Last gasps of honesty in Putin’s empire
Daniel Stacey A Russian Diary By Anna Politkovskaya Random House, 323pp, $ 32.95
LIVING in modern- day Russia as described by Muscovite journalist Anna Politkovskaya seems similar to inhabiting one of the dark, tragicomic novels of Viktor Pelevin or Andrey Kurkov.
Prominent opposition leaders are kidnapped by the intelligence services and dosed with psychotropic drugs, xenophobic ultranationalists leave the severed heads of foreigners scattered on the streets, and the Kremlin proposes a law allowing police to kidnap the relatives of terrorists and use them as bargaining chips.
Like the fiction of Politkovskaya’s countrymen, A Russian Diary presents a dystopic vision of a culture grown paranoid, violent and mad. Sadly, it catalogues facts rather than imagined absurdities.
Describing the decline of democracy under Vladimir Putin’s presidency between December 2003 and August 2005, A Russian Diary is the book Politkovskaya was working on when she was gunned down in a lift in an apartment building in October last year. Shortly afterwards, her acquaintance Alexander Litvinenko was served a fatal dose of polonium- laced tea in London’s Millennium Hotel, while meeting former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy. ( Lugovoy now stands accused by British authorities of Litvinenko’s murder.)
These two high- profile murders, only days apart, provided the clearest evidence yet that Politkovskaya — a tireless crusader dubbed by opponents as the ‘‘ madwoman of Moscow’’ — was correct in signposting the death of Russia’s democratic dreams, and the birth of what she called a ‘‘ neo- Soviet system’’.
Her journal begins three months before the 2004 presidential elections: a farce in which most opposition parties put forward non- candidates ( the Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky nominated his bodyguard). In her account the one viable opposition politician, Ivan Rybkin, backed by the exiled oligarch and Putin nemesis Boris Berezovsky, flees to London after claiming to have been drugged, kidnapped and blackmailed with a compromising video he describes as the work of ‘‘ horrible perverts’’.
Carefully led through the minutiae of this election, which Politkovskaya considers a last stand for civil society and free speech, we witness the daily intimidations, bureaucratic corruptions, violations of the free press, and heavy- handed judicial interventions that hand Putin a landslide victory.
Following the election, with Putin’s power virtually absolute, the last remnants of democracy are slowly snuffed out. The constitution is reformed so that regional governors are no longer elected but appointed directly by the Kremlin. It is intensely saddening to follow with
Politkovskaya the daily, systematic dismantling of a free and open society.
The chapters are titled to reflect the experience as it happened, with the book divided into three broad sections: The Death of Russian Parliamentary Democracy, Russia’s Great Political Depression, and Our Winter and Summer of Discontent.
According to Politkovskaya ’ s damning appraisal, Putin and his administration, heavily affiliated with the KGB’s successor the FSB, have gained a stranglehold on Russia and killed off democracy. Trying to run their vast country as an authoritarian regime, they have become massively overstretched; and because they are incompetent and know no better they have reverted to Stalinist stratagems: empowering militias, mobsters and regional warlords to control Russia’s giant civilian population by force.
This shaky method of control finds its most terrifying manifestations in the distant reaches of Russia’s empire: the Caucasus republics of North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, and remote outposts such as Blagoveshchensk, where Politkovskaya records that extra- judicial killings, cleansings and torture are rife.
Beginning with the arrest of Mikhail Khod- orkovsky, the Yukos oil boss whose company has since been re- absorbed by the state, the Kremlin’s economic plan has been to renationalise the industry privatised during Yeltsin’s fire sale. Politkovskaya predicts that this system, like its Soviet predecessor, will soon stagnate and collapse.
‘‘ Swallow it they may,’’ she writes of their forceful reacquisition of private businesses, ‘‘ but they can’t really digest it, as they don’t have sufficient highly qualified managers.’’ Instead she describes a return to the mediocrity of the Soviet era and a refusal to modernise: ‘‘ Reality is tastefully displayed to look like stability. The West again throws us a crust. We all know about eternal recurrence.’’
What is twisted about this particular recurrence is the effort Putin and his administration expend to create the illusion of a functioning Western- style democracy, complete with a free press, independent judiciary, market economy, and fair elections. This lie takes on epic, national proportions, and begins to feel like one enormous, eerie theatrical performance.
Its various incarnations find Putin, in a supposedly open- to- the- public call- back radio interview, reading his answers from a script. Later, a dissident from the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers is charged with colluding with a doctor to burn an ulcer on her son’s intestine, to provoke his discharge from military service. A leading Chechen politician recasts the assassination of his rival as a gift for women on International Women’s Day.
Politkovskaya conjures an utterly compelling account of this ‘‘ managed democracy’’: a grand, diabolical theatre directed by a flagitious ruling elite. This revival of ‘‘ Soviet servility’’ — where courting the Kremlin is the only route to power — has created a nation of sycophants, and it is on the topics of obsequiousness and apathy that Politkovskaya directs her most thunderous condemnations.
‘‘ We have emerged from socialism as thoroughly self- centred people,’’ she says. ‘‘ People react only when something affects them personally . . . A hereditary memory is at work, reminding people how to live if they want to survive. Swim with the tide.’’
Having swum against the tide, Politkovskaya is dead. This fearless modern history may well be the last honest work of Russian journalism for years to come. Daniel Stacey is a London- based literary critic, magazine editor and writer.
Tireless crusader: Anna Politkovskaya