Tonight I will have dinner with a leader of the brave “Mothers of Soldiers” committee. I’m doing one or two interviews almost every day. Yesterday it was Yuri Dzibladze, a democracy and human rights organizer, and Andrei somebody at Greenpeace. Before that it was Sergei Kapitza and Mikhail Lebedev of Pugwash, and before that Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko Party. There had also been wonderful conversations with the stalwart old dissidents Lyudmilla Alexeeva (pictured here), Sergei Kovalev, and a current dissident Lev Ponomarov (who was seen on TV being beaten upon on the street by cops a few weeks ago). And a bunch of younger political activists. Dmitry Furman was wonderful. Georgi Arbatov is sick (he just turned 85), and so is Andrei Kortunov, but there will be others. Keep your fingers crossed about an interview with Gorbachev. It didn’t happen this week but may next week.
By now the overall picture is very clear; the variations that I observe are just differences in personal perspective. The current Russia government is even worse than I had expected – everyone tells me so -- and I already knew fairly well what to expect. But there are optimists and pessimists. The optimists (notably Alexeeva) believe that democracy may come in 15 years. Most say at least fifty. All of them base their greatest hope on the emergence of civil society organizations, though these are actually going under instead of gaining strength. Everyone says things are getting worse, not better, but a couple of people cherish some slight hope that Medvedev may be an improvement over Putin. Alexeeva says that the mentality here is developing much faster than it did in other countries. She points for example to the existence of a car owners association, which started originally to protest against a government plan to ban right-hand drive cars, which are common in the far East because they are imported from Japan. Now the association is protesting against the practice of turning off the street signal lights to let high officials drive through a clearing in the traffic. That’s a truly political action – but so far it has not got anywhere. We have been stalled in traffic repeatedly near the White House or the Kremlin – once for 1.5 hours during the evening traffic jam.
I am actually hoping to interview someone who is an apologist for the Putin regime. Probably it cannot be Yevgeny Velikhov, who will be away, but that would break my heart anyhow. He was one of the most passionate disarmament advocates, extremely effective under Gorbachev, and now he heads some big GONGO (government-organized NGO) designed to draw attention away from genuine civil society organizations. The members are elite citizens appointed by Putin, representing nobody. Mainly the way of repressing NGOs is to choke them with bureaucratic paper work and incessant inspections, plus taxing them until they cannot get anything done.
Nobody calls the system totalitarian – only authoritarian – though it ranks six on Freedom House’s seven-point scale of freedom, where China ranks at the very bottom, seven. Everyone knows about Freedom House. So far, the Internet is still quite free, and there are a couple of radio stations and one newspaper. No decent TV, though. By command, the TV shows are mostly Comedy Club and comic family sitcoms. Sergei Kapitza still runs his science show, though. I call him Russia’s David Suzuki, but unlike Suzuki he is never critical of the regime and has no fire in his belly at all. I sat in his wonderful old dacha (near Stalin’s country home) interviewing him while a plasma-screen TV set was showing a handsome couple having sex. Eventually he got up and switched it off, but without seeming at all perturbed by the content. (His wife had mildly observed that it’s unfortunate they show these programs in the daytime when children can watch.)
Nobody in Russia is at all worried about climate change. Certainly neither Kapitza nor the Greenpeace guy, who both said that it may turn out to be advantageous for Russia, which is such a cold country! And I have tried to buy copies of Al Gore’s DVD but it is nowhere available, nor was it for sale in Kiev. I am told that both Pugwash and IPPNW are “dead” in Russia and I evoked no interest when I reflected on ways of reinvigorating either one.
It is hard for me to gauge whether the anxieties that I observed are realistic or psychological pathologies. I am guided everywhere by a young couple who fear all kinds of possible dangers that I ignore. They always warn me to lock the door behind them when they leave and not open it to anyone until I have found out who is there. They will eat in almost none of the available restaurants (for sanitation reasons) and warn me against buying fresh food from the kiosks that line the street. There are some real grounds for caution, of course. The girl was assaulted and almost raped two months ago when she was returning home at 4 am through a wooded, secluded path. I saw the path and think that Toronto women would also avoid walking there in the middle of the night. But her assailant was a Central Asian, and this event has turned her boyfriend into an openly avowed racist. He was spouting off about it yesterday in ways that made me cringe.
This computer loses Internet connection every day, and it takes half an hour to fix it. I have asked him why he won’t take it to the shop but he says it was purchased by his stepfather, who would have to go with him and take his passport. Then they would take all day and not really fix it anyhow. So he has wasted 30 or 40 hours since I’ve been here fiddling with the computer. Is that realistic? I don’t know.
In other ways, however, he is liberal --keenly interested in politics but he will not join any group because it would harm his career. One day he says he will – but he has to choose very carefully when to do so, since he believes he can make no contribution now and might get beaten up or killed for any public activity. He wishes he could teach history in high school (he has an MA in history from Moscow State University) but says it’s impossible to earn a living that way in Russia, and that there are no professional jobs, so he will go into business, though he knows he is not good at that kind of thing.
Now I’m going to try to phone Vladimir Petrovsky. I once interviewed him at the UN when he was under-secretary general for disarmament. He’s leaving for Geneva soon and I hope to see him before he leaves. It may sound as if I’m having a miserable time, but I’m actually enjoying it all immensely.