Tag Archives: agent-provocateur

Twelve Who Don’t Agree by Valery Panyuskin

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.

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Filed under Non Fiction, Panyushkin Valery

The Pale Horse by Boris Savinkov

“You simply have to spit at the whole world.”

It’s impossible to write about a novel by Boris Savinkov without talking about who he was. In Western culture, Savinkov’s name seems to have almost faded from view, but in the early twentieth century, he was known as the “General of Terror” and considered one of the most dangerous revolutionaries of the time. Born into a privileged family in 1879 Warsaw, Savinkov,  the son of a judge became a law student. He joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and within a short period of time, he led a combat unit responsible for the most spectacular assassinations of the time, including the assassination of Grand Duke Sergius.  His controller, although I doubt the word was used at the time, was Evno Azef, the head of the organization’s Central Committee. As it turns out, Azef was actually in the pay of the Okhrana, and so his dual role–organizing assassinations and revolutionary activity while also reporting back to the Imperial secret police makes him one of the most infamous agent-provocateurs in history.

Savinkov led a remarkable and curious life. Apart from his life as a terrorist, during WWI, prior to the Russian Revolution, he enlisted in the French Army as a private. Following the February Revolution, he made a number of alliances while fighting against the Bolsheviks (whom he hated with a passion), and he acted as Assistant War Minister under Kerensky in the Provisional government.  After the October Revolution, he continued to fight as a counter-revolutionary, and the Bolsheviks offered a large reward for his capture. Savinkov left Russia but was lured back in 1924 through letters from a friend. In reality the letters were most likely dictated by the GPU (secret police). Savinkov was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Minsk. After a brief trial he was sentenced to ten years and sent to prison. Savinkov never served his sentence. He ‘fell’ out of a window–an alleged suicide.

The translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, Joseph Shaplen (who believes the suicide story, btw), calls Savinkov a “strong individualist” and that he “believed himself the sole judge of his actions.” This attitude didn’t go down well with Savinkov’s comrades, his so-called ‘superiors’ and it eventually led to his expulsion from the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

Savinkov was a shapeshifter of extraordinary talent, and under the pen name Ropshin, he also wrote a number of short stories, poems, a few novels, and his memoirs. The Pale Horse was called “The most Russian novel of the period” by Russian writer Dmitry Mereshkovsky while the Socialist Revolutionary Party considered Savinkov’s novels to be spoofs. It’s hard to pin down a man like Savinkov–he was determined to bring revolution to Russia through the destruction of the Romanovs, and yet he wasn’t too picky about who he aligned himself with to fight the Bolsheviks.

The Pale Horse, Savinkov’s first novel is written in the form of a journal–an account of a planned assassination.  It’s a thinly veiled account of Savinkov’s terrorist activities in 1905 pre-revolutionary Russia, although for the purposes of the novel, the target is a governor and the names are changed.  The tale is told by George, the leader of the combat unit, “a small group of five,”  –Fedor, Heinrich, and Vania, an idealistic and religious young poet, with the explosives manufactured by “chemistry expert,” Erna (a thinly disguised Dora Brilliant). The novel charts the persistent attempts to kill the governor and the lengths the group is prepared to go to to achieve their ends. We follow them through the planning, the tawdry gaiety of the Tivoli gardens, the disguises, the spies, the failed plots, the relocations and the clash of personalities over the question of just who is going to throw the first bomb. Even Azef appears as Andrei Petrovich–a man who thinks that the orders from the Central Committee mean something to George.

Since the events in the novel so closely follow events in Savinkov’s life, it’s almost impossible to untangle just where the fiction begins. George is a fascinatingly odd character who at times seems to eviscerate his belief system to reveal that it rests on exactly… nothing. He exploits Erna’s feelings for him, and engages in an affair that’s more about making a point than love or lust. His mild distaste for Erna is seen through frequent references to various body parts (her large hands, her red nose, for example), and yet at the same time there’s a hint of a vague, distant pity for this woman simply because she’s weak and doesn’t ‘get it’. George’s deepest feelings and his greatest arguments are reserved for the idealistic Vania. Vania, based on the real-life Kaliayev, struggles with the thou-shalt-not-kill part of Christianity even as he makes the moral choice to be a revolutionary. Rather surprisingly religious arguments, through Vania’s inner turmoil, take up a fair portion of the text, but George always has an answer. Here’s one of George’s nihilist statements:

 I somehow could not believe in death. It seemed unnecessary and therefore impossible. I did not even feel joy or pride at the thought that I was dying for my cause. I felt strangely indifferent. I did not care to live, but did not care to die either. I did not question myself as to my past life, nor as to what there might be beyond the dark boundary. I remember I was much more concerned as to whether the rope would cut my neck, whether there would be pain in suffocation. And often in the evening, after the roll-call, when the drum ceased beating in the courtyard, I used to look intently at the yellow light of the lamp, standing on the prison table, among the bread-crumbs. I asked myself; Do I fear or not? And my answer was: I do not. I was not afraid – I was only indifferent.

And here he is debating his relationships with fellow revolutionary Erna, married lover, Elena, and humans in general:

People say that where there is no law there is no crime. If that is true, where is the wrong in my kissing Elena? And why am I to blame in not caring any longer for Erna? I ask myself this and I can find no answer.

If I acknowledged a law I probably would not kill; I would not have made love to Erna, and would not be seeking the love of Elena. But what is my law?

They also say: love your fellow-man. But suppose there is no love in my heart? They say: respect him. But suppose there is no respect for others in me? I am on the border of life and death. Words about sin mean nothing to me. I may say about myself: ‘I looked up and I saw the pale horse and the rider whose name is death.’ Wherever that horse stamps its feet there the grass withers; and where the grass withers there is no life and consequently no law. For Death recognises no law.

A fascinating read. While there’s a story here, the book is a treatise on revolutionary ethics and the primary question: Do the ends justify the means? Camus’ play The Just Assassins is another look at this question. Savinkov strikes me as more aligned philosphically to the revolutionary of the 1880s People’s Will, and I shortly confirmed this by reading an excerpt from his memoirs:

The Social-Democratic program had long ceased to satisfy me. It seemed to me that it failed to meet the demands of Russian life, particularly on the agrarian question. Moreover, on the question of terroristic struggle, I inclined to the traditions of the Narodnaya Volia (People’s Will).

A word on my version. I bought a print on demand copy (the book is no longer in print). While I’m grateful to be able to read this at all, the typos were annoying. Apparently the publisher uses OCR software to reproduce the book, and since the technology is automatic, old texts will yield typos and missing texts.

Finally, The Pale Horse is available as an excellent film version called The Rider Named Death.

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Filed under Fiction, Savinkov Boris