I was fortunate to have been invited by my host family to an event last night at which Yuri Schmidt, lawyer for the imprisoned oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was to speak. As our conversations tend to be short and direct (not entirely the fault of my Russian abilities, as host mom tends to be a bit abrupt) I didn't ask about the nature of the event, its sponsors, or anything further. I was simply intrigued at the thought of hearing what Khodorkovsky's lawyer had to say.
In fact, the evening was less remarkable for what Schmidt contributed than it was for what the audience contributed. This is not to say that Schmidt was not eloquent, informative, and persuasive; he was all of these things. But I find more fascinating the reactions and opinions of "the masses," or at least those of the 180 or so people gathered in the lecture hall. This bias, of course, is reflected in my own academic research which focuses on the conditions under which ordinary people prefer or simply tolerate nondemocratic rule. Needless to say, Russia today is a compelling case for consideration, and the gathering the other night provided a window into the beliefs of a small (and unfortunately shrinking) portion of the citizenry.
For those of you who have never attended a Russian-style meeting or speech of this sort, they differ from the American type by the higher - and more intense - level of audience participation. While an American audience will sit quietly and listen to the speaker, Russians have a tendency to make it into a more interactive event, verbalizing their agreement - and just as frequently their disagreement - with what the speaker is saying. At times it borders on the comedic, somewhat akin to people yelling at the movie screen in the theater: "don't go in there, he's got a gun!" In any case, the Russians in the room seemed to have a strong need to share their opinions with those around them, resulting in a frequently raucous environment.
As an "outsider" I found this all very entertaining. Not as entertaining were the frequent calls people would take on their cell phones. As if the ringing weren't enough, most would answer the call and procede to hold full conversations with the caller. At one point I turned around to see a man with a doughy face showing his neighbor his latest photos from a vacation while providing a narrative of all the fascinating highlights. Certainly more fascinating than the fate of Mikhail Borisovich, their indifference seemed to suggest. Others would instigate a chain of shoulder tapping extending several rows forward, just so they could wave at their friend in the second row.
Even more entertaining was the parade of individuals - apparently known to most in the room, as they were often addressed by name by the hecklers - who lined up to ask "questions." I put "questions" in quotations because the typical Russian query in such a forum is really more of an extended declaration, lasting up to several minutes, which is sometimes punctuated by an actual question. But the question at the end is really irrelevant, as the real purpose is to voice one's opinion on any subject, regardless of its relation to the guest answering questions. Incidentally, a similar phenomenon has been observed at American academic conferences...
Here the scene became truly spectacular, as bearded and balding men worked themselves into a frenzied climax, declaring with red faces that the current situation in Russia must not be allowed to stand! Of course, half the room disagreed with at least part of what the questioners proclaimed, resulting in a spirited debate that the moderator was helpless to control. His frequent exhortations of, "Friends, please, calm down. Please, friends." went largely unnoticed, as did Khodorkovsky's lawyer.
I'll save the suspense and let you know that I was eventually informed that the gathering was the remnamts of the "Democratic Russia" movement, founded in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Aha, now it all makes sense. These were the original Russian democrats. More importantly, 16 years later they were still faithful. These were the true believers. "You know, R," host dad whispered to me, "half the people in this room were with us at the White House in August 1991." He was, of course, referring to the historic stand that the Russian democrats took alongside Yeltsin during the coup that brought the Soviet Union to its knees.
At this point a rotund woman in a magenta sweater stood up and took the microphone. But instead of addressing the stage where the panel sat, she turned the microphone stand around and addressed the audience in the room. Wondering who might have the audacity to do such a thing, I can only assume she had the moral authority to do so, as the room quickly became silent.
The mystery revolutionary (host dad whispered that she and her family were well known as radical democrats) launched into an impassioned plea, which I shall paraphrase here:
"Friends, during the times of Soviet power it was we, the intelligentsia, who defended writers. It was we who defended artists. It was we who defended doctors, veterinarians, teachers, and scholars. And now it is our duty to defend business. Yes, we must defend business. It doesn't matter how they got their money or where it came from. That is in the past. We must defend business because without business and private property Russia will never become a prosperous, democratic, capitalist country."
Her speech went on for several minutes, and proved so convincing that people were on their feet by the end, shouting their approval. The woman in front of me even raised a fist in the air and proclaimed, "To the streets! We must take to the streets!" Unfortunately the rest of the crowd didn't share her enthusiasm for this method of defending Russian democracy.
Nevertheless, I was fixated on what the rotund revolutionary had declared about the intelligentsia's duty to defend that which was right. It is no secret that the intelligentsia has always been Russia's moral compass during times of repression. While some strata of society might passively submit to the regime, it was the dissident writers, poets, playwrights, and artists that struggled against authority. It was the Sinyavskys, the Pasternaks, the Solzhenitsyns, the Mandelshtams, the Akhmatovas, the Brodskys who never lost sight of what was worth fighting - and in some cases dying - for.
As such, the intelligentsia has long played the role of Russia's conscience . This role is not limited, of course, to the Soviet era. Russia's "golden age" or literature in the 19th century is rich with similar examples.
What is striking is the fact that Russia's moral compass has always been stronger, clearer, and more pure during times of trouble, for it is these times that it is needed most. Not by accident, I believe, the greatest works of Russian art and literature have been those which are, on some level, political. The use of the term "political" when describing Russian and Soviet literature is broad by nature of the regime. In a totalitarian system where everything is politicized, even the loaf of bread you're eating, it can't be helped that art and literature have political subtexts. Of course, the degree to which the political is brought to the surface varies by work and author, but it is always there. And it is this political struggle in art and literature, this struggle to proclaim truth amidst the lies of the regime, that makes Russian culture so beautiful, so strong, so powerful.
Absent the pressure of an authoritarian regime, absent the need to struggle against a common enemy, the moral compass weakens and begins to point in various directions. The impetus to point toward the truth is still there, but with a plethora of divergent understandings of good and evil, right and wrong, true and false, the needle spins in a confused circle. In some sense, the compass needs the magnetic force of one pole pulling its attention in a common direction.
And so, we reach the point of this discussion. Trying to be an optimist (no easy task in Russia in the winter), I have sought a silver lining to the gradual re-authoritarianization that is taking place in modern Russia. While there is no doubt that Russia's slow retreat from democracy is a misfortune for her citizens, I can only hope that the restoration of an authoritarian state reunites and reorients Russia's moral compass, the intelligentsia. For they and their work are at their best in trying times, and it is these times that seem to lie ahead. Perhaps a new era of powerful dissident literature is about to be born.