Confessions of an anti-Soviet russophile

One ought to know and talk about what goes on in Russia. That is why I went to the Valdai Club meeting and to Yaroslav, even though I was worried that my trip would end up as a photo-op with President Putin. In spite of warnings I decided to attend the September meeting of the Valdai Club and the Forum in Yaroslav.  The participants of both meetings included domestic and foreign Russia experts, journalists and politicians, as well as top Russian government officials, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attending the former and President Dmitry Medvedev the latter.


By participating, you are legitimizing Russia’s current regime – my Russian friends warned me. They said I would legitimize Putin’’s regime, just like Lion Feuchtwanger’’s book Moscow 1937 justified the Stalinist trials. I, on the other hand, believe that the Moscow of 1937 cannot be compared with the Moscow of today, and that talking is always preferable to not talking. Except when you’’re in prison and it’’s the interrogating officer who wants to talk.


Never refuse dialogue


The invitation to attend a meeting of the Valdai Club came from its organizer and initiator, the political scientist Sergei Karaganov, a close associate of Putin’’s; the one to attend the Yaroslav Forum was sent by Medvedev’’s trusted economist Vladislav Inozemtsev. I accepted both invitations because I was curious what this pokazukha [window dressing], as my Russian friends say, looks like.  I was keen to contrast the views of official and unofficial Russia and to see what the people Lenin called useful idiots from the West are like. We used this term in my newspaper, publishing a text by a prominent Russian political scientist. Lidia Shevtsova, whom I admire, respect and appreciate, criticized the Valdai Club and its naïve participants.

The Valdai Club and the Yaroslav Forum definitely are pokazukha. They are well rehearsed shows aimed at presenting Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev to the world.  However, I was surprised to meet some fantastic people there: Sergei Aleksashenko, Kiril Rogov, Vladislav Inozemtsev, Aleksandr Arkchangel’’ski, Andrei Zubov, Vladimir Ryzhkov. These are just a few names but the list is much longer.


I was struck by the painfully honest discussion of Russia’s past, particularly the Stalinist years. Of course, some Russians tried to relativize or even justify this part of history. But the majority spoke with courage and honesty both about history and about current government policies. Prime Minister Putin had to endure more severe criticism than President Medvedev.  The participants of these discussions included critics and defenders and those who pin guarded hopes on the process that is currently taking place in Russia.


Personally, I am wary of the kind of thinking which deems anything that Putin or Medvedev does to be just pokazukha.  I remember debates we had in the Gorbachov era with Russian émigrés from the 80s and with leaders of the Polish underground.  People were saying perestroika was just pokazukha for the benefit of the West. The Polish communist nomenklatura held a similar view. However, my impression from reading Soviet newspapers was that the language was changing and that reality was changing with it. Perestroika started as a stage prop but in real life – unlike in theatre – props eventually acquire a life of their own.


When the party hardliners realized this was not just a change of props, they too started to demand that Gorbachov’’s political course be halted. One example was Nina Andreyeva’’s famous text  I won’’t give up my principles. But ultimately communism has lost and nobody wants to restore it now. The USSR has collapsed and nobody wants to recreate it. Not even Putin, although he declared its demise the greatest political disaster of the 20th century.

Right now nobody knows where Russia is headed. It is easy to argue that when Sergei Karaganov writes that all of Russia is one big Katyń, he lacks credibility because as recently as two years ago in Warsaw he was trying to convince us that Katyń was just an episode the Poles were obsessed with.  But Russia is indeed a big Katyń and the idea of memorializing Russian victims of Stalinism deserves support. Regardless of who says so and what their intentions are.


Lenin used to say: the worse the Russian state is doing, the better for the revolution. I do not subscribe to this sort of thinking. I believe the worse things get the worse they are, and the better they are the better things are. That is why it is worth keeping an eye on what is happening in Russia and discussing it. Refusing dialogue contradicts the philosophy that was part of building democracy in Poland.


Putin’’s eyes of steel


The Valdai Club participants were addressed by the Mayor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matvienko.  Just as in a Komsomol meeting, we were told that everything in Russia was hunky dory. Medvedev, by contrast, said openly that the country subsists on high prices for oil and gas abroad and it is not clear what will happen if this ever ends. If the President says so, everyone who wants to listen will hear it. 


Russia does have potential for reform – this is my conclusion from talking to Russians. Of course, we don’’t know right now who ought to lead these reforms: will it be Prime Minister Putin or President Medvedev? Or perhaps someone completely different? After all, people in Russia are scared of reforms since in the 1990s these became associated with poverty, corruption, mafias and chaos.


In Yaroslav the President rejected the popular suggestion that Russia ought to follow the Chinese way. A leading democrat said outright that if Russia were to follow the Chinese way, the Mayor of Moscow and his wife ought to be shot, like the Mayor of Shanghai.  Someone else suggested that if Russia really wanted to build a Chinese-style empire, the vacations in the Alps and the sending of daughters to schools in Boston would have to stop. Someone pointed out that, despite a widespread view, the greatest threat to Russia does not come from NATO and the West. It is Islamist terrorism that is the real threat and China the potential one.


I understand why my Russian friends warned me not to go to Valdai and Yaroslav. I was also concerned that I would be manipulated and that my whole trip would amount to a mere photo-op with President Putin.  In Moscow we met Russia’’s Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov. He spoke warmly about Poland. He was surprisingly open. Yet it was not the language of honest dialogue. I could sense the tone of imperial, Soviet autocracy (for example, when he talked about the Caucasus or Transdnistria). Russia knows what it wants – Lavrov seemed to be saying – and either we accept its conditions or Russia’’s government will speak in a different language. This is only my interpretation – I would be happy to be proved wrong.


From Moscow we were taken to Sochi, to the Prime Minister’’s residence. There we were received with all pomp and circumstance.  During an exquisite dinner in an enormous hall Putin welcomed the guests and invited us to speak. He was in great form, relaxed, witty and casually dressed. He was fully aware of his power. I was saddened to listen to his patronizing and contemptuous comments on the street protests of the opposition.


The first four questions, most likely planted ones, were filmed by TV cameras. Then the journalists left. It is true that most foreign guests’’ statements were dripping with vaseline. It was quite disgusting. Lilia Shevtsova was right in this respect but she was wrong when it came to the Russian contributions. There were no Russians in Sochi but at the Valdai Club meeting they made lots of sensible and interesting comments. This was no theatre – these were people concerned about Russia’’s fate.


Apart from me, the other Polish guest was former Prime Minister Leszek Miller. Everything he said was sane and sensible. My first question to Putin concerned the plans for cutting down the Khimki forest, which has outraged Russian public opinion.  His answer was competent but in the same spirit as the article by Yuri Luzhkov, the then still Mayor of Moscow, which appeared in Rossiyskaya Gazeta on the same day: there is no point talking to trouble-makers.

Then I asked about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the businessman who, after he started showing political ambitions, was thrown behind bars for an alleged financial scam. For a day I was a celebrity among the Moscow liberal intelligentsia. I had stolen Putin’’s show. He was not expecting this kind of question. I saw his grimace and his eyes of steel, followed by a strong, emotional response about Khodorkovsky having blood on his hands because his bodyguard had killed people, and that was what he was sentenced for.


Then a British commentator asked Putin about opposition protests that are being brutally dispersed by the police. I was saddened by his response to this question, too. The Russian Prime Minister sounded just like [the Polish government spokesman] Jerzy Urban in the years of martial law. He said that opposition was irrelevant and that as long as they were breaking administrative bans, the authorities would beat protesters on the head with truncheons. The problem is, the authorities won’’t approve these protests.


A civil awakening


Why did I ask about Khodorkovsky? Because modernisation is impossible without democratisation. What matters is the state’’s credibility. In the 1980s the test of Gorbachov’’s credibility was a telephone line to a flat in the city of Gorky, where the dissident Andrei Gorky was under house arrest. Today the eyes of the world are on Khodorkovsky. Until he walks free Russia’’s Prime Minister will be seen as a leader for whom a personal vendetta means more than his country’’s interests. 


Of course, I support a gradual road to democracy for Russia. Medvedev stated that the protection of human rights at all costs was a precondition for democracy in Russia. He said democracy would not come from the top or from the West but from below. For me this is precisely what the civil awakening in defence of the forest in Khimki near Moscow exemplifies. I have met the protest’’s leader Yevgenia Chirikova. She is a wonderful girl, a child of perestroika, the face of the new Russia. When there are thousands of people like her in Russia, the country will achieve democracy. This is what I said in an interview with Novaya Gazeta: there will be a civil society – or a civil war.


The Russians realize there is a crisis; Russia is at a crossroads. That is where the demand for modernization and de-Stalinization comes from. And this is the reason for the opening to the West, albeit only a verbal one so far. But the Russia I have had a chance to observe is a Russia open to debate.


Many people believe that the conflict between Russia’’s President and Prime Minister is an illusion, a good and bad cop game. I don’’t know what is really the case but I can see that their emphases are definitely different.


Putin says that what we have is democracy. He says it brutally, using a streetwise language. He gives the impression that he does not believe in democracy. Neither in Russia, nor in the West.


Medvedev, unlike him, says that democracy is a process. He says there is more democracy today than five years ago, which can be read as a coded allusion to Putin.


However, I am certain there is a conflict between Putin’’s and Medvedev’s circles. I heard the Prime Minister’s people say outright that Putin would rule Russia and that any other options are just a fantasy. On the other hand there are others who say this is a direct road to disaster for Russia.  If Moscow does not make a turn it will drown in stagnation.


That is why those who want to modernize,  i.e. democratize Russia, ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote recently that these days to support modernization means to be a democrat.  I don’t know what lies ahead but I keep my fingers crossed for those who want to change Russia for the better, that is, those who want to expand the space of democracy.


In Poland we don’’t know who will win the presidential election until the last minute. In Russia the results are known a month before the vote. That is why I think I came to Russia from a democratic country. Russia today is not a democracy but a soft, liberal authoritarian regime. But there are democrats in Russia. It is impossible to imagine a democratic country without democrats. And this is what my optimism is based on. As a Polish patriot and an anti-Soviet Russophile I wish Russia the very best.


Translation: Julia Sherwood


This article originally appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza on 8 October 2010, and in as Slovak translation in Forum, a supplement to the daily SME, on 6 November 2010.