The gnashing of Putin's teeth

lenin-statue Dr Robert Horvath

This is an excerpt from a piece in Inside Story, published on 7 January, 2011. For the complete piece, please go to their website.

On new years eve, Triumphal Square in central Moscow resembled a military encampment on the eve of battle. Pedestrians emerging from Mayakovskaya metro station confronted an intimidating array of manpower and equipment: rows of police buses, massed ranks of police, and a large contingent of OMON Interior Ministry anti-riot troops, colloquially known as “kosmonauts” because of their surreal metallic black helmets. One of the largest squares in Moscow, a symbol of the striving for freedom since the 1960s, had become a cordoned, regimented parade ground.

This army of occupation would have been an appropriate response to the rampage near the Kremlin three weeks earlier. On that occasion, the security forces were caught unprepared by a mob of thousands of ultranationalists who had attended a meeting in memory of Egor Sviridov, a football fan killed in a brawl with a group of men from the Caucasus. To avenge his death, the mourners had marched to Manezh, a shopping complex adjacent to Red Square, where they beat up anyone with a complexion dark enough to be suspected of origins in the Caucasus or central Asia. When the police managed to restore order, the attackers fanned out across Moscow, leaving a trail of carnage along the branches of the subway system. According to a report by Sova, an organisation that monitors racism and xenophobia, some forty people were victims of racially motivated violence that night.

On New Year’s Eve, however, the security forces were confronting a gentler menace. A few thousand law-abiding citizens were preparing to stand quietly in sub-zero temperatures and hear predictable speeches from human rights activists, elderly dissidents, opposition politicians and an ecologist at an officially authorised demonstration. Occasionally they would chant “Putin resign!” or “This our city!” They were attending the latest installment of Strategy 31, a series of gatherings on the last day of every month with thirty-one days in defence of article 31 of the Russian constitution, the article that affirms that “Citizens of the Russian Federation have the right to assemble peacefully, without arms, to hold assemblies, meetings and demonstrations, festivals and pickets.”

Strategy 31 is the brainchild of Eduard Limonov, the mercurial leader of the outlawed National Bolshevik Party, or NBP. There is perhaps no more controversial figure in contemporary Russia. A young poet in the literary underground of the 1960s, Limonov emigrated to the West in 1974, published an erotically candid autobiographical novel, and established a reputation as an opponent of liberal, pro-Western dissidents like Andrei Sakharov. During the terminal crisis of the Soviet Union, he returned to Moscow and became the enfant terrible of the anti-Yeltsin opposition. The NBP, which he established with the ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin in 1994, outraged the liberal intelligentsia with its inflammatory rhetoric and its totalitarian symbolism. At demonstrations, its activists chanted “Stalin! Beria! Gulag!” and waved banners that mixed Nazi and Soviet symbols. On one level, this extremism was parodic. The core of the NBP’s membership comprised alienated youth from the heavy-metal rock scene, where the use of totalitarian motifs performed an aesthetic rather than a political function. But Limonov’s writings and conduct during the 1990s offer plenty of material for his detractors. In one essay, he celebrated the Gulag as a defence mechanism that had protected a multiethnic society from the nationalist fanatics who were now unleashing carnage across the ruins of the Soviet empire. A 1992 documentary film records him exchanging small talk with Radovan Karađić on a hill outside Sarajevo and then firing a machine-gun at the besieged city.

Limonov’s metamorphosis into a critic of dictatorship began with his arrest in 2001 on implausible charges of plotting an invasion of Kazakhstan. He served almost two years of a four-year prison sentence. As he experienced Russia’s unreformed penitentiary system first hand, his enthusiasm for the Gulag waned. He criticised the “totalitarian climate” created by the war in Chechnya and reflected on the failure of the democratic revolution of 1991 to open up the political system to people outside the ruling nomenklatura. Taking their cue from their imprisoned leader, the young activists of the NBP played a conspicuous role in the resistance to Russia’s slide into authoritarianism. In a series of sit-ins in government offices, they underlined their embrace of non-violent protest. The authorities retaliated with the full force of the law. In the courts, the young protesters were punished with excessive sentences. In the streets, they became targets of gangs suspected of links with the security forces. Their fortitude in adversity earned cautious admiration from liberal intellectuals like Anna Politkovskaya, who contrasted their idealism with the compromises of the older generation.

Read the complete article at Inside Story.

Robert Horvath is a Charles La Trobe Research Fellow in the Politics Program at La Trobe University.