Russia’s endangered liberals

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The atmosphere at Avocado, my favorite Moscow cafe, felt as cozy as usual: A kid napped in the corner with jazz music streaming out of his earphones, while others typed on their electronic devices, chewed salads or sipped green veggie cocktails. Almost automatically, I looked around for a bit of reading material, one of the Moscow magazines or newspapers normally piled near the entrance, but came up empty-handed.

It was a disturbing inconvenience for a person who can’t eat without reading. Noticing my confused look, a waiter explained that it all had happened more or less around the same time in early March, when deliveries of Bolshoi Gorod, the Moscow Times and Moscow News had simply stopped. Later, somebody even came by to pick up the stands.

“Welcome to a different world, free of independent media,” the waiter said to me with a smile.

The disappearance of newspapers from one of my favorite cafes was just one tiny part of a larger flow of change stemming from a profound shift in government policies and public opinion processes all across Russia. The state is mobilizing, and Russia is returning to the mentality of a besieged castle.

At the end of February, a majority of the nation was convinced that the time had come to defend Russian nationals living in Ukraine from “fascists.” In mid-March, the Levada Center reported that nearly half of Russians wanted Russia to again become “a great empire feared and respected by other countries,” while another 47 percent of respondents hoped to see Russia as a “prosperous country,” if not necessarily a powerful empire.

On March 18, just two days after the lightning referendum in which a majority of Crimeans voted to “return home” to Russia, President Vladimir Putin gave a historic speech in which he vowed to react harshly to any challenges from domestic critics he described as “traitors” or members of a subversive “fifth column.” The authorities quickly responded by issuing a set of new laws and rules.

For most of Mr. Putin’s reign, the government has placed national broadcast media and national newspapers under tight control, while leaving the Internet, which is used by a relatively small subset of Russians, largely to itself. Soon after Mr. Putin’s speech, this changed. Russians woke up and found they could not open any of the main opposition news outlets or blogs; the government shut down four websites in a single night.

Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Moscow bureau of Human Rights Watch, summarized: “Freedom evaporates with a clap of hands, independent media are closed, officials attack theaters, Internet providers are now obliged to shut down banned websites within 24 hours, without any notice.”

One day, Mr. Putin casually let drop he would like to be able to know who had dual citizenship in Russia. A few days later, Parliament came up with three different draft laws requiring dual nationals to register with the authorities.

Not all Russian liberals or members of the so-called creative class felt ready to accept the critical attacks or insults. The famous Taganka Theater demanded an apology from two Russian senators who accused the theater of promoting “homosexuality, violence, pedophilia and suicide.”

At a meeting last week, the members of the theater decided they would not tolerate “slanderous” statements by individuals or authorities. “The atmosphere at the theater has changed,” Taganka actress Ksenia Peretrukhina told me. “Most people disagree with the critical denunciations of our work sent to Putin and elsewhere.”

Everybody is wondering how far the ball of “Sovietization” can roll: How will it affect business, higher education, science? Will the new cold war mean that Russian professors and scientists will have to stop publishing in Western scientific magazines? Will students have to stop going on exchange programs? Will Russian and American astronauts put an end to joint flights together to space?

“Psychologically it’s very difficult,” said Irina Prokhorova, a prominent publisher and philanthropist. “In an instant, we suddenly seem to be living in a completely different country, a country where freedom of speech and human rights are dying.”

At least for now, Ms. Prokhorova can maintain her independence from the state: Her billionaire brother, Mikhail Prokhorov, funds her publishing house, her cultural program and a political party, called Civic Platform, that she now leads. As smoothly as the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the old totalitarian machine has once again started turning its giant wheels. But Ms. Prokhorova isn’t ready to give up:

“They’re the real fifth column, not us. We’re the real patriots, people who have spent decades creating useful and truly beautiful institutions for our country.”

What has inspired the surge of pro-imperialistic and anti-Western feelings?

I decided to ask a spokeswoman for the nationalist Rodina (“Motherland”) Party, recently revived after being banned from the political arena for several years because of its xenophobic slogans. Sofia Cherepanova told me that the new political agenda of the authorities, aimed at “gathering the lands” of former Soviet territories back into the Russian fold, appeals to the population.

“Finally, people can feel proud and useful in defending Russian national interests,” Ms. Cherepanova said, noting that volunteers have been eagerly offering Rodina their services across the country. “After Crimea, the focus should be on Transnistria,” Ms. Cherepa-nova told me, referring to the separatist territory inside the former Soviet republic of Moldova whose leaders recently declared their eagerness to join Russia. “We won’t give away a single piece of our land.”

Ann Nemtsova is a correspondent based in Moscow. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.


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