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Monday, December 17, 2007

EDITORIAL: Suicide Isn't Painless


Suicide Isn't Painless

We reported last week on yet another instance in neo-Soviet Russia of an opposition activist being yanked off the street and chucked into a psychiatric gulag. It seems that the Kremlin may really have convinced itself that anyone who would think of criticizing them is "crazy" and needs medication, just as the old Politburo had done.

And maybe they're right.

Garry Kasparov sure seems to have gotten the message. The Moscow Times reported last week that after being arrested and having his wife and child harassed at the Sheremetvo airport with "document checks" until their plane had departed without them, and after the Kremlin denied his "Other Russia" party access to every meeting hall in Moscow for their nominating convention (as well as harassing them when they sought to bury one of their fallen comrades) he decided not to run for president after all.

It's easy to criticize Garry's decision as pathetically weak and cowardly, which it certainly was. After all, a really committed group of people could meet in barn or a forest clearing for that matter. Look at what Russia accomplished during the Siege of Leningrad. In India, Gandhi organized millions to march in bare feet and stand down rifles with bare hands.

But anyone who has lived in Russia knows how the country can tax your strength and exhaust your resolve. Many have plunged into Russia, like Warren Beatty's character in Reds, full of idealism and illusion only to find their bubbles burst, and then their worlds. What beat Kasparov is not Vladimir Putin's goons, but the people of Russia themselvs -- whose unflagging, craven apathy, cowardice, indifference and complicity force one to ask the question: "Are these people really worth fighting for, much less risking your life to save?"

Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Foundation, one of Russia's last remaining heroes, has concluded that the Russian people have decided to commit suicide, that they've simply given up on the idea of making life better in Russia. She states: "After the presidential election, we will have an utterly weak, destroyed parliament, a destroyed multi-party system, a wrecked constitution, and finally a weak presidency, which he requires for his self-proclaimed role as leader." And the Russian people will have stood idly by and watched it all happen. In the space of just a few weeks, Putin negated the presidency by moving towards the prime ministry and negated the legislature by filling it with a single sycophantic party. A judiciary was never allowed to establish itself, the media establishment was brutally, physically crushed, and local government was negated long ago when Putin seized control over the governors. Russian parents have committed the one unpardonable sin of parenthood, to condemn their children to live out past mistakes.

L'etat, c'est Putin.

Did Russians know when they allowed Putin to take power that he would obliterate all the branches of government? How could they not have known? The only reason the people of Russia ever heard of Putin was that Boris Yeltsin introduced them. The people despised Boris Yeltsin, yet they voted overwhelmingly for his successor. Perhaps they felt that, vile though he was, if an anti-Communist maverick like Yeltsin could sell his soul to the devil and be responsible for bringing the KGB back to power only a few years after it had destroyed the USSR, then there really was no hope for Russia at all.

Putin is doing exactly what one would expect him to do as a proud KGB spy steeped in propaganda and able to think in only one way -- he's repeating the mistakes of the past. Just as Lenin made no provision for a successor, causing the nation to collapse into Stalinism and ultimate destruction when he passed away, Putin too is putting all Russia's eggs in one basket, his own, as if he would live forever. He won't.

And yet, there is no sign that Putin has any overarching commitment to any sort of idealism, as Lenin had. So we must ask: Is Putin simply part of the suicide movement, its instrumentality? Anders Aslund reported last week in the Moscow Times on information regarding Putin's personal corruption that has begun circulating on the Internet. Aslund states: "The strongest evidence is the Marina Salye report on Putin's corrupt foreign trade deals in St. Petersburg in 1992. The report has long been known, but the original has not been publicized until now. Two days before the election, a scanned report of the original popped up on several Russian web sites, and it suggested that Putin and his friends embezzled $92 million during the days he worked under St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. It was first leaked on the free-wheeling, which was quickly bought by Alexander Mamut, a Kremlin-friendly oligarch." Previously, Aslund had reported speculation that Putin's personal wealth may now be in the billions.

So perhaps Putin doesn't even care about Russia in his own warped sense of "patriotism," but rather has concluded with the rest of his countrymen that the nation can't and won't survive, so grab what you can.

Russia's demographic issues do indeed seem insoluble. Every year during Putin's rule the workforce has grown smaller and the adult lifespan has grown shorter. The disparity between rich and poor has grown wider, and Russia's enemies have grown more numerous. Russia can't count a single major nation of the world as its true friend, and the rogue states like Iran and Venezuela with which it has courted alliances could stab Russia in the back at any moment.

Then there's China. It's impossible to imagine a scenario under which Russia will be able to safeguard its increasingly unpopulated Siberian territory from the expanding Chinese juggernaut, and with that territory will go the lion's share of Russia's oil resources. Without its oil, which will run out some day in any case, Russia cannot even present the illusion of a nation.

Of course, Russia could surrender Siberia to China and begin to operate a civilized society along the lines of prosperous former Soviet slave states like Poland and Czech Republic. But doing so would require one thing Russia seems to lack: a population that loves the country and wants to make sacrifices and take risks and shoulder heavy burdens to help it prosper. Russians always seem to want to take the easy way out, perhaps because they themselves don't believe they are worth saving.

And maybe they're right.

Russia, after all, isn't India. It doesn't seem that the people of Russia would rise to follow anyone, regardless of who it was, even a Russian version of Gandhi, because they have no deep-rooted belief system like the Indians had for such a leader to tap into. Perhaps so many years of Tsarist and Soviet rule have destroyed their roots and beliefs, and left them wandering like Jack Nicholson's character after his lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And now, perhaps they go to meet the same fate. Perhaps all the provocation their government is issuing against the NATO allies is actually just a plea for NATO to open fire and put Russia out of its misery.

The only times in their history that Russians have been willing to stand and fight for something as a people is when they faced foreign invaders. Russians were willing to risk all against Germans and Frenchmen, but not against other Russians. They fought Napoleon and Hitler, but not Stalin and Brezhnev. It almost seemed as if, when a Russian decided that other Russians needed to suffer and forfeit their lives, the Russian people had to agree. The Bolshevik revolution is no exception; the battles fought during it were minor skirmishes involving only tiny armies, with most of the Russian population standing on the sidelines, gaping. The Tsar fell not because the Russian people dragged him down, but because they would not life a finger to protect him.

Viewed that way, most of Russian history can be understood as one long plunge from a great height towards jagged rocks below.

Still, though, there is no point in giving up on Russia until the collapse comes. We must surely begin preparing for that collapse right away, and that alone is reason enough to keep on top of the Russian problem. Moreover, all sports fans can tell stories about games that seemed utterly lost but which finally were won, perhaps even in the final seconds. Who can say whether someone may step from the wings to galvanize the Russians into a new burst of civilized energy in a last ditch effort to pull back from the abyss? And who can say that our support may not be necessary to encourage her to take that step?

On we go.

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