Russia's new dissidents.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 26 2007 8:01 PM

The New Dissidents

Why does Putin bother to arrest the "Other Russia" protesters? Because he can.

Garry Kasparov. Click image to expand.
Garry Kasparov

In the photographs of his arrest, Garry Kasparov—former world chess champion, current Russian opposition leader—is wearing a nondescript gray jacket and a somewhat retro wool cap. He is gloveless. By contrast, the Russian militiamen making the arrest are kitted out in full regalia: tall fur hats with metal insignia in the center, camouflage coats, walkie-talkies, black leather gloves. Squint hard, and the pictures—taken at this weekend's "Other Russia" protest rally in Moscow—could come from the 1960s or the 1980s, back when Soviet police arrested Soviet dissidents with some regularity.

The similarity is more than merely visual. In its heyday, the Soviet dissident movement was a sometimes odd, often unworkable amalgam of human rights activists, disappointed insiders, bloody-minded outsiders, fervent religious believers, and nationalists of a wide range of Soviet nationalities. Some of them would have been right at home at any generic "no nukes" rally, others would have found themselves on the far right of any political spectrum in the world, but it hardly mattered. In 1983, Peter Reddaway, then the leading academic observer of Soviet dissidents, reckoned they had made "little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people."    

Advertisement

The current movement is no different. Kasparov himself, still better known for his titanic battles against the world's smartest chess computer than for his political acumen, is sui generis. His allies in the "Other Russia" movement are an odd mix, too. Among them are formerly mainstream economic liberals, including Boris Nemtsov, once deputy prime minister; the would-be fascists of the National Bolshevik Party, led by Eduard Limonov, an ex-dissident, ex-punk, ex-writer; and the remnants of the human rights movement, most notably the Moscow Helsinki Group. Just as the old dissident movement was united only by its hatred of Soviet communism, "Other Russia" is an umbrella organization, united only by its hatred of Putinism, an ideology that has solidified in recent months into something resembling an old-fashioned personality cult.

Odder still is the fact that we hear anything about them at all. Until recently, this ragtag group of elderly ex-dissidents and twentysomethings would surely have been tolerated by the authorities, whose attitude to political opposition used to be a good deal subtler. During most of his presidency, Putin's "managed democracy" permitted many forms of political dissent, so long as they remained extremely small. Although most TV stations are controlled one way or another by the Kremlin, a few low-circulation newspapers were allowed to keep up some criticism. Although anyone with real potential to oppose Putin was dissuaded or destroyed, a few unpopular critics, Kasparov among them, were allowed to keep talking. A bit of pressure was released, and the regime was never really challenged.

In the past year, things have changed. The still-unsolved murder of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya was followed by regular physical and verbal attacks on the president's opponents. Typical of the latter was Pravda.ru, which last spring called the anti-Putin opposition a "motley army of deviants, criminals, wannabe politicians, fraudsters and gangsters on the fringes of Russian society." Putin himself calls them scavenging "jackals" who live on foreign handouts.

But if they really are deviants and jackals, why arrest them? If Putin really is wildly popular, why bother calling them names? Kasparov himself answers this question—one of many political mysteries in Russia at the moment—by arguing that Putin is far less secure than he appears to be. During a recent lecture in Warsaw, I heard him convince a large crowd that Russian opinion polling in general should be taken with a grain of salt: In an authoritarian society, especially a post-Soviet one, who tells the truth to a stranger over the telephone? He also claimed that polls asking more specific questions—"Is your city well-run? Is your mayor corrupt?"—produce a far less contented portrait of Russian society than questions like, "Do you approve of Vladimir Putin?"

Maybe so—but that doesn't exclude the other, grimmer explanation, which is that Putin beats up his opposition because he can. The dollar is sinking, Bush is fading, and Europe still doesn't have a unified Russia policy. Meanwhile, Russia is awash in oil money, next week's parliamentary elections will go the Kremlin's way no matter what, and why should the Russian president care if there's some name-calling in the Washington Post?

Putin and his entourage have already got most of what they wanted from the West—including the chance to host a G8 summit in St. Petersburg. If this weekend's photographs look like they were taken 30 years ago, why should they care? Few in Russia will see them. And most of those who do will surely draw the intended conclusion, keeping well away the next time a crowd gathers in a Moscow square.