Illustration by Michael Daley
White is the colour of political protest in Russia: it stands for clean elections and clean government. Vladimir Putin's ex-KGB regime might in theory be able to provide the first of these, organising a more or less fair contest in the presidential election on March 4. But the second is impossible: theft and deceit are not just problems in the Russian political system — they are the system.
Russian political life has awoken from a 12-year coma. After the upheavals of the 1990s, stability and rising living standards mattered far more than the openness of political procedures or the contestability of official decisions. Now that has changed. Politics, once dismissed with a weary shrug, is the hottest topic in Moscow and other big cities. The internet is humming with parodies, many savagely funny, of Putin and his cronies. One of the best is a Borat-style hymn of praise to the Russian leader by a Tajik crooner, so pitch-perfect in its rendering of the style of official pro-Putin propaganda that many found it hard to work out if it was indeed a spoof, or just a particularly grotesque example of the real thing.
A more brutal take was from some beefy paratrooper veterans, growling: "You're just like me, a man not a god. I'm just like you, a man not a sod." That too became an instant hit on YouTube. When the band appeared on stage at the latest big opposition demonstration on February 4, the crowd already knew the words. The song's success highlights two important trends. One is the interaction between the internet and political protest. That is quite new in Russia, where in previous years people went online to play games, visit dating sites, and follow celebrity gossip. Now cyberspace has become the greenhouse for opposition political culture. The other point, no less sinister for the regime, is that the habits of mockery have spread to parts of society that used to be rock-solid supporters of the regime, such as veterans of elite military units.
The unselfconscious use of the "white" label by the protesters is in itself a big shift too, and encapsulates the long march to normality in Russian politics in the past 20 years. When I first went to the Soviet Union, the "whites" were an exotic and subversive breed — monarchists and Orthodox nationalists, who had been wiped from the political landscape under one-party Communist rule. They competed with the "reds" (Soviet nostalgists who hoped to put the old system back together) and the "browns" (Russian ethnic chauvinists, with a strong neo-Nazi streak).
The "whites" were a weak force in the Soviet Union and even weaker in the democratic Russia that arose from its ruins. I met the self-proclaimed Union of Aristocrats — a weird and shabby lot, fiercely determined to assert their breeding and birthright. I met some "whites" from abroad too, also weird, but most unshabby, who had returned from Paris, New Jersey, California and Melbourne to curse the regime in its death throes. The "whites" of those days were rather sceptical of democracy, and the distaste was mutual. If you wanted Russia to become a liberal law-governed state, rooted in Western values, then nationalism, autocracy and Orthodoxy — the triptych values of the "white" ideal — did not seem a great deal better than dialectical materialism and proletarian internationalism.
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