Dispatch From the “Other Russia”

At some point, the opposition has to decide what it stands for.

Garry Kasparov. Click image to expand.
Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov

MOSCOW—It was not a coincidence that the organizers of the “Other Russia” opted to hold their conference just 72 hours before the G8 summit. The whole point of the meeting of Russian opposition leaders was to train a spotlight on the Potemkin village the Kremlin has erected in St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg will be absurd. Everyone knows this. Set against the backdrop of Russia’s least Russian city, a cast of thespians led by KGB-trained President Vladimir Putin will tell the leaders of the world’s top industrialized democracies exactly what they want to hear: that, contrary to all the Cassandras, Russia is becoming more Western. Far from abandoning freedom, the Kremlin is restoring order to a society hijacked by criminals and parasites and lending legitimacy to the democratic, free-market experiment; there is a conversation taking place today about Russia’s political evolution and its compliance or noncompliance with international standards of liberty and justice that, as Putin has noted, would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

The president is right, in a way. Not long ago, anarchy prevailed. Violence was ubiquitous. A terrible rudderlessness seemed to have supplanted any sense of national purpose. Russians feared and hated what had happened to their empire—their much vaunted soul—and, of course, the leeches, the bankers, and oligarchs (Jews, mostly), who had reappropriated Mother Russia. And then they found their new Napoleon. Unlike his predecessor, he didn’t drink. He spoke clearly and succinctly. He was athletic and had narrow eyes, and even though he came from the old regime, he adapted quickly. The new rules were the old rules: Stay in line. If you forgot to stay in line, you might land in a Siberian jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos chief.

This is the reigning mythology. Like all mythologies, it’s too neat to take seriously. It revolves around a simple story line. It features crooks and heroes, and it has all the predictable poetics of a state-orchestrated lie. But precisely because it is state-orchestrated, it must be taken seriously. The stakes—personal freedom—are high. Naturally, if you mention this sort of thing here, you’re likely to elicit a smirk. Democracy, self-rule, and individual rights are abstract notions concocted by fools and villains, but mostly by villains. Everyone knows that. After decades of totalitarians proclaiming that “freedom” meant national might or collective will or the justice of history or, in many cases—in most cases—mass death, freedom has been transformed into an empty coefficient. This is one of the side effects of Sovietism: Many people do not believe that freedom exists.

But freedom as an idea or aspiration can’t be quashed. Spinoza knew this. So did Martin Luther King Jr., Andrei Sakharov, and Vaclav Havel. So did the Soviets. Other people can tell you that you are free. They can tell you this while they kill you or arrest you or strip you of your right to travel or work, and they can tell you they are doing these things to preserve your freedom or the freedom of other people you love or have never met or have yet to be born. But you don’t have to believe it. You can believe whatever you want, and in the process of believing independently, you exercise your agency: You achieve your freedom.

This is what the “Other Russia” should have told the rest of Russia, but it didn’t. By staging the two-day conference this week, before Bush, Blair, et al. descend on St. Petersburg, the hope was to lift the curtain on the nonsense that will be taking place inside Konstantin Palace, where the talk will focus on energy markets, AIDS, and North Korean nuclear missiles, and no one will say what everyone knows: Russia does not belong in a club of democratic nations. The “Other Russia” should have said what no one will say, and it should have said exactly what it would have done to correct Russia’s political course, but it didn’t.

Instead, the “opposition leaders” and “activists” and “democratic reformers” squeezed into the fourth-floor conference facilities at Moscow’s Renaissance Hotel looked like they were living in their own Potemkin village. There were the Soviet-era dissidents: bespectacled, bookish, ruffled. There were the professionals, the reporter magnets, the former officials with the heft and arrogance that come from believing you know things other people do not know: Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister; and Irina Khakamada, the former presidential contender. There were the freaks, the borderline personalities, the sympathetic voices, the activists from the National Bolshevik Party, the people who think Russians should be environmentally conscious, and the mothers of dead soldiers—the quote machines to whom journalists turn for color and garnish. And, of course, there was the impresario of all things Other, chess-giant-turned-democratic-reformer Garry Kasparov.

Former Prime Minister Kasyanov was somber but optimistic. Eduard Limonov, the impish head of the National Bolsheviks, was delighted in his new popularity. (Until recently, most respectable opposition leaders would have nothing to do with Limonov, whose younger followers favor swastika-style, red, white, and black hammer-and-sickle armbands.) Even the Kremlin offered some help: Truckloads of militia with German shepherds patrolled the Renaissance. A few National Bolsheviks, who are fond of getting arrested, were arrested. A metal detector was set up. The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi demonstrated outside. There were angry denunciations and pyrotechnics and the false whiff of danger.

During a coffee break, I asked Kasparov what he hoped the “Other Russia” would achieve. “I think we are creating a new political culture,” Kasparov said, adding that it was time for opposition factions to set aside their differences. “Both the right and the left have an interest in creating a level playing field.”

His comments jibed neatly with a statement issued by the conference organizers, including former Kremlin economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Vladimir Ryzhkov of the Republican Party of Russia, and Viktor Anpilov of Workers’ Russia.

“We are gathering together,” the statement proclaimed, “because we are united in our disagreement with the current political course of the Kremlin and united in our alarm for the present and future of our country. We are gathering together despite our disparate views on the past and future of Russia. We are gathering together although our visions differ on how our country can become free and prosperous.”

That’s an OK preamble. But there must be more. An opposition cannot only oppose. It has to be for something, and that something must be defended on moral grounds: We believe that human beings are free, meaning all people have a right to construct the lives they want to live, and when we are democratically elected we are going to create an independent judiciary, restore free elections …

But that isn’t what happened. What happened is that many people who call themselves “the opposition” said they were in opposition to the Kremlin. They drew a good crowd: scores of Western reporters, the British and Canadian ambassadors, and a senior State Department official, despite Kremlin warnings to Western governments not to send emissaries.

In obvious ways, “Other Russians” face fewer dangers than Soviet dissidents faced. Less obviously, today’s opposition confronts a murkier challenge. Unlike times past, when the powers that be were anchored to an ideology, today’s regime is more amorphous. (Kremlin officials, in fact, have urged leaders of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party to figure out what they believe in before the 2007 parliamentary elections, so that Russians don’t start thinking that the only reason they exist is to hold onto power.) But just because it’s unclear what ideas, besides theft, underlie the current authoritarianism, the opposition need not be similarly opaque. The Kremlin’s failure to articulate a set of principles or to explain why Russians can’t be trusted to govern themselves offers an opening. The question is: When will “the opposition” become an opposition?