As expected, figures in the Russian liberal community reacted harshly to Vladimir Putin’s comments in an exchange with Yuri Shevchuk last Saturday. Also unsurprising, journalists unfriendly to the opposition responded as they do by defending the actions of the authorities and questioning the motives of the liberals.
All in all, it was another day in Russia. That is to say: it was an interesting day.
The Liberal Commentary
Andrey Illiarionov went through Putin and Shevchuk’s conversation and singled out all the Putin bits he didn’t like. He argues that the prime minister definitely receives a list of the guests’s names in advance of any event (so he must have known Shevchuk’s name), that Putin’s aides do call event participants beforehand, that Shevchuk should have been allowed to “correct” Putin, and that there’s no federal law against protesting around hospitals, though the opposition doesn’t do that, anyway.
Ilya Yashin also picked up on the ‘hospitals comment,’ asking why Putin brought it up, as though protesters are notorious for disrupting the medical industry. He argues that Nashi and co. are regularly granted demonstration rights on weekdays, without any consideration for people heading to their dachas. He added finally that he thought it “comical” (забавное) that the prime minister’s Press Secretary went on the radio the next day to clarify Putin’s remarks, to explain that he hadn’t actually permitted Shevchuk’s rally.
Stanislav Minin (Nezavisimaia Gazeta) called Putin’s contention that the protests interfere with hospitals and traffic an “old and un-insightful” argument. “Nobody drives to their dachas by way of the central roads or squares,” he explained.
While he confesses that Putin’s remarks were not unprecedented (he cites an April 2007 conference, where Putin said roughly the same thing about the Dissidents’ Marches), Minin notes that Putin’s press secretary found no need to clarify anything afterwards, that time. That Putin now bothers to dispel misinterpretations of his public statements suggests a “relaxation, a liberalization, [or] a thaw,” Minin writes.
In a sharply-worded editorial, Gazeta.ru criticized the Kremlin for carrying out “a purely feudal dialog” with society. Russia’s leadership, they say, is accustomed to discussing only pleasant topics before supportive audiences. Gazeta.ru argues that Putin relies on public events in Russia to be his haven from abroad visits, where the foreign press troubles him with “tough questions.” The editors went on to complain about police lawlessness and the absence of the freedom of information. “The authorities have forgotten that a debate isn’t a crime,” they complain. Russia has no chance for a conversation between state and society, the piece concludes, so long as its leaders consider themselves the nation’s owners and not its servants.
Yuri Shevchuk, who didn’t actually attend yesterday’s march, was still very busy over the weekend. He gave interviews to RFE/RL‘s Russia Service Radio Freedom, Gazeta.ru, and Svobodnaia Pressa, just to name a few. He says that he was unsatisfied with Putin’s responses, though he was glad to hear him publicly agree that Russia has no future without democracy. He points out that whole cities shut down to accommodate visiting bureaucrats, but that public squares can’t be made available to demonstrators. He described the talk as “the kind of traditional conversation that’s been going on between artists and the authorities for two hundred years,” and finished in characteristic grooviness, saying “it’s better to talk than fight.”
In a somewhat less poetic moment, he compared Putin to a homeless man, describing how he believes everyone is equal. “For me, Putin and a bum are the same,” he explained. (It’s probably lucky for everyone that Shevchuk didn’t share this view with Putin in person.)
Speaking to Gazeta.ru, Shevchuk responded to Putin’s remarks about professionalism by reciting the following aphorism: “Professionals built the titanic, but an amateur built Noah’s Ark,” before explaining how “love” is the root of the Russian word for “amateur” and the foundation of all civil society. He also accused the prime minister of going back on his word by issuing the ‘clarification’ saying that he had not actually authorized the marches. (Press Secretary Dmitri Peskov, who made the announcement on Echo of Moscow, repeated Putin’s claim that such matters fall to local authorities.)
The Anti-Liberal Commentary
Retelling the charity event for Kommersant, Oleg Kashin says he watched “gloomy” Yuri Sevchuk wait for his moment to bring up the Dissidents’ Marches, though the discussion focused on sick children’s issues. About thirty minutes into the sitdown, when Putin suggested that the tax code could be revised to better accomodate parents paying high healthcare bills, Kashin describes how Shevchuk at last decided to seize the moment: “As I understood it, Shevchuk had no further chances to cut off the conversation, but here he asked [his question].”
When Putin responded with a nuanced, quantitative exploration of Russia’s mining industry, “Yuri Shevchuk’s eyes drooped” and, “though he listened to the prime minister attentively, it seemed he understood very little by this point.” Kashin went on to argue, “The prime minister’s tactics were clear: repudiate the rock musician’s theses with deep, professional analysis. And this wasn’t hard for Putin: Yuri Shevchuk is incapable of a conversation on such a level.”
Kashin concludes, “It’s true: Vladimir Putin didn’t say a word about the freedom of speech. But surely that’s due simply to all the commotion, as his position [on this subject] has been clear for a long time now, and he’s voiced it more than once. In a country with so many newspapers and journals, you couldn’t control everything even if you wanted to. And then there’s the Internet…”
Maxim Kononeko began his column for Vzgliad today with the following anecdote: “Taxi drivers in Peking are prohibited from using the word ‘comrade’ with their passengers because contemporary youths call homosexuals ‘comrades.’ In Russia, there’s an even more unsavory word: ‘несоласный.’” He goes on to say:
“For Shevchuk, the inner feelings of the FSB director and the issue of the Dissidents’ March are more important than a rare direct conversation with the prime minister about the problems facing Russian philanthropy. In one place, children are dying — and in another, the Dissidents’ Marches are being dispersed. And so for Shevchuk, a rally is more important than children.”
In the same article, Kononeko also describes how Evgeniia Al’bats, chief editor of The New Times, approached a police cordon yesterday at the Dissidents’ March and instructed the police to arrest her. (You can see the video of Mr. Al’bats getting arrested here.) “And later, of course,” Kononenko writes, “she’ll write about how they arrested her, a journalist, without the slightest justification.” (She hasn’t published anything on her arrest at this time. You can check her New Times author page for updates.)
Kononenko concludes by noting that the Moscow authorities offered opposition protesters three alternative venues to Triumfal’naia Square: Ulitsa 1905 goda, Bolotnaia Square, and Chistye Prudy. The latter two of these three locations are more central than Triumfal’naia Square (see map). The marchers refused to “compromise,” and instead rallied where they were sure they could get arrested and “cause a scene,” to borrow Putin’s phrase. (This would seem to fly in the face of certain observations by The Huffington Post‘s Simon Shuster, who claims that local authorities are “given the job of denying permission for these rallies.”)
The first thing about the Putin-Shevchuk debate that stands out to me, after reading through the various responses and opinion-aftershocks over the weekend, is that it’s important to remember the context of the event. The “literature-musical evening” (titled “The Little Prince”) was a charity concert for sick children. With that purpose in mind, it becomes less incomprehensible why Vladimir Putin mentioned hospitals of all things when he discussed the public disturbance potential of Dissidents’ Marches. Also, Yuri Shevchuk’s toast to the nation’s children seems a little less grandstanding than it might have been in other circumstances. Bearing in mind that everyone was gathered to discuss sick kids, it’s also easier understand why Oleg Kashin portrays Shevchuk as hijacking the conversation and why Maxim Konenonko calls him “a douchebag.”
And yet, nobody can deny that this was a rare opportunity to “speak truth to power.” If the price for an unscripted political debate with the country’s top boss is inconveniencing a few terminal youngsters, you can hardly act surprised that a professional scene-stealer like Shevchuk took full advantage.
Admittedly, that Putin tied hospitals into his evaluation of the opposition was less “severe,” as he worded it, than it was stupid. Certainly, the Dissidents’ Marches can be effectively criticized without inventing new absurdities?
The really unusual thing about this conversation, it seems to me, is that Shevchuk got Putin to speak about Russia on issues that are generally considered to be peripheral, if somewhat loony, by the Russian establishment. “Whom do the police serve? Why can’t we have the freedom to demonstrate? Why isn’t our press free?” Can you imagine an American president having to answer questions like these? And never mind the obvious — that for all their lack of free speech and free press, Shevchuk and the liberals have enjoyed a media bonanza since Saturday.
The really “comical” thing (to borrow a phrase from Iyla Yashin) is that the Western media generally focuses only on these existential, paranoid questions in Russian politics. Outside business reports, you simply don’t hear much about Russia’s everyday challenges or the boring trade-offs that make up the Kremlin’s day-to-day. (Who, after all, wants to read about mining industry tax policy when they could hear about ‘Day 9,000′ of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s criminal trial?) Hence, Saturday’s debate is viewed as a “break” and a “thaw” because one aging rocker got the prime minister to talk somewhat abstractly about freedom and democracy.
“Talking abstractly about freedom and democracy,” of course, is an old favorite.