Last gasps of hon­esty in Putin’s em­pire

Daniel Stacey A Rus­sian Diary By Anna Politkovskaya Ran­dom House, 323pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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