As Russia’s political climate freezes over again, with Vladimir Putin less than a month away from being preserved in the Kremlin like the country’s soon-to-be-cloned mammoths were preserved in ice, Moscow has nevertheless begun to thaw.
At Patriarch Ponds, where Bulgakov had the devil appear, a hole has appeared in the middle of the ice and water laps at its edges. On Red Square, where the devil is buried, workers have dismantled the seasonal ice-skating rink and the snow around the Kremlin’s walls has given way to recently rolled-out lawn. The couple of hundred oppositionists who continue to take to the streets, where they protest the devil’s return to his former office, are mostly taking to slush. The city’s winter of widespread discontent is over.
We will continue to hear about these protesters for a while. The Western mainstream and Russian independent media remain committed to them even as their numbers dwindle. It is possible that, in the lead-up to Putin’s inauguration early next month, they may be able to mobilise the same sort of numbers that first buoyed hopes four months ago. But, Oleg Shein’s ongoing hunger strike in Astrakhan notwithstanding, it is more likely that we will continue to see what we have been seeing since the last mass rally more than a month ago: a series of scrappy, poorly organised actions, performed by an increasingly inchoate and disunited group of groups, each with is own aims, agenda, and degree of disregard for the non-systemic opposition as a whole.
In February, when some 30,000 people to took the city’s Garden Ring road and held hands for three hours, one was inclined to quote Hunter S. Thompson’s most famous passage. “There was a fantastic universal sense,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning …”.
Two months and an inevitable election result later, one now feels inclined to quote that same passage’s conclusion: “[W]ith the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
One could also quote Anna Politkovskaya, the slain journalist with whom we started this series of articles six months ago, and whose ironic and critical mind was sorely missed this election season. What is often forgotten about Politkovskaya is that she was at once of and apart from the opposition.
If she was Putin’s fiercest critic then she was simultaneously the opposition’s most critical ally. Her Russian diary is full of entries lambasting liberal opposition figures such as Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Grigory Yavlinsky, all three of whom played central roles in winter’s mass protests and the latter of whom was hospitalised with angina not long after the last of those protests.
My copy of A Russian Diary is currently in storage and the book is unavailable in electronic form, and I would not presume to quote one of these passages from memory, though I can quote The New York Times‘ reviewer who similarly noted their lack of mercy. “[Politkovskaya] skewers the feeble liberal opposition, the ‘democrats,’ with such regularity,” Andrew Meier wrote a year after the journalist’s murder, “that when their electoral failure comes, it’s a train wreck long foretold.”
Much of what Politkovskaya had to say about those democrats remains valid of the not-so-liberal oppositionists of the next generation, too, with the failure of media darlings such as Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov to pose any genuine challenge to the regime as foreseeable as their commitment to democratic ideals is questionable.
If Western and oppositionist media outlets had shown even a fraction of Politkovskaya’s critical objectivity over the course of the past five months, I don’t think the opposition would be in quite as dire a position as it is now. Sycophantic coverage of figures such as Navalny, who hasn’t had to field a difficult question since the protests began, about his disturbing anti-immigration position or anything else, only helped him and the other opposition leaders to avoid the sort of self-criticism and internal reform they so desperately needed to pose any sort of serious threat, electorally or otherwise, to the regime.
That same sycophantism now characterises the coverage of Shein, whose history of less-than-honourable political actions includes baselessly labelling his opponents Nazi collaborators and whose nationalism, easily as problematic as Navalny’s, resulted in a book praising Russia’s 2008 war against “the Georgian occupiers of Tskhinvali”.
I initially thought that the opposition’s post-election failures might have helped figures like Navalny to wake up from their media-induced self-certainty. But the media continue to act as though a handful of people protesting a nasty documentary about them or turning up at a flash mob counts as some sort of clear-and-present danger to the regime and the protest leaders continue to promise million-strong marches even though they are currently struggling to draw more than five hundred at any given time.
(The nasty documentary in question, NTV’s Anatomy of a Protest, screened for a second time during the protest against it due to what the station claimed was popular demand.)
As for Politkovskaya, the question of who ordered her murder remains unanswered, even as those who have been charged with carrying it out have taken to dropping names and making wry suggestions that seem to have more to do with political expediency than with actually aiding the investigation.
The apartment building in which she was killed is today surrounded by the sort of Tajik migrant workers that Navalny thinks should be “paid [their] wages and then deported” and the sort of middle-class urbanites that Udaltsov’s penchant for getting arrested has scared away from opposition protests and rallies. The icicles are melting from its gutters and the high-booted women skipping over the puddles all carry umbrellas or hold their hoods to their heads as snow falls in sizable chunks from the rooftops.
But the building at 8/12 Lesnaya Ulitsa stands as a reminder of how cold things in this part of the world still remain. The past five months could have used its former resident to point this out when when no one else seemed willing to.