Fear Returns to Russia

Standpoint‘s Mole in Moscow compares life for the intelligentsia under Putin with the Soviet era

Eastern Europe Espionage History Human Rights Literature Policing Publishing Russia The Mole

Some time in the late 1970s, in a Moscow underground train, I was sat next to a man who was reading a book in English. I casually glanced at the open page and he immediately shifted, nervously, away from me. Then he closed his book, carefully wrapped in a newspaper, and turned away. “Gosh”, I thought, “he must be really desperate.” I recognised right away that his book was Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror. It was then circulating among the Moscow intelligentsia, and I had just read it myself.

A copy might be lent to you for just two or three days (and nights). But whether you were able to finish it in this short space of time or not, you certainly did not read it in the underground, even though fewer people in those days could understand English. That is, if you were not a KGB officer entrusted to acquaint yourself with this “enemy slander” so that you could give an idea of what it was all about to your superiors. But this person was not KGB. If he were, he wouldn’t have closed the book, but would have looked straight back at me to ascertain whether I knew what he was reading – and then it would have been I who would be in trouble.

After a while, he stole a glance at me. I smiled back. He now knew that I knew and that I was no danger, and also that I knew that he was no danger either. He returned the smile and reopened his book.

I still remember this episode because to me it was the embodiment of that era. It was a time when the second “unbeaten” generation of Russian intellectuals was eagerly discovering the untold truths of its country’s recent past, finding forbidden names and grasping novel ideas. They came from “samizdat” and from a range of banned or inaccessible literature. Nikita Khrushchev’s suppressed speech at the 20th party congress, Yevgenia Ginsburg’s Steep Route, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Memoirs, The Gulag Archipelago, Zamyatin, Orwell, the philosophers Berdyaev, Rozanov and Fedotov, the undoctored poetry of Akhmatova and Mandelstam and of our contemporaries, and the particularly dangerous émigré publications – We savoured it all and much more, tired of being afraid, yet always aware of the danger.

There were those who chose a direct confrontation with the regime, or decided to leave for Israel – the only permitted destination of emigration, accessible only to Jews – thus overnight becoming “untouchables”, but these were just a handful. This was the time of heated night-time discussions in the kitchen – away from the phones, or phones with jammed dials, or covered with pillows. I shall never know whether these naïve security measures were of any use. This was the time of psychiatric hospitals and, in exceptional cases, expulsions to the West for some of the most famous opponents. It was the time of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, of Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Vysotsky. Desperate last dark hours before dawn – without the comfort of knowledge that the dawn would ever arrive. And the growing feeling that there were more and more of us, those who shared the scorn and despair, at all levels, across the board, even in the KGB itself, and who wanted a “normal” country, not what we had.

The dawn turned out to be grey, messy and slow, but dawn it was. In the first years of perestroika the whole country was glued to the TV screens and immersed in newspapers – not a common pastime in the 1970s or early 1980s. The late 1980s to mid-1990s was the era of brilliant journalism. I still do not understand where all this talent came from after the interminable hibernation of the Soviet era. It was this new journalism that dealt one blow after another at the old myths of every kind – and at the fear, ours and their own. Every publication was a statement: look, I am saying what I am saying, and nothing is happening to me, so you too can say whatever you want to. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the fear was gone, dead.

All former barriers to information and all former bans on particular views were gone. What the 1970s generation of the intelligentsia did not dare to dream of was all on sale two decades later. Economically, the 1990s were terrible, but they brought about hitherto unimaginable freedoms. There was so much freedom that the man in the street felt almost choked by it, particularly when it started to be used and abused to further narrow political and economic agendas and to settle personal scores. And if the taboo on freedom was gone, so were many other taboos, too. When, in 1998, the Duma’s pro-reform liberal deputy Galina Starovoitova was assassinated, one of her colleagues said: “We have frozen in silence, in anticipation of the return to the half-whispered conversations in the kitchen.”

We did not have to wait long. The late 1990s and 2000s put an “end to the feast of disobedience”, to quote Alexei Simonov, president of Russia’s Glasnost Defence Foundation. It was the media that dealt the coup de grâce to our fear, and it was the independent media that had to die when the state, with the full co-operation of the man in the street, decided that there was too much freedom. The best and the bravest of independent journalists were murdered or sentenced after trials on trumped-up charges. Independent TV channels were closed or taken over by the state. The liberal opposition, compromised by its inability to appeal to a broader public opinion, was stifled.

To be sure, we are still very far from where we were in the 1970s. A handful of independent print media survives. Some debate – within strictly defined limits – continues.

Some vocal, albeit tiny, opposition circles still exist. Some pro-democracy NGOs, though hard-up, are still there. Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Pelevin are allowed to publish their anti-Kremlin prose, and some penetrating political writing and historical research still appears (although history textbooks have already been “standardised” to the Kremlin’s liking).

But the major, profound difference between now and then is the relationship between the intellectuals and the state. In the 1970s, the majority of the intelligentsia of whatever persuasion – nationalist, liberal and even some communists – lost their faith in the state.

The 2000s brought this faith back: the government and the presidency and, personally, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and even President Dmitry Medvedev enjoy the support of the majority of the intelligentsia. Some of them believe that what Russia needs is its own type of democracy, one that is different from the “Western” model, and that this government is the core of such a regime. Others think that a change of government would bring only political instability, lawlessness and corruption.

Yet others are sure that any other government would be worse than the present one, and might be outright fascist. Whatever the reasoning, the majority supports the powers that be.

During the last presidential elections I phoned a friend to share how I had used my vote. He shouted: “I am not interested in what you have done with your vote. I am not discussing any of this on the phone.” And he hung up. People are again afraid to speak on the phone, they are afraid to express their views – if oppositional – in their emails or on their blogs. They know that they are being watched. The fear is back.