October 25, 2006

Notes from Underground

[Editor's Letter for the Nov/Dec 2006 issue. By Paul E. Richardson]

The day after Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated (see page 9), I was editing this issueâ??s story on Dostoyevsky (page 50) and happened to read Vissarion Belinskyâ??s infamous 1847 letter to Nikolai Gogol. The public reading of this letter (to a handful of friends) was a main reason for Dostoyevskyâ??s conviction for subversion. This famous excerpt attracted my attention:

...What [Russia] needs is not sermons (she has heard enough of them!) or prayers (she has repeated them too often!), but the awakening in the people of a sense of their human dignity, which has been lost for so many centuries amid the mire and manure; she needs rights and laws conforming not to the preaching of the Church but to common sense and justice, and their strictest possible observance. But instead of that, Russia presents the horrible spectacle of a country where men traffic in men, without even having the excuse so insidiously exploited by the American plantation owners who claim that the Negro is not a man; a country where people call themselves not by names but by nicknames such as Vanka, Vaska, Steshka, Palashka; a country where not only are there no guarantees for individuality, honor and property, but even no police order, and where there is nothing but vast corporations of official thieves and robbers of various descriptions...

In Dostoyevskyâ??s time, Russia was emerging onto the world stage as a new, influential player. Outside Russia, the European powers had difficulty accepting this. Inside Russia, intellectuals and policy makers debated whether Russia might be somehow different from other countries, that it might offer a different course of development.

In Dostoyevskyâ??s time, Russia was an authoritarian autocracy. The serfs had not been emancipated, there was no freedom of speech or the press and Russia was awash in corruption, poverty and theft.

While there are some intriguing parallels, Russia today is far from the Russia of 160 years ago. Yet today, as in Dostoyevskyâ??s time, Russia does face some particularly difficult choices, ones that will dictate its course for many years to come. Few choices are more important than whether or not to nourish and protect a truly free and independent press. Without a free press, human rights cannot be safeguarded, corporate and governmental abuses cannot be uncovered, and democracy cannot take root.

As John F. Kennedy said 40 years ago, considering Nikita Khrushchevâ??s control over the Soviet media, â??There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily... Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didnâ??t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isnâ??t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.â?

Belinsky was all too correct when he said Russia does not need preaching, that what it needs is an awaking of a sense of human dignity amongst Russians themselves. One can only hope that the horrific death of Politkovskaya and dozens of other journalists and human rights activists will contribute to such an awakening. I cannot think of a better New Yearâ??s wish.

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