I was recently reading an article by Alex Polikovskiy in Russia’s leading liberal daily, Novaya Gazetta. The article, entitled ‘Nemtsov Bridge,’ was elegant in describing what it felt like during that brumal Sunday afternoon procession, when a mostly solemn mass of people came out to find shelter from the shock, weather be damned.
I myself remember pulling into the Kitai Gorod metro station and being taken aback when i was pushed out onto the platform and into a funnel, which crept to a dual person drop at the escalator ahead. It took me a good 20 minutes just to exit the station onto Slavyanskaya Square, where the golden domes of the Muscotive Baroque-styled Church of All Saints seemed to provide the only points of contrast against an otherwise dishwater-colored sky.
Stuck on the staircase exiting onto the street and ascending at a clip of a step a minute, a middle-aged couple behind me said with typically sardonic Russian wit: ‘so i guess we are the fifth column.’
Polikovski waxed poetic on the almost analgesic effect the being a part of what was not a crowd, but rather a gathering of kindred spirits; a largely cowered bunch who had been forced back into Russia’s atomizing existence after a brief window in 2011-2012, when people felt like a nascent civil society was pushing up like a flower through cracks in the pavement.
But eloquent words depicting a solemn if not strangely comforting scene soon bled into anger, as he passionately and perhaps illogically asked where was the massive security presence dispatched to police the procession when Nemtsov was shot in the area overnight Friday? Of course, if hundreds of riot police and drones were dispatched in the area on a regular basis, he would have likely found himself railing against the manifestation of the police state right in the heart of the Russian capital. I understand his point, of course, was rhetorical, but there is another point as well.
He decried Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for himself turning up to the million-man Charlie Hebdo march in Paris, while remaining conspicuously absent when political terror struck down Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin’s walls. It seemed to him, and perhaps rightly so, that solidarity was only for the sake of PR, that any grandstanding against Islamic extremism would always find a place onto the itinerary, but a problematic albeit long-since diminished former deputy PM slain on the streets of Moscow was not worth honoring. After all, he was a vociferous critic of the regime, a womanizer, a fifth columnist, a national enemy. He existed in this strange political purgatory in Russia that is stuck somewhere between opposition and dissident. But really, to the bulk of Russian society, he was a nobody. But the death of that nobody sent shockwaves through the cowered creative classes that are the hallmarks of any liberal society, a class which has become all but antiquated in the post-Ukrainian schism reality of modern day Russia.
“The American ambassador and European ambassadors came to the bridge, to the scene of the murder,” Polikovski wrote, “but why is Europe and America showing empathy to us in this terrible hour, and are closer to me than all this stupid, cowardly, thieving, treacherous authority, from which not a single minister has come and put flowers at the spot where their former colleague was killed.”
Many Russian liberals rarely lend themselves to restraint, and often the line between journalism, editorializing and flat-out activism is blurred beyond distinction. Sometimes it’s chalked up to a basic lack of professionalism, the argument being that many were self-taught during the raucous 90s and did not have the long history of objectivity that we at least exalt in the Western press, if not religiously practice.
Another reason, perhaps, is the audience they need to sway is hammered down to the floor in a far off land, and what should be a plea to the masses amounts to little more than yelling at the top of their lungs in an echo chamber. This is not their fault. Despite all the fire in their reporting, the independent media has more or less been stamped out to an ember. In Russia, eighty-four percent of people listed state television as being among their top three news sources, while the only independent broadcaster, Dozhd TV was essentially banished by most cable providers and is hobbling along as a web-based broadcaster.
Only 10 percent of Russians use the Internet as a primary news source, and that number is likely skewed greatly by the relatively more liberal urban hubs like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
When I think about a tri-weekly newspaper like Novaya Gazetta, I can find it in Moscow, not at all news agents, but enough. I have no idea what their reach is, but even according to their own numbers, circulation is 227,000 per issue.
Moscow is a city of 12.1-17 million, and Russia a country of 148,689,000 (if you count Crimea, and you don’t have to if you don’t want, but reality, rather than any moral judgment, tells me to count it.)
The New York Times, by contrast, has a circulation of 1,379,806, though the Guardian is at 177,827. The one difference, however, is that web traffic to those sites has drastically supplanted print editions. Newspapers are still more popular in Russia than web portals, so I am doubting that Novaya Gazetta’s reach is significantly broadened by their web presence, though I could easily be wrong.
So what is my point in all of this, what is the thread connecting it all? Impotence.
As I wrote in my previous entry, Chechen’s were an easy go to for culprits in Nemtsov’s assassination, and while the chances that Chechens were commissioned to carry out the crime is high, the likelihood of identifying the masterminds, if historical precedence is any guide, remains quite low.
Moreover, scores of damning reports on crime, corruption and contract killings in the liberal press are virtually ineffectual in moving the needle in Russian society. The mechanisms of power in Russia are greatly shrouded in secrecy, and those trying to figure out its inner machinations are virtually left reading tea leaves. There are no independent branches of government, there is no countervailing force to appeal to for checks and balances in the power vertical. A front page expose carefully documenting how an official stole hundreds of millions of dollars will have absolutely zero effect, unless said official falls afoul of the powers that be later. In a nutshell, their work is virtually pointless, except as a pressure valve to release their own anger and to find limited solidarity with their fellow ideological travelers. Perhaps a career spent screaming against the wind will make on hysterical from time to time. Perhaps.
Last Sunday, after crossing the bridge and approaching Bolshaya Ordynka Street in the historic Zamoskvorechye District, there was an impending sense, as people slowed down and crisscrossed between the road and pedestrian path, that all of this was supposed to lead somewhere.
But with each step leaving the piles of flowers and the Kremlin in their wake, there was no natural terminus, no rallying point, no climax to what ended up being a two-hour plus procession, at least for those of us straggling and taking photographs. Boris was still dead, the lack of belief in a fair and impartial investigation was seemingly a fait accompli, the 50,000-plus crowd was still a drop in the bucket, and there did not appear to be one well-known face waiting at the end to tell the masses what next. I think for many, with Navalny in prison at the time and Nemstov soon to be put into the ground, a march that started in a bottle neck and indeterminately ended in dissipation was the perfect symbol for the day.
They had all come out for comfort, marched in relative silence, but when they waited for that voice to guide them on, each and every one of us found in the end that we were alone. So we piled into cafes, walked to the metro, watched the people watching us, seemingly oblivious to why so many damned people were on the streets that Sunday afternoon. And then, as it always does, life went on.
In the subhead for Polikovskiy’s beautiful if indignant recap of the day (at least the print edition), he proclaimed that Nemstov had once again united society and freedom, following a decade in the political wilderness and his brutal and untimely murder.
Polikovskiy’s sentiment is a comforting one, but I have my doubts about it…