More are complaining that they cannot work, or even think, in the increasingly repressive country.by Galina Stolyarova 26 July 2012
In conversation and online, two words have been coming up repeatedly these last few weeks: “emigration” and “Holocaust.” The people using them belong to what is often described as Russia’s creative class, meaning educated professionals critical of the Kremlin.
They liken the pressure building up on them with the indignities heaped upon Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and they are actively looking for a way out of Russia.
“My willingness to stay in Russia is being challenged by an avalanche of incredible and absurd laws that are being aimed at people like me at high speed,” Leonid Bershidsky, editorial director of the EKSMO publishing house, wrote in a commentary earlier this month on www.snob.ru, one of the the country’s most outspoken news analysis websites.
Bershidsky does not want to emigrate but he feels more and more that it’s what he will have to do. He is not alone. Similar commentaries have appeared in several other news outlets and have become hot topics of discussion on online social networks.
The State Duma and some of the country’s regional parliaments have been passing repressive laws at a rate of knots. The result is that any public discussion of drug addiction, teenage sex, suicide, or gay relationships can result in a fine or even the closure of a media outlet, without so much as a court hearing.
The legislation uses vague and loose terminology, banning the encouragement or incitement of such activities or anything regarded as propaganda supporting them, thus allowing the authorities to shut down any outlet publishing even analytical articles on these topics.
At the same time the term “foreign agent” has been invented to describe any nongovernmental organization that receives funding from abroad.
The new law on civic or watchdog groups – which could be extended to media outlets – obliges the recipients of such grants to register as foreign agents, in a step seen by some human rights advocates as reminiscent of the registration of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.
Anyone opposed to these policies is faced with a stark choice – to leave Russia or to fight back. Considering the growing number of street protests and a stream of critical commentary on the Internet, the numbers of those willing to declare their resistance should begin to alarm the Kremlin.
The country’s creative class is demanding the attention of its rulers, and the president’s ability to channel the protesters’ anger in other directions is being tested.
In a sense, the situation echoes the tenure of Pyotr Stolypin as Russia’s interior minister more than 100 years ago. The challenges he was facing are not unlike those Vladimir Putin is up against today.
When Stolypin took office in April 1906, nearly all of Russia’s provinces were engulfed in peasant riots. He tried to help these alienated people find a way out of their misery by unleashing their creative potential. He resettled people and granted them land across the country.
In the short term, it worked.
Putin needs to do for today’s disaffected creative class what Stolypin did for the peasantry. Because the creative class feels isolated in Russia, resulting in emigration and street protests, the task is to reintegrate them and give them a new sense of purpose.
Putin openly reveres the memory of Stolypin and has repeatedly praised his stamina, his wisdom, and his ability to transform society, without throwing it into chaos, by harnessing people’s patriotism. The paradox is that Putin is achieving the exact opposite. He is actually suffocating the creative class and beginning to force it out of the country.
Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have both tried to capture the loyal support of those non-working-class Russians. Putin has given large salary increases to teachers, doctors, and army officers. Medvedev, trying to keep Russia’s scientists happy, is nurturing ambitious plans for the Skolkovo innovation center. But these efforts have yet to pay dividends.
The truth is that today’s Russian leaders have so far failed to unleash Russia’s intellectual potential in the way Stolypin managed to unleash economic potential by granting private land ownership to the peasantry.
Stolypin was assassinated in Kyiv in 1911. His downfall was arguably the result of a severe limitation in his outlook – his loyalty to the monarchy. And this may be the quality in Stolypin that most appeals to Putin. In modern Russia Putin has made loyalty to the Kremlin, rather than professional excellence, the crucial requirement for rising up through the ranks in government.
Stolypin’s Achilles heel was that he could envision reform only in the context of tsarist Russia. He was not prepared to consider weakening or abolishing the monarchy and thus, in his mind, betraying the tsar who had allowed him to run the country. With hindsight it seems that Stolypin’s inability to think beyond the existing socio-economic model made his premature demise inevitable.
Putin also seems to admire that Stolypin – who carried out his reforms under the pressure of a systemic crisis and grappled with everything from land management to terrorism – never indulged in wordy self-justifications, and that no task appeared too mundane for him.
Responsibility was key to Stolypin’s rule. He had the courage to adopt unpopular measures – he introduced courts-martial as a means of combating revolutionary terror – and to be held accountable for them. The chilling “hangman” nickname applied to Stolypin was perhaps the mildest of the consequences. It is no coincidence that Putin made responsibility the topic of his speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2012.
But Putin does not seem to remember that the key to the success of Stolypin’s reforms was that the minister saw Russians as individuals. Stolypin’s policies created opportunities for people to find their level in society and to make money and build careers.
It is this quality that Putin is so desperately lacking. The Russian president is alienating not just a few individuals, but whole sections of Russian society, including the more radical elements of the political opposition, many non-governmental organizations, and a substantial portion of the creative class.
The situation is becoming so bad that it invites comparison with an episode a few years after the revolution, dubbed “the Philosophy Steamer,” when a group of 67 intellectuals, arrested on Lenin's direct orders on the night of 16 August 1922, were shipped off to exile in Germany.
The group included journalists, literary and art critics, philosophers, historians, and economists, all of whom Lenin regarded as a threat to his party and to the regime. Today, the creative class is being driven into exile on a far more potentially damaging scale. In a June poll by the independent Levada Center, 20 percent of respondents said they would consider going abroad to live, up from 13 percent in 2009.
What Putin makes clear is that neither he, nor the majority that he represents, would regret the departure of today’s trouble-making intellectuals, however great their creative potential. Perhaps he would claim to see their disillusionment and departure as a sacrifice to ensure the country’s stability. But in truth it is far more about ensuring the survival of his vertical-of-power system.