November 01, 2012

It Takes Guts

It Takes Guts

A recent letter that the editors of Russian Life received from one of its respected readers was directed at Mikhail Ivanov and one of his “Survival Russian” columns. We felt it deserved a longer response than space in the magazine allowed, and that it might be a valuable topic for an online, multi-person dialog.

The letter and Mikhail Ivanov’s response are below. The views are of course solely those of Mr. Ivanov, and not those of the magazine or its editors. Please share your own opinions (in a civil manner, of course).

– The Editors


To the Editors:

A rare cloud over my usual enjoyment of Mikhail Ivanov’s “Survival Russian” page. I have Russian friends, mostly in Memorial, who, with younger colleagues, continue today the battle they have waged for thirty years against inbuilt corrupt authoritarianism. Sometimes they demonstrate. Cheap shots from Ivanov [“Survival Greek,” Sept/Oct 2012] about their being “mostly bored, spoiled and well-fed” are offensive. Mocking Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak is surely simple self-indulgence but recalls the KGB/FSB tradition of “exposés” to discredit dissidents. It takes guts to oppose Putin and open oneself to violent abuses of police power; it takes none to sneer at those, however “well-fed,” who pick up the challenge.

Malcolm Gilbert
Carmarthen, Wales


Dear Malcolm:

Yes, it takes guts to oppose Putin. Because he’s got some, and none of the current opposition leaders have any. He is beating them all hands down because their gut is too thin. As we say in Russia, “kishka tonka.”

My feeling is that, if you want to be a true revolutionary, be prepared to stand up for your ideals, endure sacrifices and privations, be ready to go to prison, to be exiled, even to die… And that is far from the case with our current crop of dissenters.

Say what you will about Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky & Co., they were prepared for the “worst case” when they strove to seize power and overthrow the tsar. Boris Yeltsin gave up all his nomenklatura perks when he mounted his rebellion against the fat Soviet gerontocracy, he was not afraid of climbing atop a tank or being stormed by Alfa special units in the Moscow’s besieged White House. And he won. (How the democracy he established thereafter worked out for the people at large is another story – but this is not the point of our current debate.)

This is what is at the root of my mockery of Ksenia Sobchak. The Russian “It Girl” – to borrow the appellation given her by the local English daily Moscow Times, which hardly has pro-Putin sympathies. Paradoxically enough, that daily’s pages have offered superb cartoons of Sobchak by the same cartoonist, Victor Bogorad, who illustrates my columns. Small world.

Life in general – not only Russian life – is full of paradoxes. But there is a limit to absurdity even in political life. You can’t nominate Osama bin Laden for Nobel Peace Prize (even post-mortem). You can’t have Bill Clinton preach to students on the virtues of marital loyalty. Nor can you make a respectable opposition leader out of Kseniya Anatolievna.

Bored of moderating Russia’s most tasteless, vulgar and salacious TV-shows (Dom-2 to name just this one), Sobchak, who has a perfect nose for what is “hot,” turned to politics as a way to stay in the spotlight. She – who owes her ascent of the vertiginous heights of Russian glamour to her father’s ties to Putin – clearly judged that the best way to beef up her ratings was to become a vocal critic of Putin. But you can’t bite the hand that feeds you, right? Not for long, at least.

After a while, the Kremlin had had enough. The show “Musical TV” notified Sobchak that her services as moderator were no longer needed. And at approximately the same time, her apartment was searched [with her foreknowledge] and a $1mn+ in cash was found, to say nothing of a hefty bundle in euros. What would a true Russian rebel aspiring to nationwide martyrdom do? Pretend the money was planted, of course, alleging a set-up by the FSB.

But no, our Ksyusha claims in public that the money was hers and demands it back…  She disappears from the spotlight for a few months, quiets down and keeps her mouth shut. Soon, Uncle Vladimir appears to mercifully pardon the prodigal girl, yet not without humiliating her. A prime time TV program announced that the money confiscated during the search had been returned to Kseniya – albeit by wire transfer.

A true revolutionary might be tempted to throw the money back in her “tormentors’” face. Not so our Ksenia – she silently accepted it. And then, on October 7 – Putin’s 60th birthday – we see (and hear) Sobchak singing and dancing an allegedly humorous rap song – aired on NTV shortly after a documentary one might well call “A Day in the Life of Vlad Putin.” In the rap song, the It Girl, among other things, jokingly complains of how she was ousted from all TV programs etc.

It was a rather odd way to camouflage a nearly overt repentance… She was not tortured, not jailed, not exiled. Just deprived of a portion of her habitual financial comfort and glamour. Not even a slap on the wrist compared to the atrocities true Russian rebels suffered – from Razin, the Decembrist Ryleev and on to Andrei Sakharov.

Falling into oblivion or losing the precious cash earned via scabrous programs full of veiled porn, sex and foul language was not an option for this modern rebel. So by late October she was already hosting a party celebrating her appointment as editor-in-chief of SNC – a new local version of  “Sex and the City” magazine. End of story… (Well, not entirely. See this account of her recent interview with the “Pussy Riot” member set free with a suspended sentence. It shows where her true sympathies lie: sensationalism.)

I could go on and on about the wimpy, Russian so called opposition leaders – be it Sobchak or thе blogger Alexei Navalny, who discredited himself and thus became vulnerable after his shady business deals (with governor Belykh) were disclosed. They are disunited and have no palatable agenda – except for general anti-corruption slogans, which sound rather ridiculous passing over their lips (and attacking Putin on the economic front these days is an uphill battle).

Is there something to carp about, something to organize opposition around? Of course: the perfidy of the pension reform proponents; the plummeting education level of our youth; our degrading health care system; rampant criminality; the soaring road accident rate caused by drunken driving.

Yet none of these really serious flaws of the current regime (the list is far from complete) – which affect millions – seem to bother the oppositionists. All they care about is make some noise and score PR-points. Period.

- Mikhail Ivanov

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