Susan Rice Isn’t Going Quietly

December 20th, 2012

President Barack Obama is expected to appoint Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, on Wednesday as his national security adviser. She spoke with The New Republic late last year about the secretary of state debacle, her future, and why she’s not tortured by Rwanda.

BY THE TIME Susan Rice withdrew her name from the running for secretary of state earlier this month, she had emerged in the media as one of Washington’s most nefarious personalities. After Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham denounced the American ambassador to the United Nations for “misleading” the American people over the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, she was accused of, among other things, having a “personality ‘disorder,’” of harboring a “breathless” confidence in African strongmen, of being a “headmistress,” of having “sharp elbows,” of having a voice “always right on the edge of a screech,” of being an interventionist, of not intervening when it mattered.

“Was she also responsible for the drop in temperature between Tuesday and today?” snapped Gayle Smith, a senior director on the National Security Council (NSC). Smith belongs to an army of Rice loyalists who sprang to her defense, in lieu of a nominee’s war room. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately made supportive sojourns to Capitol Hill; Special Assistant to the President Samantha Power became such a fervent advocate that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked a mutual friend to tell her to tone it down. “It’s having the opposite effect,” he reportedly complained. (Kristof denies he gave Power “private advice on how to do her job.”) Although President Barack Obama initially defended Rice, by the time she decided to withdraw, he did not attempt to change her mind. “I’m not saying it was a nudge,” says one Rice ally. “I’m also not saying anyone begged her to stay.”

Still, there’s no reason to think that Rice’s career is over. Administration sources are not ruling out the possibility that she could be tapped to serve as national security advisor, a post that does not require Senate confirmation. And regardless of her title, Rice will remain one of Obama’s most trusted advisers. She was instrumental in the formation of his foreign policy before he came to the White House—an experience she describes as “a meeting of the minds”—and her family and his are now friends.

In her quick ascent through the foreign policy establishment—Rhodes scholar, Oxford Ph.D., one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state at age 33, veteran of many a Democratic presidential campaign—Rice has a public persona that is somehow both forceful and elusive. The many critiques leveled at her tend to distill into a contradictory assessment—that she is too political and not political enough.

According to one person who has worked with both Rice and Clinton, the latter is a more skilled politician. Rice, he says, works with a tight inner circle, and politics do not come naturally to her. Power implied that Rice’s chances were hurt because she is “not a leaker. She doesn’t cultivate relationships with journalists by spilling her guts about what goes on in the Situation Room.” It also doesn’t help that Rice, who has two school-age children, socializes sparingly. “She’s not a regular on the cocktail-party circuit,” says Brooke Anderson, Rice’s former deputy at the U.N. According to Rice’s brother, John, “Her style is not to proactively try to shape how people view her.”

At the United Nations, Rice has accomplished a lot—new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, a broad mandate for intervention in Libya—and has largely repaired the damage wreaked by her most colorful predecessor, John Bolton. When Obama delivered his Cairo address, she invited the U.N. ambassadors from Muslim countries to her residence at the Waldorf Astoria to watch the speech. Her appeal to the Security Council to intervene in Libya was so powerful that “you could hear a pin drop,” according to someone in the closed-door meeting.

But Rice’s get-it-done approach can sometimes resemble yukking it up with the guys in the locker room. “She doesn’t like diplomatic niceties, which is a nice way to put it,” says one human rights activist at the United Nations. Rice once reportedly mocked the French U.N. ambassador, Gérard Araud, for being reluctant to venture outside his comfort zone on Security Council trips to places like Haiti and South Sudan—by calling Araud “a virgin.” “You don’t do that in that world,” one stunned source says. “It’s not a pub.” (Rice told me she likes Araud “a great deal” and adds that they are often irreverent with each other.) Rice’s teachers, though, insist that her bluntness is appropriate. “There’s this myth out there that diplomacy has to involve communication that is saccharine,” says Richard Clarke, a former boss. In private, he says, “it’s all bare knuckles.”

Lost in all of this is Rice herself. I met with her a few days before her candidacy for secretary of state collapsed, in her office at the U.S. Mission in New York. She has deceptively soft eyes underlined with her signature electric blue eyeliner; her expression fluctuates constantly between laughter and a formidable game face. Watching the furor over Benghazi, a city that she helped save, had been “an out-of-body experience,” she told me. “I turn on the television and I think, ‘Well, that person they’re showing looks like me.’ But then the person they’re talking about, that’s not me. That’s not me at all.”

THE NARRATIVE of Rice’s foreign policy evolution has been that of a haunted realist reborn as an impassioned interventionist. One leading nongovernmental proponent of intervention in Libya said that, when he was urging the Obama administration to take action, Power and Rice were more responsive than most. Why was Rice amenable? “Rwanda.”

Rice grappled with the Rwandan nightmare during her very first job in government—as director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the NSC during Bill Clinton’s first term. When the genocide broke out, Madeleine Albright, then the U.N. ambassador, was instructed to advocate for the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers, but pushed to maintain some international presence. “I didn’t like my instructions,” Albright recalls. “I thought I could get a better answer out of the NSC, and I didn’t.” Clarke, the coordinator of the NSC’s counterterrorism group, and his staffer, Rice, were two of the people who wouldn’t provide a better answer, and observers recall blowout fights. (This put Rice in an awkward position, since Albright had helped her to get the job.)

Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, quotes Rice arguing against labeling the Rwandan carnage as genocide during an inter-agency discussion in 1994: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?” Rice told Power she didn’t recall the comment, which she deemed “inappropriate.” Since then, she and Power have become close, and Power says she sees a gulf between what her sources told her and the colleague she has come to know. “What I can say is that, on the issues that are documented in the book, I can’t imagine someone that is better at these issues than the person that I now work with,” she says. Rice calls Power’s account of her role “an albatross around our collective necks.”

After the genocide, Rice traveled to Rwanda several times, and she has spoken about her experience repeatedly. She recalls walking through a churchyard littered with bodies—“think mummies,” she says. But when I ask if Rwanda had singularly shaped her foreign policy worldview, she snorts dismissively. “This is hugely overblown,” she says.

According to an old friend and Clinton administration colleague, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Rice performed her own Ricean exorcism, known as COE, or “correction of errors,” in business-school speak. “She was very moved by what she saw but also looked at where we, as an administration, could have been better,” says Burwell. “She is a very warm person, but she is also a pragmatic person.” Rice told me that the chief lesson she derived was that all options should be extensively explored. “What we did most wrong in the U.S. government was that we never even actively considered or debated whether we should do anything to stop the genocide,” she says. “By anything, I mean anything involving intervention. Now, maybe the answer to that would’ve been, should’ve been no. But we never debated it, discussed it. It wasn’t on anybody’s mind, and it wasn’t editorialized about, and it wasn’t debated on the floor of Congress.”

She added, “To suggest that I’m repenting for [Rwanda] or that I’m haunted by that or that I don’t sleep because of that or that every policy I’ve ever implemented subsequently is driven by that is garbage.” In her line of work, Rice notes, she has visited many a war zone. “I’m a little too experienced. I’ve seen enough other things such that what’s shaped me is much, much, much, much, much broader than any single event or experience.”

BORN IN WASHINGTON in November 1964, Rice once told The Washington Post that she is “a D.C. girl through and through.” She grew up in Shepherd Park, a black and Jewish area in the city’s Northwest. Her father, Emmett, had a Ph.D. in economics from Berkeley and would go on to be a governor of the Federal Reserve; her mother, Lois, worked in education policy and was a midwife of the Pell Grant. Rice and her younger brother, John, would take the bus through some of Washington’s rougher neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park to two of its most prestigious schools. When they arrived at their destinations—National Cathedral School for Susan, St. Albans for John—most of the faces around them were white. Susan worked on the Hill every summer in high school. Albright was a family friend; her then-husband was Emmett’s tennis partner.

Yet Rice bristles at the suggestion that she comes from the Washington elite. The parents in Shepherd Park were first-generation college-educated blacks; the parents at National Cathedral School belonged to still-segregated country clubs. Emmett grew up in South Carolina in the 1920s; Lois’s parents were Jamaican immigrants. Lois’s mother, a maid, and her father, a janitor, sent her to Radcliffe by mortgaging and remortgaging the house. “The family mindset, experience, and history,” Rice says, “was one of striving.” Race doesn’t dominate her worldview, but she can be sensitive to being seen as the token African American. In a 1998 interview with the Post, Rice seethes when she feels she’s being labeled an affirmative-action baby: “You don’t get to use me to feel better about your own failure to perform,” she said. “I’m not going to give you that.”

Rice also quibbles with the notion that she grew up in politics. “My parents were into policy and my father government, but not politics,” she says. “A lot of my classmates were from families that were into politics.” Still, until she finished college, she was sure that she wanted to be a senator. “And then somewhere in my early twenties, I decided that I did not have the—” she pauses for a long time and shifts in her armchair. “I guess the patience to be a politician.”

IF RICE DID penance for Rwanda, she did it at the State Department, where she was an assistant secretary for African affairs from 1997 to 2001, a job into which Albright—by then secretary of state—ushered her. In that position, Rice became “one of the key architects in American reengagement in Africa,” says a colleague who served with her.

Politically, though, Rice had a tough time. At meetings, “she was often the youngest person in the room,” recalls her assistant during that period, Annette Bushelle. “Those older and more seasoned officers—most of them male—thought that she was a bit young and inexperienced.” This led, perhaps, to a self-reinforcing spiral. Rice can seem spiny because she knows how she’s perceived. “Publicly, she’s just 48, she is an incredible over-achiever and she’s got a lot of detractors that think she got too far, too quickly,” says a friend and colleague. For each staunch ally who praises her warmth and smarts, she seems to have made an enemy. There are no Rice agnostics.

Her most famous enemy was Richard Holbrooke. Rice saw Holbrooke as meddling on her turf; Holbrooke viewed Rice as an incompetent “pipsqueak,” as one Holbrookian put it. At one meeting, when Holbrooke, then U.N. ambassador, addressed Rice in a way she found belittling, she silently flipped him the bird. Holbrooke reportedly didn’t flinch. (John Prendergast, an Africa policy staffer who was in the room, says, “a lot of people thought it was pretty funny.”) Holbrooke, for his part, couldn’t understand why Rice wouldn’t want his unsolicited tutelage. “She had such a chip on her shoulder,” says a Holbrooke ally.

After Rice’s comments on Benghazi turned into a scandal, other aspects of her record on African affairs came under scrutiny. In a New York Times op-ed, an Eritrean-American activist criticized Rice for being too close to various African “strongmen”—including Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. Zenawi, for instance, presided over Ethiopia’s economic revival and was a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, but he also massacred protesters and oppressed minorities. When he died in August, Rice delivered a glowing tribute at his funeral, calling him a “true friend” with a “world-class mind.” She was roundly criticized. “I know I’m vilified for having said anything other than, ‘He was a tyrant,’ … which would’ve been a little awkward, on behalf of the U.S. government and in front of all the mourning Ethiopians,” she says. Prendergast points out that, when Rice arrived at State, many of these leaders had just come to power; it was only later that they became increasingly authoritarian. “It’s strange to politicize something that was so bipartisan,” he says. “There was praise heaped on these people as reformers into the mid-2000s.”

Rice was also lambasted in this magazine for brokering a deal, in 2000, between the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone and vicious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backed by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. The deal, which collapsed, granted amnesty to the RUF. (Rice claims the United States opposed the amnesty provision.) Gayle Smith defends this record. “The question was: Do we bring the violence to an end and get some breathing space to structure a peaceful transition?” she says. “Look at where Sierra Leone is today. The war is over. Sierra Leone is moving steadily forward.” For her part, Rice sees this sort of deal-making as essential. “It’s complicated!” she exclaims. “You have to deal with these countries as you find them. We don’t get, in every instance, to have the government of our choosing.”

A similar flexibility can be seen in her approach to the major foreign policy questions of the Obama administration. Rice advocated energetically for U.S. involvement in Libya—because there was a clear path to intervention—but has been reluctant to step into the messier Syrian conflict, where it is unclear what an intervention would achieve or even look like. (The lore of the “three amigas”—Rice, Clinton, and Power as a trio of like-minded idealists—prevailing on Obama to intervene in Libya, says one administration official, is “bullshit” and “offensive to women.”)

Rice is avowedly not an interventionist, but she is not a noninterventionist, either. In this, she is, like many of her generation, and like Obama, a new and not always predictable blend of pragmatist and idealist. She and Obama see a world beset by broad, borderless problems—Terrorism, climate change—that require multilateral cooperation to fix. They are wary of sweeping doctrines and partial to data-driven wonkery.

And yet, despite her bond with Obama, this isn’t the first time Rice has been disappointed by him. She was one of his first high-profile foreign policy staffers during his 2008 campaign—a move that at the time seemed near suicidal, given that most of her peers had signed on with Hillary Clinton. (After serving as a surrogate for John Kerry in 2004, she didn’t want to repeat the experience of working for a candidate who had voted for the Iraq War.) Obama’s foreign policy team assumed they would be running the shop in his administration if he won. But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)

This time, she has been more assertive. In a TV appearance the day she withdrew from consideration, Brian Williams asked her if she had wanted to be secretary of state. “Yes, sure,” she replied, looking deflated. “How can you not want, in my field, to serve at the highest possible level?”

When I spoke to Rice again a few days later, she told me she and Obama had had “a warm conversation,” which made her feel better. It’s not clear when she will ever come so close to “the highest possible level” of foreign policy-making again—although she has not ruled out the prospect. “Who knows? It’s not the only job I’ve ever wanted, including the one I have,” she says. I asked her if, in all of this, there were any takeaways, any lessons learned. “You know, I’m sure the answer to that is yes,” she says cheerfully. “But before I share them with you, I have to process them further for myself. This only happened a few days ago, and I’ve got to thoroughly digest it.”

Susan Rice Isn’t Going Quietly [TNR]

His Russian Lawyer Dead, A Former American Turns to Congress for Revenge

November 16th, 2012

More than a few turns of the irony wheel brought Bill Browder to the dining room of the Hay-Adams, to the hotel’s gilt frames and bright silver, to the Cobb salad he would eat overlooking the White House, trying to get some fuel for the long afternoon ahead. There were to be hours spent testifying in Congress on the eve of the House vote to pass the law that would wreak vengeance on Russia, and on those who had plundered his wealth and killed his lawyer three years ago today. After that, he would go and lobby individual senators to cement their support, before catching a flight back home to London to see the premiere of the play “One Hour Eighteen Minutes,” about the last mortal moments of that slain lawyer, the posthumously famous Sergei Magnitsky.

On Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky died in mysterious circumstances in a Moscow prison. He was working for Jamison Firestone’s American law firm, which had been hired by Browder to investigate whatever had happened to his assets in Russia. In November 2005, Browder, who had become the largest foreign investor in Russia, had been turned around at a Moscow airport, sent back to London, and labeled a security threat to Russia. His offices were raided and his riches began to disappear. Magnitsky discovered what happened to them: Russian tax and interior ministry officials had used Browder’s company to plunder $230 million from state coffers. When he pried further, Magnitsky was thrown in jail for nearly a year and suffered what was, by all accounts, a grueling and painful death of untreated pancreatitis. (When, in his death throes, he began to howl with pain, the prison called a psychologist. According to some sources, he was put in solitary confinement, handcuffed to a bed and beaten. He died an hour and eighteen minutes later, bruised and in a pool of his own urine.)

Browder, his lawyer dead and $4.5 billion fortune in Russia destroyed, wanted revenge. His friend, former deputy assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Winer, suggested a legal avenue of doing so. “The law banned corrupt foreign officials from entering the country,” Browder explained to me, referring to Proclamation 7750, which prohibits officials tied to corruption from entering the U.S. Browder liked the idea of applying it to those involved in Magnitsky’s death, so he turned to Kyle Scott, head of the Russia desk at the State Department at the time. “He dismissed my suggestion out of hand,” Browder recounts. That’s when Browder remembered a new acquaintance, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I had testified about Magnitsky’s incarceration at the Helsinki Commission, and I went back to Cardin’s office, and I told him what happened. And the response was, ‘Let’s see if they treat a U.S. senator the same way.’”

From there, Browder’s tale trails through the nooks and crannies of the couloirs of American power. He found a Republican co-sponsor, John McCain, for a bill going after the guys who got Magnitsky, and then expanded it to include other international bad guys. He hired Washington consultants from the Ashcroft Group, the firm founded by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He navigated the tensions between the State Department and Congress (he gleefully retells the story of Cardin’s showdown with State over its own secret list of offenders, compiled to head off Browder’s bill). He exploited the friction between Congress’s desire to win easy human rights points and a White House that likes to set its own foreign policy (and that has less hawkish ideas about Russia). In the end, he and Cardin won, by striking a bargain: the White House wanted to help Russia enter the WTO, and to do that, the U.S. had to repeal the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied the Soviet Union “most favored nation” trading status because it blocked Jews from emigrating. Cardin and his allies in the Senate— McCain, Joe Lieberman, Roger Wicker—hitched the repeal of Jackson-Vanik to the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would ban officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death, as well as other human rights offenders, from traveling to the U.S., while also freezing their assets. A quid pro quo in the best traditions of Washington.

“This is the beauty of the American system, that Democrats can challenge their own administration,” Browder marveled, and speared a perfectly oval slice of hard-boiled egg.

And this is the beauty of Browder’s place in it all: he has none, officially. Born in Chicago, to American parents, in 1964, he moved to the U.K. in 1989. When he became a British citizen, he quit being an American one. What motivated him to do this is not something he’s ever been clear on. “I relinquished it when I swore my allegiance to the Queen,” he explains, shrugging and clearly uncomfortable. “I had emigrated.” Nor does Browder see the irony in this, or the fact that his adopted homeland and a dozen European parliaments currently considering their own versions of the Magnitsky Act are waiting for the Americans to do it first. “Everyone in Europe needs Americans to do it to have the confidence to do it themselves,” he says. Including Britain.

Why did Browder renounce his American citizenship in an age when it’s possible to carry a deck of passports? It may have something to do with his past: His grandfather Earl Browder was head of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 40s. He twice ran for president, twice failed, and was, unrelatedly, twice jailed. “I don’t want to get into this too much,” Browder says, “but we came from a family that was persecuted in America, so I don’t have the same sort of, uh… We were communists and we were persecuted in the McCarthy era.” Earl, he points out, was jailed “by Roosevelt, for being against the War. My grandmother was dying of cancer and they wanted to deport her.” He happily notes the irony that, even after that, and after he became Putin’s champion—he publicly cheered the 2003 arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (“Who’s next?” were the words) and continued to lavish praise on Putin even after being expelled from Russia— after all that, he says, “in a certain way, now I’m being politically persecuted in Russia.” (His grandfather, ironically, had similar luck. “He was kicked out of the Communist Party by Stalin, and they started killing all the people who were supporters of Browderism,” Earl’s idea that capitalism and communism could co-exist.)

Browder does whatever it takes. When he was working for Salomon Brothers, in London, he took one of the fund’s biggest investors with him and started a fund in Russia that famously earned a 2,549 percent return. He made that money in notoriously shady times and in hazy, inscrutable ways. When the big Russian corporations weren’t making him enough money, he started greenmailing them, waging war for corporate reform from within. This is where he stepped on large and powerful toes, and probably how he got himself kicked out of Russia, his other adopted homeland. (“I’m still obsessed and fascinated with the place,” he says.) After making billions in the hurly-burly gangland Russia of the 1990s, Browder goes on at length about the pain he still feels about Magnitsky’s death. “I would die of a broken heart,” he said, when I asked him why he’s spent so much sweat and money on pushing this bill. “I have a hard time even thinking about it.” And yet, he admitted he didn’t know Magnitsky well—just one of his many lawyers, a young guy he saw at corporate parties.

It’s a familiar conversion: Khodorkovsky, once the most ruthless of all the oligarchs, seems to have had his soul cleansed by the fire of state persecution and years in a Siberian penal colony. He is now a bona fide opposition martyr. And, like many people in that part of the world, Browder has become yet another former bad guy who got religion when the system turned on him, a man whose desire for revenge has become so entwined with worthy motives that they have become increasingly hard to untangle. In Russia, Browder says, “you either have to be either poor and persecuted and good, or you have to be rich and make compromises and be bad.” Speaking for himself, he adds, “When something like this happens, it kind of changes your priorities.”

The fact that America has helped him in this struggle—the House passed the Magnitsky Act on Friday morning—has not redeemed this country for Browder just yet. He has no plans to restore his U.S. citizenship. He is, he says, “very involved” in British politics. He has a British house, a British wife, two British sons. “My kids go to British schools, they have British accents,” Browder said, and shrugged, as if to indicate that this just about settles the matter. Then he forked some pink-slathered lettuce into his mouth, chewed, and pattered on about American politics.

His Russian Lawyer Dead, A Former American Turns to Congress for Revenge [TNR]

The Rise of Russia’s Gun Nuts

November 16th, 2012

Maria Butina greeted her guests with a gun in her holster and her hands on her hips. A pair of professional shooting earmuffs hung from her neck; a pair of yellow goggles pushed up her dyed-red hair like casually forgotten sunglasses.

“Welcome!” she said and explained to the gathered what they were about to do: shoot stuff. “I hope tonight will be an unforgettable night, and that you’ll come away with a feeling that you held something so powerful, so incredible, in your hands. So enjoy!” She added, “Oh! And there will be adrenaline.”

Butina, who was wearing an outdoors­man’s puffy vest over a striped shirt and jeans, scanned the four middle-aged men standing in front of her, gripping black Russian-made Viking pistols. We were in a shooting gallery in a basement under a shabby, mafia-ridden hotel complex built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. On the way in, as we passed a sweating, balloon-bellied guard who had stripped to the waist, Butina told me the place had once been a KGB shooting range. It was scattered with white metal targets and tires clawed apart by bullets. Everything smelled vaguely of kitty litter.

At the age of 23, Butina is often the youngest person in the room at events like these and usually the only woman. I asked how it felt to be surrounded by all those armed men. “A woman can defend herself if she knows how to use weapons, and that’s all great, but it’s still nice to be protected by a man,” she told me in her tart, matter-of-fact way. “It feels great.”

It must feel especially nice because she is their leader. About a year ago, Butina founded an organization called Right to Bear Arms, in the process almost single-handedly inventing Russia’s gun-rights movement. The guys at the shooting gallery were her dues-paying members, all of whom believe the legal code should be amended to allow Russians to carry concealed handguns.

This is not a popular idea in Russia, where there is no constitutional right to bear arms, in a well-regulated militia or otherwise. Instead, Russians are allowed to own smoothbore hunting rifles, as well as “compliance weapons”—that is, guns that shoot rubber bullets or are powered by gas.

Although she is a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Butina’s vision of gun rights has little to do with the “rights” part of it; the American insistence that a gun is a vessel of liberty seems alien to her. Nor does she see any connection between her movement and the anti-Kremlin protests that gripped Moscow last winter and spring, though hers is one of a new crop of civic groups that have sprung up in the ferment. Her organization, currently 400 members strong, is a soup of communists and nationalists, while Butina herself votes for Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party. But in Russia, the fledgling pro-gun movement is less a political cause than it is a self-help strategy.

After Butina had finished with her introduction, the instructor, Igor Shmelev, demonstrated the drill. It went as follows: Cock your pistol, take two shots at a cardboard target. Scurry to the left, take two shots at a metal target. Duck back through a plywood screen door. Open the door, take two shots, knock down another target, duck back in. Reload. Open the door, take two more shots at a smaller target, lean around the corner, shoot down another one. This seemed less like shooting practice than a rehearsal for an action movie. When her turn came, Butina’s movements were sure and sharp, and when she was done, she turned and flashed a face that was all no-nonsense, tight-lipped happiness.

Unlike most Russians, Butina grew up with guns—she comes from Altai, the rugged, mountainous part of Siberia. For centuries, Siberia was the Russian frontier— home to serfs fleeing their masters, the final destination for both criminals and political exiles. “It is a rare Siberian who can imagine himself without a rifle in the home,” Butina told me.

Butina decamped to Moscow when she was 22. At the time, most Russian gun-related organizations were for sports shooters, and so Butina decided to recruit people who congregated in Web forums to discuss gun rights. At first, they focused on regulations that made target practice prohibitively expensive. But before long, Butina realized that the idea of self-defense was a far more potent recruiting tool.

This summer, the group successfully defended a woman named Tatyana Kudryavtseva who fought off a rapist with a knife and accidentally killed him. She faced 15 years in jail for homicide; Right to Bear Arms got her exonerated. “If she had had a gun, it would have been enough just to show the gun, as American statistics show,” says Butina, who is a fan of statistics in general and American statistics in particular.

Along the way, she gained a powerful ally in Alexander Torshin, a high-ranking member of United Russia and the first deputy speaker of the Russian senate. Torshin is also a member of the NRA, which he told me he admires because it stands for “stability”—the credo of Putin’s reign.

On July 24, the pair made their case for gun rights before the senate. However, their appearance came only four days after James Holmes mowed down dozens of people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. This fortified the view of many Russian senators, Torshin said, that, if Russians had handguns, they would all shoot each other. “How can you have so little trust for yourself, for your people?” he lamented.

But, in fact, Russians don’t trust each other. Three-quarters of the population feels this way, according to the independent Levada Center. The cause lies in the traumas of the Russian twentieth century: two world wars and a civil war, collectivization and industrialization, and mass political terror. Millions perished because their neighbors, colleagues, and friends betrayed them, creating a visceral mutual suspicion. After the collapse of the Soviet Union came the age of unfettered capitalism. A handful of oligarchs stitched together shady fortunes while millions below them were defrauded.

Over the last decade, this bleak picture has been accentuated by metastatic government corruption and almost daily news of police officers committing crimes. In recent years, Russia has been rocked by news of police officers raping a young woman in custody, sodomizing a man with a champagne bottle, and beating the fingers off a professional pianist. “Violence and potential violence surrounds you, and you can’t escape it,” says Boris Dubin, a sociologist and former head of Levada. “Repression is spilled throughout society and absorbed by every institution, from the family to the government.”

Most Russians deal with this by bundling themselves tightly in conformity and dissimulation—treating strangers with extreme distrust and relying only on thoroughly vetted family and friends. Butina and her allies, however, see guns as genuinely useful social tools, an alternative to living in a state of permanent suspicion.

This view requires a certain unbendable logic. The world, as Butina sees it, is both inherently savage and inhabited by people who behave rationally at all times— especially criminals. “A person may decide not to commit a crime if he thinks he may be shot or may encounter resistance,” Butina said. As proof, she pointed to America’s permissive attitude toward gun ownership. “If we take the number of homicides per one hundred thousand people in the population, according to our police statistics, it’s thirteen homicides in Russia, and 5.2 in the U.S.”

Of course, homicide rates are lower still in countries with stricter gun laws. But Butina doesn’t flinch when challenged on her statistics; she simply summons more statistics. “People online take facts from my blog, turn them upside and scream, ‘Just look at this! In the States, thirty thousand people die from firearms every year! How awful!’” she scoffed. “But so what? Switzerland has the most suicides using a gun, and yet, Switzerland has the least number of total suicides. Moreover, a gun is the most humane weapon for suicide compared to all the other methods that exist.”

Butina’s arguments may have their flaws, but it’s not unusual to hear them echoed by leading figures in the opposition. “We have a huge homicide rate, most of these murders are unsolved, and many police officers are among the criminals,” says opposition politician Alexey Navalny, who supports gun ownership and whose two rifles were recently seized because of his role in anti-Kremlin protests. “In America, the argument works that there are pro­fessionals to protect us. Here, the police are the main criminals, and they’re armed.”

Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer and an opposition parliamentarian until he was stripped of his mandate after participating in the protests, was once the most vocal opponent of gun rights. But after Dmitry Medvedev’s efforts at police reform failed, he changed his mind. “If our government is not willing and not capable of reforming law enforcement and the judicial system, then the citizen is left face to face with criminals, and they have to defend themselves on their own,” Gudkov says. “And the best way to do this is with handguns.”

The major obstacle for Butina and her group is Putin. Never mind that he himself is an avid outdoorsman. Behind closed doors, Putin seems to have put forth the position that his surrogates are vocalizing: It is too soon, and too dangerous. Gudkov has a different explanation: “He’s afraid of his own people.”

For her part, Butina denies that an armed populace would threaten the Putin regime. “The right to bear arms is given to you by your government and is a nice right to have,” she reasoned, “so taking some kind of anti-government stand … .” She trailed off to indicate that doing so would be the height of rashness. Plus, she pointed out, “pistols are the absolute worst weapon for toppling a government, let me tell you.”

The Rise of Russia’s Gun Nuts [TNR]

In Soviet Russia, Storm Weathers You

October 31st, 2012

As I sat stranded in a friend’s Manhattan apartment, watching nature make a mockery of my plans, I had a hard time tearing myself away from local Channel 4’s coverage of what New York’s Governor has called “Sandy’s fury.” Sopping beachfronts were swarming with reporters barely able to stand in the wind; governors, mayors, and officials of all sorts were giving press conferences, detailing what was closed where, whom they’ve talked to and when, and what they’d done to manage the fallout of a historic storm. When they weren’t giving pressers, they (or their minions) were tweeting about the latest developments: a gust here, a flood there. ConEd, provider of the city’s power, robocalled my friend and just about everyone on Monday morning, to warn them that, at some point in the near future, the lights might go out. The city government sent SMS alerts to warn people to get inside–that is, it had not evacuated from the lowest lying areas.

To everyone around me, this seemed absolutely normal—to be expected, even—but to me, it was—well, it made me want to weep through an off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

Two years and two months ago, you see, I was stranded in an apartment in a different city and watched nature wreak havoc around me. It was the Moscow of early August, 2010, and, after a hot, dry summer, much of Western Russia caught on fire. By morning on August 6, the smoke from the peat bog fires around Moscow reached the capital. It was toxic smoke, full of harmful particles, with levels of carbon monoxide reaching nearly seven times the allowable limit. According to the country’s chief pulmonologist, breathing such air does “damage to an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body, which equals to the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours.” The smoke was visible from space, and scientists said they had spotted pyrocumulus clouds, which appear during volcanic eruptions and nuclear tests. As the toxic cloud hovered over the city for days, morgues overflowed with old people who weren’t up for the pulmonary challenge and healthier people reported headaches, the first sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Through it all, the Russian authorities and the official Russian press were largely silent. Russia has never been a transparent place where information flows freely, but when it was most needed, information became hardest to find. Should we leave the city? If so, where were the areas clear of smoke? How could we get there, and what was happening with the airports and train stations and roads? If we stayed, what precautions should we take to minimize inhalation and death? And, if you’re out in the regions and there’s fire approaching, what do you do? Russians (and I) were left to figure this stuff out on our own.

But, unlike the efficient, rational things that are theoretically supposed to happen when government gets out of the way, things just spiraled into dog-eat-dog chaos. There was a run on the pharmacies for facemasks, a run on the train stations and airports for a way out. Imported air conditioning units that could filter out the harmful smoke were hoarded by the corrupt border authorities until their price skyrocketed, making them far out of reach for those who needed them most: the elderly barely getting by on their pensions. And instead of trying to find ways to save the rapidly dying elderly, Moscow authorities merely pretending there was nothing amiss. Or worse: there were reports of doctors being sacked for talking to the press about the overcrowded morgues and a death rate that had suddenly quadrupled.

And, worst of all, Moscow’s mayor, the proletarian cap-sporting Yury Luzhkov refused to come back from his vacation. When pressed on why the mayor was absent during this surreal cataclysm, his spokesman responded as follows:

What is the problem? What, do we have an emergency situation in Moscow, a crisis? What is the problem in Moscow? Is it Moscow’s problem? Is the crisis in Moscow? What can we do in Moscow in this situation? If it’s necessary to come back and just show yourself, that’s one thing. But everything that should’ve been done in Moscow has been done. A system has been worked out. When he was asked where the mayor was vacationing, the spokesman said,

“If we want to tell you, we’ll tell you.”

Eventually, the city opened four air-conditioned shelters. It seemed like a joke in a city of over twelve million, especially when the A/C immediately cut out at two of them. It was a little less funny when news leaked that the mayor, who saw no crisis in Moscow, had taken care to evacuate his beloved honeybees from the region, the only citizens to be evacuated. (Luzhkov was well known–and well-mocked–as keen hobby apiarist.) Only when the toxic cloud began to drift out of town, did the mayor come back. As if in admonition, he explained that because of us wheezing, weeping wimps, he had to break his physical therapy for a sports injury short.

And this was just one disaster. There was the time, in March, 2010, when two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Moscow metro at rush hour, taking some forty people with them. State television was silent for four hours. When asked by a journalist from the Times why Channel 1, the biggest channel, was not broadcasting news of the attacks, or of whether there might be more, or of which subway lines were open, and which closed, a spokesman explained that “The majority of people who are not journalists leave the house before 9 in the morning. After that, the majority of people who watch TV are housewives.” This summer, the southern Russian town of Krymsk was destroyed in a Katrina-like levee implosion that killed nearly 200 people (a number authorities tried to, er, soften). When it became clear that the local authorities had known the levee break was coming, the region’s governor couldn’t quite understand what people wanted from him. “What,” he said to angry hecklers, “are you saying we should’ve gone around and warned everyone? That’s impossible. First of all, with what resources? Secondly, what would you have done—just stood up and left your houses?”

If you disregard the staggering contempt for those killed in the flood, the man had a point. He likely had few resources because his comrades had stolen most of them, but with the disastrous forest fires of 2010, it was a direct result of an earlier reform when Putin slashed the number of forest rangers. As a result, they had greater areas to cover and more paperwork to do, giving them less time to actually patrol their territories. (The reform also made it a crime to put out small fires, classifying it as a misuse of state funds.) When the fires hit, the firefighting was left to the volunteers—a libertarian wet dream. The problem is they didn’t do that good a job, lacking professional equipment as they did. Most didn’t even get a fire warning—Putin sent a bell to one critic who wrote him an open letter—and when they asked for help in evacuating, they were told to do it themselves. My friend and colleague, Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder went to see the fires in the regions, and wrote this of what she saw: “With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle.” The resulting devastation—hundreds of thousands of scorched acres, lost crops, hundreds of fire-gutted homes, and a completely unclear number of deaths—was a result of this hands-off approach by the authorities.

This is not to say that America is the paragon of earthly perfection. Lord knows it has its massive issues, and Lord knows FEMA does, too. But watching the city, state, and federal authorities respond to Sandy, I couldn’t help but recall that panicky, sucking feeling I had two summers ago as I scrambled to figure out whether and how to get my grandmother, who has heart failure, out of the city, and had nothing but guesswork to go on. There were no tweets or press conferences about relief and preparedness efforts; hell, there were no relief and preparedness efforts, period. I couldn’t help thinking of this when my Twitter feed lit up with reminders about Romeny’s plans for FEMA. I couldn’t help but reach back to a conclusion I reached about a year into my Russian stint: let Republicans rule a place unchallenged for a decade or two, let them institutionalize their strange ideas of self-reliance, and you’ll get a place that looks a lot like Russia. And then I heard another sms alarm come in from the city and I couldn’t help thinking, just a month after moving back to the States from the Randian paradise that is Russia, “You people. You don’t know how good you have it.” And also: “Please, don’t fuck it up.”

In Soviet Russia, Storm Weathers You [TNR]

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts

October 18th, 2012

In the run-up to Russia’s March presidential election, Vladimir Putin didn’t even bother showing up to the debates with his nominal rivals. (Instead, he sent surrogates: a movie director to one, and a nameless graduate student to another; Obama may have slept through the first debate, but at least he showed up.) In recent weeks, however, Russians have had a vigorous debate season to match America’s own. And though Russia’s televised debates aren’t intended to select the next president, they’ve evidently managed to make the current occupant of the Kremlin very uncomfortable.

The debaters belong to the fractious, motley cloud that is the Russian opposition, and the idea was, in part, an answer to the Kremlin’s standard line in pooh-poohing the protest movement: you guys are so disorganized, who do we even talk to? This past summer, an activist from Yekaterinburg named Leonid Volkov teamed up with opposition leader Alexey Navalny to give shape and momentum to the previously disorganized movement, settling on a plan to form what they called the Opposition Coordination Council, an umbrella opposition organization which would have 45 seats with reserved blocs for the various opposition political factions: the leftists, the liberals, the nationalists, and the apolitical cultural figures. The candidates, who had to pay a $300 fee to register, would then duke it out in a March-madness style debate tournament on the opposition television station Dozhd (“Rain”). Then, on October 20, voters would go to the polls and elect the council.

The debates began about three weeks ago, as the two hundred candidates introduced themselves to the public and squared off against one another on late-night TV. This was an entirely new phenomenon for Russians, who hadn’t seen debates like this ever since Putin came to power. But it wasn’t like Russians were really watching; the debates were shown after midnight on a channel that has relatively little reach. And when, on October 14, the opposition was blown out in various nation-wide elections for real-life mayorships and other municipal posts – Putin’s United Russia, though weakened, trounced all such challengers – these doubts weighed even heavier. Was this all just an onanistic pageant for the insular Moscow chattering class?

But then the Kremlin weighed in. On Wednesday, it arrested leftist leader and Council candidate Sergei Udaltsov after a lengthy search of his apartment. Udaltsov had been caught on camera meeting with some Georgians and for that he is now, strangely, being charged with “organizing mass disorder.” Then the State Prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the planning committee of the Coordination Council for alleged fraud. The issue was that not all those who had tried to register as candidates were allowed to participate in the debates: an imprisoned neo–Nazi was turned away, as were some provocateurs from a famous pyramid scheme (called MMM), which has been around since the 1990s and which the government seems unable or unwilling to shut down. Ironically, it was the latter who cried fraud. Their registration fees ($300 x 53 rejected registrants) were not returned, though Volkov had published a plea on the Council’s site, asking for information on where to return the money. (They had been traceless deposits, rather than bank transfers.)

By cracking down three days before these elections, the Kremlin has displayed its usual cruelty; but, in trying to crush the opposition movement, it has also stupidly managed to grant it wider legitimacy. Yesterday’s actions have become a rallying cry to get people to an opposition protest planned for Saturday, a loud reminder to those who once came to this winter’s protests and have since been lulled into boredom and complacency: this is what we’re up against. Udaltsov, despite his widely mocked aviators and pompous airs, despite his tactical bone-headedness and general irrelevance among the opposition, is being transformed into a martyr. And suddenly, the Council elections this weekend seem very important. The Kremlin will no doubt continue to publicly claim that the casting of some 120,000 votes in an unofficial election is meaningless in a country of 140 million, but its actions show that they are not. If they were truly meaningless, they wouldn’t have bothered. “Now everyone who has a different opinion of the country’s situation is targeted,” said Communist leader (and Udaltsov ally) Gennady Zyuganov. “And there is only one goal: to suffocate completely any seeds of protest.” But instead of suffocating protests, the Kremlin has stoked them.

And the larger problem, of course, is that the Kremlin’s crackdown perpetuates the notion that politics in Russia is inevitably a zero-sum game. The more the Kremlin shows that it is not interested in dialogue or even the slightest compromise, the less the opposition will want only to topple, rather than change, the current order. And, given enough time, the reformers will fall away and the real, start-over revolutionaries will take their place. This is Russia, after all, a fact the Kremlin constantly forgets.

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts [TNR]

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up?

October 10th, 2012

Something’s rotten in the state of Pussy Riot. Yes, there was some good news today: Ekaterina Samutsevich, the oldest and quietest member of the jailed trio, was released from jail today after her sentence was reduced to probation. When the appellate judge read out the changed verdict, Samutsevich whooped and her two bandmates, who will now depart to do two years of hard time in a distant penal colony, hugged her. They were all smiles and cheers. But don’t let that fool you. Pussy Riot isn’t well.

For one thing, the appeal was only heard today because it was postponed last week when Samutsevich suddenly asked for a new lawyer for herself. Before, during and after their August trial, the three young women were being represented by three lawyers who were more political activists than classic attorneys: they seemed to have given up before the trial had even begun. Instead of lawyering, they tweeted. Instead of trying to force the court, which wouldn’t allow a single defense witness, back into the strictures of legal procedure, they went for theatrics. At one point, for example, lawyer Violetta Volkova—Samutsevich’s original lawyer—had worked herself into such a tizzy that she stormed out of the courtroom without asking the judge’s permission, forcing the court to call her an ambulance.

But it’s hard to really blame Volkova and her colleagues: It’s not like the court was letting the lawyers do much of anything anyway. The verdict was known before it was read, and before the trial started.

Moreover, Samutsevich’s sudden change of heart was not so sudden: It was the result of a slow drip of pressure from the state. One evening after yet another marathon trial day, Samutsevich’s father, a soft-spoken, unhappy-looking man with gray hair and old glasses, told me that before the trial started, his daughter was being visited by a man from the civic committee that oversees the prison system. The man, thought by the other committee members to be a government mole, would visit Samutsevich and tell her that Volkova did not have her interests at heart, and that she should consider getting another lawyer.

Samutsevich resisted, and stayed with the Pussy Riot team. But the Samutsevich family has long been a weak link in Pussy Riot’s effort to maintain solidarity. Samutsevich’s father actually testified for the plaintiffs in the original trial. When he was first questioned in the case, an investigator apparently hinted that he could help his daughter, and, as a result of his affidavit, the plaintiff decided to call him as a witness—which came as a shock to Mr. Samutsevich. Taking the stand, he hinted that one of the other defendants, Nadia Tolokonnikova, was responsible for corrupting his daughter. He said that after his daughter started hanging out with Tolokonnikova she became “zombified” and that she stopped sharing her inner world with him; he no longer recognized his grown child.

In the two months since the Pussy Riot conviction, other cracks have started to show. Tolokonnikova lashed out at Peter Verzilov, her (now platonic) husband and co-founder of Pussy Riot, for trying to cash in on the group’s (now international) fame. (A heart-rending episode of the documentary “Srok” showed Verzilov touring the United States with the couple’s young daughter, Hera. As Verzilov sails through the media appearances and awards ceremonies, Hera is left largely unattended. In one scene, she looks out the hotel room window and searches for an explanation for why “Petya” is still not home.)

And, now that Samutsevich is out, Pussy Riot’s supporters–including the many opposition journalists they expended energy courting– have turned against the group’s original lawyers. Samustevich’s new lawyer, a pretty, middle-aged corporate blonde who cuts a striking comparison with the obese and histrionic Volkova, is praised as a hero. If only Pussy Riot had employed her all along, the thinking goes, this never would have happened.

This is, at best, a collective delusion, a desperate and groundless gasp of retrospective regret. The fact is that legal redemption has never really been possible for Pussy Riot. Consider this: at the appellate hearing, Samutsevich’s lawyer made the case that her client had not actually participated in the “hooliganism” of which the three Pussy Riot members were convicted in August. She had been pounced on by security guards and thus prevented from getting to the altar to kick and punch in a manner provocative to God. The implication, therefore, is that there was a crime committed—something that the original defense team never conceded—and that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were guilty of it. Samutsevich’s new lawyer did a good job, narrowly defined: she got her client off. But she also broke up the group’s unity and blocked off the one path to redemption that the group actually had: ignoring the court’s proceedings and denying its legitimacy. As prominent Russian journalist (and close friend) Tikhon Dzyadko noted in a Facebook post after Samutsevich walked out of the courtroom and into a throng of cameras, “There is no independent judicial system in Russia, especially in such cases. Therefore, today’s court decision can be said to be about anything except about the actual issue before the court. And that means that it doesn’t matter which lawyer did the defending.”

Samustevich’s release, in other words, was a simple application of a classic technique: divide and conquer. The state has not had a change of heart—over the weekend, Putin told a reporter for state-owned television that the girls “got what they wanted”—and Samutsevich is no more innocent or guilty than Tolokonnikova or Maria Alekhina, the third and most vocal defendant. They were all wearing balaclavas when they performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the plaintiffs in no way proved—or really tried to—that the identity of the women in the balaclavas was the same as that of those sitting in the courtroom “fish tank.” Nor did they try to link those specific women in the “fish tank” to any of the unrepeatable things said on that altar that had so offended God and “the entire Christian world.” If the state has made it look like Pussy Riot is breaking apart, it’s not because the judicial system has revealed any nuances in how the group functioned. It merely found the group’s weakest link, loosened it, and popped it right out, breaking the chain and trying to catalyze its collapse and decline.

In a surprise twist, and perhaps reacting to the outside pressure to splinter, the group seems to be pulling back together and at least temporarily putting aside their differences. There were the hugs in the fish tank, then, for the rest of the evening, Verzilov drove Samutsevich around to various television appearances. (Her first, tellingly, was on CNN.) One can peer into the near future and see a Samutsevich media and legal blitz–she’s planning on taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights – in part on behalf of her jailed bandmates.

Or not. The Kremlin tried to accomplish something clever today, and, at least temporarily, achieved the opposite. But perhaps it’s just a hiccup: what fame started, fame will finish.

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up? [TNR]

What I Will (and Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow

September 24th, 2012

On September 24, 2012, I will leave Moscow after three years of living here, a few weeks shy of the day, thirty years ago, that I was born here. In between, I managed to have half a childhood here, a whole life in America, and a fellowship that brought me to Moscow, on September 12, 2009, for nine months. Instead, I stayed for three years. I never expected to stay that long, and I never expected that these years would make me a real, live journalist. (Medicine was always the completely unrealistic back-up plan.) I never expected to interview the kinds of people I did, I never expected to be able to speak real, educated adult Russian well enough to go on local television, I never expected to see the kinds of things I did, I never expected to write this much, and I certainly never expected that it would be so hard to leave. I never expected to fall in love.

After a fourteen-hour journey via Zurich, I will land at Dulles International Airport, and I will begin my life in Washington, D.C. I will get a new beat and new colleagues. I will make new friends. Perhaps I will come back to Moscow for the occasional story, but my life will be in the Chesapeake basin. And, after months of heartache, Moscow will slowly become a bright blur, fodder for dinner party conversation, or a handshake to inaugurate me into the secret society of all the other American journalists who have come through this place and come away transformed. It will become yet another factoid about me.

But folded deep into those anecdotes will be the fact that this foreign city is also my native city, a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien, a place I’ve loved and hated for so long. Buried in there will be all the details I will forget with delight and remember with longing. And before my memory irons them out, I want to make note of them.

When I leave Moscow, I won’t miss the traffic and the pollution and the boom-town prices, but I’ll miss that a gypsy cab for $6 still gets you just about anywhere.

I’ll miss the beautifully Soviet metro stations—the stained glass, the marble, the utopian, gilt mosaics. I’ll miss the fact that you rarely have to wait more than a minute for a train. I won’t miss stepping inside at nine in the morning past a cloud of peregar, the smell of metabolized alcohol.

I won’t miss how much Russians drink, but I will miss drinking with Russians.

I won’t miss the late-night debates in which you find yourself falling down an epistemological black hole. Down there, nothing is provable and nothing is knowable, except for your sparring partner’s increasingly bizarre pronouncements. In Moscow, I have debated the following topics: whether or not the archived kill-lists with Stalin’s signature are forgeries; the allegation that I am naïve for thinking that American traffic cops generally don’t take bribes; that I am a C.I.A. spy; and the reason America is a more successful country than Somalia (hint: it wasn’t founded by black people). I’ve also been asked to prove how smoking causes lung cancer.

I won’t miss the casual racism and the relax-I-was-just-joking anti-Semitism. I will miss the fact that just about everyone can do a killer Georgian accent and knows a truly wonderful Jewish joke.

I will also miss the fact that, with the anti-Kremlin protests of the last few months, there is still a place in the world where you can debate the things the West has long ago stopped talking about and long ago started taking for granted; that, here, you have conversations full of big words and basic concepts like “freedom” and whether government officials can have fully private lives.

I won’t miss the fact that abstraction can get boring.

I won’t miss the casual misogyny, but I will miss the fact that it makes for excellent copy, as it did when Bolshoi prima Anastasia Volochkova quit the ruling United Russia party and the party responded as follows: “Women, like children, are susceptible to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” (As one American friend here once noted, “It’s like ‘Mad Men,’ but with worse clothes.”)

I won’t miss living in a city where virtually everyone is white and wearing an Orthodox Christian cross, where the only places of worship you see are the onion domes of Orthodox churches, and where the Church and the state are in such close cooperation. The medieval beauty of the architecture wears thin when there’s nothing to contrast it to, and when you know of the abuses happening under its aegis. A monopoly is a monopoly is a monopoly.

I won’t miss the fact that Jewish culture and Jewish people have largely disappeared from this city, and that another monopoly—Chabad—has become the only way to be Jewish here.

I will miss the fact that, when you go to someone’s birthday party, you have to bring them a gift or flowers. It gets expensive, but the moment when you hand it over is so nice. And when it’s your birthday, you may have to pay for the food and the booze, but you can barely get the flowers home, to say nothing of the gifts.

I won’t miss the fact that there is no trust in the Russian system: not in institutions, not in people. I will miss the strength of the bonds it breeds when you find that trust.

I will miss the fact that Russians are not afraid of what we in America nervously call “the L-word,” or the messes it can get you into.

I won’t miss the fact that seemingly every educated, professional woman my age happens to also be a single mom. I will miss the fact that kids are a natural part of everyone’s life here, rather than a special, perfectly-planned project.

I won’t miss the fact that nothing is planned here, that everything on every level is slapdash and knee jerk, that everything happens, as the Russians say, “from the cunt.” I will miss the fact that this means you don’t have to plan with whom you’ll have dinner two weeks from now, and that your social life can be spontaneous, organic, and sincere.

I will miss the strange and colorful expressions. (And that, as they say, is “speaking truth to the uterus.”)

I won’t miss the fact that there is only a handful of decent bars and restaurants in this city of 15 million. I will miss that this means that most of them are like Cheers, and that you are guaranteed to bump into half your friends on any given night. It also makes you a better cook.

I will miss ordering water in a restaurant and having the waiter ask you if you want it “room temperature, or cold?” with a look on their faces that suggests that opening the latter door will lead you to a desolate place of upper respiratory demise (see below).

I will miss the way that Russian journalists will readily drink beer with you till 3 am on a school night. I won’t miss thinking about what it does for their product, or mine.

I will miss the addiction to social networks and text messages like “Look at my FB page!” I won’t miss the loss of productivity. Actually, I will.

I thought I wouldn’t miss the ubiquity of emoticons – especially, the ones with no eyes – but I was wrong.))))

I will miss the heels, but not the painful fact of wearing them on a long Moscow trek.

I won’t miss the bad lip jobs and the bad Botox jobs, the obvious hair extensions, the mullets that have slowly been beaten back into neck bangs, the range of men’s footwear, which ranges from pointy to cheese-grate, the male purses, the men’s jeans that are tight and loose in absolutely paradoxical places, respectively. I will miss the people watching. A friend visiting from New York confirmed: Moscow beats the Big Apple with its manicured hands tied behind its back.

I will miss the amazing medical theories I’ve heard here. Pimples? Try massaging your face with semen. Migraine? Must’ve eaten too much mayonnaise. Gynecological cancer? Too much lady-stress. I won’t, however, miss the fact that I’m afraid to go to the doctor’s office here. (Once, my friends’ six-year-old daughter broke her arm and, when the doctor saw the x-ray, he did a double take, pulled a medical reference book off the shelf, and started feverishly reading it. A friend of a friend was mistakenly told he was HIV-positive, and lived with this diagnosis for about a week.)

I will miss the fact that you can get antibiotics and just about anything else over the counter. I won’t miss people breathing down your neck in the pharmacy line, asking why you picked out such expensive medicine. (There is no word in Russian for “privacy.”)

I won’t miss needing my passport for everything, including returning a pair of flip-flops to the store. I will miss bank tellers looking at my American passport and asking me where the Russian is.

I won’t miss the fact that in Russia, the absence of the rule of law is sublimated into the tyranny of the procedural guideline and the dictatorship of the technicality. Without the right notarized slip of paper, the saying goes, “you’re a doodie.”

I won’t miss the fact that no one ever seems to have any change, especially cashiers. I love that it’s made me good at arithmetic again.

I won’t miss the aggression and rudeness in every interaction. I will miss the creative sarcasm it engenders in all participants.

I will miss the twisted, clever Russian sense of humor.

I will miss the laser precision with which Russians answer questions. “Isn’t there a café here somewhere?” “Yes.” “…and where is it?” “Second floor.”

I will miss the long and freezing Russian winters and the heat-generating habits they inspire. I will especially miss the warm, short Moscow summers, when it gets dark close to midnight and the whole city seems to live in outdoor cafes.

I will miss how tough Moscow makes you, and how miserable, and the way it teaches you to hunt out and savor the good. I will miss the dizzying happiness born of those moments. In three years, I’ve never seen anyone crying in the street.

What I Will (and Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow [TNR]

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All

September 18th, 2012

MOSCOW—When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 8, there was one item on the agenda she was not expecting. Sitting down with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the two discussed missile defense and Syria, talked about Iran’s quest to get a nuclear weapon. And then Lavrov dropped the bomb: USAID was to cease all operations inside the Russian Federation starting October 1. Four days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered the news in writing.

USAID, the government development agency started by John F. Kennedy in 1961, first opened its operations in Russia right after the end of the Cold War. The goal was to help Russia transition from a command economy to a market one. Since then, the agency has helped Russians draft land and tax reform, has tried to jump-start the small business sector through micro loans and has addressed public health issues like Russia’s mammoth AIDS and tuberculosis problems.

Mostly, of course, it finances civil society and democracy initiatives. Today’s USAID office is a shadow of its former self, with a budget of under $50 million, a drop fom $207 million in 1995, but it still finances large chunks of the operating budgets of a number of prominent Russian organizations like the storied human rights and historical “memory” group Memorial, the Russian branch of Transparency International, and the election monitoring NGO “Golos”. These organizations, not coincidentally, are an irritant for the Kremlin, which is often the target of their criticism.

There has long been talk in Moscow of shutting down USAID, but it’s impossible to appreciate today’s news without first considering the backdrop of continuing anti-government protests and the Kremlin’s increasingly harsh way of dealing with them. The foundation for this move was laid back in May when the Russian parliament passed a law that required such groups—which participate in the political life of the country and get foreign financing—to register as “foreign agents.” The new measure goes one step further and threatens to shut the spigot off altogether.

Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, sees something even more sinister in this. Golos and its army of fastidious election monitors are a favorite of the American government and of the U.S. ambassador to Russia. But to Putin, they are spoilers; the Kremlin likes its elections engineered just so. Last fall, a week before the December parliamentary elections, Putin took a shot across the bow at Golos, saying: “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money—so called ‘grantees’—whom they instruct…in order to influence the result of the election in our country.” He added, “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” Shortly thereafter, Golos offices were raided.

Shibanova sees today’s news as the next act of the crackdown. “If what I’m hearing is true, that the deadline is October 1, then it seems that the government is in a rush to close us down in time for the regional elections, which are October 14,” she said. “The timing seems very suspicious to me.”

The U.S. government, for its part, insists that this doesn’t spell the end of their support for civil rights in Russia. “We haven’t changed our policy,” said one senior government official, and echoed State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland’s statement that State “remains committed to supporting, democracy human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” In December of last year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and floated the administration’s idea of creating a $50 million fund to sponsor democracy development in Russia. This could take on new urgency given today’s news and the State Department’s defiant pledge to continue in this line of work, be it through USAID or some other vehicle.

“This is not anything new,” says Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International Russia. “In 2005, when they found the rock”—a British spy camera that looked like a rock—“they went after foreign funding. A lot of our donors left us then, but we made it out alive.” Panfilova says she and her employees simply found other work and contributed parts of their salaries to the project. And while finding domestic sponsors becomes increasingly unlikely in a context such as this, Panfilova remains hopeful. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We’re not stupid.”

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All [TNR]

Russia’s Wild Fantasies of an All-Powerful State Department

September 17th, 2012

When journalist Arkady Mamontov aired his television exposé on Pussy Riot last week, the central question was who was behind their riotous performance? Mamontov’s investigation yielded two culprits: oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky, and “some Americans” who hired Pussy Riot and choreographed their act in order to corrupt the souls of Russian youth. Mamontov didn’t need to spell out who those Americans were; everyone watching got the message anyway. It was the State Department.

If you were to believe the official Russian press, it is not Vladimir Putin running the country, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Russian public has been lead to believe that penny-pinching Foggy Bottom is a sleek and furtive machine with money to burn, one that can topple leaders on a whim and choreograph elaborate street protests at a far remove.

The State Department’s plots against Russia were initially unveiled by none other than Putin himself, who, in December, accused Clinton of “giving the signal” to Russia’s opposition to go out and protest after last year’s parliamentary election. Then there was talk that the State Department paid tens of thousands of Muscovites to come out and rail against the Kremlin. (In case you were wondering about the true origins of America’s national debt.) Then newly-appointed Ambassador Michael McFaul arrived, and he was accused in state media of having been sent by the State Department to foment revolution in Russia via his Twitter account. State television has aired chilling documentaries about how the State Department was behind everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the economic chaos of the 1990s, because its ultimate goal is “to bring Russia to its knees.” One such expose even accused the State Department of deviously luring people to opposition protests with—wait for it—cookies.

To anyone who knows anything about how Foggy Bottom actually works, its Bondian image in Russia is nothing short of hilarious. “The conspiracy theories are all 100 percent correct,” quipped a Hill staffer who works on foreign policy. “The Russians cracked the code on this one. The State Department really is the center of a conspiracy so vast that it boggles the imagination.” People inside the State Department hardly recognize the organization that the Russian government describes. “The Russians see the State Department as this pseudo-mystical, omniscient, omnipotent organization,” explained one State Department employee in Moscow. “Little do they know that we live from budget to budget, and that, at times, we’re even worried about our salaries!”

Whence comes this ill-fitting lionization of a rather unwieldy, bureaucratic ministry? Aside from the obvious propaganda benefit of having an external enemy, a large part of it is rooted in the Russian proclivity to see puppeteers and conspiracies everywhere. In Russia, as in many societies with closed systems of government, nothing is as it seems, even when the counter-intuitive becomes the counter-factual. Archives filled with documents proving mass repressions in the 1930s? Forged. People coming out to demand democratic freedoms on their own? Please. (A couple years ago, a Russian opposition leader went on the television show of Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Kremlin English-language channel Russia Today. He happened to mention that he didn’t think that the State Department engineered the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In fact, he called it “insanity” and “propaganda.” She shot back sarcastically: “So you really believe that they did this themselves? Thought all this stuff up on their own?”)

In part, it comes from the fact that Russians, just like Americans, think that the rest of the world is just like them. In Russia, one man decides everything — including who gets to edit a small scientific journal. It’s hard for Russians to understand, for example, that America does not have a monolithic political system—or even a monolithic foreign ministry—and that President Obama, for example, can’t just tell Congress to go and do something, the way Putin can with his parliament. And because there’s been no real change at the top for over a decade, it’s hard for Russians to grasp that the foreign policy of Obama may differ substantively from that of George W. Bush, and that the appearance of change is not a canard. “Russian public opinion is given to seeing the world not as diverse but as a whole,” says Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin hawk and former parliamentarian. “In the Russian mass consciousness, the American side is a very strong power, so there must be a secret room where people engineer these things.”

Moreover, the man who does decide everything in Russia has a background—however spotty and apparently second-rate—in espionage and subterfuge: He served as a KGB officer in Dresden. Today, he is surrounded by foreign policy advisors who, according to several sources who have sat in on such meetings, are a fairly paranoid bunch. “Even during the reset, the bureaucracies of the two countries have never gotten along well,” says Cliff Kupchan, who heads up the Russia division in the Eurasia Group. “Even when the top gets along well, as they have during Obama era, it’s hard to penetrate down into the ranks, especially when many are products of the Cold War.”

And, to be fair to the Russians, the State Department has expressed a clear interest in democracy promotion around the world. In Russia, those efforts are mostly conducted through USAID and NDI, as well as by grants to local NGOs. These efforts, of course, are officially unwelcome and seen not as a strain of quixotic American idealism, but as meddling. In fact, there was talk recently of the Russian government shutting down USAID on its turf. “Of course, no one pays them to organize protests, but they pay them for years to promote ‘democratic values,’” explains Markov, who, ironically, spent a decade working for NDI in Moscow. “I think the State Department itself participates very little in what is happening on the ground, but they are happy that these protests are happening, no doubt.” (“Many Russians really think NDI can cause color revolutions,” says Kupchan. “Empirically, I don’t think that’s the case. They have a lot of very young people running around in these countries.”)

And yet, it’s hard for American officials not to see a bit of humor in it, like the old joke about a Jewish man reading an anti-Semitic paper because it’s brimming with good news: Jews have all the money, Jews have all the power. Says the Hill staffer: “They still believe in American power and American influence, probably more than Americans do. It’s probably the last place in the world where people still think we can engineer anything effectively. It’s very refreshing.”

Russia’s Wild Fantasies of an All-Powerful State Department [TNR]

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers

September 14th, 2012

Today, the Russian parliament voted 291 to 150 to strip one Gennady Gudkov of his seat. Gudkov, a former KGB man and businessman, has served in the Duma, the Russian parliament, for eleven years, most of them in the leftist Just Russia party. (The biography on his website notes, oddly, that he was “the first deputy elected in the third millennium.”) The ostensible cause was that Gudkov “combined a deputy’s role with an entrepreneur’s”—that is to say, he continued to run his private security business while voting on laws and otherwise involving himself in the strange workings of the Duma.

Some sort of punishment would undoubtedly have been deserved—if only Gudkov’s “combining” had been proven in court, or if every other parliamentarian weren’t doing the exact same thing. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the evergreen clown of the pseudo-nationalist LDPR faction, for example, has a vodka factory that makes Zhirinovsky Vodka. Another deputy, a young man from the United Russia faction, is the CEO of a company called “Konsalting Menedzhment Strategia.” According to a list compiled by Gudkov’s son Dmitry (also a deputy from the same party), his colleagues in the Duma own scores of business, hundreds of shares in companies, acres of posh real estate, and drive quite incredible cars. (One drives a Bentley, for example; the husband of another drives a Lamborghini Diablo. Indeed, the parking lot in front of the Duma building is a thicket of luxury vehicles, all this despite the parliamentarians’ officially low salaries.)

None of this is anything new. Russian bureaucrats are the country’s new elite. A study done by a Moscow real estate company found that most of the apartments on the “elite” market (apartments for $1.5 to 2 million) sell to bureaucrats. Their wives and children are usually the heads of large and lucrative businesses, and their automotive choices rarely jive with the incomes listed on their official declarations. Everyone in Russia knows that in Russia politics is almost explicitly about proximity to cash flows and the size of the bucket you get. This is why, when the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times recently reported on potential insider trading by which Putin ally Igor Shuvalov (then deputy prime minister) shuffled about a billion dollars to himself and his friends, no one so much as batted an eye, not even Shuvalov. A case that, in the West, would have churned up a media sensation and a drawn out legal battle here didn’t even ripple the water.

And this is the problem with the Gudkov case. Yes, Gudkov had a nice business—I would know: I’ve been to the well-appointed 18th century mansion that serves as its central office—but the fact that his business was first shut down (the Interior Ministry revoked its license that had allowed it to operate) and that he was shorn of his status clearly has nothing to do with the business. It has everything to do with the fact that Gudkov, a good old boy, went over to the wrong side: When mass political protests began after December’s disputed parliamentary elections, Gudkov became a very visible and very vocal leader of the opposition, both in parliament and on the streets. The issue is not that he is a businessman, but that he is a traitor. This is why, when Gudkov finished his farewell speech to his colleagues shortly before the vote, one United Russia deputy shouted “Judas!” (His fellow traitor, television celebrity and daughter of Putin’s mentor Ksenia Sobchak, was subjected to a humiliating nine-hour search of her home in June after joining the opposition. The investigators took nearly $2 million from her safe—and if she ever sees the money again, I will quit this profession.)

When I asked high-ranking United Russia deputy Andrey Isaev about the Gudkov case, he told me it was done with the Duma’s prestige in mind. “I think it was absolutely the right decision and if we hadn’t made it, millions of citizens would have decided that being in the Duma is a lucky break,” Isaev told me. “They’ll think that deputies can do whatever, violate whatever laws. Today’s decision showed that that’s not the case.”

Actually, Duma deputies enjoy legal immunity—the criminal investigation against Gudkov that the government’s Investigative Committee is now considering would never have been possible had he not been forced to relinquish his seat in parliament. But that’s not even the point. The point is that, if the Duma has little legitimacy after the widely and loudly falsified December parliamentary elections and the mass protests it sparked, it has even less legitimacy now. (After the vote, Russian-language Twitter buzzed with the anger of those who had voted for Gudkov and his party and December, and now felt cheated and silenced.) The case becomes yet another reason for Russians to come to the very reasonable conclusion that the law and the Russian judicial system are its enemies. As Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group once wisely pointed out to me, the law in Russia does not exist as a neutral framework of guarantees and protections designed to level the playing field. In Russia, the law doesn’t exist until it is needed to take out an opponent, or a traitor. In Russia, the law is a weapon.

Gudkov and anyone watching the fast unraveling of his career—first the business, then the Duma seat—knew that once the system aims itself at you, there is no chance you’ll escape whole. The outcome of this case was obvious months ago, when government inquiries into Gudkov’s business first appeared this summer. Perhaps this is why Gudkov’s speech in parliament focused on an unspecified future in which he could claim vindication—and why he answered the heckle “Judas!” with a full-throated “Go fuck yourself!”

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers [TNR]

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton

September 4th, 2012

On July 26, the heads of two of the most famous human rights groups in Russia sent President Barack Obama an open letter with a pressing issue: were they, or were they not his spies?

It was a strange move, but also quite a clever one. In May, in the last week of its session, the Russian parliament kicked into overdrive and passed a raft of measures widely seen as trying to pull the rug out from under the increasingly vocal and increasingly numerous opposition. One of the new laws required that Russian NGOs that received money from abroad and did political work inside Russia register as “foreign agents.” It would also require them to add this label to all their publications, and to subject themselves to strict government oversight. Because it’s hard for Russian human rights groups to get money at home, they often turn to Europe and the U.S.; now the money would come with a tag that would make them even more alien and suspect at a time when the government has stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric. It would also make money even harder to get. This left the human rights community—as well as those groups that monitor elections, corruption, and police brutality—in a bind: Take the money and face domestic harassment and public hostility, or tighten their belts even further.

But then Lev Ponomarev, of “For Human Rights,” had an idea. “The law was sloppily written,” he explained. “It uses the word ‘agent,’ but doesn’t define it.” But the civil code already has a definition, and for someone to be classified an agent, there has to be a contract with the principal on behalf of whom the agent is working. Because Ponomarev’s organization takes money from three American funds—MacArthur, Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy—he decided to ask his supposed principal whether or not they had this contract.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded. “I would like to thank you for your letter. President Obama asked me to answer you,” she wrote in a letter that was posted, in Russian, on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, and a co-signer on the July letter. “Every American administration has always supported the important work of your organization in defending human rights in Russia,” Clinton went on:

In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so. The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.

The fairly quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years. He was an Oxford graduate student in Moscow when the Soviet Union started to crumble, and befriended a lot of the players on both sides of the barricades. He is also extremely close with the president, on whom he prevailed, early in his term, to give Russian-American relations far more ram space than most anyone expected, or thought they deserved. Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow, and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.

The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharanasky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.

“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told me. (In fact, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party called Clinton’s “a love letter.”) “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”

There was another aspect that particularly tickled Ponomarev: the international scandal aspect. Come fall, the law will go into effect and Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” will have to register as a foreign agent. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you get your money from? Whose agent are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘America,’” Ponomarev says. “I register as an agent, and Obama says, ‘Hey, that’s not my agent!’ That’s a little awkward, don’t you think?”

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton [TNR]

Pussy Riot? More Like Pussy War

August 30th, 2012

MOSCOW—Yesterday afternoon, two women—a mother and her 38-year-old daughter—were found stabbed to death in the southeastern city of Kazan. By the time the news reached Moscow this morning, it arrived with a new bit of information: someone had scrawled “Free Pussy Riot” on the hallway wall. In blood.

It’s not clear who did this—or, more significantly, why—but two weeks after the three young women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail for singing a “punk prayer” in the main church of the capital, the story continues to roil Russian society. And “pussy” continues to appear in Russian headlines.

On the morning the sentence was to be handed down, members of the topless feminist group FEMEN in Kiev, Ukraine took a chainsaw to a giant wooden cross commemorating the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Soon, copycats were popping up across Russia. The latest cross was felled by Pussy Riots supporters in the subarctic city of Arkhangelsk. This prompted outrage from the Orthodox community, with the Church’s sharp-tongued spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin darkly prophesying that “those who fell crosses today may move on to murder in the future.”

Sure enough, four days later, two women turned up dead with “Free Pussy Riot” scrawled on the wall, as Kremlin loyalists trilled their I-told-you-so’s. (“If you still think that breaking the norms of behavior in a church doesn’t change anything, I recommend you read the latest news,” one of them tweeted.) As if this weren’t enough, shortly after the double-murder swamped the headlines, news broke of a man who had been stabbed to death in St. Petersburg. Whoever killed him left a religious icon on his head.

All of this has put Team Pussy Riot on the defensive, with the women’s lawyers trying to distance themselves from the violence. They have labeled the blood graffiti “a case for a psychiatrist” and called the Archangelsk cross-fellers “two mentally-retarded youths.”

The faithful, however, have felt compelled to respond in kind. Shortly after the Pussy Riot verdict, there were reports of them attacking people wearing “Free Pussy Riot” t-shirts. One young man, a veteran of the second Chechen War and head of the “Holy Rus” organization, announced that he would form bands of Orthodox “volunteers” to patrol Russia for crimes against sacred artifacts and priests.

In truth, Pussy Riot only heightened the cultural tensions underlying Russian society. In the last few years, criticism has mounted against an Orthodox Church that is increasingly lavish (the Church’s press service recently admitted to airbrushing a $30,000 Breguet watch of the patriarch’s wrist), increasingly unapologetic (Chaplin called the patriarch’s sumptuous lifestyle his “cross”), increasingly brazen (a woman thought to be Patriarch Kirill’s lover is suing to take over the apartment of a famous cardiologist dying of cancer) and increasingly seen as a Kremlin franchise. This winter, as anti-Kremlin protests broke out in Moscow, the patriarch called on people to go to church instead, and later enthusiastically endorsed Vladimir Putin ahead of the March presidential election. The people who took to the streets demanding fair elections have, with the help of Pussy Riot, come to see the Church as their enemy, too.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Putin’s popularity depends, in part, on his support for the Church. (Support that’s not just rhetorical: He returned religious art to the Church from state museums and, the day before his most recent inauguration, he inaugurated a chapel that would pray for his health around the clock.) The Church’s militantly anti-Western, anti-liberal rhetoric appeals to Putin’s natural base of support, most of it in smaller, poorer cities. This population, if they’ve heard of Pussy Riot at all, is conservative, religious, and nationalistic, and finds the ideas of the opposition deeply alien. It is also a fairly huge population.

Given the increasing economic and political tensions in the country, these two Russias were bound to come to blows. And, as usual, religion has provided an easy, steadily burning fuse.

Pussy Riot? More Like Pussy War [TNR]

How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

August 17th, 2012

MOSCOW—When the sentence came, it was after three hours of Judge Marina Syrova monotonously reading aloud the entire tale of Pussy Riot’s encounter with the law. Three hours from the time she pronounced the three young women guilty of “grossly violating the public order” and of being “motivated by religious hatred,” the judge announced that only a “real sentence”—rather than probation—would be fitting and instructive enough. She quickly handed down a two-year sentence in minimum security prison to each of the defendants, and that was that.

In those three hours, however, with the entire courtroom standing the whole time, we got to hear the entire case all over again. We heard about how the three young defendants—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, handcuffed inside a bulletproof “aquarium”—as well as “two other unidentified people” entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the morning of February 21, at which point they mounted the steps to the altar, shed their winter clothing, donned colorful balaclavas and began to “raise their legs” and to “hit the air, as if it were an opponent.” We heard about how their clothing was in violation of Church rules, how Samutsevich, “in clear collusion” with the others, took out a guitar and how Tolokonnikova plugged it into an amp “without delay,” about how the place where they stood—the ambon—was not for women, how the Cathedral’s employees tried to stop them, how the Pussy Riot “demonstratively and cynically” defied “the Orthodox world” and tried to “devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” We heard about the materials seized in the searches of the defendants’ apartments, materials that, apparently, had “offended God.” We heard about the testimony of the victims, the Orthodox believers so deeply wounded by the thirty-second performance, though we learned that that testimony of one witness—he had seen the resultant music video on YouTube and read an interview with Pussy Riot —was struck, which was a shame because he had been the only one to explain to the court the etiology of the group’s name. (“Do you even know what ‘pussy’ means?” he asked the court two weeks ago. “I do. I brought a dictionary.” The word, it turned out, derived from “pus.”)

Through those three hot, tiresome hours, the three young women listened to the litany of absurdist, pseudo-legalistic, theocratic woe, by turns laughing and rolling their eyes. Alyokhina, the brain, watched attentively, her pale face calm under a poof of dirty blonde frizz. Tolokonnikova, the opposition’s sultry new sex symbol (Ukrainian Playboy has just invited her onto its cover), wearing a blue “No pasarán!” t-shirt, smirked and curled her lips in disdain. Even the shy and awkward Samutsevich laughed when the judge, a prissy older woman, read the full text of the punk prayer “Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!”, uttering the phrase “the priest blows the prosecutor.” At one point, the unmistakable strains of punk wafted into the courtroom. The members of Pussy Riot who are still anonymous and free had emerged on a balcony across the street from the courthouse and began to rage through their new single “Putin Lights the Fires of Revolution.” Then they made it rain CDs. At the sound of the music, Tolokonnikova’s face lit up and, clasping her chained hands like a victorious boxer, shook them above her head.

When the two-year sentence came in, the girls laughed. When they were first detained and charged in March, all the signs had pointed to seven years behind bars. Putin had apologized to the Orthodox faithful, and the patriarch and Church made a point of staying out of the case, though it was quite clear that they weren’t.

But the Kremlin’s grasp on the story soon slipped. First, the story became a domestic PR-headache. Then, starting in July, Western musicians started glomming onto the case one by one: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Franz Ferdinand, Bjork, Paul McCartney. Madonna came to Moscow to give a concert, and ended up delivering an ode to the girls, donned a balaclava, and wrote the words “Free Pussy Riot” on her back. Unlike the highly politicized case of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a man with a shadowy past who had the assets Putin wanted, the case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist. It is not unheard of for him to bow to public pressure, though he will try his damndest to make it seem like public pressure has nothing to do with it.

Thus, when the case reached a fever pitch, Putin, speaking from London, said the girls “shouldn’t be punished too harshly.” Let them think about what they’ve done, he chided, and, as always, left it up to the court. The court immediately picked up on the signal, and soon the prosecutor was asking not for seven years, but for three. Some of the victims stopped calling for any punishment. The liberals who had gotten so fired up about the case became even more fired up: Here it was, the taste of victory! Ebullient rumors of probation soon began to circulate around Moscow.

There was some truth in this euphoria, but not enough. Twitter had helped Russian liberals back the Russian regime into a corner in unprecedented fashion. But the system that does not have a reverse gear, a system that admits no mistakes, and shows no weakness (ninety-nine percent of criminal cases in Russia result in a guilty verdict) cannot get a new transmission in one week, or in one case. As soon as the trial began, it was clear that the government did not intend on absolving Pussy Riot.

Still, the two-year sentence was a surprise because it was less than the three many expected, and far less than the seven everyone feared. “In our system, two years is not a real sentence,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin’s successful 2000 presidential campaign. “They probably think they’re being very merciful,” especially considering that the girls have already served nearly six months of it in pre-trial detention. This was, in other words, as much give as the system could give.

Afterwards, supporters of Pussy Riot made their arguments for why it was still not enough. “Putin’s statements that the court could deliver a not-too-harsh verdict were expressed in a verdict that deprived innocent people of their freedom for two years,” defense lawyer Mark Feygin told a scrum of journalists outside the courthouse. “Who in their right mind could say this was a not-too-harsh verdict?” Alexey Navalny, the unspoken leader of the opposition, announced that he was “too angry to comment.” Nearby, a couple hundred very angry people had gathered nearby to protest, and a couple dozen of them were arrested. (One climbed the fence of the nearby Turkish embassy, and the police chased her onto its grounds.) The parents of the Samutsevitch and Alyokhina, who had originally disapproved of their daughters’ performance, now were fully behind them. “They did the right thing, absolutely,” Samutsevich’s soft-spoken, somewhat religious father said afterwards. “They really hit a nerve and showed the Church for what it is.”

And so the conclusion of the Pussy Riot trial served the same function as the performance that was its instigation: a demonstration of the deep contradictions plaguing Russian politics. From the perspective of the government, a sentence of two years is merciful; in the view of the country’s nascent, if disorganized and clumsy, but increasingly conscious, forward-looking middle-class opposition, it is beyond the pale. The original prupose of the trial may have been to cow Russia’s liberals, but the result was the opposite: Those paying attention to the trial—the journalists, the European parliamentarians, the activists, the chattering classes—were outraged, not intimidated, at the thought that three young women would be locked up for two years for singing a silly song.

When Tolokonnikova’s husband and Pussy Riot spinmeister Peter Verzilov emerged from the courthouse after the verdict, he was mobbed by journalists asking him for comment.

“What will happen to your wife and daughter?” one journalist asked. “Who will take care of them?”

“My daughter, wife, and everyone else will be saved by the revolution,” he said blithely. “Only the revolution. And we’re going to make it happen.”

How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink [TNR]

Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy

August 6th, 2012

On the morning of February 21, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich walked up the steps leading to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shed their winter clothing, pulled colorful winter hats down over their faces, and jumped around punching and kicking for about thirty seconds. By evening, the three young women had turned it into a music video called “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” which mocked the patriarch and Putin. (“The head of the KGB is their patron saint,” they sang, by turns shrieking and imitating a church choir.)

The video went viral: it was two weeks before the presidential election and Putin, facing a wave of unprecedented protests, was feeling shaky. Three days later, a warrant was issued for the girls’ arrest. According to their indictment, their trial promised to be a decisive moment in the history of Christianity; officially, they were being tried for hooliganism, but the mumbling prosecutor clarified that they stood accused of “insulting the entire Christian world.”

Last week, on the day before the trial began, Petr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, and I met for coffee. We talked about Derrida and post-modernism, the construction of gender and about performance art, but also about international press coverage of the Pussy Riot case and the growing list of Western musicians—Franz Ferdinand, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting—who had spoken up for the young women. “The state is doing everything to heat up attention for the case,” Verzilov said. “Someone’s putting on a show, as if, God forbid the New York Times doesn’t write about it.”

Verzilov and Tolokonnikova had met as students in the philosophy department of Moscow State University, and had been doing shocking performance art for years, first with a group called Voina, after which they founded Pussy Riot. (One of their first performance pieces, for Voina, involved having sex, together with a large group, in Moscow’s Biological Museum on the eve of Medvedev’s inauguration. Tolokonnikova was heavily pregnant at the time.) “Punk Prayer” was part of a series of performances that took aim at symbols of the regime, past and present: the Place of the Skulls, the execution spot on Red Square; luxury shopping malls, the Moscow metro. The Catherdal was chosen because it had, in Pussy Riot’s view, become a commercial center and because the patriarch had just told believers to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential election.

Though Pussy Riot’s goal was to challenge Russian society through performance art, they were soon to discover that Putin’s state insisted on imposing its own distinct political aesthetic. “Of course, the indictment came down on Forgiveness Sunday,” Petr Verzilov said, referring to the fact that the criminal charge coincided with the day that Russian Orthodox believers ask each other’s forgiveness before the beginning of Lent. “The people in the Kremlin are obviously given to small acts of theatricality.”

THIS WAS PERFECTLY clear on the first day of the trial, which kicked off with statements from the defendants, read out by their lawyers. The young women, who sat in a cage of bulletproof glass (known colloquially as “the aquarium”) apologized to the Orthodox believers they had offended; Tolokonnikova called it “an ethical mistake.” Alyokhina, herself an Orthodox believer, apologized but also expressed her dismay at the lack of Christian forgiveness. “I thought the Church loved all its children,” she said in her written statement. “But it turns out it only loves those children who love Putin.”

And that’s where the loftiness ended and reality began to disintegrate. The judge overruled the defense’s motion to call any of its thirty five witnesses at the trial: the reason given was that it was too early, but she ended up rejecting the motion again and again throughout the proceedings. The prosecutor began to mutter his way through the indictment, using phrases like “imitating the Gates of Heaven” and “songs of an insulting, blasphemous nature.” The girls, drifting off in their aquarium, stood accused by the Russian state of being motivated by “religious hatred,” of “demonstratively and cynically putting themselves in opposition to the Orthodox world” and of “trying to devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Somewhere else in there was a statement about how the young women of Pussy Riot had shaken “the spiritual foundations” of the Russian Federation, which, until that point, had given the distinct impression of being a secular state.

The defense counsel, for its part, seemed at this point to have already stopped listening; they were buried in their iPads and phones, live-tweeting the proceedings, as was Verzilov, who sat on a bench closest to the aquarium, as if they had decided that broadcasting the surrealism to the world was a better alternative than trying to make sense of it.

When the judge asked the girls how they plead, Alyokhina, a small, mousy girl with a poof of dirty blonde hair, said she wouldn’t plead at all as she didn’t understand what the indictment even meant. When this devolved into a shouting match with the judge—the first of many—Alyokhina demanded, “Why doesn’t the court take my words into account?” She was ordered to sit down.

The prosecution called its first witness, Lyubov Sokologorskaya, who is caretaker of the cathedral’s candles, and who can be seen in the Pussy Riot video, her head covered with a white kerchief, trying to wave off the group’s video camera. She was testifying as one of the nine victims in the case, the Orthodox faithful who had witnessed the 30 seconds of blasphemy and had been suffering ever since. I had run into Sokologorskaya, a tall woman with a vague face, in the bathroom during a break and I asked her why she turned to a secular court to address her religious hurt. She flashed me a sudden, angry look. “Go ahead,” she snapped. “Go ahead. Why don’t you just say the word you’re dancing around?” Before I could understand what it was I was dancing around, her lawyer, Larissa Pavlova, a big woman with a malicious face, led her away.

On the stand, Sokologorskaya was all quiet pathos. One could barely hear her responses to the questions posed by the prosecutor. Was she an Orthodox believer? Did she celebrate all the holidays and keep all the fasts of the Russian Orthodox Church? What is god? What were the girls wearing? Was their clothing tight?

Yes, Sokologorskaya said, their clothing was mostly tight and bright and generally inappropriate for a holy place. She spotted a bra strap; one dress had bright stripes. The worst, though, was that they had fooled her: two of them, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, she said, had approached her and asked her which icons to pray to for various blessings. In the meantime, she realized, their co-conspirators were climbing the railing blocking off the steps leading to the altar, steps on which no woman is allowed to stand. Then they shed their coats and began to jump around, movements she described as “devilish jerking.”

“Have you ever seen any devils?” defense attorney Violetta Volkova asked.

The judge interceded and struck down the question, as she would for most of the defense’s questions.

“I just wanted to clarify, how does she know how devils jerk themselves around?” Volkova yelled, as she would for most of the trial.

The question was struck.

“They raised their legs so high that everything past their waists, you could see,” Sokologorskaya almost moaned. “They were egging each other on, to see who could raise her leg the highest.”

The prosecution went on. Was the behavior of Pussy Riot acceptable behavior according to Church rules? Did it offend the feelings of Orthodox believers? Was it a crime?


“In your view,” Pavlova asked her client, “what should the punishment be?”

“They need to be punished adequately,” Sokologorskaya said. (This elicited no objection from the defense about a witness testifying to something that was for the court to decide.) “They need to be punished so that they never want to do this again, under any circumstances. So that they’re scared.”

Because Sokologorskaya was claiming “moral damage,” one of the defense lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, asked her if she had turned to a doctor or a psychologist to address her suffering.

“I’m an Orthodox believer,” Sokologorskaya said. “The gracious power of the Holy Spirit is a million times stronger than any psychologist!”

“Then why didn’t the gracious power of the Holy Spirit assuage your moral suffering?”

“The question is struck!” snapped the judge.

“Have you seen the video of the punk prayer?” Polozov asked.


“If the performance caused you such moral suffering, why did you decide to poison your soul again?”

The judge struck the question.

Did she hear the name Putin? Anything about the patriarch?

There was a long pause.

“I’m trying to remember, I’m afraid to get it wrong,” Sokologorskaya said, voice quavering. “It was just that I was intensively praying. It was enough for me to hear ‘patriarch.’”

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer, are you aware of what is going on around you?” asked Polozov.

The question was struck.

“Rephrase,” said the judge.

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer,” began Polozov, “can you hear what people are saying to you?

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“What did my client Tolokonnikova say on the dias on Februrary 21?” asked Mark Feygin, another of the defense lawyers.

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“Who told you the girls in the video are the same girls as the ones on trial today?” Feygin asked. “They were wearing balaclavas, as you recall.”


The defendants were given the chance to ask questions through a small window in the aquarium. When it was Tolokonnikova’s turn, she asked how Sokologorskaya could determine the girls motivating hatred for Orthodoxy, to which she had just testified?

“Because you disturbed the peace in the cathedral,” Sokologorskaya said. “You used curse words.”

“Do you remember what I personally said on February 21?”

“I don’t want to repeat these words.”

“Do you remember what I said?”


“She already answered your question,” said the judge.

“Is ‘feminist’ a bad word?” Tolokonnikova asked, referring to the part of the punk prayer in which they implored the Virgin to become a feminist.

“In a church, yes.”

“What dress was I wearing?”

“You know what your dress was like,” Sokologorskaya snapped. “It’s probably why you wanted to raise your legs.”

SOKOLOGORSKAYA WAS FOLLOWED on the stand by Denis Istomin, a young man with sun-bleached blonde hair and a taut, angular face. He rolled up to the witness stand wearing a pair of tight pants and an electric blue shirt.

“Is it fair to say you are an Orthodox believer?” asked the prosecutor. It was the first question he would ask every witness. “Do you celebrate Church holidays and keep all the fasts?”

When it came to the events of February 21, Istomin said he happened to be in the Cathedral on a Tuesday morning by sheer accident. “My parents gave some money to help build it and I feel it is our church, too,” Istomin said. It was his first time in the Cathedral. When he knelt down to pray, he heard women’s voices; when he looked up, he saw girls in colorful balaclavas dancing around on the steps to the altar.

“Did you hear what they were saying?” asked Pavlova.

“Yes,” said Istomin. “They were shouting insults at our god Jesus Christ. It was blasphemy. People in the cathedral were crying, some people were sick. There was no precedent for this.” Their clothes, he said, “did not conform to Christian tradition.” Their dancing was “dancing on the graves of our ancestors.” Sadly, this was to be expected. “Our country went twenty years without an ideology,” he said flatly. “A whole generation grew up without Orthodox values.”

“What did you do when you saw this disorder?” asked Pavlova.

“I tried to stop them,” Istomin said. One of the girls, Alyokhina, was held up by a church security guard who removed her mask. “Someone took her mask off. She looked at me, and I looked at her,” Istomin went on. “I recognize her today. I have a photographic memory.”

After Istomin, the accidental witness, has been asked to weigh in on the extent to which Pussy Riot had criminally offended all of Orthodox Christendom, Pavlova—or “Lawyer Pavlova,” as she preferred to refer to herself in the courtroom—tried a different line.

“Would you say that this was art?”

“What is art anyway?” smirked Istomin. “I don’t think this is art, but if some people consider it art, then it should be displayed exclusively in closed spaces and not be made available for wider public consumption.”

“You’re here as a victim,” Lawyer Pavlova went on. “Are you claiming any monetary compensation here today?”

“No,” said Istomin, lifting his hawkish nose. “I don’t need their money.”

“You heard the girls apologize this morning,” Lawyer Pavlova said with gravitas. “Do you think they were sincere?”

“I don’t see any repentance in their actions,” Istomin said.

“I have no further questions,” said Lawyer Pavlova.

The occupants of the “aquarium” were again permitted to ask questions. (All three had been taking furious notes throughout the testimony. A tattered paperback Bible lay on the bench where the girls were sitting.)

“When you held me up and led me to the door of the Cathedral, did I resist?” asked Alyokhina.

“I can’t say definitively, I’m not a person who holds grudges,” said Istomin. And, with a smile added, “Actually, all Orthodox people are like this.”

“What did you do after you led me out?”

“I went back to restoring order.”

“Tell me, were you here in this courtroom three hours ago?” Alyokhina went on.


“Did you hear me when I apologized for offending the Orthodox faithful?”

“You know, a spoon is useful at lunchtime,” he scoffed. “We waited for this apology from you in the first days after your blasphemy. And, as Stanislavsky once said, ‘I don’t believe in your repentance.’”

“Tell me, please, what form does my repentance have to take for you to believe me?”

“I don’t know, use the Internet, like you did last time,” Istomin said, referring to the YouTube sensation. “Or go to church.”

“I can’t go to church,” Alyokhina said. “I’m in jail.”

Volkova, the defense attorney, began asking questions again. “What words did the accused say?”

“They were saying bad words,” Istomin said.

“Which words?”

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“Is holy shit an offensive phrase?” Volkova shouted.

“We already established that these words offend God!” the prosecutor shouted.

“The question is struck.”

Feygin, whose massive frame reminds one of an antique wardrobe, took his turn. “Is it true that you are part of the group Narodny Sabor?”

“Yes,” said Istomin.

“What does the group do?”

“It provides military-patriotic training for youth,” Istomin said. “It’s a good organization.”

“Did you know my clients before February 21?”


“Were you also a victim in the court case against Erofeev,” Feygin asked, referring to another scandalous case, from 2006, when the Orthodox faithful filed suit against the curators of an art show in which contemporary Russian artists took on the theme of religion. The Orthodox faithful won.

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“We’re trying to establish that Istomin has participated in similar court cases,” Feygin pleaded.

“He’s a professional victim!” yelled Volkova. “Like a professional beggar!”

“The question is struck!”

BY DAY TWO of the trial, the trial had become an acknowledged embarrassment. Even the Putin loyalists were already cracking. After the first day, a member of the ruling United Russia party wrote in his blog that, even though he was offended by the Pussy Riot performance, “an indictment based on citations from sixteenth century Church cannon makes the country the laughingstock of the entire world.”

It was soon clear that the authorities were eager to wrap things up as quickly as possible, and shift the public’s attention to something that wasn’t quite so unexpectedly humiliating. And so the judge decided not only to prevent the defense from calling any witnesses or asking any questions; she also had no intention of keeping Russian courthouse hours. Rather than end each session at six, when the courthouse closed, she kept going. “We’ll be here till morning if we have to,” she said when the defense suggested adjourning for the day.

The main effect of the grueling twelve-hour sessions was the deterioration of the defendants’ health. On the third day, an ambulance had to be called twice for the girls (and for Volkova, who had worked herself up into a tizzy), but the paramedics determined they were fit to stand trial. Volkova started a shouting match with the judge: Her clients were not given time to sleep, and were not being fed. “When I asked the bailiff whether they’d eaten, he told me they’d been fed tea!” she shouted. The judge said it was not the court’s prerogative to deal with such things. When the defense team attempted to pass a bottle of water into the aquarium, every cop in the room lunged to intercept it. Afterwards, an attorney for the plaintiff, Lev Lyalin, himself a religious man who was representing three of the victims, told me, “You know, I’ve been an attorney for a long time, and I can tell you’ve never seen a court work at this clip before. Even I don’t feel well, and I’m not in prison.”

On top of this, the court was doing everything in its power to make the trial a black box. First, they shut down the live stream of the proceedings (ostensibly to protect the victims). On day two, they moved the trial to a tiny courtroom where not more than ten journalists could fit. When the journalists left on the stairwell mutinied, the trial was moved back to a bigger courtroom. The next day brought a ban on Twitter, which the press inside the courtroom to broadcast the insanity they were witnessing. When a higher court overruled them the same morning, they tried to introduce a ban on audio recordings.

The one thing that the authorities had determined was not negotiable was the verdict. That had been determined months ago: Shortly after the punk prayer became a viral hit, Putin spoke at a Church event, apologizing to the faithful for the harm done to them by the Pussy Riot performance. The court had received its signal from the Kremlin; now the only question was whether the girls would get the full seven-year sentence.

In that way, the trial became an inadvertent continuation of their performance piece, one that grew far past the boundaries they had envisioned for it and ended up becoming a monumental, historical work. The kangaroo court, the prison sentence, the martyr status—Pussy Riot didn’t expect any of it, but they had clearly hit a nerve and the state’s overblown, medieval response had became part of the show. And if Act I (the punk prayer) turned off some liberals with its edginess, Act II (the witch trial) was clearly a nation-wide hit and a liberal cause célèbre.

It was a prime example of a classic Russian genre: a bitter dark comedy depicting the absurdity of oppression. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich have audibly laughed their way through the proceedings, as have the defense lawyers, the journalists, even Alyokhina’s mother, forcing the judge to periodically scream at the courtroom. “Is this funny to you!” the judge cried at one point. “No, it’s quite sad,” Alyokhina said, barely stifling her laughter. By Thursday of last week, the burly enforcers stalking about the courtroom were threatening to toss out anyone who even smiled.

But how could one not laugh? How else could one react to a tall, greasy man who was called as an expert witness for the prosecution because he had seen the YouTube video and read an interview with PussyRiot? Sweating through his testimony, he described for the court how the girls had “pushed themselves into hell,” and that “to the Christian faithful, Orthodox or not, hell is as real as the Moscow metro.”

How else could one interpret a witness, a church treasurer, who walked into the courtroom with a frilly parasol, which she then lovingly hung off the edge of the witness stand before giving her testimony? “Excuse me,” she said when it clattered to the floor as she discussed how much offense she had taken at Pussy Riot’s performance.

How else could one react to a victim weeping through her testimony and, describing how one of the girls prostrated herself on the altar on February 21, uttered the nearly Biblical phrase, “and her butt was raised high and this butt was facing the altar”? To an altar boy who looked like he spent more time at the gym than in church? (“Do you think they could have been possessed?” Feygin asked the altar boy. “The question is struck!” said the judge. “He is not a medical expert!”) To the candle woman, the first victim, watching the proceedings from the gallery, angrily muttering her bewilderment, and repeatedly crossing herself?

How else to respond to the fact that the nine victims, all security guards and attendants of the Cathedral, felt confident in opining on theological, psychological, and jurisprudential matters, and in delivering their verdict on when the punk prayer crossed over from art to blasphemy? To the fact that all of them described in soaring words the depth of the Christian faith but that all but one could not find it in their hearts to accept the girls’ apologies?

To call this a show trial would be to understate its grotesque aesthetic. This was not a show trial, but it was a show—a sumptuous, tragicomic show, in which three twenty-something girls have unintentionally check-mated the regime.

On Thursday, as the girls were marched out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Verzilov called to his wife.

“Nadia!” he shouted. “Björk says hello!”

Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy [TNR]

Lady Dada

August 2nd, 2012

IT’S A BREEZY Moscow night, and Maria Baronova has moved on from tea and tom-yam to prosecco. Sitting on the terrace of a bar overlooking the Moscow River, she fishes around in her messy leather purse and shows me the court document charging her with inciting mass riots. “As you can see, I’m the organizer of an intergalactic revolution,” she scoffs and lights another menthol cigarette. Tomorrow morning, she’ll face a police interrogation, followed by a photo shoot for Russian GQ.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment at which the 28-year-old Baronova, a brash, lanky blonde, shed her skin as a pro-Putin patriot to become the unlikely it-girl of the Russian opposition. But she came into her own in the latter role sometime around May 6, the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. What began as a peaceful demonstration in Moscow by tens of thousands of Russians spun into days of street war between the police and the opposition. Demonstrators clashed with police, who chased them into cafés and subway stations, and hauled them away in paddy wagons. A spontaneous, mobile Occupy movement began moving from city square to city square, barely outrunning the omon riot squads.

Through it all, Baronova, then a little-known former press secretary for leftist Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev, seemed to be everywhere—pushing herself around on a child’s scooter, mouthing off to anyone in a uniform. At one sit-in, she popped a wheelie in front of a chain of burly, stone-faced omon officers and then proceeded to loudly read from a paperback copy of the Russian constitution. Before long, she was lost in a throng of photographers. “I’m trying to make a political career,” she told me when I saw her that day.

In the following weeks, though, Baronova became disillusioned. The opposition was quixotic and fractured, and she had little confidence in its powers of persuasion. So she applied for a master’s degree in political science and planned to take a two-year break from activism, starting this fall.

But then, early on the morning of June 11, officers from the Investigative Committee—Russia’s equivalent of the FBI—climbed onto the balcony of her apartment, turned on an electric circular saw, and threatened to cut the door down. Baronova was out, and the only person inside was her terrified nanny—Baronova has a five-year-old son—who let the agents in and watched as investigators turned the apartment inside out, taking Baronova’s computer, books, political materials, and a trove of family photos.

The stated reason for the raid was Baronova’s participation in the May 6 protests. But, although the Investigative Committee searched the homes of about a half-dozen prominent activists, Baronova was the only one who was charged. Overnight, she went from just another angry protester to a central, if incongruous, figure in the opposition’s loose confederation of leading lights—a political naïf with no clear ideology and a knack for absurdist displays of dissent. “Maybe to some more seasoned people, she seems too young and hotheaded,” says Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and a veteran member of the opposition. “But they can’t dispute the fact that she brings with her a new wave of activists. She is the next wave.”

TO THE EXTENT THAT Baronova gave much thought to politics in her early twenties, it was to regard Putin with unabashed pride. She comes from a family of Soviet scientists and was herself a chemist and manager at a chemical supply company. During her twenties, she started making good money, got married, had a child, and generally lived the humdrum existence of Moscow’s white-collar “office plankton.”

For much of this time, Baronova says, “I believed in the greatness of Russia.” She opposed Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which she still considers an “American project.” The first crack in her resolve came in 2004, when Russian security services badly bungled the hostage crisis at an elementary school in Beslan. That’s when she stopped voting for specific candidates and started marking “against all” on her ballot.

Over time, Baronova says she “outgrew” Putin and transferred her hopes to Dmitry Medvedev, the new president and ostensible liberal. When Medvedev announced in September last year that he would not seek a second term and suggested that Putin run again for president, Baronova was stunned. “At that point, I said, ‘Lord, burn this place down, nothing will change here,’” she says, quoting a Russian rap song.

On December 4, Baronova went to vote in the parliamentary election and saw that officials were redirecting people in her precinct to a nonexistent address. The next day, she attended her first rally, at Chistye Prudy in central Moscow, to protest the widespread fraud that occurred during the parliamentary elections. When the billy clubs started flying, Baronova says she tried to avoid the crush of the crowd, but she caught a couple of blows from an omon truncheon and was tossed against an electrical switch box.

Shaken, Baronova wanted to leave the country, but her ex-husband wouldn’t let her emigrate with their son. So she went to the office of Solidarity, an opposition organization, and volunteered to help them—and later Ponomarev—with public relations. She also poured the money she’d saved for her son’s education abroad into the opposition’s activities. “I see this as a cold civil war,” she explains. “The state is using all its resources to fight its own citizens, so we have to use of all of ours.”

Then came the search and the criminal charge. “If that’s not a hint that I should leave the country, then I don’t know what is,” Baronova says. One protester who had been arrested at around the same time reported that he had been savagely beaten as he was detained; another said she had been force-fed psychotropic medications. Two activists have fled the country and applied for political asylum in Europe. Since she was charged, Baronova has repeatedly been called in for questioning about her connections to other opposition leaders. A woman whom Baronova suspects is a government plant has moved into her building and started accusing Baronova of beating her son, even though he has been away all summer; child protective services has threatened to take him away. Meanwhile, pro-Putin youth groups have been entreating her to attend their annual summer camp. “Why are they flirting with me?” she exclaims. “I don’t get it!”

Baronova faces a maximum sentence of two years in prison, although she sees little chance of actually going to jail for that long—“I’m good at p.r.,” she says matter-of-factly. But the experience has left her rattled. “From my point of view, I lost. I didn’t get anything done, I spent a ton of money, and brought harm on myself,” she says. “I want to cross all this out and live the quiet life of a quiet person. But that’s not possible anymore.”

“Now that they’ve done this, now that they’ve upped the ante, I can’t leave this half-finished,” Baronova says, her voice straining with agitation, as it often does. “I don’t want to be one of those émigrés of 1917, sipping wine by the Mediterranean and waiting for Russia to get better so I can come back. I have no choice but to do it myself.”

Lady Dada [TNR]

In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy

July 23rd, 2012

On Monday afternoon, Italian premier Mario Monti and Russian president Vladimir Putin convened a small press conference in the slanting, gold light coming off the Black Sea. They had just met to discuss the European economic crisis as well as energy (Italy is Russia’s second biggest gas client), but they also touched on the deepening conflict in Syria.

“We do not want the situation to develop along the lines of a bloody civil war and for it to continue for who knows how many years, like in Afghanistan,” Putin said, standing with his perfect posture in a slate-gray summer suit. “We want there to be peace.” Russia does not want to see the establishment and the opposition to simply switch sides and keep fighting, Putin went on. Russia’s position remains unchanged, commented the reporter of Channel One, the country’s biggest (and state controlled) television channel. “The only way out of the crisis is through negotiations.”

The insistent, demonstrative reasonableness of Putin’s quote was more than bluster; it was also a reflection of how most Russians, including the Russian press, understand their country’s role in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

If the West has come to see Russia as the ornery spoiler in Syria, as the last ally of the cruel and increasingly embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia sees itself as the last sane person left in the room, the one geopolitical actor able to put emotion and cliché aside in favor of rational, balanced thought. Glancing at Russian press coverage of the Syrian conflict—and it is, in the Russian perspective a “crisis”—one will notice that it does not get nearly the same kind of coverage here as it does in the Western press. “Why does this peripheral country get so much attention?” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Affairs exclaimed when we spoke. “It just is not considered something extremely significant here.”

The Western observer tends to split the Russian press into two camps: evil statists and martyrs. But for their part, members of the Russian press are convinced of their superiority over their Western colleagues, at least when it comes to Syria. Russian journalists aren’t under the illusion that they are more objective than their Western counterparts, but they are convinced of their ability to convey a more realistic, complex picture of the events in Syria.

“The essence of the conflict is portrayed differently here than in the West,” explains Lukyanov. “Here, it is not a picture of peace-loving freedom fighters against a secretive, repressive regime. The Western picture is highly ideological and primitive. They have a template that’s used for all countries, even though, when it comes to these revolutions in the Arab world, each country is more complex than the previous one. The situation in Syria is much more tangled.” And though you can find a great variety of views on Syria in Russia—anything from the conspirological view that America is arming the rebels and ginned up the uprising to begin with, to the pro-Western, liberal chagrin that Russia is once again backing the bad guys—you would be hard-pressed to find a news outlet that uses the term “Arab Spring.”

In large part, this is because the Russian point of view starts with the naiveté of the Western point of view, and its corollary: That Russians alone can glimpse the ugly truths that run the world. “The Russian press is more accurate than the Western press, because the West, in painting [the Free Syrian Army] as freedom fighters, doesn’t understand that these guys, are blood-sucking vampires and if they come to power there will be hell to pay, and for the Americans, too,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy editor of the foreign affairs section of the daily newspaper Kommersant, Russia’s largest and among its more liberal. (I should note that, in my three years reporting on Russia and befriending local colleagues, I’ve only ever previously heard the opposite: a refrain about the superiority of American journalism to the unprofessionalism of the still young Russian press.)

“The Americans came to terms with the Arab Spring because they think that this is something they can understand, that democracy works the same way in America as it does in the Arab world,” Yusin goes on. “But it’s not how democracy works in the Arab world,” he says, pointing out that, in Gaza, a democratic election brought Hamas to power. “Russians understand it better,” Yusin explains. “They understand that this is a conflict between the civilized world and the suicide bombers who cry ‘Allahu akbar!’”

Russians are happy to dish out this kind of straight talk, sweeping cultural sensitivities aside, because they consider such constructs to be artificial and twee—and therefore dangerous. In the Russian mind, geopolitics are a hard and serious business; they are not a proper venue for American idealism and, unfortunately, there are many bungled Western interventions to back the Russians up. “Many analysts are surprised that the West is supporting Islamist uprisings against secular regimes,” says Lukyanov. “What’s the end game? Tunisia, Egypt, Libya show that the Islamists win. In Russia, this causes alarm. The more Islamists there are in the Middle East, the more there will be in the Northern Caucasus,” he explained referring to the mountainous region in Russia’s south, which has been crippled by two Chechen wars and a ruinous and bloody Islamic insurgency for years. And so, while the New York Times wrung its hands over whether or not Assad would use chemical weapons against the rebels,, a very liberal online newspaper, led with a story about hundreds of Chechen fighters taking up arms in Syria.

On the whole, though, Russians—both the press, and their audience—just don’t seem to have much appetite for the story. Unless Assad falls, it’s unlikely to make it onto any front pages or to lead the nightly news. It is just one more shadowy battle between the world powers and their competing interests, and, much like in the United States, there is plenty to worry about at home: political instability, corruption, flash floods and official incompetence, and, perhaps, a looming economic crisis. A poll done this spring by the independent Levada Center found that the vast majority of Russians do not support more sanctions against Assad, and even fewer support armed intervention. Asked how they would describe the situation in Syria, most said they saw it either as a civil war or as “terrorists, abetted by the West” fighting a “legitimate government.” But the biggest share of all just didn’t know how to answer.

In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy [TNR]

The Price of Opposition in Russia

June 14th, 2012

At around 7 A.M. on Monday morning, someone rang the door at the Moscow flat of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Navalny and his wife were sound asleep: it was a long holiday weekend celebrating the day, in 1990, when Russia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. So Navalny and his wife kept sleeping, but the doorbell kept ringing. Finally, Julia (his wife) got up to check who was there. She looked through the peephole and saw seven men in uniform. “I thought it was either an arrest or a search, so I turned off the lights—as one does in such situations—and called my lawyer,” Navalny told me later. Then he went to shave, “because you never know when your next shave will be if they arrest you.”

Julia intercepted him in the bathroom with a game-changer: the people outside the door had started an electric saw. “She said, ‘You should probably open the door,’” Navalny recalled.

Seven officers from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation piled into the apartment while two of their colleagues, armed with machine guns, blocked the door to the building outside. (It would take Navalny’s lawyer two hours—and going on Moscow’s most prominent radio station to say he was being blocked from seeing his client—to get into the apartment, something the Investigative Committee quickly denied.)

Upstairs, the investigators read out a search warrant: Navalny was being investigated as a witness in the case that had been opened after the violent clashes between police on protesters on May 6th. He was not a suspect in the case, nor was he charged with anything, which made the aggressive thoroughness of the ensuing search seem rather disproportionate. The investigators took anything electronic or telephonic: every laptop, desktop, iPhone, iPad, e-book, flash drive, D.V.D. player, D.V.D., disk, camera, memory card, and hard drive in the house. They checked the kids’ room and confiscated their laptop and camera. “I said, ‘Why don’t you look at the pictures on the camera? You’ll see they were just taking pictures of each other,’” Navalny said. It didn’t help. They took the kids’ camera, too. And the ten thousand rubles (three hundred dollars) they found.

Investigators also visited the apartment of Julia’s parents, who were not at home and were not even witnesses in the case. Her eighty-five-year-old grandmother was at home, however, but was physically unable to get to the door when the saw started up. “It was a very tense situation,” said Navalny (his wife was on the phone with her grandmother). “We were afraid she would die of the stress.”

After a thirteen-hour search, the apartment looked like a hurricane had hit.

Meanwhile, investigators had also arrived at the apartments of other opposition leaders, including leftist Sergei Udaltsov (scion of a long line of Soviet statesmen), veteran opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and Kseniya Sobchak. Sobchak is a television celebrity who was once Russia’s scandalous “it” girl (its Paris Hilton, if you will), and she went over to the side of the opposition when a wave of protests broke out following the contested December parliamentary election. Since then, she’s dropped one boyfriend—a well-liked functionary in the mayor of Moscow’s culture office—for a more fashionable one: a young, but seasoned, opposition activist named Ilya Yashin … whom they found in Sobchak’s bed. Sobchak, still half-asleep and thinking she was opening the door for her cleaning lady, didn’t even think to check the peephole and so found herself, in only her négligée, facing ten investigators from the committee. (The flat of Yashin’s parents, where Yashin still technically lives, was searched that morning, too. Among the confiscated items: Mrs. Yashin’s recipe book.)

Sobchak fared worse than the Navalnys. Her lawyer was unable to get inside for four hours, and only knew of the proceedings because Sobchak had managed to squirrel a phone away somewhere and send a desperate text to her assistant. “It was ridiculous,” she told me later. “I felt like a spy.” The search went on for nine hours, and, at first, the investigators wouldn’t let Sobchak get dressed. They also wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom alone. “They didn’t have a woman to go with me to the bathroom,” she told the Echo Moskvy radio station. “I had to do it in front of a man in a mask and with a machine gun.”

It’s worth noting here that Sobchak isn’t just your average opposition activist, or even your average Russian starlet. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, was Vladimir Putin’s close friend and mentor. Sobchak is even rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. (Sobchak says that the rumors are false.) Her going over to the opposition, though she carefully avoided direct criticism of her family’s friend, was the ultimate betrayal, and the search—pointless and humiliating—was a clear reprisal. Sobchak told me that she tried to go see Putin in early December in order to explain her reasons, but he wouldn’t see her. Most recently, when the independent television channel Dozhd TV—where Sobchak has a popular interview show—tried to accredit her for the massive St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, she was the only member of the Dozhd crew who was turned down. When pressed, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, is said to have replied that the name “Sobchak” is never to be uttered to him again. (Sobchak wouldn’t comment on this, and Peskov didn’t answer his phone.)

This is also probably why the investigative officer in charge of the group explained to Sobchak that none of this would have happened had she not gotten tangled up with the wrong people; she should have, he said, married “a dependable Chekist”—that is, agent of the secret police—and stayed home and had his babies.

Investigators took not only all of Sobchak’s electronics, but they also opened her safe where they found over a million euros, four hundred and eighty thousand dollars, and about that many rubles. (Sobchak explained the stash on Twitter: “My annual income is over 2 million. If I don’t trust the banks, I don’t have the right to keep money at home?”) The tax bureau has now opened an audit and the Investigative Committee is working out why the money was split up in several different envelopes—the preferred method of handing out cash in Russia. “Some people keep their money in envelopes, some people rubber band it, some people keep it jars, some people make little airplanes out of it,” Sobchak says. “I personally think envelopes are the most convenient way of storing money at home. Why am I obligated to explain this to the whole country?” (Photos of the money, neatly fanned out and next to a ruler for scale—that is, official photographs from the investigation—made it onto the tabloid just hours after investigators left Sobchak’s apartment.)

Investigators also seized her passport, effectively banning her from leaving the country for any reason. So far, both of her petitions—to get back her money and her passport—have been rebuffed. Once a glamorous socialite, now Sobchak says she is broke and has had to borrow money from her mother. “At least they didn’t plant drugs on me,” she says. “I guess I should be thankful for that.”

Like Sobchak, Yashin, Navalny, and the others whose homes were searched on Monday morning were all handed a summons to appear at the offices of the Investigative Committee at 11 A.M. on Tuesday, which was conveniently just an hour before the start of that days’ anti-Putin rally where all of them were supposed to speak. They all showed up, and dutifully answered the same fifty-six questions about who organized the May 6th violence, how it was planned, and who financed it. Sobchak’s interrogators made her read aloud the statement she had prepared with her lawyer—she’d hoped to save time and make it to the rally—frequently asking her to slow down, rewind, and repeat.

“The whole point was to just keep me there the whole day, to keep me from going to the protest,” Navalny said of his time with his interrogators. He had very little to tell them since he’s now been jailed twice for his protest activity, and questioned extensively both times. “They asked, ‘Tell me about your work history since 2005,’” he said. “It was just a million pointless questions. Four hours of them, then a break, then more pointless questions. When they found out that the rally was over, they suddenly lost interest.” Then they took him along while they searched the office of his anti-corruption organization, RosPil. (Navalny was asked to come back again on Wednesday. When he did, he was asked for a handwriting sample, which he refused, citing the fact that he is just a witness in the case.)

The Investigative Committee has thrown over a hundred investigators on the highly-publicized case—twelve comparatively nameless people have already been arrested. According to Navalny, not many of the investigators seem to understand what exactly it is that they’re doing. “I can’t recall criminal investigations like this in Moscow, except for Nord-Ost,” he said, referring to the time, in 2002, when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage inside a Moscow theatre. “And all because one police officer got a black eye on May 6th, for which he was rewarded with an apartment.” (Actually, over a dozen policemen were wounded that day; several have in fact been given apartments for their troubles.)

Why is the state doing this? Yashin has said that he thinks they are ginning up a criminal case against opposition leaders like him. More likely, it is a case of an overzealous machine seeking to please its master. If one reads the tea leaves—and that’s often all one can do in Russia—it is clear that Putin has had enough of the protests. Go out and protest for fair elections, but the elections are now over, and he won. Now it’s time to go home. But people don’t seem interested in that, and both protests, on May 6th and on June 12th, drew tens of thousands of people. (In fact, many of those I spoke to at the protest on Tuesday said that they had planned on skipping the rally but changed their minds when they heard about the searches.)

How to deal with them? Putin is no Assad, and at least so far he has shied away from a real crackdown. But he’s clearly unhappy with the situation and wants it to go away. In a country where the law is not a framework of protections and guarantees but rather an instrument used selectively for taking someone out, it helps when your friends or loyal minions are behind the controls of the legal system. Putin’s friend and classmate Alexander Bastrykin, for example, happens to be the head of the Investigative Committee, the same ostensibly independent government organization that harassed Navalny’s grandmother-in-law and chaperoned Sobchak to the bathroom. (A few hours ago, Bastrykin apologized to the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta for the harsh tone he took with Sergei Sokolov, one of the paper’s reporters. Sokolov had said that Bastrykin invited him on a drive, and then drove him out to the forest, where he proceeded to yell at and threaten him, which Bastrykin denied.) United Russia, the ruling party created to support Putin a decade ago, is doing its part in the Russian parliament: last week, they rammed through a law drastically upping fines and ordering restrictions on protesters and those found violating the peace. The Federation Council—the Russian equivalent of the Senate—was in such a rush to please that it passed the law all of twenty minutes after receiving it from the lower house.

And yet, thankfully, none of these zealous cogs seem ready to go all the way; they seem to pause at the critical moment. Protesters arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg, for instance, were not charged under the new law. And so far, Monday’s searches yielded little more than rattled nerves. Which is not to say that psychological warfare waged by a state against its own citizens is something to discount.

Navalny called me on Wednesday, just after he finished observing the Investigative Committee turn his office inside-out. He was his standard cheery, sarcastic self: the image he cultivates is of a fighter for truth who fears nothing. And yet even he was unsettled by Monday’s experience—despite having fought state abuses for a decade and having dealt with various reprisals, including a flimsy criminal case and two jail terms. “It’s very unpleasant,” he said, hinting obliquely that his wife’s nerves didn’t fare as well as his own. “Even if you’re ready for it, even if you know it’s coming, you can never be one hundred percent ready. It’s very stupid and infuriating because you know it’s stupid and yet you can’t do anything to stop it.”

Sobchak, on the other hand, is new to the game. She has been involved in Russian politics for only six months, and even if she saw it from backstage as the daughter of Putin’s mentor, she has yet to develop Navalny’s thick skin, the kind you need if you are going to become an enemy of the state. On Tuesday, the day after a humiliating and financially ruinous nine-hour search—and after six hours of questioning—she gave an interview to Echo Moskvy. “You know, it’s a nasty feeling when a strong person like me—and I’m a fighter—when you suddenly sit down and realize that your hands are shaking,” she said. “Yesterday, my hands were shaking because it’s the feeling that you can’t do anything, that these people who are walking around your apartment, that they can do whatever they want.”

The Price of Opposition in Russia [TNY]

Powder Keg

June 12th, 2012

MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow’s imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city’s Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.

And so, on the eve of Tuesday’s anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. “This time I expect to be bad,” she said. “So I’m sure it will be like Hair!”

Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they’d like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.

Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today’s rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today’s march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?

Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday’s estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting “like minds” into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called “After Putin.”

But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an “after” era. This week’s Gestapo-like searches — which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of — showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn’t seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. (“The government is a little confused. What are they against?” United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. “During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?”) The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.

“They’re trial runs,” said Duma opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov, who has been active in the protests — and is losing his private security business as a result. “Let’s see what happens if we do this, or if we do that, or if we go there. They’re looking to see what the reaction will be.” (Gudkov, a former colonel in Soviet counterintelligence, seems to recognize these tactics from his KGB days.)

So what next? Last month, after the peaceful May 6 rally descended into violence — for which arrests continue — I wrote that we were about to see a radicalization of the protests. Yet even after a month of events that should have moved the protests in this direction — the arrests of people for wearing protest symbols, the rushing through of the anti-protest law, the quiet scrubbing down of media outlets of some of its more independent voices, the searches — Tuesday’s events did not bear me out. Does that mean that the protest movement won’t become radicalized in the future? I can’t say for sure, but all the factors for it are still there: an opposition with no access to a system that shows no sign of letting them, or of giving an inch. Historically, such set-ups have not ended well in Russia, whether for the system, the opposition, or the population at large. Moreover, if Gudkov is right and these are merely half-hearted trial balloons, what happens if the Kremlin really puts its all into something that looks like the Iranian response to the pro-democracy “green” movement of 2009? Will the opposition radicalize then?

There is also the economic factor to consider. The Russian economy is currently growing at a relatively healthy 3.5 percent, but it’s useful to recall the whopping growth rates Russia was posting just a few years ago. In 2007, the year before the world financial crisis hit Russia, Russia’s GDP growth topped 8 percent. It had been growing at that pace, buoyed by soaring commodity prices, for almost a decade, and it was not accidental that this was the decade in which Putin made his pact with the people: You get financial and consumer comforts, and we get political power. It’s hard to maintain such a pact when the goodies stop flowing.

Which brings us to the looming issue of the Russian budget deficit. To keep the people happy and out of politics, the Russian government has promised a lot of things to a lot of people. (Putin’s campaign promises alone are estimated by the Russian Central Bank to cost at least $170 billion.) To balance its budget with such magnanimity, Russia needs high oil prices, to the point where last month, the Ministry of Economic Development announced that an $80 barrel of oil would be a “crisis.” Keeping in mind that oil is now about $98 a barrel, and that Russia used to be able to balance its budgets just fine with oil at a fraction of the price, this doesn’t look too good for Putin. Factor in the worsening European crisis — Europe is still Russia’s biggest energy customer — and the fact that the state has put off unpopular but increasingly necessary reforms, like raising utility prices, and you find yourself looking at a powder keg.

“It’s not too late to save the situation, but I fear that by the fall, it will be too late,” Gudkov told me Tuesday afternoon as we moved with the throng. “Because by the fall, people will join who are not just concerned with politics, but people who have economic concerns. And it will be a rougher, tougher protest because the people who will join the protest are people who are less educated, less well-off, less informed. And they are people who don’t have a good understanding of the law and why it’s important to obey it.” That is, should an economic and budgetary crisis hit and have a tangible and extended impact on Russians outside the Moscow middle class, the resulting populist protests could swallow up this liberal, bourgeois festival of the past six months. And, though predicting things in Russia is a fool’s game, it never hurts to be a pessimist.

Powder Keg [FP]