Moscow, August 2013
This August I went to Moscow for the first time in over a year. I was there to help my grandmother move, a move necessitated in part by the fact that my sister, Masha, is leaving the country after twenty years. Masha is leaving the country because she is gay, and the Russian parliament, with the full support of the Kremlin, has decided that gay people are what’s wrong with Russia. A recent law even suggested that gay couples who had adopted could be stripped of parental rights; Masha adopted her son Vova twelve years ago. It was time to go.
I read the Russian news with particular intensity in the weeks before my visit, and not only because I was heading over. After a decade of stagnation, pseudo-politics, and the soft Putinism of the Medvedev years, things were getting interesting. The drama of the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny was entering a new phase. Navalny was the first more or less legitimate opposition leader since, basically, forever—certainly since Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire oil oligarch who’d been jailed in 2003; and before that Aleksandr Lebed, a popular general who’d managed to receive 15 percent of the vote in the presidential election of 1996, before being co-opted by Yeltsin; and before that Yeltsin himself when he mounted his opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev in the final years of the USSR. But Navalny was more intriguing than any of these people, because he hadn’t come up through the Soviet system. He was 15 when the Soviet Union collapsed; the Soviet Union, for him, meant standing in line for milk. Navalny owns an iPhone and a Twitter account, and he knows how to use them: he has more than 400,000 followers, and he is funny.
Navalny, whose background is in corporate law, came to prominence as an anticorruption activist and blogger during the Medvedev years, and became the de facto leader of the opposition during the protests that followed the rigged parliamentary elections in late 2011. It took the authorities barely a year to bring a rigged case against him; while on trial, he declared his candidacy for mayor of Moscow. In mid-July, just a few weeks before I arrived in Moscow, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Crowds gathered in the center of Moscow to protest. They were not massive, and they were not violent, and yet that evening it was announced that Navalny would be released pending his appeal. Navalny, who’d been standing trial in Kirov, an overnight train ride away, returned to the city to a hero’s welcome.
The commentariat began trying to figure out which forces in which Kremlin corridor had secured his release: allies of the current Moscow mayor, who wanted to show he could beat Navalny in a free election, or enemies of the mayor, who wanted to embarrass him, or . . . ? Eventually all conspiracy theories come to look alike. In this case they weren’t very useful. “Not because there aren’t any conspiracies,” as the socialist activist Ilya Budraitskis put it, “but because there are so many.” And the people were in the streets. Next time the protest will be bigger, and the next time bigger still. One of my favorite political columnists, Alexander Morozov, posted a photo on his blog: it showed a column of helmeted riot troops, in full gear, facing off against a column of citizens. They were across the street from Duma. “Someone needs to show this photo to Putin, and explain what I’m talking about,” Morozov wrote. “It will be clear to anyone who’s studied the history of the 20th century. . . . Looking at this photo, we need to recognize a clear political development. On one side are citizens who no longer trust a single institution; on the other is the only institution that is keeping the regime in place.” There are only two ways in which the situation can develop: either the defenders of the regime decide to evaporate, or the citizens resort to violence. Another political columnist, Victor Shenderovich, was less circumspect than Morozov. He wrote a column he called “Idiots,” in which he described the foolishness of the regime. “Idiots,” he kept repeating. “They are idiots.” They didn’t know how to run the country, and what’s worse they didn’t know how to respond to criticism. By responding so aggressively, they were pushing Russia in the worst possible direction. “You are idiots,” Shenderovich concluded, “who are leaving less and less room for any political compromise, and who are pushing this country toward the shedding of blood.”
Russia was in a revolutionary situation. That’s what it felt like from my computer screen in Brooklyn. I packed my stuff and got on the plane.
I spent my first three days in town moving. Masha and I went to the nearest liquor store—formerly an all-night liquor store, now a liquor store open the maximum eligible hours, from 10 AM to 10 PM—and scored ten free boxes, but struck out at the hardware store (closed because their electricity was out), the fancy supermarket with a big wine department (“we get our boxes picked up daily”), and the other hardware store (closed for good, because of gentrification). A friend suggested we go to the post office and was right: the post office had beautiful blue “Post Office of Russia” boxes for $4 apiece, which is about what you’d pay for that size box at Home Depot in Brooklyn. After a long wait, Moscow post offices being like New York post offices, except even slower, we bought fifteen of them. “Are you sure you don’t want twenty-five?” the post office clerk said. “They come twenty-five to a package.”
“We want fifteen.”
“All right,” she said wearily. “I’ll open the package.”
We spent the first day putting all my grandmother’s old books into the boxes, then her kitchenware and clothes. The next morning, a small truck—large trucks are now banned from the city center, to help with congestion—showed up with a mover and a driver, and the mover and I put everything into the truck. The driver, a specialist, stayed in the truck and smoked, then calmly maneuvered us the three miles to my grandmother’s new apartment on the Moscow River. We emptied the truck, then returned to the old apartment to clean up. The next day was spent setting up the new apartment: unpacking boxes, arranging my grandmother’s stuff, hanging the portrait of her husband, who died seven years ago, in her room where she could see it. And then we were done.
I went out and walked around my grandmother’s new neighborhood. Since she had moved to her previous apartment a dozen years ago, I had come to love the area it was in, bounded on one side by Trubnaya Square and on the other by Chistye Prudy (“Clean Ponds”). It was a neighborhood that was quiet, old, and central. It was a half-hour walk to the Kremlin, half that to KGB headquarters at Lubyanka, and it’s also where the opposition holds most of its meetings, protests, and so on—the July 2012 “Occupy” encampment was there. A few years back, a group of young leftists had started organizing “Street Universities” on the boulevard near my grandmother’s place, by the big statue of Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, and I attended a few. Once they invited two Italian left anarchists, “students of Negri,” as the Street University explained in their email, to give a talk on “cognitive capitalism.” It was a beautiful summer day, and nearby, so I brought my grandmother. As the Italians spoke about how in conditions of late modernity the battleground had shifted from the streets and factories to the realm of “cognition,” a group of skinheads, in jackboots and army fatigues, beers in hand, showed up and started posing for pictures with Krupskaya. Despite numerous news stories about them, I’d never seen actual skinheads in the center of Moscow, and I wondered if they were the good, antifascist kind. Then they started throwing Sieg Heils for the camera. The Italians continued their lecture as the Nazis goofed around behind them and I counted our numbers—six young women, three male grad students, two Italian left anarchists, and a 90-year-old grandmother. We moved the lecture a few benches over, so we could hear better.
My grandmother’s new neighborhood, on the embankment of the Moscow River, behind the Kremlin, was very different. Historically it has been a residential and manufacturing district; the Red October chocolate factory is here, and so is the large apartment building where party functionaries lived after the Revolution—it was memorialized in Yuri Trifonov’s novel The House on the Embankment, about a building filled with old Bolsheviks that gradually lost its residents to the purges. Walking around now, you feel like they never came back. The buildings are large, but there aren’t many people around. It’s very quiet. The road running along the embankment is wide and dramatic and oddly free of traffic; this was the spot where, in a key scene in the Russian crime show Brigada, the crew pulls onto the road and sees that their watches aren’t working properly, just seconds before their Mercedes explodes. This is, in effect, the back half of the city. Would my grandmother feel like she’d been sent into exile here? It’s not like she leaves the house much anymore, but still. In the basement of her new building there is an ultimate fighting training center called Patriot.
“Why’s it called Patriot?” I asked my sister’s partner, Dasha, whose apartment my grandmother had moved into.
“What else would it be called?” Dasha said.
I spend a lot of my life in coffee shops. This isn’t because I love coffee so much but because, by common accord, it’s OK to sit in a coffee shop and read. When I lived in Moscow it was no different—at least, when Moscow finally developed coffee shops, which was around the end of the first Putin term. At that point, two competing chains opened, Kofe Khauz and Shokoladnitsa. Both smelled bad, allowed smoking, and charged $5 for a cup of coffee—but it was a start. Eventually a smaller chain called Coffee Bean entered the market, and so did Starbucks. In 2007 or so, a small French bakery and coffee shop opened around the corner from my grandmother’s house; it served the cheapest cup of coffee in the neighborhood, at $2, and also little Russian-style pastries like cabbage pie. It even had Wi-Fi, though no bathroom, which limited the amount of time you could enjoy the Wi-Fi. Occasionally the French owner would come in and discuss things with the Russian manager. In 2009, they opened a second location a mile away.
This August I found the place much changed. The chairs and tables were nicer, the food selection was wider, and there was a bathroom. Most surprising, the food came with a paper place mat that showed a map of Moscow with all the café’s locations—there were now thirteen! Thirteen nice places to sit, all across the city center, with affordable coffee, cabbage pies, and, maybe, bathrooms.
The weekend arrived and I had dinner with some expat journalists, British and American—all of them young, intelligent, earnest, very well informed. A few had been forced by their bureaus to chase Edward Snowden during his stay at Sheremetevo. They bought tickets for flights they never intended to take so that they could enter the transit area; if you arrived more than three hours before your supposed flight, you could check into the transit hotel, where Snowden was supposedly holed up. No one saw any sign of Snowden. On the way out of the airport the journalists had to explain to security why they had missed their flights—they fell asleep, they fell ill, they received an unexpected work assignment. One journalist bought so many unused tickets that he lost his nerve and finally used one of them, to Yerevan. When he arrived, border officials wanted to know what he wanted, given that his return flight was in two hours. He thought quickly and said, “I’m an American! I love collecting border stamps on my passport. Please stamp me!” The Armenians let him through.
It was a great relief for the foreign press corps when Snowden finally left the airport, though no one knew where to. Still, it wasn’t over. “My editor wants me to do a day-by-day breakdown of Snowden’s activities in the airport,” one of the journalists said. “I’m going to stall and hope he forgets.”
It’s not easy being an expat journalist. Your job on the one hand is to cover the horrors and tragedies taking place in Russia; your job on the other hand is to live in Russia, to have fun and fall in love and so on (a lot of the journalists are in their twenties). The worse things are, the more there is to write about, and the more chances to get a story on the front page of your paper. The better things are, the nicer it is to live in this place where you will spend four, five, six years. Sometimes, in this era of soft or consumer authoritarianism, you can have both: the political situation deteriorates while the living situation improves.
The hot topic in current Russia coverage is definitely Nazis. Two of the journalists at dinner were working on stories about neo-Nazis. They compared notes on skinheads they knew. A few months earlier, one of them had attended a soccer game between a visiting British team and a local Russian team. His editor thought there’d be ethnic violence against the visiting fans. “I sat in the VIP section, which turned out to be outdoors like everything else. It was February. I was sitting on concrete and freezing.” Worst of all? “There was no ethnic violence.”
This reporter, Andrew, also told an interesting story of going on a raid with a vigilante antimigrant group that takes tips from residents about apartments occupied by possibly illegal workers, then “raids” them at night and demands to see everyone’s papers. If the papers aren’t in order, they call the police. There is vigilantism of this sort throughout Russia right now—one group entraps pedophiles online, then pours urine on their heads; one group “cures” drug addicts (often at the request of their families) by kidnapping them and chaining them to a bed; and my own favorite group, StopKham, or Stop Rudeness, places huge shaming stickers on the windshields of cars that are illegally parked in Moscow. Sometimes the driver shows up and a fight ensues, which the driver invariably loses. Like the other groups, StopKham posts videos of incidents (edited, with a sound track, and sometimes instant replay) on YouTube.
Andrew accompanied the antimigrant vigilantes to an apartment building in Moscow. They’d heard that a group of illegal guest workers from Uzbekistan was living there. Andrew, dutifully, decided he should go in before the vigilantes, because once they entered it would be hard to do an interview. He rang the buzzer and went in. “I was like, ‘There’s a group of guys out there who are about to burst in here and demand your papers. How do you feel about that?’ But I was the first one in, so, actually, it was sort of like I was the one doing the raid.” The Uzbeks turned out to have proper papers, and the vigilantes left empty-handed.
Despite their need to chase skinheads and Snowden in order to please their editors, it was from the expat journalists that I first got the sense there was no revolutionary situation. Things have improved, they said. Gorky Park, once a dump, has been beautifully reconstructed. The parking situation is better, because the city has finally started handing out fines for parking violations, so there are fewer cars on the sidewalks. There are more decent, reasonably priced restaurants and cafés—in fact, we were sitting in one now. “The city government has responded to a lot of what the protesters were protesting about,” one of the reporters said. “Which does raise the question of, what are they protesting about?”
My first thought was about how hard it was for foreign journalists to keep their perspective—especially if they were any good. It used to be that all expat journalists lived in one of a few compounds, were driven around in cars hired by their bureaus, had most of their needs met by Moscow’s very affordable service industry, spent their time interviewing government officials, politologists, and dissidents, and barely touched ground. Now, as controls have become looser, and salaries lower, the journalists live like ordinary upwardly mobile Muscovites, and their concerns become the Muscovites’ concerns—so if an authoritarian government fixes up a park where they can ride bikes and lowers the entry barrier for small cafés, they think everything is fine.
But my second thought was, maybe everything is fine? If journalists live like ordinary people, and they’re happy, what more exactly do I want?
The next day I went to see Navalny meet with voters.
Now that he was no longer on trial, Navalny was campaigning feverishly. In addition to his vigorous tweeting, he was speaking at three or four voter meetings a day; he did this methodically, moving outward along a branch of the metro, each meeting two hours after the last. The one I caught was at 6 PM, way out in western Moscow on the blue line. From the center I rode the subway for nearly an hour, then emerged in one of the exurban neighborhoods where most Muscovites actually live—a series of identical giant apartment blocks, and between them some greenery, playgrounds, and small grocery stores. A lot of these neighborhoods, built in the 1970s and ’80s, have started falling apart, whereas this one was built in the last twenty years and seemed in good shape. The meeting took place near the metro, on a pedestrian median on the main street, and when I arrived a crowd of about a hundred people was already sitting in chairs and on the grass, before a small stage and some speakers that played old dance hall music. It was a lovely August Sunday.
Navalny arrived a few minutes late, took the microphone, apologized, and launched into his talk. “My name is Alexei Navalny,” he began. “I am 37 years old.” He is a good-looking guy, tall, blond, blue-eyed, with a bit of a paunch—a nice-looking dad. I enjoyed his talk. Navalny has built most of his political capital through his intensive anticorruption work. For years he has been buying shares in large Russian corporations, mostly in the oil and gas sector, and using his rights as a shareholder to demand transparency in the companies’ business practices. More recently he launched a partly crowdsourced web project that examines government contracts for signs of corruption or excess spending, such as when a provincial bureaucrat orders a $200,000 BMW for “official use.” The project has been extraordinarily successful, not only in canceling unnecessary orders for government BMWs, but in giving Russian citizens an effective method of talking back to their government. This is where, at his meeting with voters, Navalny began his personal political biography. “People ask me, ‘Navalny, why do you care about this? Why do you care about Gazprom, Rosneft? What does that have to do with you?’ Why am I doing this? Because I feel that I personally have been robbed. Not all of us in general, but me, personally: I have been robbed.
“I’ve done a simple calculation, and I’ll tell you what it is. We live in Russia. And it so happens that we make oil and gas. That’s what we do. That’s what we make. And do you know how much money Russia has earned in the past fifteen years, the rich Putin years, on oil and gas? Does anyone have a guess?”
“Two trillion!” someone called out.
“Close,” said Navalny. “Three trillion. Three trillion dollars. Not rubles. Dollars. Does anyone know how much that is? Is it a lot, a little?”
“It’s a lot!”
“Well, in fact, no one knows how much that is,” said Navalny. “It’s an abstract sum. But if you divide it up per person, it becomes more manageable. Per person, in Russia, that is 640,000 rubles [about $20,000]. Per person. I am a family of four, my wife and two kids. So my question is, where is my two-and-a-half million rubles [about $80,000]? Now, I know I am not supposed to personally get that two-and-a-half million rubles. It’s supposed to come to me in the form of schools, health clinics, roads. So where are my schools, health clinics, my roads? Look around. There aren’t any. Where is my space program, my army, my big industrial projects? Where are my oil and gas dollars? Where are they?”
He went on to describe how, in his capacity as a litigious minority shareholder, he met the woman who runs the legal department at Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company. “And when I go to this woman—who, by the way, makes thirty million dollars a year, that’s her salary—and she looks me in the eye and says, ‘Why are you sticking your nose in this? Where did you get the idea that this is yours, that any of this is yours?’—that’s when I realized that I had been robbed, that I had been robbed in broad daylight, as simply as if someone had stuck their hand in my pocket and taken my wallet.” And Navalny didn’t like it.
As a conversion narrative, this struck me as being not weak so much as impersonal. Yet perhaps there was something to the impersonality, and in certain ways the pettiness (“Where is my money?”), of Navalny’s story. He talked about how he was an ordinary Muscovite who sent his kids to the local public schools and went for medical care at the local clinic and sat in traffic on the local roads. At each of these places he calculated how much money was being taken from him in taxes and other fees, and in each of these places he wondered where the money had gone to, because the schools, clinics, and roads were in bad shape. Navalny was the ordinary citizen par excellence; this was his advantage. He was different not only from the ruling party that sent its kids to schools in Britain, but also from a lot of the liberal opposition that liked to pretend it lived in France or Spain or the US—anywhere but Russia.
On the minus side, Navalny had, like the average Muscovite, a set of ugly prejudices, chief among them that crime was committed by “migrants.” “Fifty percent of all violent crimes are committed by migrants,” he said, repeating a canard of the anti-immigration right. He went on to explain that, as a regular Muscovite with a wife and kids, he too was worried about the “migrants” who were robbing and killing innocent Russians, and he was going to work on getting them out. Looking around, I saw a group of Navalny’s campaign volunteers; they were mostly young, and somewhat strikingly Slavic. One of them wore a T-shirt that said I’M RUSSIAN. As in ethnically Russian. It was the functional equivalent of an American wearing a shirt that said I’M WHITE.
After some questions and answers, the meeting ended, though Navalny couldn’t go off to his next meeting before accommodating all the people who wanted his autograph and to have their photo taken with him on their phones. It was still a beautiful night, but there was nowhere to buy a beer; as part of its recent beautification campaign the city had chased out the small kiosks that used to sell beer and Snickers bars and, on a day like this, ice cream.
The day after I saw Navalny I went to the Moscow City Court to see the recently reopened trial in the 2006 murder of the Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
There had been an earlier trial, in 2009, which I covered for the New Yorker. The defendants then were two young Chechen brothers named Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, a former police officer named Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, and an FSB agent. The police officer was accused of organizing the killing, the FSB agent of helping to locate Politkovskaya, and the two brothers of acting as lookouts and driving the getaway car. A third brother, Rustam, allegedly the one who shot Politkovskaya five times at close range in her building’s elevator, was on the lam. The trial went forward without him.
That first trial—I’d never seen anything like it. The prosecution’s case seemed relatively strong, but under pressure—especially from a very talented young defense lawyer named Murad Musaev—it unraveled. Almost all the evidence was based on cell phone tracking that placed people in a certain location at a certain time. But there weren’t any witnesses. Khadzhikurbanov, the police officer, was an unpleasant person, but there was no indication of who might have asked him to organize this killing; and the two young brothers, especially Dzhabrail, seemed too clueless to have had anything to do with this. When the jury delivered a verdict for all parties of not guilty, even the press cheered.
Five years later, things had changed. Rustam Makhmudov, the alleged triggerman, had been arrested in Chechnya and brought back to Moscow to stand trial, where he joined his brothers. And the brothers’ uncle, a well-known mob figure named Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, was also on the bench of the accused—according to the prosecution, he was the one who hired Khadzhikurbanov. Another police officer, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, who had appeared briefly in the other trial with a somewhat convoluted story, had now come forward with a much simpler one, and implicated everybody, including himself.
Other things had changed. While we waited to be let into the courtroom, I caught up with Vera Chelischeva, the reporter from Novaya Gazeta who’d covered the last trial. As we talked, heavily armed soldiers in vests, the defendants’ lawyers, and some of the defendants themselves made their way past. Then three more guys appeared. They were big guys, casually dressed in T-shirts that showed off their muscles, and not Chechen. They weren’t the accused, whom I would have recognized; they sure as hell weren’t lawyers. The journalists went quiet as they walked by. When they turned the corner, Vera said, “FSBeshniki.” This time, they were keeping an eye on the trial.
When we finally entered the courtroom, the contrasts continued. The judge kept the eloquent Musaev on a tight leash; more dramatically, the mumbling, unconvincing lead prosecutor from the last trial had been replaced by a snarling bulldog of a man, Boris Loktionov, with a shaved head and a short red mustache, who seemed determined to lead this case to a victorious conclusion.
Most of all, the case itself seemed much stronger. The prosecution’s story was the same, but some of the huge gaps in their logic had been filled in, both by the testimony of the police officer Pavlyuchenkov and by the sheer malevolent presence of Rustam Makhmudov and Lom-Ali Gaitukayev. In the first trial, Dzabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov really seemed like they might have been picked up at random (some of the Russian journalists covering the case thought this)—they couldn’t have had anything to do with a crime this serious. But Rustam, paunchy, ugly, a head shorter than his younger brothers, who had declared to the court that he’d torn up the indictment—literally torn it to pieces, all four volumes—well, Rustam did seem like a criminal. And Gaitukayev, the uncle, was a known criminal: he is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence for organizing a contract killing in Dnipropetrovsk.
Trying to fit it all together, I kept thinking about an interview Novaya Gazeta published with a police officer who’d been asked by Pavlyuchenkov to carry out surveillance on Politkovskaya in the weeks before her murder. The policeman said he had been paid between $100 and $150 to follow “a woman” who worked at 9 Potopovsky Pereulok (the address of Novaya Gazeta) and lived at 7 Lesnaya Ulitsa (where Politkovskaya was eventually shot). What was striking about the interview was that the anonymous policeman confessed everything; he was clearly being honest. And yet, despite the fact that she was a well-known journalist, the police officer claimed to have had no idea that he was following Politkovskaya. You could almost believe him. He must have known, at some level, but he could certainly, easily, have refused to understand what he knew. Maybe the woman worked at some other office inside the Novaya Gazeta building? Maybe the woman worked at Novaya Gazeta but they were watching her for her own protection? There are many things he might have told himself to keep from knowing exactly what he was doing.
The biggest problem for the prosecution in the first trial may have been Dzhabrail Makhmudov, the alleged getaway driver. He was an earnest, mop-haired sweetheart. He had come to Moscow to attend college, and he’d written his thesis on the refugee crisis in Chechnya. He’d interviewed lots of people, he said; he’d used Politkovskaya’s articles in his research. He didn’t come across as any kind of scholar, but he did seem sincere. He said he had no idea why his cell phone signal put him in Politkovskaya’s neighborhood on the day of the crime—he moved around Moscow a lot, and it was a central neighborhood. Could he remember what he was doing on October 7, 2006, then? No, he said. He couldn’t really remember what he was doing last week, especially after the police beat the shit out of him in detention. It was stuff you could believe or not believe, depending on the other evidence. And then he said something that was not required of him, and that seemed very heartfelt: he said he really admired Anna Politkovskaya. She had written so much about the sufferings of the Chechens during the two wars they’d endured; she had been so brave. “No one who knew me would ever ask me to do anything to hurt Anna Politkovskaya,” said Dzhabrail. “No one who knew me would even talk about such a thing in my presence.” What I realized, reading the confession of the policeman who’d followed Politkovskaya without knowing she was Politkovskaya, is that Dzhabrail, too, might never have been told what exactly he was being asked to do, when he was asked to drive his brother away from a building where he had to run an important errand. If he was in a position to figure it out, he may have refused to figure it out. No one would have talked about hurting Anna Politkovskaya in his presence, and perhaps no one did.
What does it matter who killed Politkovskaya? She is only one person; many, many people—thousands? tens of thousands?—were killed in business disputes in the post-Soviet era, whether small-time hoodlums fighting over who got to shake down a vegetable stand at the local market, or highly visible businessmen like American hotel owner Paul Tatum, shot dead in 1996 amid a dispute over the ownership of the Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel. And many more people—hundreds of thousands—died from the depression, the despair, the alcoholism that accompanied the loss of work and medical care that the government had once provided. Russia had “excess mortality” of 1.3 million between 1990 and 1994. Deaths in the hundreds of thousands: that is what shock therapy looks like.
Compared to all that, it doesn’t matter much at all. But at the time, in 2006, it was the sort of event that Alexander Herzen once called “a pistol shot in the dead of night”—it was proof that things were not going well; that people were not safe; that Putin, despite his state-building ambitions, was not actually creating a state in which the government could protect its citizens. I take it as a given that Putin had nothing directly to do with Politkovskaya’s death. That is below his pay grade. But I don’t discount the possibility that Putin’s friend Ramzan Kadyrov, now the president of Chechnya, had something to do with it. And if the leader of Chechnya can order the murder of a journalist in central Moscow, that is meaningful: it means Russia did not win the second Chechen war.
The second Politkovskaya trial was not ignored by the press in Moscow, but there were now numerous other trials going on. In addition to Navalny, there were the Bolotnaya prisoners, mostly innocent people who had been jailed in the aftermath of the big opposition protest at Bolotnaya Square in mid-2012. Their trials were just starting. So were various appeals and protests connected to the Pussy Riot convictions from a year before. After a decade during which the Putin regime was effectively able to freeze the country’s political processes, these had finally come unfrozen.
The great Russian political scientist Dmitry Furman, who died in 2011, performed numerous comparative analyses of the revolutionary upheavals in various post-Soviet states, and his conclusion was that revolutions, or near-revolutions, tended to happen around elections. This was, he admitted, a somewhat paradoxical conclusion, since one of the similarities among the otherwise very different post-Soviet states, from Georgia to Moldova to Kyrgyzstan, was that their elections were basically fake. And yet they were elections, and it turns out there is only so much fakery people will accept. The pot boiled over in Russia in December 2011, when after years of fraudulent elections the opposition managed to film and photograph numerous violations (with, yes, iPhones) and circulate these widely (on social media), to the point where people took to the streets. It was not enough to topple the government, in part because that government had put so many resources into co-opting, bribing, and where necessary bullying the opposition into nonexistence, and in part because the Communists, the ones who had their votes stolen in that election, have never, in the post-Soviet era, been willing to truly fight.
Aside from elections, in the post-Soviet space we have seen that, sometimes, the murder of a journalist can have genuine consequences at the state level. The otherwise popular second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, had his regime destabilized in the early 2000s by tape recordings that had him apparently suggesting to the head of his secret service that a muckraking journalist named Georgy Gongadze be “dealt with.” A short time later, Gongadze’s decapitated body was found in the woods outside Kiev. The Gongadze murder became a major factor in the eventual election of Viktor Yuschenko in 2005.
Nothing like this has happened in Russia with any of its murdered journalists, nor is it likely to. If definitive proof surfaced tomorrow that Putin was responsible for, or aware of in advance, the apartment bombings of September 1999, that might do something, but all the people who could have such proof are either dead or not talking. When you have control of the security services, and the newspapers, and the television channels, it’s hard for a scandal to get a lot of traction against you.
There is, however, a third possibility for upheaval, in addition to elections and scandals, and it would have fallen outside Furman’s analysis of the post-Soviet states because it is peculiar to Russia: this is an event or series of events that exacerbates humiliation of the former imperial center. Empires can go out quietly, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire went quietly, or they can go out in a burst of ethnic violence, as the Ottoman Empire went out in 1918. The collapse of the Soviet empire was accompanied by ethnic violence on its peripheries, between the Armenians and Azeris, the Georgians and Abkhazians and Ossetians, the Kyrghyz and Tajiks, as well as, in Afghanistan, the Tajiks and Pashtuns. But for the most part Russia, and the largest ethnos, the Russians, stayed out of it. The major exception was Chechnya, where the anti-Russian politics prevalent throughout the periphery of the empire took on a more dramatic character, and which eventually Russia invaded in 1994. Having lost the first war, Russia invaded again in 1999. But by this point, all the ethnic Russians had fled Chechnya.
When Navalny talks about “migrants,” he is talking about ethnically non-Slavic guest workers from Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam—but especially from the North Caucasus, particularly Dagestan and Chechnya. For Navalny, Chechnya inside the Russian Federation is a poison pill; it gives Chechens the opportunity to rob and kill ordinary Russians.
This is, unfortunately, an explosive political issue. Before the 2011–12 election protests, by far the largest and most energetic protest during the Putin era took place in December 2010, when a Russian soccer fan was stabbed to death by a young Chechen in Moscow, who was then released from custody by the police (presumably because a bribe changed hands). That evening several thousand soccer fans filled the square in front of the Kremlin and fought riot police and refused to go home until they were assured that the investigation would be taken up again in earnest.
Navalny knows all this; he doesn’t just know it, he feels it. His funny, hypermodern, with-it tweets will occasionally be interrupted by a link about a “Caucasian” committing some sort of heinous crime. If it turns out that Chechens killed Politkovskaya, that won’t really surprise anyone. If it turns out that Putin knew about the September 1999 apartment bombings, and used them to justify attacking Chechnya: well, again, no one minds having attacked Chechnya. But if it turns out, as Navalny has been suggesting, that Putin was somehow in league with the Chechens—either by allowing Ramzan Kadyrov to settle his disputes in Moscow, or by coordinating the 1999 apartment bombings with certain elements in the Chechen opposition—that could be a real issue. And if that became a real issue, it would become a real problem for those seeking a nonnationalist, nonviolent, multiethnic Russia. It could turn out that the worst thing Putin did was leave the country vulnerable to the far right.
On one of my last nights in Moscow I went to see my friends Kirill Medvedev and Anna Moiseenko. Kirill is a poet and socialist activist and the lead singer of the band Arkady Kots. He’d just returned from Helsinki, where they’d played at a festival of “Russian street actions.” A couple of months before he’d been in Vienna at something similar. It seems like the ungroomed, civilized Europeans really appreciate the more radical segments of Russian art, which are sometimes its best segments and sometimes not. In this case, yes. Anya, his girlfriend, is a documentary filmmaker. She’d just returned from a film festival in Odessa. They live in a three-bedroom apartment with no common area, with two other young people. It’s a living arrangement that would have driven our parents’ generation, many of whom had started their lives living in communal apartments, crazy, but it’s also the way young people live in New York, and probably in most cities where real estate is expensive.
I brought a bunch of beer over, Anya cooked some chicken, and we sat in their kitchen and discussed political violence, Pussy Riot (which is enduring a schism), and Navalny. (Anya said that, despite everything that was wrong with him, in particular his attitude toward migrants, she’d vote for him because he was the only hope for ending the Putin hegemony; Kirill said that, despite possibly agreeing that Navalny was the most viable opposition candidate, he would not: “I can’t step over myself; I just wouldn’t be able to do it.”) Kirill has recently been getting some traction, at long last, as a political activist and thinker, and a few months ago he was invited onto the television show Shkola Zloslovia (approximately, “Lessons in Acid-Laced Conversation”), a long-running late-night talk show in which the well-known and very talented writer Tatyana Tolstaya and her cohost Avdotya Smirnova grill someone about his beliefs and then, at the end of the show, talk shit about him. The show’s guests tend to be writers and scholars, so it’s not so shocking that they’d have Kirill. At the same time, NTV, on which it airs, is one of the most awful, pro-Kremlin propaganda channels, and the hosts need to be careful. “They need to keep doing the show but avoid subjects of conversation, like the state of contemporary poetry, that would inevitably lead people to talk about the bloody Putin regime,” Kirill half-joked. “So instead they try to talk about the menace of bloody Bolshevism.” The hosts, Smirnova especially, were incredulous that Kirill wants to bring socialism back to Russia, where it’s had such a vexed history. “Tell me,” Smirnova said, “if the socialists took over, would you, Kirill Medvedev, kill me, Avdotya Smirnova?”
“Well,” said Kirill. “No doubt there would be resistance, and we’d have to make certain determinations.”
A lot of people on the Russian left were disgusted by the interview; I thought it went fine.
“You should have told her you’d kill her first,” I told Kirill.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s what everyone’s been telling me.”
I asked him whether he thought Russia had entered a revolutionary situation. He recalled Lenin’s remark in January 1917: “We of the older generation may not see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” A few months later, Lenin stood up in the Petrograd Soviet and said Yest’ takaya partiya!—“There is such a party!”—in response to Martov’s question of whether anyone actually wanted to run the country. The Bolsehviks did.
But there are, Kirill said, no Bolsheviks about. “In order to have a revolution, you need someone to make the revolution. If I thought there was such a party, I’d say so. But I don’t see it.”
In truth, what Kirill and Anya wanted most to talk about was the poet Dmitry Vodennikov, a kind of hero of Kirill’s who had pioneered the autobiographical, “direct address” wave of poetry in the early 2000s, and who had recently taken to posting poems about and photos of his dachshund on his Facebook page. “That’s all he ever writes about now,” said Anya. “His little dachshund and what it does, and also about himself, how fat he’s become.”
“Imagine the strength of will this requires,” Kirill said, amazed. “There’s so many things going on all around: protests, Navalny, Putin. And he refuses to let any of that into his poetry. It’s just him and his little dachshund.”
“Kirill says this is what happens when a poet doesn’t commit suicide in time,” Anya said. “But I think this is better.”
“And I,” Kirill said, “disagree.”
Two days later, I flew out of Sheremetevo in the middle of the night. In the weeks that followed, Navalny kept up his exhausting campaign, and on September 8 he received nearly 30 percent of the votes cast in the mayoral election, a remarkable result for an opposition candidate under conditions of a total media blackout. The incumbent mayor received 51.4 percent, just barely enough to avoid a runoff. Exit polls indicated that the mayor’s actual result was more like 49.5 percent, and the remainder of the votes were tacked on. Navalny held a protest rally but did not call for violence. “Someday,” he said, “I may call you here and ask you to start turning over cars and burning things down. But I will tell you in advance that I’m going to do that, so that everyone will know what they’re getting into.” The Navalny campaign filed a suit against the election results. It was, predictably, rejected by a Moscow court.
In mid-August, the most sympathetic defendant in the Politkovskaya case, Dzhabrail Makhmudov, was shot in the leg in central Moscow. It wasn’t clear by whom or why; the trial was briefly delayed, and then continued.
My sister came to New York in the fall to look for an apartment. She and her family hope to move here in December. The gay community in Russia remains under siege.
My grandmother settled into her new apartment OK. The fact that we re-created her old room has helped.
In mid-October, an Azeri guest worker stabbed a young Muscovite in the chest in southern Moscow. The next day a huge crowd of young people took to the streets, smashing up and burning businesses associated with Caucasians, fighting riot police, and attacking people who looked like they weren’t Russian.
My flight back to New York went through Pisa. I was a little sleepy and delirious by the time we got there. Pisa’s is a tiny airport, with three small, partly outdoor cafés in the arrival terminal. They were filled with people, apparently killing time as they waited for friends or relatives to fly in. Bleary-eyed, half-asleep, I saw dozens of Italians drinking espresso, talking loudly and expressively, and laughing.