Putin’s Russia and its “Civil Archipelago”

The Civil Archipelago, David Remnick, New Yorker, December 19, 2011
How Far Can the Resistance to Vladimir Putin Go?

It’s easy to mock Russia’s “Democratic” system.  But … y’know… this ad … Vote for Putin’s Party, why don’tcha?… we’ve seen dumber, haven’t we?
We oughta mock Italy’s just as fervently.  Berlusconi and all that… owns 90 percent of Italian media, or something like that.

There are a few take-aways from this New Yorker piece.  One, I already knew this, but some of the key big name figures of the “Civil Archipelago” aren’t entirely sympathetic.  Like, Reformist for the Kleptocracy of the 1990s as opposed to the Putin era.  This is somewhat typical — I always need to note that the presidential candidate for Iran’s “Green Revolution” was a project of the Iranian Revolution.

The more interesting of the movements … “Civil Archipelago” as David Remnick terms it… is kind of aburdly… well, .

The streets—the highways, the boulevards, and the crooked lanes of Moscow—are, in fact, one of the unlikely stages of civil protest in Putin’s Russia. Kutuzovsky Prospect is one of the main avenues on which government officials and the super-rich commute between the center of town and the multimillion-dollar estates of Rublyovka. Out in those monied woods are exquisite restaurants, spas, and showrooms for Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Maserati. Traffic is horrendous from morning till night. And so officials and the well-connected circumvent the halted condition of mortals by obtaining flashing blue lights for the tops of their cars, a signal that forces everyone to get out of the way, as if for an ambulance. The official blue flashers, called migalki, are often acquired through bribes. And the fantastically reckless driving that goes along with them leads to constant accidents—invariably with much smaller, more vulnerable, civilian automobiles.
Nothing could be more maddening, especially for Russian men, who see their cars as a sign of making it. To be pulled over or to be overtaken is humiliating. Thanks to YouTube and the tactics of flash mobs, a group of furious road warriors started putting blue plastic children’s buckets on their cars—a spontaneous movement that became known as the Society of Blue Buckets. When members discovered that Nikita Mikhailkov, a well-known film director, had a car with a migalka, they lambasted him online.
Ivan Alexeyev, a.k.a. Noize MC, is a hugely famous twenty-six-year-old hip-hop artist in Russia who made much of his reputation rebelling against the entitled class of limo riders. Alexeyev grew up near Smolensk, listening to Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and Run-DMC. He went to Moscow for college, to study computer science, and he formed his band there, with classmates.
Last year, while he was on tour in the Russian Far East, he heard about an accident near Gagarin Square, in Moscow: a Mercedes bearing a vice-president of one of the major Russian oil companies, Lukoil, smashed into a Citroën, killing two women, including the sister of one of Alexeyev’s friends. The police blamed the driver of the Citroën, but eyewitnesses said that the executive’s car had been driving in the wrong lane, to avoid traffic.

That night, in Vladivostok, Alexeyev couldn’t sleep, and he wrote a howl of outrage, called “Mercedes S666.” The song, and the “South Park”-style video that went with it, was a big hit on the Internet. “Right away, a lot of political parties tried to use it for their aims,” Alexeyev told me. “It feels like you always have to choose one or the other, and I don’t want to choose.”
Alexeyev has performed songs mocking Russian skinheads and Nashi, the pro-Putin youth group. At a concert in the city of Volgograd, last July, he sang a song about police corruption called “Smoke Bamboo” and made remarks from the stage mocking the Volgograd police for being aggressive. “To be honest, my behavior wasn’t very good, but their reaction was even worse,” Alexeyev told me. He was arrested and jailed for ten days.

Cutting around pieces of symbolism, if tangeantal to the core political problems.

Compare the Cutting and splicing of Media Censorship, and the items that gained the name “Orwellian”, Soviet and Putin-ish:

A week after the incident at the Olympic arena, I paid a call on Putin’s redoubtable spokesman, Dmitri Peskov. Tall and mustachioed, Peskov is a kind of ideal projection of his man; he is wised-up, worldly, professional, and subtly forbidding. When he lies, he knows that you know, and you know that he knows that you know. The smile is also meant to convey another message to foreign visitors: So, we’re cynical. And you’re not?
When I asked Peskov about the jeering, he unspooled a convoluted hypothesis about how the crowd might have been reacting to the image of Monson being helped to the locker room: “We called him after that, and he said it’s normal that in America when a beaten guy is leaving the hall they often boo.” Peskov, being as skillful and as modern as the regime he serves, then switched from bald-faced nonsense to allowing at least part of the truth. “I also heard some voices, three or four men,” he said. “Someone really shouted out, ‘Putin, go away!’ ”
When I asked why state television altered the sound for replays, he said, “They switched off the noise.”
Yes, but why? I said.
“I don’t know exactly,” Peskov replied. “That was the choice of the editor.” Peskov couldn’t help smiling at this specimen of disingenuousness. And why did Putin cancel an appointment two nights later to attend an anti-drug concert in St. Petersburg? Instead, the Kremlin sent a deputy prime minister, Dmitri Kozak, to represent United Russia, and so it was poor Kozak who endured the catcalls. “Putin wasn’t supposed to go,” Peskov said. “Trust me.”

And your “Hope Springs Eternal” comes out of… where else?
The authoritarian features of the Putin era, however, are not like those of either tsarist or Soviet times. “Today’s power is very rational,” Arseny Roginsky, of Memorial, said. “Power today doesn’t shut everyone up. There is freedom of expression and speech. There are shelves of anti-Putin books in the stores. This is no longer the eighteenth century. A book with a printing of a thousand copies will not topple this state.” A strong hand on state television suffices, at least for now.

Sasha, in his early tweets, focussed on the fantastic privileges of the rich and the powerful. “I don’t understand all this talk of hours-long traffic jams,” he tweeted, aping Medvedev. “Personally, I always get to the Kremlin from Rublyovka in 10-15 minutes.” Masha’s tweets are more literary and cultural in tone, alluding to everything from the films of Sergei Eisenstein to pop music. Sasha and Masha started their Web careers as commenters on the ironical, oppositional invitation-only site called Leper Zone. They never get their news from television, preferring sites like gazeta.ru, slon.ru, and vedomosti.ru, and the tabloid Lifenews.

“When the powers that be check into the Internet, they hear everything, but they don’t listen,” Masha told me. “Twitter is the most interactive of all the platforms.” KermlinRussia, she said, “is a model of a civil-society entity, an example of one, but it is extremely isolated.”

If Putinism has an ideological manifesto, it is a 2007 lecture that Surkov delivered, at the Russian Academy of Sciences, entitled “Russian Political Culture: The View from Utopia.” The theme, which is pronounced in Putin’s rhetoric, is that there is no such thing as universal democracy. Surkov says that the unique immensity of Russia demands uniquely centralized power. He believes that all democracies around the world are in fact managed and hypocritical, and give only the illusion of real freedom. Like Putin, he insists that the West cease its lectures on freedom and human rights. “They tell us about democracy,” he said at a press conference in Moscow, “while thinking about our hydrocarbons.” At the same time, Surkov is quick to remind liberals that it is only the regime that stands between them and the growing numbers of hard-line Russian nationalists.

That last sentence is familiar with any number of Mid East despots.
At its core, though, Putin’s Russia is not a democracy, sovereign or otherwise. Rather, power for power’s sake and the accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of various “clans” and friends of the Kremlin are at the center of things. Very few owners of the mansions outside Moscow were able to buy those properties, and hold onto them, without close connections, and complete fealty, to the regime. Power has no interest in civil society, save to co-opt and marginalize it.

And, I would go  a different route with my “And your system” jab, but…
A smile returned to the spokesman’s lips. “Actually, I was coming here in the car listening to the radio,” he said. “Do you know what was the first item on the news? The State Department of the United States expressed its gravest concern about the policy in Russia toward gays!” Peskov was referring to proposed legislation in St. Petersburg that would prohibit “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgenderism to minors.” He was in stitches now. “I thought, What is the State Department of the United States doing? With their national debt! With their collapsing economy! With a leak of industry in the country because everything is in a financial bubble! With a nightmare in Afghanistan! With a nightmare in Iraq! With a nightmare in the global economy! And they have a deep concern about gays in Russia. Ha! Ha! So I was really in a very good mood because of this!”

Hm.  It is all worth a somewhat perfunctory mention in Time’s “Man of the Year — Protester”, after a bunch of other nation’s — I suppose.

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