“I and everyone who participates in the Dissenters’ Marches–and we’ve prepared for repression, we’ve often talked about it, but we imagined we’d be arrested for unsanctioned rallies, antigovernment articles, and public opposition. Why didn’t I think of this? The Bitsevsky maniac! Young Limonov supporters go to prison not because they’ve posted antigovernment flyers or organized Dissenters’ Marches. They go to prison for selling drugs, like good little children, even though the drugs were planted on them by operatives during the arrest. Even their parents believe their own children’s involvement in the drug trade. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in prison for money laundering, not for going into politics. Manana Aslamazian came under investigation for contraband, not for running a free journalism school.
Idiot! You were hoping to be repressed for your little freedom-loving articles. Like hell! What are you going to do if you’re repressed for well-edited FSB videos of you assaulting minors?What will it be like when neither your friends, nor your own children, nor even your own mother believe that the proof of your guilt, quoted in the tabloids and on television on True Confessions, is bullshit from the first word to last?”
I’ve come across the name of Russian journalist Valery Panyuskin enough to know that I was interested in Twelve Who Don’t Agree (original title 12 Nesoglasnykh) which was published earlier this year by Europa Editions. After reading this non-fiction book, I can recommend it to anyone who wants to know about what is going on in modern Russia beyond the Putin-mania, and I can also say that Valery Panyuskin is a very brave man.
The book is divided into twelve chapters with each chapter telling the story of the various dissidents who–despite their varied professions and backgrounds–all participated in the 2007 March of the Dissidents. This series of protests which argued for a number of social changes–including greater accountability of ‘authorities’–took place the year before the presidential election scheduled in 2008. Although Russian law states that protests do not need to be ‘sanctioned’ there’s a technical requirement that notice of upcoming protests must be lodged with the ‘authorities.’ The 2007 protest marches sparked alarming behaviour on the part of those so-called authorities: Dozens were beaten by OMON (“the special purpose police”) officers, the numbers of those attending the marches was severely underestimated by the press, members of various other political parties were arrested before some of the demonstrations took place, and agent provocateurs mingled with the protesters in order to illustrate the poor behaviour of the demonstrators.
No room for smugness here. We can’t kid ourselves. This stuff is happening in America and Britain too. And here’s the thing, if you can’t even have a protest, then what’s the alternative?
But back to Panyuskin. The book begins the night before the demo scheduled for November 24, and Panyuskin is clearly in high spirits anticipating the rally, but the situation becomes increasingly more serious the next day: buses packed full of OMON personnel, blocks cordoned off by soldiers, and underground routes “closed on the pretext of emergency repairs.” It begins to look as though the protest is gearing up to be a mass suppression, but there are amusing moments when Panyuskin notes the Danish journalists who search amongst the high-end luxury foreign vehicles for a tatty old car with a cracked windshield to include in their footage:
Evidently they thought that in the film Moscow should look like a Havana descended upon by a glacier, the final touch of our totalitarian misfortune.
But that moment of humour gone, the protest begins to turn sour:
According to long tradition, the authorities drove a couple of hundred homeless to every opposition rally for the purpose of displaying the drunken riffraff who constituted Putin’s opponents. In exchange for participating in the country’s political life, the homeless demand vodka but not to be allowed to wash.
Panysukin also explains that there are “myths” circulating that the protestors “are extremists financed and directed by the American CIA.” And there are sobering anecdotes about the dangers of entering politics:
While I was standing in this crowd of intelligentsia, students, and bums, I told my friends a tale about how not long ago one opposititionist politician planning to run for president went to see a famous banker to ask for money for his campaign. The meeting took place in a restaurant. The banker was eating oysters. No sooner had the politician walked in that the banker said to him, as he scooped a fine de claire out of its shell, “So, I guess you want to run for president? Have you really thought this over? Have you thought about the fact that your wife, Tanya, and your son, Vadik, could be abducted tomorrow and you’d never find them?” The politician was taken aback. He broke out in red spots, muttered something and took his leave. And no sooner had he gone that the banker said to the intermediaries in the talks between the politician and businessmen who were still at the table, “So what? He’s asking for twenty million of my money, by the way. Don’t I have the right to know whether he’s going to piss his pants at the first attack?”
The protest begins with leaders of the Other Russia coalition present, including Garri Kasparov and Eduard Liminov (leader of the National Bolsheviks–Nazbols). The protestors are cordoned off, beaten and thrown into OMON vans. Panyuskin’s trials for the day don’t end there, however.
The other chapters are profiles of 11 individuals from various walks of life, and these chapters examine each person who found themselves disagreeing with some aspect of Russian policy. One man witnessed the Belsan attack, and yet another man was a member of a Special Ops group who understands the importance of creating a strategy of tension in order to further political objectives. One of the most fascinating chapters concerns Marina Litvinovich, an idealistic young woman whose career, while morally questionable, was certainly rising. Working within the FEB and reporting to FEP head Gleb Pavlovsky, she was soon attending high-level meetings with Voloshin, the president’s chief-of-staff. Her job was to analyse “Information Threats and Recommendations for Their Elimination.” What a job. Anyway, her career went into the toilet after she recommended that Putin return from his holiday and meet with the families of those doomed on the submarine, Kursk. After that incident, policy changed following the Moscow theatre massacre :
And the “information threats” were eliminated by the fact that NTV, the last VHF television channel to allow itself to speak freely, replaced its directors. At the time, President Putin reproached the channel’s chief, Boris Yordan, for “making ratings on blood.” The president was implying that there were so many victims because NTV had broadcast live. The Kremlin’s information policy had completely given way to naked propaganda, and no one needed Marina Litvinovich anymore.
And finally here’s a quote I loved:
If you read the newspapers not the way normal people do, skimming the headlines and reading only the articles that interest you, if you read the newspaper straight through from cover to cover, your picture of the world changes. Articles by different authors on different topics line up in legions of information and go on the attack. In various newspapers and various headings Marina found seemingly totally unconnected articles. An article about the horrible state that the largest factory in the town of N was in, for instance. An article about how businessman K had met with the young people. An article about how state official M had taken shady money for consulting for some unknown person. Putting these texts together, and bearing in mind that businessman K wanted to privatize the factory in N, official M was preventing him, and so businessman K had started a PR campaign whose ultimate goal was acquiring the factory.
Anyway, for anyone interested in what’s going on in the New Russia, Twelve Who Don’t Agree is a must read. While I find politics boring, the stories of the levels of corruption, cover-ups, and the injustices submerged under the headlines offer a unique look at individuals who struggle within the larger, alien social context.
Translated by Marian Schwartz.