Selections from A Russian Diary. Time covered here: 2003-2004
[Anna could have left Russia. Family and friends had urged her to leave. Russian soldiers, police, oligarchs, criminal gangs, and the highest-ranking Russian politicians had explicitly threatened her life. When she grew violently ill after sipping a cup of tea on a flight into Beslan to negotiate during the school hostage crisis in 2004, she saw it was an attempt to silence her there and then. Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB man who became a critic of Vladimir Putin, told her to leave Russia. But she kept on: “Our society isn’t a society anymore,” she wrote. “It is a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells…..”.
On the day Anna was shot to death, October 7, 2006, in the elevator of her apartment block on Lesnaya Street, the editor of Novaya Gazeta says that she was about to file a long story on torture as it is routinely conducted by Chechen security forces supported by Russia. That story will almost certainly never be read by anyone, inside or outside Russia. Even the substance of it will probably never be known. Russian police seized her notes, her computer hard drive, and photographs of two people she would reportedly accuse of torture.]
Early in the morning, political analysts assembled on the Free Speech program to discuss the results as they came in. They were jittery. Igor Bunin talked of a crisis of Russian liberalism, about how the Yukos affair had suddenly aroused a wave of antioligarchic feeling in the middle of the campaign. They talked about the hatred that had accumulated in the hearts of many people, “especially decent people who could not bring themselves to support Zhirinovsky,” and the fact that the eclectic United Russia Party had managed to unite everybody, from the most liberal to the most reactionary. He predicted that the president would now stand in for the liberals in the ruling elite.
Free Speech was shortly to be taken off the air by its parent company NTV, to which Putin commented, “Who needs a talk show for political losers?”
At 10:53 a.m. today a suicide bomber blew herself up outside the Nationale Hotel in Moscow, across the square from the Duma and 145 meters [160 yards] from the Kremlin. “Where is this Duma?” she asked a passerby, before exploding. For a long time the head of a Chinese tourist who had been next to her lay on the asphalt without its body.
This morning there was more of the same, a reputation destroyed by the Kremlin’s embrace. Andrey Makarevich was an underground rock musician in the Soviet period, a dissident, a fighter against the KGB,* who used to sing with passion, “Don’t bow your head before the changeful world. Some day that world will bow its head to us!” It was the anthem of the first years of democracy under Yeltsin. Today, on live television on the state-run Channel One, he is being presented with a medal “For Services to the Fatherland.
Constitution Day. A holiday. Moscow is flooded with militiamen and agents in plain clothes. There are dogs everywhere, searching for explosives. The president held a grand reception in the Kremlin for the political and oligarchic elite and made a speech about human rights, predicated on the notion that they had triumphed in Russia. Yeltsin was there, looking fitter and younger, but with mental problems written all over his face. He was there because the Constitution was adopted during his presidency. He is not usually invited to Putin’s Kremlin.
Ritual murders are taking place in Moscow. A second severed head has been found in the past twenty-four hours, this time in the district of Go-lianovo in the east of Moscow. It was in a rubbish container on Altaiskaya Street. Yesterday evening, a head in a plastic bag was found lying on a table in the courtyard outside Apartment Building 3 on Krasnoyarskaya Street. Both men had been dead for twenty-four hours before the discovery. The circumstances in the two cases are almost identical: the victims are from the Caucasus, aged thirty to forty, and have dark hair. Their identities are unknown. The heads were found two-thirds of a mile apart.
Sterligov, the coffin maker, has been disqualified from standing by the Central Electoral Commission. Viktor Anpilov, a clown from the Workers’ Russia Party, promptly put himself forward. A horseradish is no sweeter than a radish.
At last they have found a worthy opponent for Putin: Sergey Mironov,* the speaker of the Soviet of the Federation, has been proposed by the Party of Life (another of the dwarf parties set up by the presidential administration’s deputy head, Vladislav Surkov*). He immediately announced, “I support Putin.”
The conference of the Russian Communist Party is taking place. The Communists have proposed Nikolai Kharitonov, an odd, garrulous man who used to be a KGB officer. How wonderful!
Ivan Rybkin has announced he will stand. He is the creature of Putin’s main opponent, Boris Berezovsky,* now in exile abroad. Rybkin used to be the speaker of the Duma and chairman of the National Security Council. Who is he today? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, Moscow is at a standstill. The rich haven’t a care in the world; they are abroad on vacation. Moscow is very rich. All the restaurants, even the most expensive, are crammed or closed for corporate parties. The tables are laden with delicacies beyond the imaginings of the rest of Russia. Thousands of dollars are spent in an evening. Is this the last fling of the twenty-first century’s New Economic Policy?
Putin needed competitors, and he has received them as a New Year’s gift. The new candidates have all promptly declared that the main thing is not to win but to take part.
Putin holds a cabinet meeting. “We need to explain the government’s priorities to the Duma deputies,” he insists repeatedly. He is not in a good mood. The Rose Revolution* has triumphed in Georgia and [Mikhail] Saakashvili* is celebrating victory. Provisional results suggest he gained about 85 percent of the vote. This is a wake-up call to the heads of the other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.* All those sitting around the table with. Putin are well aware of this. There is a limit to how long you can trample people underfoot. When they really want change, there is nothing you can do to stop it. Is this what they are afraid of?
Moscow’s outskirts are not like the city center, which nowadays is improbably opulent. The outskirts are quiet and hungry. Here there are no benefactors with toys and gifts, books and Pampers. Not even at Christmas.
“Let’s go to see the children,” says the wise Lidia Slevak, director of this orphanage for the very smallest children, in a tone that suggests this will answer all my questions.
Little Danila is sticking out like a candle from the adult arms of a caregiver. He seems to be with you, in that he has almost put his arms around you, but also not with you, lonely, distant. The world has passed him by, he is on his own. He holds his thin little back very straight, like a yogi. His shock of fair curly hair is like the candle’s flame. The slightest breeze wafting in through the door from the corridor makes his silken locks flicker. He is a Christmas miracle, an angel.
The only question is: to whom does this angel belong? Nobody is allowed to adopt him because of our idiotic laws… Their patient caregivers are kind, very tired, overworked women. Everything here is good, except that the children don’t cry. They are silent or they howl.
Meanwhile, our nouveaux riches are skiing this Christmas in Courchevel. More than two thousand Russians, each earning over half a million rubles [$17,400] a month, congregate there for the “saison russe” in the Swiss Alps. The menu offers eight kinds of oysters, the wine list includes bottles at 1,500 euros [$1,980], and in the retinue of every nouveau riche you can be sure of finding the government officials, our true oligarchs, who deliver these vast incomes to the favored two thousand. Not a word is heard in the televised Christmas reports from Courchevel about hard work having led to the amassing of these fortunes. The talk is of success, of the moment when everything just fell into place, of the firebird of happiness caught by its tail feathers, of being trusted by the state authorities.
In Moscow there is a fuss over a new history textbook. Members of United Russia are demanding that Putin require that “pride at the events” of the Russo-Finnish War of 1939 and of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture be included. They insist that our children should once more read a Soviet treatment of the Second World War and the supposedly positive role played by Stalin. Putin is going along with this. Homo sovieticus is breathing down our necks. Another textbook has meanwhile been banned for including the comment by academician Yanov that Russia is in danger of turning into a national socialist state armed with nuclear weapons
The body of Aslan Davletukaev, abducted from his home on January 10, has been found showing signs of torture. He had been shot in the back of the head. The body was found on the outskirts of Gudermes. Glory be to our Czar!’
Putin’s meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry was much calmer, though. He sees the chamber as being in a different category from the RUIE. The president of the CCI, that wily old Soviet fox Yevgeny Primakov, read his speech and quoted Putin on five occasions, prefacing his words with “as Vladimir Vladimirovich has correctly remarked …” Primakov assured Putin that “an oligarch and a major entrepreneur are quite different things… The word ‘oligarch’ sounds pejorative. After all, what is an oligarch? Someone who gets rich through devious manipulation of, among other things, his tax bill, who may trip up his business comrades or make crude attempts to interfere in politics, corrupting officials, parties, deputies …” and so on. Primakov’s entire speech was in the register of Soviet servility, and Putin clearly loved it.
Then it was time for questions. Naturally, they asked whether there was to be a review of the results of privatization. Even if they are not the oligarchs’ trade union, the Yukos affair was on everybody’s mind.
Putin suddenly bawled like a market trader, or a prison guard, “There will be no review of privatization! The laws were complicated, muddled, but it was perfectly possible to observe them! There was nothing impossible about it, and those who wanted to, did! If five or ten people failed to observe them, that does not mean everybody failed to! Those who observed them are sleeping soundly now, even if they didn’t get quite so rich! Those who broke the law should not be treated the same as those who observed it.”
“To be sleeping soundly now” is also a Russian euphemism for being in the grave.
During the night, masked gunmen in white Zhigulis without number plates—the trademark of Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces—kidnapped Milana Kodzoeva from her home in the Chechen village of Kotar-Yurt. Milana is the widow of a fighter. She has two small children. Her whereabouts are unknown.
Viktor Vekselberg, one of the oligarchs rumored to be next in line for imprisonment by Putin, has suddenly announced he is buying the collection of Fabergé Easter eggs that belonged to the family of our last emperor, Nicholas II. Nobody doubts that Vekselberg is simply trying to ransom his way out of trouble by demonstrating that he is “on the side of Russia,” which the administration accepts as a coded way of saying “on the side of Vladimir Vladimirovich.”
Vekselberg insists that “the return of these treasures to Russia is something personal to me. I want my family my son and daughter, to have a different understanding of their place in life. I want big business to participate intelligently in public works. I am not seeking advantage, proving anything to anybody, or whitewashing anything.”
The oligarch doth protest too much, methinks.
The Sultanovs, the family of the little girl Khursheda who was murdered by skinheads in St. Petersburg, have abandoned Russia and gone to live in Tadjikistan. They took a small coffin containing the child’s remains with them.
In Voronezh, Amar Antoniu Lima, twenty-four, a first-year student at the Voronezh Medical Academy, has died after being stabbed seventeen times. He came from Guinea-Bissau. This is the seventh murder of a foreign student in Voronezh in recent years. The murderers are skinheads. Zhirinovsky’s slogan in the parliamentary elections was “We are for the poor! We are for the Russians!” It has been taken over by United Russia, and accordingly by the Guarantor of the Constitution himself. And by the skinheads.
Silence and apathy. Nobody can be bothered to listen to the drivel coming from the television. Let’s just get it over with.