At least in Brezhnev’s time you knew where you stood. We had no illusions. Public life was black and white. Censorship was overwhelming. Journalists wrote under instruction and according to the social and political orders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Now, in the new Russia of sushi bars and oligarchs, the situation is more shameful and rotten than it was then. The attempted assassination of Alexander Litvinenko might not be all that it seems, and yet it does fit a pattern. It follows only a few weeks after the murder of my good friend, the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya. There have since been other, less publicised, cases. Another investigative reporter, Fatima Tlisova, was poisoned two weeks ago in north Caucasus; on 18 November the former head of security in Chechnya, who had fallen out with the region’s prime minister, was gunned down in the centre of Moscow in broad daylight by Chechen and Russian police. And then this . . . the mysterious poisoning of Litvinenko (in a sushi restaurant, naturally), but this time in the centre of Russia’s second city, London.
Litvinenko, a one-time colonel in the FSB, the successor to the KGB, was part of the inner team of Boris Berezovsky – Russia’s most notorious oligarch, media tycoon and the most prominent member of the infamous “Yeltsin family”. Ironically, it was Berezovsky who first suggested to Yeltsin that the then unknown ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin should succeed him as president. Bad Vlad, however, has shown no gratitude towards his sponsor and promoter, and got rid of Berezovsky shortly after being enthroned, forcing him to emigrate and seek political asylum in swinging London. This is where Litvinenko came into the story, fleeing to Britain after announcing that he had been instructed to assassinate Berezovsky. Even though the revelation did not sound particularly convincing, Berezovsky has long been considered, inside and outside Russia, to be Putin’s most powerful enemy.
And what a “model” enemy Berezovsky is: spooky-looking, neurotic, bad-mannered, pos sessing all the qualities of a classic vaudeville villain or James Bond adversary – and Jewish on top of that! Still, I have little doubt that there is some kind of secret protocol between Putin and Berezovsky, allowing the latter to make scary statements about taking the Kremlin by force (for the benefit of state propaganda), while enjoying the cosmopolitan life of a paper tiger.
Somehow, then, I don’t think the poisoning of Litvinenko, a mere pawn in Berezovsky’s game, is linked to any dangerous disclosures. I tend to agree with those who suggest that this was, most probably, an act of revenge by the FSB – an organisation that considers punishing traitors a basic principle. No matter how exotic or pragmatic the motivation was behind the attempt to finish off another dissident, one important conclusion must be made: it is too early (or too late) to write off the cold war as last century’s joke, retreating into obscurity in the face of the al-Qaeda threat.
Democracy is on the retreat in Russia, from the nationalistic rhetoric and sub-superpower gestures of its leaders to the energy threats of Gazprom, to the millions poured into European soccer clubs. Now, instead of black and white, we have different shades of grey. In the media, self-censorship is in vogue. Journalists know what is good for them to write, and what is not. In an increasingly materialist society, they depend on the authorities’ goodwill to keep them in their luxury lifestyles. They deliver the goods, convincing themselves that Putin – in the face of threats from afar – is the lesser of evils.
As for myself, half a year ago I stopped posting difficult items on my website, Diversant Daily, feeling tired and uninspired. Or was it fear? Unlike Politkovskaya, I have never been attacked and have not received death threats. Instead, I would receive friendly advice. “Art, you’re the leading music critic in the country. Why don’t you stick to what you do best and drop this hopeless political criticism?” My response was always, “I’ll do what I want.” As a result, I found myself blacklisted, like some time ago when I was invited to a celebrity edition of Russia’s equivalent of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I agreed, the producers were thrilled – after all, who wouldn’t want to donate a million roubles to an orphanage? But hours before recording, I was told that the bosses had changed their minds and considered me “not the right person”.
I took this with humour and self-irony. I try to convince myself that I have stopped writing about politics, not out of fear but because the subject is no longer interesting. I am not sure. What I do know is this: it is demoralising to write the same things over and again, to no effect. It is demoralising to realise that among Russia’s silent majority Putin is genuinely popular and there seems no way of waking these people up. Most depressing, however, is that the so-called democracies of the west are turning a blind eye. One day, messrs Blair and Bush, the Germans and the Italians, will regret that.