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Monday, January 15, 2007

Is the Neo-Soviet Union Worse than the Original?

Writing in the Moscow Times, Richard Lourie explains that the neo-Soviet Union may be worse than the original:

The new Russia is in some ways more opaque than its Soviet predecessor. The new Russia is too young to have rituals. Apart from providing a sense of order and continuity for society, Soviet rituals also afforded outsiders clues as to the country's internal politics. Who was next to whom on Lenin's tomb, who officiated at the funeral of the previous leader, whose ghostwritten memoirs were published in editions of several hundred thousands -- all were signs of shifts in political fortunes.

In Soviet times, the official media could be mostly ignored except as an indicator of official opinion. In 1986, during the Chernobyl incident, many residents of Kiev completely disregarded government assurances and launched into orgies suitable for the end of the world. Some people were highly embarrassed when they didn't die.

But in the old days, there was plenty of clandestine publishing, in the form of samizdat, to offset the official press. There's really nothing of the sort now, if only because there are reliable sources available -- Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant. But the media are mightily hemmed in. Television is state controlled and journalists -- like Anna Politkovskaya, Paul Klebnikov and Yury Shchekochikhin -- who dig too deep or otherwise offend are censored by way of murder.

Some real information is available, but it's never enough to answer important questions like, for instance: Who killed those three journalists?

Things seem particularly murky at the moment, which may be because 2007 was the year that wasn't. Both in Russia and the United States we have gone directly from 2006 to the political year of 2008. Candidates have already dropped out of the race in the United States. And it may well be that the recent spate of murders in Russia is part of a power struggle behind the scenes.

Another cause of diminishing transparency is the lack of any clear distinction between politics, business, crime and the police and security forces. In most societies, there's some leakage between compartments -- New York cops become Mafia hit men, Enron execs loot corporations -- but never a slosh that leads to an outright blurring and blending. So, part of the confusion about today's Russia lies in our own thinking -- we're applying clear-cut categories to a violent, shifting mess.

And then there's the opposite problem -- seeing too many connections when events are more related by type than cause. The murders of Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, journalist Politkovskaya and ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko are more related by the matrix of lawlessness from which they all emerged than from any coordinated plan. There were a lot of assassinations in the United States in the late 1960s -- President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X -- and although there is a tendency to see some sinister hand behind them, the more likely explanation lies in the radical turbulence of the times. When a society loses faith in itself, it solves its problems with murder.

It may be that President Vladimir Putin is losing control as the end of his administration nears. When in Moscow, I always flag down "gypsy cabs," people who make a few rubles picking up rides. The drivers are a good source of the grass-roots sentiment you don't hear when talking to experts and prominent people. I remember one hefty, hearty country woman who had lost all her money in a pyramid scheme. She sliced green apples from her garden with one hand as she drove, peering through her cracked windshield. "Putin?" she said. "Russia's too big for him. He'll never be able to deal with it all."

Her words may yet prove prophetic now that the boyars of Gazprom and the gangs of siloviki are jockeying for power. In any case, the situation is likely to remain murky for a while because, as an old Russian saying has it -- the fishing's good in troubled waters.

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