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The loneliness of Vladimir Putin

He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart.

Vladimir Putin arrives for a speech at the congress of Russia's ruling party in Moscow in 2011. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

On 19 December, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow’s eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.

It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on 6 May, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail.

Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners – including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot – and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.

Baronova hadn’t exactly dressed up for the occasion. A motley scarf was tangled around her neck and through her uncombed hair. She clutched a small bottle of Listerine, periodically tipping it back to gargle, then swallow. Last night, she had been at the company holiday party for Dozhd (“Rain”), the last independent Russian TV channel, where Baronova is now a science correspondent. It is the only work that she, a chemist and once a well-paid sales manager at a chemical-supplies company, could get after becoming a defendant in such a public, politicised trial.

“I’m hungoooover,” she moaned to the bailiffs as we handed our bags and passports over for inspection inside the courthouse.

The two bailiffs crooned sympathetically.

“Nausea?”

“Yucky taste in your mouth?”

Baronova nodded miserably as the two men laughed almost lovingly and commiserated.

As we walked up the stairs to the courtroom, Baronova showed me the text message she had sent to one of the bailiffs from the party at five in the morning, informing him that she was in an “inadequate” state and could he please call and wake her up lest she miss her own amnesty hearing? At ten that morning, he had dutifully obliged. “It’s not Stockholm syndrome,” she explained, “but you come here every day, and you really do get used to them.”

We spent an hour waiting to get into the courtroom, maybe two. Baronova checked her Twitter for news from Putin’s press conference, now in its second hour: Had he said anything about amnesty yet? She signed a book brought over by a trilling woman in yellow who said she felt “only positive energy today! Only positive energy!”

Baronova had a good lawyer, a sharp-witted, young attorney named Sergei Badamshin. But the same couldn’t be said of most of the opposition defendants: The woman with the positive energy, it turned out, was one of their attorneys. They bickered with each other and had bizarre theories of defence. (If a police officer exceeds his authority, for instance, then he ceases being a police officer.) Baronova had long ago decided that it wouldn’t be the prosecutor who would sink the protesters; it would be their own defence team. “When I realised that, that made me really depressed,” she told me. Around then, she started to have dark thoughts. She has a seven-year-old son, whom authorities were constantly threatening to take away from her. In October, Baronova was hospitalised with stress-induced gastric ulcers.

Yet the two-year sentence Baronova was contemplating was actually on the light side. Some of the other protesters were facing up to eight years for charges of “using force against representatives of the state”. One young father was facing this sentence for throwing a lemon. It hit the Kevlar vest of a special forces officer who claimed that contact with the lemon had caused him “intolerable pain”. One defendant had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to indefinite confinement in a psychiatric institution. No cops had been charged with excessive use of force, of which there had been plenty involving objects far more menacing than lemons. In fact, some had been rewarded for their suffering with free apartments in the center of Moscow. The point was clear: Baronova and the others had been strung out as cautionary tales for the rest of the opposition.

A wave of applause rose through the lobby as the prisoners were paraded into the courtroom and, in modern Russian legal tradition, locked into a giant metal cage. A Rottweiler lay on the floor, legs splayed, and panting loudly. The rest of us piled into the courtroom and listened to the barely audible proceedings.

As Baronova waited to learn whether she had in fact received amnesty, Putin would free the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail as well as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose decade-long imprisonment had transformed him from the country’s chief robber baron to its most famous prisoner of conscience. But the news hadn’t made its way inside the courtroom yet, where many of the Bolotnaya protesters, who were no cause célèbre abroad, wouldn’t be so lucky. During the Bolotnaya rally, the cops had grabbed Denis Lutskevich, then a 20-year-old former marine, tearing off his shirt as he tried to get away. There is a famous picture of him from that day, shirtless in khaki shorts, his back a canvas of red welts. One of the cops claimed Lutskevich had tried to pull his helmet off, and for this, he was facing eight years in jail, plus an additional five for participating in mass riots.

Now, because Putin had said he would not amnesty those who had hurt his troops, Lutskevich would stay in the cage.

Sitting in the courtroom just in front of me, a tall brunette sat weeping quietly and looking at the prisoners. She was Stella Anton, Lutskevich’s mother. Every day, she came to the courthouse to see her only child. “I can usually keep it together,” she told me. “But I just imagined him also getting amnesty today and walking out of here, and it was like a wave hit me.”

She wiped her face as if to calm herself and asked what I was writing about.

"Russia ahead of the Olympics,” I said.

She scoffed and mashed a tissue in one manicured hand. “Good,” she almost growled. “They should know what kind of country they’re going to.”

 

On 5 December, 2011, I was working as a reporter in Moscow, when I heard there was going to be a protest demanding fair elections in Chistye Prudy, one of Moscow’s beautiful old boulevards. I wasn’t going to go: I had a story to file, it was raining, and I didn’t think more than a couple hundred glasnost-era activists would show up – that was as much of a protest as you could expect in Putin’s Russia.

But some gut feeling told me I should go, just in case. When I got out of the metro, I was totally unprepared to see some 5,000 people, most of them young, packed into Chistye Prudy. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition leaders were delivering fiery speeches. People lined the sidewalks and clung to the boulevard’s wrought-iron fences, shouting, “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” It was one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever experienced. Muscovites cared about their political future more than anyone, including themselves, expected.

After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 per cent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomised and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.

But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernising the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was – slowly, gingerly – becoming a gentler, more modern country.

And then on 24 September, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev – looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying – mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job – he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer – it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”

The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realised they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.

But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”

The protests came soon after that. On December 10, five days after the protest in Chistye Prudy, 50,000 came out to Bolotnaya Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls, most of them educated, middle-class urbanites. They wore white ribbons as a sign of protest and stood around chatting and stamping in the cold, like they were at a giant winter barbecue. Despite fears of police violence, not one shot was fired and no one was arrested. Satellite protests sprung up in dozens of cities.

For days, the Kremlin was silent. When Putin finally spoke, he talked of listening to the dissatisfied but also accused them of shadowy foreign connections. He joked that he mistook the white ribbons for condoms. After that, on 24 December, about 100,000 people came out to the next protest in Moscow, and they flew blown-up condoms as balloons.

One day during that chaotic winter, I called up Yuri Kotler, a fairly high-ranking United Russia member. I was writing a column for Foreign Policy, and I asked him how people in the Kremlin felt about the protests. He asked me if I had a pet. I replied that, yes, I had a cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and demanding something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

That winter, people began forming all kinds of social and political groups, online and off. When the presidential election rolled around in March 2012, the opposition may not have run a candidate, but tens of thousands of people who had once thought politics to be a dirty business best left to others volunteered their weekends for the tedious work of election-monitoring. The Kremlin largely ignored the talking cat, but it did toss it a few scraps, loosening up the electoral system and reintroducing gubernatorial and mayoral elections. As several of us foreign correspondents fanned out across the country ahead of the elections, we discovered that Putin was not all that popular anymore. (“He must be the most passively supported leader in the world,” a colleague said, noting that there were no viable alternatives to Putin.) Despite getting nearly two-thirds of the vote nationally, Putin got only 47 per cent in Moscow.

Tears in his eyes: Putin speaks at a rally at the Manezhnaya Square just outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: Getty

On 6 May, 2012, the eve of his third inauguration, Putin went to dedicate a shrine that would pray for his health around the clock. In the meantime, some 70,000 protesters marched peacefully down to Bolotnaya again, Maria Baronova and Denis Lutskevich among them. The last time I had walked this route with protesters in February, I had tweeted, “Putin’s fucked, y’all,” and the same thought crossed my mind as I looked at all the happy faces around me.

But this time, the police had all but cut off the entrance to Bolotnaya Square. Protesters tried to push through, and, in the resulting funnel, police truncheons sliced through the air, and helmeted special forces cops – “cosmonauts,” as they came to be called – stormed into the crowd in wedge formation, randomly, brutally plucking people from the crowd and dragging them off into paddy wagons. Bottles and flares flew; tear gas seeped through the air. I caught a chunk of cement to the leg, though some of my Russian journalist friends fared worse. Nearby, a smattering of plainclothes cops and cosmonauts stood calmly pointing their camcorders at the chaos. The state had come prepared.

Putin’s fist came down hard after that. On 11 June, the homes of Navalny and other opposition leaders were searched. (That morning, Maria Baronova got a call from her terrified nanny, saying that detectives from the state’s Investigative Committee had climbed onto the apartment’s balcony and turned on an electric saw.) Then came the arrests. The CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which had played a key part in organising the protests, was summoned for questioning and was forced to temporarily flee the country in the spring of 2013. Non-loyal media outlets began to close, and others struggled, citing solvency issues that were not totally accidental. Two of Dozhd’s biggest advertisers, owned by the same oligarch, tore up their contracts with the channel within ten minutes of each other. By the time I left Moscow in September, there were still a few opposition rallies, but they felt timid and flat. The old Russian fear that had so miraculously vanished that winter came creeping back.

This past December, I went back to Moscow to see what had become of the protest movement and the opposition leaders I had written about during those first heady days. Two Decembers later, Putin was firmly in charge, and Bolotnaya Square was empty. But the future was not quite as clear as it seemed: The opposition was in disarray, and Putin had won his battle against them. And yet, his position seemed even shakier than before.

 

I met up with the “Kermlins” at a hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant hidden among the clubs and hipster hangouts that now occupy the red-brick carcass of the old Red October chocolate factory. When I’d first interviewed the duo back in December 2010, they had refused to tell me their real names or show me their faces, not even off the record. At that point, they were just beginning to generate excitement with their Twitter account @KermlinRussia, the handle of a Stephen Colbert–like entity called the “Persident of Ruissia,” who savagely mocked the government for its many lies, thefts, and absurdities. “The Russian state doesn’t have to beat you with a stick,” they tweeted once, adopting the tone of a benevolent ruler addressing his subjects. “We can fuck you up with a carrot, too.”

The Kermlins had launched the handle in June 2010, after then-President Medvedev, who was infamous for his simpleton’s love of high-tech gadgets, traveled to the Silicon Valley offices of Twitter and set up an account, @KremlinRussia. By January, the Kermlins’ antic alternative had more than 50,000 followers, and Medvedev was forced to change his handle to @MedvedevRussia to avoid confusion. Over the next three years, the Kermlins’ fan base exploded to more than 700,000 followers. The Kermlins became celebrities among the outspoken ranks of “internet hamsters,” the denizens of the web ghetto who then became the core of the protests. Last spring, they finally unmasked themselves in a glamorous spread in Russian GQ.

The Kermlins, whom I had privately got to know even before they’d outted themselves, are really a 29-year-old econ nerd named Arseny Bobrovsky and his partner, Katya Romanovskaya, a fiercely intelligent 38-year-old beauty with a black bob. Dispensing with their anonymity has cut two ways for them. Katya, who in her non-hamster life works in corporate PR, found it to be a boon. Now, when she calls a journalist to place a story, she is Katya Kermlin, and journalists trip over themselves to accommodate her.

For Arseny, it has been a less happy journey. After the GQ story, it emerged that his boutique PR firm had worked for some rather unsavory government clients who had been trying to get the internet under control. Liberal hamster society piled on, expressing their dismay that their hero was tainted. Arseny was disappointed by their naïveté but let his company founder. Rehabilitated, he has become a well-regarded economics columnist for Russian Forbes. That doesn’t pay nearly enough, but, over dinner, Arseny expressed reluctance over finding a day job.

“I have this hang-up that I’m so cool and a huge number of people read my columns,” he said shyly. “And I’m going to work as a media manager at some shitty company –”

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.