Changing the Moscow rules
Around the time Vladimir Putin started his first term as Russia’s president in 2000, a man named Gleb Pavlovsky appeared on the Moscow scene. Pavlovsky was a former dissident in Soviet times who called himself a “political technologist”, a highfalutin term for spin doctor. That isn’t to diminish him: Spin doctors in different administrations all over the world are among the most interesting political figures of contemporary times, because their job is to give a narrative about the government and the leaders they serve.
In doing so, they help give the narrative to the leaders themselves, who may not have worked out quite what they were going to do with power, since they were too busy getting and keeping it. They are the necessary middlemen between political power and the media. The media need a big story, and the spin doctors, or political technologists, are there to provide it.
Vladimir Putin, the man chosen by former President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, didn’t know what to do when he arrived. At the time Pavlovsky moved into the Kremlin as his aide, the new president was – as Pavlovsky later said – consumed with anxiety that he would not succeed in imposing his will on a Kremlin still full of aides who were not his choice. Putin, remember, was still less than a decade away from being a middle-ranking, surplus-to-requirements KGB officer.
I spoke to Pavlovsky several times early in his tenure, and the narrative he gave was a persuasive one. It was that Putin, after the roller coaster that was Yeltsin’s Russia, would give security, stability and a chance for the society to recover both from Yeltsin and from Communism, to develop a middle class, to discover the joys of consumption. “It was,” he told the charismatic Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev last May, “about stability as a social construct, as a way of organizing society”. He was valuable enough to be kept on after Putin’s two terms, as an aide to Dmitry Medvedev in his one-term presidency. But then he went too far, saying openly that it would be “absurd” for Putin to return – and he was out.
Being out may account for the sharpness of a recent remark, reported by the New York Times. Pavlovsky believes that the third Putin presidency is now “selecting the harshest” choices in dealing with dissent, and in doing so, “the system is informing us that it is changing the rules”.
Changing to what? In his new book, Strategic Vision, Zbigniew Brzezinski called on the West, especially Europe, to develop a closer relationship with the vast neighbor to the east – but recognized that Vladimir Putin’s vision “is a backward looking combination of assertive nationalism, thinly veiled hostility towards America for its victory in the Cold war and nostalgia for …superpower status”. He likened it to Mussolini’s Italy: not a Nazi (or Stalinist) dictatorship, but relentlessly, determinedly authoritarian. If indeed he does make the “harshest choices”, Putin will be writing a new narrative, very much his own, and it will be a disturbing one.
Two of these choices will concern figures who are iconic to our present times – a blogger and a feminist punk rock band. The blogger, Alexei Navalny, has emerged in the past year as a leader of the mainly youthful rebellion against Putin that erupted when his third presidential term was confirmed. He has been accused of theft of timber worth $500,000 from the Kirov region, whose government he was advising, and the penalty could be 10 years in prison. At the same time, the band Pussy Riot is charged with various counts of hooliganism, after storming into the huge Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, close to the Kremlin, shouting “Mary! Get rid of Putin!” and dancing in front of the altar before being removed. That prank could earn them seven years. As the writer Andrei Nekrasov commented, “the trial’s message is simple: an insult to the leader is an insult to God”.
These choices are nominally for the judges on the cases, but no one believes they are anything but Putin’s. Indeed, Putin has already pronounced on the Pussy Riot case, saying while on a visit to London that, “I don’t think they should be judged too severely for this … I hope the court will deliver a correct, well-founded verdict.” In so saying, he shows himself in favor of some kind of punishment – but not an excessive one, which might reflect badly on his regime. Most important, he is underlining that the choice is his to make. It would be a bold judge who didn’t take note. Navalny’s case is more serious, both in the nature of the charge and the challenge he poses. If the harsh choice ends up being made in his case, then the direction of the Kremlin becomes clearer.
Yet the direction of Russia isn’t. I was at a gathering last week of some 150 mainly young men and women at an institute outside of Moscow, held under the auspices of the Moscow School of Political Studies, a civil society NGO. (I’m a member of its advisory board, with Russians and a few other foreigners.) I’ve been attending these conferences every year since I was a correspondent in Moscow in the first half of the 1990s. When they began in the early nineties, our talks on democracy, civic behavior and free speech were received, mostly, with acclamation. That’s long gone: The participants argue, challenge and dissent. Mostly well educated with jobs in government, companies and the media, many prize order as much as democracy, and they certainly don’t see the West as benign. Presently, they tend to agree with their government that the West is fomenting rebellion in Syria and that Russia strives for peace.
But they were not all, or even mainly, Putinites. They were mixed. Some liked Navalny, some not. Some thought Pussy Riot was cool, some disapproved. All seemed to speak freely. When Krastev told them that they had lost a country – the Soviet Union – they agreed. They did the same when he told them that the lesson of the 1990s was insecurity, lack of money and no state support: Stability, now, was all. When, by contrast, I gave what I thought was a ringing endorsement of a free press, the questions were cooler, skeptical.
They were, in short, rather more “Western” than they were when they thought that all blessings flowed from the West. They were thinking for themselves. Putin expresses what some of them want. But my sense was that if he constantly makes the harshest choices, he will lose the grip he presently still has on his country. The members of this new generation of Russians are not Western liberals, but they’re not Soviet sheep, either.
PHOTO: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L), Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina (R), members of female punk band Pussy Riot, attend their trial inside the defendents’ cell in a court in Moscow, August 3, 2012. President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that three women on trial for a protest performance in Russia’s main cathedral should not be judged too harshly, signaling he did not favor lengthy prison terms for the Pussy Riot band members, Russian news agencies reported. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov