Year in review: the history of one country and the life of one person

Article published on March 16, 2008
Article published on March 16, 2008
© The New Europe Journal -- Ales Chaichyts, Moscow, December 2007 sequence from Das Leben Der Anderen As of the end of 2007 Belarus ceased to be the last dictatorship in Europe. Not because it stopped being a dictatorship, but because it stopped being the last.
And for people used to subconsciously contrasting the relatively democratic Russia with the unreservedly dictatorial Belarus the thought that Russia is becoming a country under an increasingly odious dictatorial regime requires at the very least to reconsider their understanding of the world.

In history it is customary to separate one period from another. History textbooks are divided into chapters, paragraphs telling us about different periods of civilization and countries like a TV series. However, if you are in the centre of events it often happens that you don’t notice the changes around you although nonetheless you are undergoing them. Then at some point you become aware of the change and have to ask yourself when the cut off point occurred between before and after.Things happen gradually. In 2000 the legendary freedom loving TV channel NTV was taken over. Afterwards, a much easier liquidation of the TVC channel took place where most of the oppositional NTV’s team had earlier found refuge. In 2002 hostages together with terrorists were gassed in a theatre in Moscow. In 2003 Khodorkovsky’s assets were seized and YUKOS, one of the most effective and transparent corporations in Russia, was sunk . In 2004 tanks shelled the Beslan school full of hostages which through the curious logic of state propaganda led to the cancellation of the gubernatorial elections. . In the end of 2004 a whole town in Bashkortostan was subjected to violent beatings by state police . In 2006 Anna Politkovskaya was murdered.


Everything should have become clear straight after the adoption in the beginning of 2000 of the Soviet anthem and the takeover of NTV in the middle of the same year. And yet there are people who would not call what is happening in Russia today a dictatorship: the oppositional radio station Echo of Moscow still broadcasts although it could be easily closed by order of its main shareholder – Gazprom-Media. For those free thinkers there is always the Internet and LiveJournal even though it is controlled by an organization linked to the former deputy chairman of the Presidential office .

At what point did Russia’s democratic reality turn into a dictatorial one? It is not possible to say for sure.


In 2007 for the first time international organizations did not recognize the elections in the State Duma as democratic – for the first time this lack of democracy left no doubts. Whatever people would say about the Presidential elections of 1996 those elections did not see millions of opposition leaflets impounded, public sector employees coerced into voting for whom they were told to and opposition activists intimidated or even murdered ).


In 2007 the election day reports were reminiscent of the reports from the Belarusian Presidential elections with the only difference that the confused and fragmented Russian opposition did not organize anything even vaguely resembling the protests in Minsk in March 2006, let alone those in Kiev in November 2004. The methods of state propaganda became particularly perverse: starting in December 2007 “United Russia” was advertised on TV in a popular KVN Quiz Show, the Russian Fame Academy and on Wheel of Fortune. Starting from the first few weeks following the elections some young members of the opposition were restricted from travelling abroad and some were even restricted from re-entering Russia .


2007 was the year when Boris Yeltsin – the first and only president of the then democratic Russia died. The hearse carrying his body rushed along New Arbat like yet another period of Russian history and waved goodbye to a chance for democracy in Russia. After all, when in 1999 the nepotistic transfer of power was perceived as a disgraceful but necessary exception; in 2007 it looks adequate and logical, even less logical than a third term in office for President Putin. What you feel is apathy and being at odds with reality.

The end of December 2007. The country hangs suspended between undemocratic elections for the Duma and Presidential elections that will be obviously equally undemocratic. The outcome forecast after March 2008 is not at all optimistic.

On the one hand, your parents grew up and you yourself were born during the Soviet dictatorship so your status as a subject of a totalitarian state is not completely alien. The slave mentality was reawakened within society very quickly. Centuries of serfdom reappeared in the genetic memory and backs were hunched in a habitual bow in front of the master. On the other hand, you have lived most of your life during the years of democracy and you became accustomed to thinking that in terms of civil and political freedoms your country was no worse than many others: weaker than Central Europe but stronger than Africa according to the ratings of human rights organizations. And it is now hard to believe that your country is approaching a catastrophe and is diverting from the path towards democratic civilized development. It is hard to believe that all this is happening to you and not in some distant land somewhere in the annals of history. Many have been passively watching in disbelief the approaching tsunami and in their minds have come to realize that according to logic it will engulf everyone. But in your heart you still don’t understand this and probably won’t until some “polite” people knock on your door and give you five minutes to get your things.And how different the 21st Century Moscow seems, with its fancy advertisements, steel and glass business centres and pretentious clubs and restaurants, in contrast with the stereotypical capital of a totalitarian state. You just don’t want to notice the bad things; you want to live your cosy life and can’t even be bothered to consider emigrating. It feels safe and familiar to go to work, to meet with friends, to spend holidays by the sea and to debate peacefully on current events in LiveJournal. You are so tempted to believe that if the kind tsar Medvedev is appointed he will gradually put the country on the right track, sort out the problem of the excessive power of security forces and won’t stand in the way of the country’s humble opposition. Why would he be afraid of such an opposition if it is so weak? A dictatorship is neither rational nor liberal and contradicts the very idea of a developing Russia, a Russia that is turning into the world’s main superpower that Russian leaders are so fervently talking about. Isn’t this the case? Long before you, Russian new entrepreneurs and liberals in the 1920s and many German Jews in the 1930s would reflect in exactly the same way. People would return to the USSR following emigration even up until 1937.As a result the Russian liberal intellectuals of the beginning of the 20th century were either murdered or forced to emigrate. In the 1930s German Jews either emigrated or were killed in the Holocaust. And what will happen to you and people like you, you will soon find out.