestic intelligence service at that — who will be more ready than his predecessor to pull the kind of levers of power that might make even Russia’s most brazen regional bosses, an increasingly independent lot, think twice. Often portrayed as the kingmakers in the coming elections, they are still sensitive to the granting of funds and the release of compromising information — tools at the Kremlin’s disposal.
Brian Whitmore, now of RFE/RL’s the Power Vertical, wrote in the Moscow Times:
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB spy, a shrewd bureaucratic operator – and a completely untested public politician. He also has the reputation of a man who is completely loyal to his immediate boss. . .
But analysts say that Putin, an uninspiring speaker who rarely makes public statements, would be a tough sell in Russia’s presidential elections, scheduled for next July.
“I can’t imagine that in one year’s time it will be possible to turn Putin into a viable public politician,” said Yevgeny Volk of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office. Instead, said Volk, “Putin will be a useful and obedient tool in Yeltsin’s hands.” Putin, nominated for prime minister on Monday after Yeltsin fired Sergei Stepashin, has been director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB, and has chaired the Security Council, which advises the president. His views on important matters such as economic policy are not well known.
Several observers said that Stepashin was sacked in favor of Putin because Putin is a tougher operator, more likely to use all available means against Yeltsin’s opponents – Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional leaders.
Throughout his career, Putin has been a tough bureaucratic infighter and a master of behind-the-scenes politics who has been able to advance his career and loyally serve various masters.
Corky Siemaszko in the Daily News:
Putin, who admitted he had not “been involved in politics,” said he would run for president on his record in office in the coming months.
Yeltsin, who cannot seek a third term, gave no reason for firing the loyal Stepashin after three months in the job, but Putin suggested Stepashin’s failure to end the standoff with Muslim militants in the Caucasus played a role in his dismissal.
Political analysts noted the emergence of Moscow mayor and Yeltsin rival, Yuri Luzhkov, and his new political alliance last week as the catalyst. Muscovites were cynical.
“What do you expect from an ill president and his troupe of clowns?” asked a Muscovite named Marina.
Kremlin watchers, however, said Yeltsin’s anointing of Putin shows how desperate he is to find a successor who will guarantee immunity from prosecution for him and his allegedly corrupt entourage.
They also predicted Putin would not last long.
“He wants his allies to rally around Putin, but it’s too late,” said Columbia University political science Prof. Steven Solnick. “Putin has never even run for political office. . . . He’s not presidential material.”
Yulia Latynina opined in the Moscow Times:
Monday morning, it finally became clear who will not become Russia’s president in the year 2000. It will not be Vladimir Putin. He will not become president simply because prime ministers are sacked in Russia these days when they are just ripening. Besides, it’s impossible to stay for a year as an heir apparent to a sultan who is fanatically in love with his power and has only a vague idea of what is happening in reality. The astonishing fact that President Boris Yeltsin seriously considers himself capable of appointing his successor shows how little the president understands the political reality. Any nomination from him would inevitably cause a serious allergic reaction in the voters. The only thing worse for Putin would be an endorsement from a Russian lesbian association.
The New York Times editors wrote:
Mr. Yeltsin’s latest selection, Vladimir Putin, shares some of the same questionable qualifications as his immediate predecessors, Sergei Stepashin, who lasted only three months, and Yevgeny Primakov, who served for nine months. All three held senior positions in the Russian security services that succeeded the Soviet K.G.B., organizations not known for teaching the fine points of democracy. During the cold war Mr. Putin, who is 46, worked as a top Russian security officer in Germany, and most recently ran Russia’s internal security service.
None of these men had experience in economic management when they were appointed Prime Minister, making it difficult for them to devise programs that might revive Russia’s sinking economy. If Mr. Putin is confirmed by the Communist-dominated Duma, he will have to move quickly to show the International Monetary Fund that he is exercising budgetary restraint, collecting taxes effectively and taking other steps to justify a new round of lending.
Mr. Yeltsin’s clumsy efforts to stage-manage the next presidential election now leave Mr. Putin as his designated candidate in a likely field of far more prominent, seasoned politicians. Other possible contenders include Mr. Primakov; Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow; Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, and Aleksandr Lebed, a former general who is now Governor of a region in Siberia. So far the only prospective candidate with strong democratic credentials is Grigory Yavlinsky, who has had difficulty building a national base. It is hard to imagine how Mr. Putin, with no experience in electoral politics and no organized party behind him, can expect to compete for the presidency.
Alice Lagnado in the Times London:
Vladimir Putin, chosen by President Yeltsin yesterday as Russia’s acting Prime Minister and the Kremlin’s favoured presidential candidate, is a loyal but little-known figure known as the “grey cardinal”.
Mr Putin, 47 and married with two children, graduated from the law faculty of Leningrad University before being recruited into the KGB’s foreign espionage operation. He was posted to Dresden, part of the then East Germany, for 15 years.
In the 1980s he became an adviser to Anatoli Sobchak, the head of the Leningrad Soviet, or legislative assembly.
Mr Putin’s conscientious work – he was said to have had the final say in all of Mr Sobchak’s decisions – earned him the post of first deputy head of the St Petersburg city government in 1994, and the “grey cardinal” tag. When Mr Sobchak, St Petersburg’s first Mayor, lost the 1996 elections, Mr Putin moved to Moscow to become deputy to Pavel Borodin, Mr Yeltsin’s administration manager.
In March 1997 he became head of the Kremlin’s Control Department, a watchdog body, where he oversaw relations with Russia’s 89 regions. There he was dubbed an “imperialist” due to his toughness in preventing regional leaders seceding from Russia.
In July last year his loyalty paid off when he was promoted to head the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. But he received only a half-hearted welcome from liberals, who saw him as a reformist intelligence chief. He is believed to be a protege of Anatoli Chubais, the architect of Russian privatisation, It is believed Mr Chubais was a key figure in his promotion. “There are rumours in Moscow that Putin landed his post with the help of influential natives of Leningrad working in the Government and presidential administration,” the Segodnya newspaper wrote of his appointment.
Since then there has been some disappointment that Mr Putin has failed to meet important challenges. His officers still spend much time and resources on harassing environmentalists. The case continues against Aleksandr Nikitin, a former naval captain accused of spying, after he wrote a report claiming that the Russian Navy dumped nuclear waste in the Arctic Sea.Post Views: 625
By Sean — 12 years ago
I’m quite a fan of Kim Murphy’s reporting on Russia in the Los Angeles Times. She always handles an interesting, and often human side of Russia that I don’t see in many English language publications. Sometimes the stories she tells border on the bizarre. Other times they verge on the chilling. Her recent story published in the May 30 edition of the Times qualifies as both. Yet I think that the astonishment that this article conjures should not serve as yet another platform to further concretize the “abnormality” Russian Other vis-?-vis our “normality”. Rather, I would suggest that Murphy’s article identifies universal methods of designating Others through means of categorization that rely on legal, scientific, cultural and governmental discourses.
In “Speak Out? Are You Crazy?”, Murphy reports that the Soviet practice of condemning the political dissident to mental asylums continues in the cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in periphery of the Federation. Those seeking to pose an electoral challenge to local notables, speak out about corruption, women who want to divorce their powerful husbands, and those who complain about acts of labor, civil, and personal injustice are either condemned by local judges or are forced to sign consent forms to be institutionalized. While this practice is not systematic, “it seems quite clear that such abuses are on the rise, and that this is a trend,” says Iurii Savenko president of the Russian Independent Psychiatric Association.
In one of the many cases Murphy recounts, one Albert Imendayev, a candidate for the legislature in the Volga region was sent to an asylum for nine days. A judge determined that his campaign, which focused on exposing local corruption, was an act of insanity. Similar cases abound.
In another case here in Cheboksary, a four-term opposition deputy in the regional parliament, Igor Molyakov, spent six months in jail on libel charges in 2004. While incarcerated, he was ordered committed for psychiatric hospitalization after a judge agreed with government lawyers that Molyakov’s repeated writings about corruption among local authorities reflected an outlook so “somber” that it might constitute a “mental disorder.”
In St. Petersburg, Ivan Ivannikov, who lectured for 38 years at the State University of Economics and Finance, found himself wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and dragged to the city psychiatric hospital in December 2003 after a protracted dispute with a well-connected contractor over repairs to his apartment. An influential state psychiatrist signed the recommendation for commitment without ever having met Ivannikov, deciding that his multiple legal complaints against the contractor constituted an “obsession” with “revenge.” He was released after 60 days.
In Moscow, Natalya Kuznetsova was fired from her job at the federal audit chamber not long after charging that $140 million had been siphoned out of the federal budget in 2001 and 2002. A subsequent set of quarrels with her supervisors led to her firing, and when she filed suit seeking disability compensation, a state psychologist reported she had a mental disability.
“When they finally fired me on the 25th of January, 2005, they threatened to call a psychiatric ambulance for me,” said Kuznetsova, who successfully fought against commitment. “This is all because of flourishing corruption. These corrupt people are using psychiatric persecution to destroy people.”
In some cases, people who families and friends insist had no overt signs of mental illness have been committed for more than a year, sometimes drugged with sedatives and tied to their beds when they resisted, and prevented from attending the often-perfunctory court hearings that extended their hospitalization.
In many of these cases, patients were talked into signing consent forms. The rate of involuntary hospitalizations is so suspiciously low in at least 51 facilities across Russia that the Helsinki commission concluded that coerced consent through “persuading” and “falsification of signatures” was widespread.
Such practices were part and parcel of the Soviet attempt to squash dissident. Soviet dissidents were often sent to mental asylums for speaking out against the regime. Authorities justified this practice on the grounds that a person who condemned life in “socialist paradise” had to be insane. Within the logic of Soviet socialist ideology dissidence was categorizes as wholly illogical. However skeptical one may be of the Soviet justification, and many at the time went further than skepticism and rightly condemned the practice, the Soviets explanation fell squarely within the context of albeit flawed Soviet logic. It was backed by Soviet law, science, medicine, and culture. Dissidence fell outside of Soviet truth.
Some will say that nothing has changed. The many of the structures of the Soviet system continue to exist in a different context but are still deployed for similar ends. This is Murphy’s contention. Her byline bills the practice as a “throwback to Soviet times.” I don’t disagree with this. However, I think it would be a mistake to simply write off this practice as a “throwback” because it reveals something inherent to our modern condition. No matter how instrumental the condemning of dissidents (and do not let the term “dissident” conjure images of high profile figures like Andrei Sakharov. The majority of those sent to these psychological hells are regular people often without an overarching political agenda), an ideological justification remains. Sending someone to a mental institutional is often justified in terms that make it plausible that the condemned is indeed insane. And it is these terms that are placed in a discourse that employs a vast array of legal and medical institutions, experts, and state power. Having cynicism toward the use discourse therefore should not lead one to reduce the power of that discursive structure to nil. That is to say, just because the powerful silence dissent through corruption does not remove the fact that the silencing occurs within a matrix of legal institutions and structures. The condemnation of someone as insane requires the condemnation to fall within the parameters of what is coded as insane behavior.
This attempt to place the act of speaking out within an institutional and cultural context of madness is evident in case of one Molyakov, an opposition lawmaker who challenged the iron grip former Russian Justice Minister Nikolai Fyodorov has had on the reigns of power in Chuvashia since he became its governor in 1994. Molyakov was charged with slandering Fydorov during an electoral campaign in 2004. Using the levers of power at their disposal, Fydorov’s people have since tried to get Molyakov condemned to a mental institution. What is interesting about this case of power and corruption is what Fydorov’s lawyers argued in their appeal to federal Judge Oleg Zhukov’s overturning of a lower court’s psychiatric referral order.
Murphy reports that Fydorov’s lawyers asserted that Molyakov’s standing as an author and philosophy professor didn’t mean that he wasn’t insane. Quite the contrary, those accomplishments made his insanity more likely:
“The court ought to know that even being a personal genius doesn’t rule out a mental disorder … (Van Gogh, F.M. Dostoevsky, N.V. Gogol, etc.). As has been established by scientists, the risk of a mental disease in gifted people … is seven to eight times higher.”
Such a passage should be so quickly dismissed. Notice what is being referred to here. First there is a correlation of “genius” with “mental disorder” by way of referencing insane, and more importantly, culturally authoritative geniuses like Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. One is a bit surprised Nietzsche wasn’t also included in such a venerated list. Second, the lawyers back up their cultural assertion with science. “Geniuses” are “seven to eight times higher” to be mentally insane. The appeal to experts is to give the cultural claim the weight of empirical and scientifically validated truth to push the subject from the parameters of normal to that of abnormal.
If one thinks that this practice of pushing a subject from a position of normal to the abnormal is particular to Russia, I recommend considering the fact that what is categorized as normal and abnormal is based on a post-Enlightenment discourse whose domain encompasses the entire West. The issue is not whether any of those in Murphy’s article actually and objectively committed a crime. We, who pride ourselves on the fact that we cherish the sanctity of human rights and the inviolability of the sovereign, individual subject should not so quickly revel in how the actions of the Russian Other reinforce our liberal sainthood. Instead the Russian case should rather reflect universal discursive structures that allow for the innocent to be transformed into the guilty through a process of re-categorization. Here I am thinking of the stripping of American citizens of their right to habeus corpus through their re-categorization as “enemy combatants.” A similar border crossing between the realms of “normal” and “abnormal” is also occurring in the American case through similar appeals to culture, legality, social-scientific expertise, and state power.
Make no mistake. I am not equating the Russian and American cases. To do so would be to nullify their particularities. My point is a larger and I think more profound one. It is one inspired by Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the confluence of law, social science, medicine, culture, and state institutions as a means to discipline, condemn, and manage bodies. This process is not one that requires objective acts of criminalty, insanity, or even terrorism but rather the categorization of certain acts through the use of an array of apparatuses that do not exist outside the boundaries of legality as some human rights activists might argue (and however much I may agree with their arguments), but rather exist inside the very structures that supposed guarantee human rights. The act of condemning exists within a matrix of already existing “regimes of truth,” to use Foucault’s words, that allows the possibility of the normal subjects in Murphy’s article to suddenly become abnormal and thus condemned and silenced.Post Views: 298