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15 September

Great Russia’s tiny enemies

The place of freedom and free people in today's Russia

We’re creeping down nighttime Moscow street, carefully avoiding the street lamps and covering our faces with baseball caps. This is our first nighttime outing in search of justice. Along the way, we grabbed some spray paint cans filled with black paint. Our destination is the State Road Safety Inspection building, where, on the eve of Victory Day, someone hung up a huge poster with a portrait of Stalin and words thanking him for victory. It’s the 21st century on Planet Earth, but one seventh of the landmass apparently doesn’t know it.

To be honest, we’re terrified. Especially my friend who, unlike me, a journalist with no future, has a solid government job that he really cherishes. “I'll strangle you if you tell anyone,” he hisses at me in the dark. But it was he who proposed to mete out justice in the night. He also bought the cans with black paint.

The next day, the internet is filled with information and chatter about whether or not it was acceptable to honor Stalin like that poster and “the actions of unknown persons who spilled black paint all over the Generalissimo’s portrait.” The debate gets so heated that the poster is not only taken down from this building but from other parts of Moscow as well—hiding the guilt. My moral was this: if you can’t, if you’re afraid of standing up to those in power during the day, try at least doing it in the dark.

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Just don’t get into arguments with those who sneer, saying “So what, nothing changed anyway: today they took down Stalin’s portrait, tomorrow two more will appear somewhere else.” Indeed, no theory of small is beautiful really works here. There’s no point in arguing with these sour faces: they’re right. You really won’t change anything. All that will happen is that you will finally see how obvious this is.

There’s no “Russian people.” It’s just a fairy tale. I don’t know if it ever actually existed, but that’s not even the important thing. I think there was some kind of vague community that soviet ideologues called the soviet people. In one sense it was a vegetative culture, grown behind an iron curtain, in a hot house, complete with values such as collectivism, all invented by those same ideologues.

But as soon as the ideologues swept away, the curtain fell and it turned out that the people that inhabits one sixth of the world’s surface were a fiction. It doesn’t exist. The society fell apart in uneven bits. Some began to wail for all things soviet and continued to celebrate November 7 and Grandpa Lenin’s birthday. The next generation continued the work of their parents and is now busy carrying Stalin’s portrait in all kinds of parades, sometimes even participating in “Russian marches.” Others rolled into different corners in search of interesting and profitable work but, having not found it, gave up and moved away. Others yet, the most numerous part, adapted to the “new realities,” found work, bought an apartment, a car and a parcel of land with a bathhouse and barbecue, and are feeling ok now. Some of them rail at Putin and his herd. Some of them watch evening talk shows and hate the banderites and their Amerikooks. Still others have thrown out the TV set and focus on theater, museums and contemporary art galleries.

But together, these form one huge class of suffering indifference from whom any difficult question about the present and future of the country elicits only one answer: “I’m no interested in politics,” which translates as “I don’t give a flying f….” Such people are certain that they are breathing in rhythm with the civilized world, although, in fact, they are the foundation under the Putin regime. Such people don’t understand what true freedom is about: they are convinced that freedom means being able to vacation in Portugal.

The fourth and last group is small. Really small. These are the new Russians. Or, if you prefer, different Russians. And if we really want to be honest, then they aren’t Russians at all, if being people of suffering indifference is the foundation of Russianness. These people are from different age groups, different professions, and they mostly live in the big cities. That tiny part of Russia’s population that despises the majority. A truly free person is always above corruption and always a patriot in the primary, oft-forgotten and trampled sense of the word, being intolerant of xenophobia, imperialism and chauvinism. But as time passes, the Russian state is gaining strength on a pedestal of corruption and pseudo-patriotism. This means that a free person has fewer and fewer chances to be elected to government in Russia as time goes by, and even to remain an honored member of Russian society. True liberalism is going underground, into the catacombs, and its proponents are becoming marginalized.

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The murder of Boris Nemtsov two and a half years ago on a bridge near the Kremlin was not just a tragedy: it has begun to look like a sinister installation dreamed up by some diabolical mind in the depths of the Kremlin. The last truly free individual in the opposition, a curly-haired, good-looking man who thought in western ways, Nemtsov kept trying to build a bridge between the old Russia, sinking in a bog of ignorance and corruption, and a new, free and enlightened one. He was walking with his back to the Kremlin and never even made it to the middle of the bridge. A few bullets cut short that path for him and for all of those who somehow, through force of will, managed to maintain an optimistic faith in success to their last dying breath.

We are apostates. We did not even manage to cross half the bridge and we won’t get any farther. We are the new, different Russians, pitiful shards of that nation that was conceived in 1991 but turned out to be crippled from childhood and died soon after, never having managed to turn its back on the Kremlin. We go to demonstrations but no one is afraid of us. We dream about Russia without Putin, but we are a voice crying in the wilderness: no one hears us. And if, forbid, our cries prove to be louder than necessary, we will be crushed, ground and trampled. We have no illusions about the future of Russia. This future is now ours, no matter how much black paint we spill on Stalin under cover of night. Russia will never be without Putin, even if it’s some other nominal Putin: the ratio between the other Russians and the rest, the majority, is far too small. In this place, we will always be enemies, marginalized.

Still, I’m not hiding the balloon with black paint very deeply. Even at night, it might come in handy again.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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