Where have all Russia's citizens gone?


Russian political observers have been titillated by Medvedev’s announcement that he will not be running for president. But what were they expecting? Andrei Konchalovsky was under no illusions: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Andrei Konchalovsky
27 October 2011

Watching the recent United Russia party congress on television recently was interesting. You got a kind of familiar feeling, exactly like you were watching a Soviet Communist party congress. When you see all That, you understand it’s not a question of lies or the truth, but simply the degree of untruth: is it total deception or are there some grains of truth left behind? 

On the other hand, what could you have hoped for from such a congress? What did you want? Debate? Who could be the debators? Just consider a bit – what kind of a party is this?

Our admirable former Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin once said that whatever kind of party you try to establish in Russia, it will always turn out like the Soviet Communist Party. A profound comment, because ‘United Russia’, like the Communist Party, is a mirror of the Russian people. Whereas the Communist Party was a mirror of the Soviet people, ‘United Russia’ mirrors the Russian people of today, a people who are just-getting-ready to modernise. United Russia is the mirror of the nation.

And what of the people who actually join the party? In the first instance, we are talking about active Russian citizens who know that in Russia business without proximity to power is an impossibility. Undeniably, that power is to be found in United Russia.  I've seen it with my own eyes: people sitting and writing on their knee, filling out application forms to join the party because they've been told that membership will help to advance their business. In my youth I thought the same: as soon as I was 25 I would join the party so as to be able to travel abroad. At that time this was only possible with 'support'. Luckily, I was spared. By the time I was 24 I had realised you actually had to dodge the party and I somehow managed to do that.


Former Russian PM Chernomyrdin once said: whatever party you try to create, it will always turn out like the Communist Party. In an entirely predicable way, the United Russia party has come to serve as a mirror of the Russian nation. Photo (c) United Russia

Other active Russian citizens – by which I mean those who do not want to get closer to Power – try and do business on their own. And then there is a third group of active citizens who are bitter that that UR is a 'party of thieves and crooks'. For them, it is as if we had another party in Russia united by a serious and profound idea that was worth dying for.

That's the active party of society. But what do we actually mean by that? And just how many Russians are active citizens? 

If you remember back to August 1991, the time of the putsch. Out of a population of 140 million, how many were enthused by the idea of this 'revolution'?  Petersburg and Moscow – that's all.

And 1993, when Parliament was being shot at, how many people were defending it?  I remember standing on the bridge in front of the White House. There was a crowd of gawpers enthusiastically watching the cannons puffing and people running. But a bit further away from the bridge there was another crowd of people, grumbling and asking when would it be over — because the trolleybuses had stopped running.

Can you imagine something like this happening in Paris or in England?  If tanks were firing on the English Parliament the whole nation would come to a stop!  In Moscow with its population of 12 million – just like a sovereign country – there were perhaps 40-50,000 people swept up by revolutionary fervour. Out of a country of 140 million!

So any idea that we might have a party with politically active members building a state is both naïve and futile.

'In 1993, when Parliament was being shot at, how many people were defending it?  I remember ... a crowd of gawpers enthusiastically watching the cannons puffing and people running. A bit further away from the bridge there was another crowd of people, grumbling and asking when would it be over — because the trolleybuses had stopped running'

Then you hear: 'We don't want Putin!' 'We want someone else!' But who could that be? Some say 'We don't want Putin, we have to get away somewhere else' and I am overcome by despair.  Dear friends, exclaiming that you don't want Putin, who do you want?  A goodie or a baddie?  Or someone to do what?  Deal with corruption?  Do you really and sincerely believe that Putin is to blame for the corruption that has corroded the whole country?  Who is it that is up to the neck in corruption? Have they emerged out of nowhere?  It's those same Russians. By the same score you also have to ask yourself why the Russians in government organisations are so successfully engaged in gangsterism and protection rackets while everyone else wants to get the hell out of Russia.

The point is there are no citizens in Russia.  What we have is a population. I wrote about this recently in my article on openDemocracy 'Russia: land of the Mob.'  Victor Loshak, the editor-in-chief of the political magazine Ogonyok  recently wrote 'the authorities behave in this way because society itself has abdicated responsibility'. 

When did society do this?  Tell me, when exactly?

Let me answer my own question: in the 10th century. The philosopher Vladimir Kantor has written very eloquently on this subject: Russian culture has the habit of voluntarily delegating all power to one person, then expecting this person to do everything right.  This has been going on since the 10th century, and still is.

I'm trying to get my head round where Russian citizens are. Take Kushchevskaya – where were those people? There just wasn't anyone to stop the Mob from raping and murdering people. The screams could be heard in the street, but no one came out, no one got involved. Now no one will give evidence because they are still afraid – the investigators will go back to Moscow, but the horror will remain there.

In that sense, a governor visited by the mob with machine guns can't run out into the street and shout for help because he's being pressurised and corrupted. No one would come to his help, because they're the population, not citizens.

We have no idea how long this will continue, or I don't at any rate. So it's no good thinking that some other politician should to come to power, neither Putin nor Medvedev, but someone else who will do everything right. He won't do anything either. One could, of course, sack everyone in office at the moment and appoint new people – but they will just be the same kind of people.

Who is to blame?  Anton Chekhov said 'We are all guilty, you and me, which means NO ONE ….'


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