Archive for June, 2011

Opposing the Opposition

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

MOSCOW — Dodging yet another question at the St. Petersburg Forum two weeks ago about whether he’ll re-seek the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev requested that “people be patient for a little while, to keep up the intrigue and the suspense.” He added, “That will be more interesting.” And yet, there seems to be movement in that inscrutable Moscow summer swamp of intrigue. Finally, things are happening. Finally, things are getting interesting.

To wit: On Saturday, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was easily elected leader of the Right Cause Party* at the party’s congress, just as expected. Speaking ex tempore, Prokhorov delivered a rather spicy, provocative speech. “Our country is called the Russian Federation, but judging by the leadership it is an empire where only the executive branch is working,” he said. He spoke of an ongoing 100-year civil war in Russia, and laid out an ambitious, liberal party platform: slashing defense spending, introducing voluntary army service, returning power to the regions, reinstating the elections of mayors, and introducing the election of police chiefs and judges. He even said that political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev should be paroled.

These ideas are usually propagated by the liberal opposition and are therefore roundly ignored by the state. But this is a billionaire, the third-richest man in Russia — a position one cannot maintain without the Kremlin’s warm feelings — voicing them. What’s more, all of this was carried on national TV, still the only real way that information can be broadly disseminated here and therefore a medium that tends to bar messengers of such liberal ideas. Arkady Dvorkovich, the president’s economic advisor, weighed in later on Twitter. “The majority of the issues voiced by Prokhorov are attractive to me,” he said. “Some needed to be discussed further.” And as if this weren’t enough, Medvedev himself decided to meet with the leader of this marginal, liberal party with no parliamentary representation to tell him that “some of your ideas line up with my own.” Some of these ideas, the president said, are “revolutionary.”

This is not particularly difficult to decipher. As I wrote earlier, the Right Cause Party is a Kremlin attempt to co-opt the well-educated, well-traveled, and well-off liberals increasingly dissatisfied with the system. Within the Russian political spectrum, they fall to the right. The idea is to create for this tier-two elite a party that would bring them into the system. It would also provide a steam valve for the so-called “pragmatists,” liberals stuck in the increasingly stodgy and corrupt ruling party, United Russia. Leonid Gozman, the co-founder of Right Cause, has been very open about this. Prokhorov has been, too. “Let’s forget the word ‘opposition,'” he said at the party congress Saturday. “This is a word linked to marginal parties that have lost their connection to reality long ago.”

This isn’t a vague reference. Prokhorov is calling out specific parties: Yabloko, the party of the first generation of post-Soviet liberals, all the other failed parties of the next decade, and their latest incarnation, the Party of the People’s Freedom, shortened as Parnas. The party is led by four liberal, ousted veterans of government: Boris Nemtsov, a prime minister under Yeltsin; Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former speaker of parliament; Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister; and Mikhail Kasyanov, once a prime minister known as “Misha 2 percent” for his skimming of the proverbial milk. Their experience in government makes them obvious choices to a Westerner searching out democratic heroes, but to a Russian their experience taints them, and their fractiousness is still more of a turn-off.

While Prokhorov was delivering his “revolutionary” speech, Parnas was picketing across town. A couple days earlier, Parnas’s official petition to register as a party — and enter December’s parliamentary election — had been denied because 40 people on their list of 46,148 signatures were found to have been dead or minors or had recanted their support of the party. (“Those who recanted told us they had done so because of pressure from the Interior Ministry [the police] and the FSB,” Milov told me.)

Parnas’s position is vague — it was founded as an anti-corruption party. But its target demographic is the white-collar, increasingly frustrated middle class; that is, exactly the same as the target demographic of Right Cause. Gozman makes no secret of this. “Our goals coincide 100 percent,” he said. And both Parnas and Right Cause could be called “marginal,” as Prokhorov put it: Parnas clocked in with 3 percent in Levada’s most recent poll; Right Cause got only 1. The difference? Gozman said, “We believe more in working inside the system.” Which is a strange thing to say since Parnas is also trying to work inside the system: It is trying to run for parliament and eventually to field a presidential candidate. But Gozman meant something else.

Right Cause is not about working inside the system, it is about being the system. Back in 2006, Vladislav Surkov, the master puppeteer of Russian politics, told a congress of another party that became A Just Russia, that Russia needed a two-party system. “Society doesn’t have a ‘second leg’ onto which it can shift its weight when the first leg has fallen asleep,” he said at the time. “Russia needs a second large party.” That is, a second “party of power” to dilute — mostly in appearance — the monopoly of United Russia. And so Surkov created A Just Russia, a vaguely socialist party designed to appeal to the pensioners who were then taking to the street over their shrinking social benefits and pensions. Part of the platform, therefore, was progressive taxation and a luxury tax. Those measures never became a reality, but A Just Russia became the second leg. It was a voice of opposition in the Duma, constantly criticizing United Russia and voting against it. Which, of course, never meant anything because the party has only 38 seats out of 450.

This is the box-ticking formality that’s come to be known in Russia as “managed democracy.” This is Vladimir Putin’s credo for controlling the rudder, for choosing how to react to external stimuli from the masses. Five years ago, the thorn in Putin’s side was geriatric rioters who remembered the glory days of the Soviet welfare state, so the state response was to shower them with oil money and to create a party that purported to be about their interests while not actually having the power to do anything about them.

These days, the group giving the Kremlin the most grief is the so-called “office plankton,” the young people who see what life is like in the West, who want some control over their future, who are nauseated by the corruption around them — not out of envy, but on principle. This is the Russian bourgeoisie: people who have far more money than power, which is why they donate millions of rubles to anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny.

Were these bankers and managers to form their own party, it would be small — Levada estimates that they make up, at most, 15 percent of the Russian population — but it would still insert some unpredictability into the game, which the Kremlin cannot tolerate. The answer, of course, is to create a party modeled after the one that is already starting to form on its own, install a fully loyal leader, and give it a seat at the table. This is why Medvedev has just proposed a law lowering the electoral barrier to 5 percent, from 7. (Right Cause’s goal, Prokhorov keeps saying, is second place in the Duma, which, given the crushing majority United Russia will undoubtedly retain, will be rather small: 5 to 7 percent of seats, according to Boris Gryzlov, the current speaker of the Duma.)

Arithmetically speaking, it’s strange that, even after the A Just Russia experiment, talk in the Kremlin and around Prokhorov’s party continues to be about creating a two-party state. A Just Russia, so far, hasn’t gone anywhere, nor have the Communists or the right-wing nationalists at the Liberal Democratic party, which are also of the loyal “systemic opposition.” That’s five state-certified parties. Do those other parties not count? Are A Just Russia and Right Cause going to share the title of “second leg”? Or will there now be three legs?

And there’s another question: Who will vote for this new second — or third — leg? Will the target demographic — highly educated and thoroughly cynical — buy it? Milov pointed out that the pragmatists who put results above the unsavoriness of certain bedfellows, are probably already voting for United Russia. That party, after all, still has all the resources; why bet on a new, unproven quantity?

I called a friend who helps run a fairly well-known bank in Moscow to ask him what he thought. He is in his 30s, wealthy, property-owning, globe-trotting, and a Russian patriot. He asked not to be named, because bankers, he said, should remain apolitical managers, like the Swiss. “Personally, though, I don’t really believe in this,” he said of Prokhorov’s party. “It’s just another political technology, as they say. Clearly, they have to carve up public opinion into several channels and maintain their rule.” The December parliamentary elections are irrelevant to him. He said, “What’s the point of choosing while not having a choice? Even without me, they’ll split up the votes. Even without me, everything will be just fine.”

*In a previous article, we translated the party name as “Just Cause.” A less confusing, and more widely accepted translation of the name is “Right Cause.”

Opposing the Opposition [FP]

Empty Words

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

MOSCOW — The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — Russia’s Davos — opened with a speech by President Dmitry Medvedev. It was a frank speech, a tough speech. “It is incorrect to focus on calm, slow growth. It is a mistake,” he said. “This infamous stability can hide another period of stagnation…. This is why we must quickly and deliberately change everything that hampers breakthrough development.” After listing some of Russia’s achievements since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he laid out his vision: privatizing government assets, overhauling the legal system, lifting visa restrictions, lowering taxes, and fighting corruption. Or, as Medvedev so kindly put it, “The squeeze of the noose on the neck of corruptioneers must be constant and merciless.”

The praise from Western writers was instant. It was “a blueprint for changing Russia,” Medvedev’s were “bold comments,” he had “Set a Goal to Reform, Modernize and Decentralize Russia as Quickly as Possible,” he had left investors “inspired” and “enthusiastic.”

I bet he had. Such tough-love speeches are common and often heard at economic conferences from other high-ranking Kremlin liberals. They work because they’re delivered by very smart, very persuasive people, people like First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov or privatization legend Anatoly Chubais, people who sound like they get it. And they do.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s hard to differentiate between all those speeches, and not just among those delivered by various ministers. How does Medvedev’s St. Petersburg speech, for example, differ from the speech he delivered to the Russian political elite in November 2009? And how does that, in turn, differ from its precursor, the “Forward, Russia!” editorial he penned in the oppositional newspaper In all three, Medvedev talked about the stifling corruption in Russia, about its dangerous dependence on extraction, about the need to get some air into the Kremlin-controlled political system.

Here’s the other thing: I’m not the only one who can’t tell these speeches apart. Boris Makarenko is a well-known and intelligent political scientist at a think tank called the Institute of Contemporary Development that serves as Medvedev’s brain trust. I asked him if there were any differences between this speech and past speeches Medvedev had made. Makarenko argued that Medvedev offered something “more concrete” this time around, that he spoke of lowering the vote threshold — now set at 7 percent — for entering the Parliament. (In other words, to get even a single seat, a party needs to get at least 7.01% of the vote. If it doesn’t, the votes are split among all the other parties proportionally. This keeps smaller, often opposition parties out of Parliament.)

But Medvedev didn’t mention that in his St. Petersburg speech. He didn’t mention electoral politics at all. He did, however, mention it in Sunday’s interview with the Financial Times:

For instance, once we raised the State Duma admittance threshold for political parties up to 7 percent I think this might be the right thing to do to achieve the organization of the political forces…. However, one day we will have to revise the decision and lower the barrier so that political competition improves and those unable to clear the 7 percent barrier can scrape together at least 5 percent or even 3 percent to get to the State Duma.

In fact, Medvedev first broached the issue in his November 2009 state of the union. “Didn’t he mention this in November 2009?” I asked Makarenko.

“No, no he didn’t,” Makarenko said. Then he thought a minute and said, “Oh, yes, you’re right. He did.”

The real issue, of course, is why Medvedev continues to talk about the same things using the same words. No doubt, Medvedev and his crew know exactly what’s going wrong in Russia and have some ideas about how to fix it. But even if they actually wanted to fix it — and, given the interests at stake, that’s a big if — the real question is whether the people below them, the implementers, want to. And unfortunately, we have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question: They don’t.

Take, for example, Medvedev’s recent public outburst at the Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev. It was an “outrage,” Medvedev said, that of all the plans the ministry had developed along with the presidential administration, not a single one had gotten through parliament and become law. “If you and I agree on a time frame,” the president went on angrily, “and it doesn’t work, tell the administration. We have our own levers, or if push comes to shove, I can get involved. And if it’s stuck, then you should’ve called me and told me.” Because things like this — meetings with ministers, phone calls — are usually staged, Medvedev was clearly trying to show that he was cracking down on foot-draggers in his ranks. Instead, he revealed the opposite: His words don’t easily translate to deed.

And this is not, by the way, just a problem for Medvedev, a man many mock as effete and ineffectual. This winter, WikiLeaks revealed that strongman Vladimir Putin dealt with similar issues during his presidency: “In 2006 — at the height of Putin’s control in a booming economy — it was rumored within the Presidential Administration that as many as 60 percent of his orders were not being followed,” one of the U.S. Embassy cables said.

Here’s what’s happening instead: The Ministry of Internal Affairs is indeed being overhauled and reformed, just as Medvedev called for in one of his speeches. But the law reforming the ministry was written by the ministry itself, and many legal observers say the law simply makes legal many of the ministry’s current abuses.

Following Medvedev’s speech, there will almost certainly be an overhaul of the judicial system, too. Less than a decade ago, Putin did the same. His calls for “a dictatorship of the law” were transformed into what is now known as “telephone law.” That is, a judge will often receive a phone call instructing him how to rule, a phenomenon recently highlighted by the assistant to the judge in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who accused her boss of kowtowing to commands from above.

It’s not hard to imagine that the anti-corruption reform Medvedev proposed in St. Petersburg will also become a funhouse version of its guiding principle. For one example, the president called for firing civil servants on the mere suspicion of corruption, even if there is not enough evidence to try them in court.

The other problem, of course, is that often the president’s own actions undermine his very inspiring words. While mulling his own judicial reform, Medvedev has proposed to reinstate Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika for another term. Chaika’s son has been implicated in a scandal surrounding underground casinos in the Moscow region that were given protection by … the prosecutor’s office. Medvedev’s war against corruption is proceeding apace, yet none of the allegations raised — in court — by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has merited even an inquiry. The Ministry of Internal Affairs officers who caused the death of Sergei Magnitsky in police custody after he uncovered their theft of $230 million from the Russian treasury were decorated with medals for their work.

And that political reform Medvedev insists is so badly needed, the sense of competition and fair play that would do such wonders for the Russian economy? Well, we’ll let the president speak for himself. The Financial Times asked him whether perhaps running against Putin in the presidential election — or even having any kind of real contest — would finally introduce the competition he talks about so often in his speeches:

FT: Don’t you think that such open competition will be good for the development of democracy in Russia?

DM: Open competition is always good.

FT: But why not for the post of the president?

DM: Well, I’ve just told you, the goal of participating in the elections is not to facilitate the development of free competition, the goal is to win.

Empty Words [FP]


Monday, June 20th, 2011

Last summer, I reported from Seliger, the summer camp of the Russian nationalist youth group Nashi. Weeks of lakeside lectures, campfires, and visits to “breeding tents” mold the adolescent party faithful into year-round enforcers, debaters, and organizers of all manner of political activities. Last month, Nashi gathered fifty thousand young people at an anti-corruption rally in the capital.

Even if Nashi buses in young people from sleepy, blighted corners of the country and promises them a fun day in the capital, no opposition rally in the age of Putin has attracted even five thousand protesters, let alone fifty thousand. Nor do the many, fractious Russian opposition groups have a steady flow of capital from Mikhail Prokhorov and other businessmen trying to curry favor with the Kremlin. But, just the Tea Party has incorporated the methods of the community organizer Saul Alinsky, the Russian left now has its own summer camp: Anti-Seliger. The opposition camp may not be on an idyllic lake near Putin’s summer home, but it is nonetheless in a resonant site: the forest of Khimki, just north of Moscow.

In Soviet days, the Khimki forest was a federally protected reserve celebrated as Moscow’s “green lung.” In 2004, plans were unveiled for a new highway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was a necessary improvement—one does not really exist now, which would be analogous to having no interstate between New York and Washington—but the planned road would cut right through the Khimki forest, instead of taking a shorter route around it. Ever since the plans were announced, Khimki has become a byword for protests and vicious retribution, such as the reprisal against the local journalist and Khimki activist Mikhail Beketov, who, as a result of a savage beating, has lost a leg, several fingers, part of his skull, and the ability to speak. In 2009 Vladimir Putin revoked federal protection for the Khimki forest, designating it an area fit for transport and industrial development. It later emerged that Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood friend and judo partner, was building the road.

“People are either getting their heads beaten in or arrested, so I’m impressed that people came,” Yevgenia Chirikova told a gaggle of reporters gathered under Khimki’s birches on Saturday afternoon.

Chirikova, a local businesswoman who has been the Jane Jacobs of Khimki to Putin’s Robert Moses, has emerged as one of the most effective civic organizers in Russia. She has drawn international attention to the cause (Bono has been brought into the fray) and has had a temporary victory: last August, President Dmitry Medvedev put a halt to the razing of the forest. A few months later, however, a Kremlin-appointed expert panel ruled that there was no better alternative, and construction is underway again.

“We have eleven alternative plans,” Chirikova said at the press conference at Anti-Seliger. “Including one option that is shorter, cheaper, and cuts out the need for a bridge, which is a rather expensive luxury in Russia.” She added, “Lots of my friends have left Russia, and I could leave, too, but I don’t want to do it. I like it here! And I believe that, with a bit of time, life in Russia will be no worse than in other countries.”

Behind Chirikova, on the stage, a band was playing. People lolled around on the grass near their tents. Others clustered around the employees of the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, whom I profiled in April. (The anti-corruption rally in the capital was Nashi’s attempt to co-opt his campaign.) Another group was following Navalny himself, who had come to offer support for Chirikova and the project.

“I’ve been communicating with thousands of people through my blog, but I’ve never seen them,” Navalny explained later. “It feels like old friends you haven’t seen for years, so people just want to come and say hi. It’s natural.” The old friends, however, quickly proved trying. “Why don’t we talk after my lecture,” Navalny said rather curtly to one supporter, “instead of asking the same question over and over again?”

Navalny was the biggest star at Anti-Seliger, but the camp on Saturday was a who’s who of the Russian opposition. Elena Panfilova, the gregarious, silver-tongued head of the Russian wing of Transparency International, was there with a plastic bag of apricots, as was Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian Web and a trustee of Navalny’s project RosPil, which monitors abuse in government requests for tender. Roman Dobrokhotov, a young journalist and activist, pestered Navalny on his politics during the question period. Alexander Belov, the leader of DPNI, a banned nationalist party, got a shout-out in Navalny’s answer. Sergei Kalenik, the young man behind the Super Putin comic strip, came with his fiancée. Yabloko, which, until it was squeezed out by Putin’s power vertical, represented Russian liberals in parliament, provided the food: canned meat stew over kasha, cooked in olive-green vats of massive mobile army field stoves from Brezhnev’s day. Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of Left Front, was there, as were representatives from the National Bolshevik Party (which is headed by the writer and perpetual provocateur Eduard Limonov), the Sakharov movement, and the increasingly popular Federation of Russian Automobile Owners (FAR).

“Of course, as drivers, we say, ‘I wish they’d build the road already!’ ” FAR leader Sergei Kanaev told me, squinting in the late afternoon sun. “But this is an opportunity to put our civil society on display, to come together. The Kremlin is only happy when fight each other,” he said. “This is not an anti-road gathering; it’s anti-Seliger.”

Kanaev was absolutely right: no one could confuse this event, which attracted three thousand Russians over the course of four days, with Seliger. Last year, Medvedev helicoptered into Seliger as a surprise and danced in the rain. Anti-Seliger’s surprise guest was Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the rubber-stamp Russian Senate and until recently the head of A Just Russia, an “opposition” party created by the Kremlin. There was no rain, and Mironov did not dance. Instead, he stopped a bulldozer pushing around tree trunks without a permit, and, in his stroll through the forest, took a picture of the stump of a recently cut hundred-and-fifty-year-old tree. Nashi, he said on his way out of the campsite, is “a modern version of the Red Guards”—the youth groups that did the dirty work of the Chinese Cultural Revolution—“with all the consequences that implies.” Quite a platitude from a man whose job is to criticize the Kremlin, which gives him that job.

And where Seliger had intensive techno-pop aerobics workouts, Anti-Seliger had Pavel Boloyangov, a world champion mixed-martial-arts fighter, who gave a master class in self-defense—a necessary skill for activists and journalists whose colleagues have been beaten or killed for their work. In a clearing surrounded by a few dozen onlookers and about as many photographers, Boloyangov demonstrated how to wrestle out of a headlock, how to deliver an effective crotch hit. His sparring partner was none other than Navalny, who is now being investigated on federal charges, and is the subject of constant speculation: is he next?

Anti-Seliger may have been chaotic, but it was cheerful—and constructive for a movement that, as Chirikova puts it, is like an infant who has nearly been strangled in its cradle. Still, as I stood in Khimki forest recording Boloyangov and Navalny’s tussle, I felt like I might be creating some dark souvenir for the future.

Anti-Seliger [TNY]

Road Rage in Russia

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

It was a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon when Lena Miro (the pop-lit writer Elena Mironenko) was wheeling her way home, happy and sated after a Goya exhibit and some stuffed cabbage at a chic Moscow cafe. “When all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a vile old woman with a massive bag on wheels threw herself under my car,” Miro wrote on her blog. “I almost knocked the bowling pin down.” Miro was rattled, but then she had a soothing thought: “It occurred to me: I could’ve run over this scum (the world would only benefit from this), but to give myself a serious headache over some old cunt was a little silly.”

And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow — say, $200. “Then we’ll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats,” she mused. “And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma” — the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. “Let them pan for gold. That way, we’d at least get some use out of their pointless existence.”

Healthy thoughts, to be sure, in a city plagued by infamous congestion. Miro, a card-carrying member of United Russia, is not the only celebrity doing her part to give voice to the party’s patrician inner monologue. When confronted with the growing public outrage over his behavior on the roads, Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov retold an old pre-revolutionary joke. “A peasant nursed and nursed his anger at his master,” Mikhalkov said, “but the master didn’t know shit about it.” Last month, when Mikhalkov was finally stripped of his migalka — a blue VIP car siren that, when turned on, allows the driver to circumvent all traffic laws — his public bitching about the loss seemed to know no bounds. And it’s not hard to understand why: With that blue light flashing, a driver can cut through traffic like an ambulance, and everyone else must scatter. (Although some VIPs don’t even bother issuing that warning.)

In this season of strange movements of the bulldogs under the rug, the migalka and all it stands for have become what passes in Russia for a hot-button campaign issue: the people — or the bydlo, the plebes, as the elite and the plebes themselves refer to the non-elite — get upset at the constant abuse of gratuitous privilege, and the state throws a few of its most insignificant pawns under the bus to show that it has the interests of the people at heart. Which, of course, is not quite true.

In principle and by law, migalki are supposed to go only to the most important officials, officials who have really important meetings to go to, meetings that could make or break the future of Russia. Thus, Barack Obama has a helicopter to get around stoplights and traffic jams; Dmitry Medvedev has a blue migalka. Then what about the prime minister, Vladimir Putin? He has one, too. As do the finance minister and the defense minister and other cabinet members. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has one.

And then the definition of “important” becomes rather swimmy and 970 people get a migalka. Officially. Nearly double that number of “special sirens” are actually on the roads. Who has them? Some of the president’s advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner’s. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia’s leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:

Radio host: “Tatyana, tell us, where do you work?

Tatyana: “I don’t work.”

Radio host: “Then in what way did you acquire a special siren?”

Tatyana: “Well, it’s my car and it has a siren installed on it and I just wanted to say that people who demand to be treated well –”

Radio host: “Tatyana, Tatyana, one second. On what basis do you have a special siren?”

Tatyana: “Why would I tell you where I got a special siren!”

The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.

The plebes, and their cell-phone cameras, have started fighting back. That is how we know about the second in command at Customs going to the cleaners, or about the driver of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu asking another driver, via megaphone, whether his not getting out of the way meant that he wanted to be “shot in the head, dumbass.”

Given the symbolic significance of cars — they are a major commodity in a society obsessed with status and making it look conspicuously higher — the issue has proved to be one of the very few that is able to galvanize and organize notoriously anti-political Russians. Some of the biggest protests Russia has seen in the last decade have been about, you guessed it, cars. This is why the Blue Buckets movement — a bunch of people armed with cell-phone cameras, a blog to monitor abuses, and blue buckets resembling migalki strapped to their car roofs — has become such a major concern for the Kremlin over the last two years. People I spoke to in Moscow expressed an understanding that the envelope had been pushed too far and that something had to be done.

But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo — the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite — but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have “taken up the issue” of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city’s elite suburbs.

The only clear advances have been the ritual punishments of Miro, who was stripped of her party membership, and of Mikhalkov. After his public whining over the lost migalka, he was caught on camera by the Blue Buckets team speeding and veering into oncoming traffic on Moscow’s central Garden Ring — minus a siren. Initially, he said he was late to a taping and said the “louts” and “jackasses with cameras” who taped him couldn’t possibly understand. Then he backtracked and claimed it wasn’t even his car and that he had never called anyone a lout.

Rare is a day in Russia when we don’t hear of another accident involving a “VIP car.” As I sat down to write this story, a new story came across the transom: In the wee hours of Friday morning in Rostov-on-Don, Dmitry Ostrovenko, United Russia deputy in the city Duma, barreled through several stopped cars with his Porsche Cayenne. One of the cars, a tiny Zhiguli, was rammed and dragged nearly 200 feet. Its 23-year-old driver (dead on the spot) had to be cut out of the car’s mangled frame. “Ostrovenko was trashed and could barely stand and tried to pay off the cops right then and there,” an eyewitness wrote on his blog. The gathered crowd nearly tore the deputy to bits.

This was not a new reaction; but then again, this is not a new situation. In 1920s Russia, cars were scarce and prestigious. Whereas before the revolution, only the wealthy could afford cars and chauffeurs, in the dictatorship of the proletariat it was only the party functionaries who were permitted luxuries so out of sync with the letter of the law. But Russia was still a rural, agrarian country back then, and the peasants resented these elite cars kicking up dust or scaring their animals as they roared past. Veering into fields and mashing up their crops didn’t help either. So people fought back. They threw rocks at the cars; they strung up wires across the roads to trip them up. One driver was killed when an angry villager flung an owl at his windshield.

And yet the functionaries and celebrities privileged enough to have cars continued to exercise a familiar kind of recklessness and immunity. According to Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades, on a hot summer day in 1929, Lilya Brik was driving through Moscow in her car, given to her by her lover, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, when a young girl popped up in the road right in front of her, an experience Lena Miro would share 82 years later. “She froze, as if rooted to the ground, and then began to rush about like a chicken,” Brik later recalled. “Nevertheless, I knocked her slightly off her feet.” Brik was tried — and exonerated.

Road Rage in Russia FP]