Column On my flight back from Moscow I was reading Happy Russia, the new novel on 1937, the year of Stalin’s great terror, by bestseller author Boris Akunin. He left Russia out of disappointment after the suppression of civil protests in 2012. Out of the blue the young Russian woman sitting next to me said: ‘That writer has wrong opinions on our history’.
I asked what she meant. ‘Some people for some reason hate their country,’ she said. ‘You cannot look at the Stalin-period exclusively in a negative way.’
A conversation started, from which I learned the following: people like Akunin destroy Russia; dark forces want Russia to desintegrate in the same way as the USSR; Putin is the best thing that ever happened to us; corruption is a fact of life, fighting it is useless; and you in the West are as bad as we are. Natasha was on her way to a managers conference in Dublin. During the conversation I managed to soften her views a bit. I explained to her that the European Union has its own internal problems. We parted friendly.
In Moscow I spoke to dozens of people. Half suffered from the same world view as Natasha, the other half condemned it. Russia is a country that is being ruled top-down by a small elite that is suspicious of any initiative from below, be it by schoolkids, truckdrivers or houseowners who loathe being kicked out of their precious private property. The state is more important then the individual. And the ruling elite sticks to power. It fears revolution like hell.
One of my friends calls it ‘vulgar marxism’. It stifles society. And to stay in power, artificially whipping up paranoia comes in handy.
This is not very difficult in a country where the population was raised on the idea that enemies of the people are everywhere. Stalin is in our blood, theatermaker Mark Rozovski told me. At the moment his play ‘Papa, mama, me and Stalin’, on the labourcamp history of his parents, is running in Moscow.
Putin is a KGB-man, famous for his quote that there are no ‘former intelligence officers’. I presume that for the president suspiciousness probably partly is an effective tool, partly an inner conviction.
As I left the essay contest for schoolkids from all over Russia, yearly organised by the historical ngo Memorial, I bumped into a man with a banner that Memorial is a ‘foreign agent’. I told him that inside I saw only delightfully enthusiastic kids who researched the history of their grandparents from their village.
The hope of the nation? I suggested to the man with the banner. He spat back: ‘Memorial is being sponsored by the German embassy who wants to rewrite our war history! Who pays, writes the music!’ State tv filmed the protester outside, not the gorgeous kids inside. Nine pupils didnot make it to Moscow, because their school prevented them from taking part in an event of a foreign agent.
In the same way school directors all over Russia rebuked students who took part in the anti-corruption demonstrations of March 26, organised by Aleksey Navalny. Russian internet makes fun of these old-school propaganda tactics. But in the wake of new demonstrations, planned for June 12, a Moscow court ordered Navalny to remove his film on the corruption of prime minister Dmitri Medvedev from YouTube.
Moscow these days looks like a gorgeous metropolis. But the pressure of the state is present everywhere. I spoke to the director of a big cluster of construction companies. As Moscow is home to thousands of millionaires, business is still fairly good. But in the end the state kills all private initiative, he complained.
‘They copy our concept and then buy our brightest employees. Many young specialists for safety reasons opt for a state job.’
His verdict was killing: ‘I see our rulers as a colonial occupation force that gradually sucks its colony Russia and then throws it away’.
Fear of your own people is a dead end street.