“This must be how civil society begins; it grows from deep inside you,” Olga Romanova, a former television journalist, tells David Remnick. A writer for Novaya Gazeta and head of Rus Sidyaschaya (“Russia behind bars”), a prisoner support group, she is one of several remarkable activists profiled in Remnick’s must-read Letter from Moscow in The New Yorker – The Civil Archipelago – How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go?
He also meets Dmitri Peskov, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin, whose affable demeanor shifts to the dark side when the conversation turns to Golos (“voice”), the country’s leading election monitor:
At the mention of this, Peskov lost his good cheer. “We have special services, and we have all the data about N.G.O.s being sponsored by foreign states.”
Arseny Roginsky’s father fell victim to an earlier generation of ‘special services’ when he perished in Stalin’s gulag. A historian and co-founder of Memorial, a leading rights monitor, Roginsky appreciates that Putin’s authoritarianism differs from the tsarist or Soviet versions:
“Today’s power is very rational….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.”
As Remnick notes:
A strong hand on state television suffices, at least for now. The current system of stability, with its elimination of authentic politics—its cultivation of phony elections and a judicial system that largely takes its orders from the executive—–is an elaborately flexible, supremely cynical system of vertical power. Putin, a former agent of the security services, is its personification.
But Roginsky has a realistic, strategic take on the challenge facing Russian democrats.
“To speak in a grandiloquent way about it, this whole process is about shaping civil society,” he said. “This is more important even than whatever we accomplish in human-rights cases or in the study of history. In this country, we have a lot of state and very little society. Our task is to make it so that there is more society and less state.”
A week before the latest State Duma elections, veteran dissident Lyudmilla Alexeeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, expresses cautious optimism.
“I think that these elections are the last elections that will be controlled by television, and the next elections will be under the influence of the Internet,” she said.
But Sergei Kovalyov, Andrei Sakharov’s protégé in the Soviet era human-rights movement, prefers the phrase “modest optimism.”
He said that while all the groups and movements and Web sites we discussed could not really be called civil society—not without proper constitutional protections, in a truly democratic system—they did give him grounds for “modest optimism.” The situation, no matter how deeply discouraging at times, reminded him of the moment when water, though extremely cold, is still liquid—and then, suddenly, with the addition of a single crystal, changes form, turning into ice.
“At some point, this phase transition will happen quite quickly,” Kovalyov said. “Of course, people will always ask when. I am no prophet, and I used to say, ‘Wait another fifteen years.’ But now fifteen years has come and gone. The phase transition is still not here.”
Read the whole thing – really.
Several of the groups and activists profiled in the article – including Golos, Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group – are partners of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.