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Monday, July 31, 2006

Gessen Remembers Itogi and Ruminates on the Neo-Soviet Union, Land of Thugs

In her column in the Moscow Times last week, Masha Gessen remembers the beginning of the end for Russian media (the Kremlin's obliteraton of Itogi magazine, something that may well be remembered as the first sign of the Neo-Soviet apocalypse) and ruminates on the end of the beginning of the creation of the the Neo-Soviet state:

Be Careful What You Say

By Masha Gessen

Russia's chief health inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, the man who has left us wine-less, brandy-less and Borzhomi-less, has shut down the cafeteria at the Moscow Regional Arbitration Court. He said it was the "height of disregard for the most elementary of health standards," adding that he could "say with certainty that it was the worst dining establishment in Moscow." Onishchenko concluded that it was "pure luck" that none of the judges who eat there had gotten food poisoning.

That almost sounded like a threat.You might wonder how a man as busy and as powerful as Onishchenko came to micromanage the closure of a single cafeteria in Moscow, one that is not even open to the general public. Does he take such pains to protect the health of all Russians, especially public servants? Guess again. The Moscow Regional Arbitration Court had taken up a complaint against Onishchenko's ban on Moldovan and Georgian wines filed by the importers of these wines. Remarkably, Kommersant seems to be the only paper to have reported on the case, so inconsequential have such court proceedings apparently become.

And yes, what Onishchenko said was indeed a threat. He mentioned that the leadership of the court was not "taking measures to normalize" the feeding of judges and that it had refused to allow Onishchenko's staff to inspect labor conditions at the court. Want to know what that was about?

A half dozen years ago I worked at Itogi, a weekly magazine that, together with NTV television, became one of the first two victims of Putin's attack on independent media. The tax people came first, and had to admit that the magazine's payroll and other financial records were in good order. Then the fire inspectors came, and the magazine banned smoking on the premises, posted inane evacuation instructions on every wall, and appointed the managing editor emergency fire chief. Finally the health inspectors came and claimed that one of the typefaces used in the magazine lacked a requisite sanitation certificate and might therefore be harmful to readers' eyes.

I think that was when we knew that we had lost.Onishchenko will clearly not be able to shut down the arbitration court as easily as he put the wine importers out of business, but his agency may be able to declare the entire court building a health hazard, forcing it to suspend operations until the Health Code violations have been addressed. If you were a judge, you might think twice about offending a man who had just shut down your cafeteria and was threatening you with indefinite leave. Just imagine the enormous backlog of cases you would face when you came back to work.So Onishchenko is threatening a court the way bureaucrats usually threaten private businesses.

This is a curious fact but, to my mind, not the moral of the story. The moral of the story is that we should never forget how spiteful and small-minded these people are. It seems extremely unlikely any decision of the arbitration court could reverse Onishchenko's actions, but the all-powerful doctor punished the court for thinking it could butt in at all.This is a useful lesson to keep in mind whenever you wonder why things happen the way they do in Russia. Why was businessman Bill Browder, one of the most shameless promoters of investment in this country, denied an entry visa? He has been making inquiries through official channels, and recently received an answer that said, in essence: Yes, you were denied entry. It must have been something he said.

Why was Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested and sent to rot in a colony near the Chinese border? I had a chance to ask his wife about this recently. "Politics," she answered, "and personal ambitions." Whose personal ambitions? "The opposite side's." Is this country really ruled by people who are prepared to take away someone's property and freedom just because they feel somehow slighted? I'm afraid so.

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