The Putin Chill

The bad old days return for Russia's dissidents


Twenty years ago, who could have thought that in 2004, the president of Russia would be attending a meeting of the leaders of industrialized democracies in the United States? Vladimir Putin's presence at the Group of Eight summit on Sea Island, Ga., earlier this month could be seen as a sign of mind-boggling progress. Unfortunately, the rollback of democracy back at home in Russia continues apace—with more and more signs of a climate that bears some chilling similarities to that of 20 years ago.

One such danger sign is a Soviet-style campaign of attacks on human rights activists—coming from Putin himself.

Putin's May 26 annual message to the State Duma (parliament), Russia's equivalent of the State of the Union address, contained a passage about independent citizens' organizations in Russia. While many of these groups "work constructively," Putin said, many are less concerned with "the real needs of people" than with "getting funding from influential foreign and domestic foundations" or "serving dubious group and commercial interests." These organizations, he added, often have nothing to say about real violations of basic human rights: "And indeed, that is hardly surprising. They cannot bite the hand that feeds them."

A few days later, activists from human rights and environmentalist groups—among them Elena Bonner, the widow of the great dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov and now chairwoman of the Sakharov Foundation, and noted Soviet-era dissidents Lev Ponomarev and Father Gleb Yakunin—issued a response to these rather ominous comments. They pointed out that Putin's attack on "bad" independent organizations was clearly directed at critics of his increasingly authoritarian domestic policies and of the brutal war in Chechnya. The attempt to depict critics of the state as lackeys of foreign powers, the statement noted, had a distinct communist-era odor.

On June 5, a commentary on Putin's quarrel with the human rights activists aired on "Postscriptum," a popular news analysis program on one of Russia's government-run nationwide television channels.

"For some reason," sneered host Alexei Pushkov, "we've got this habit—if you say anything against human rights activists, you're immediately classified as a reactionary and an enemy of democracy. Now, too, the statement by 15 human rights organizations, signed by Bonner and her colleagues, speaks of a new campaign of attacks on the democratic opposition and civil society. However, Bonner, who lives mostly in America, hasn't had anything to do with civil society or life in Russia for a long time." He went on to accuse Bonner of composing anti-Russian libels "solely because Bonner herself is no longer tolerated in Russia."

Bonner, an 81-year-old World War II veteran who has had several coronary bypasses, does spend most of her time in the Boston area to be near her daughter and grandchildren. (She is currently at work preparing Sakharov's diaries for publication in Russia.) She has never applied for permanent resident status in the United States, forgoing considerable financial benefits—precisely, she told me last week, because she feels she must remain a Russian citizen in order to have the "moral right" to speak out about events in her country.

The "Postscriptum" commentary was concluded by shamelessly spitting at a woman who is one of the living heroes of Russia's fight for freedom: "Elena Bonner, you lie when…you say that your position is based on universal concepts of human rights and freedoms. What humanism, what universality? You are always against Russia. And always on the side of the US and NATO."

The odor of the bad old days is stronger and fouler than ever.

Of course, the bad old days are not really back—at least, not yet. The print media in Russia still have a considerable amount of leeway to criticize the government and to give a platform to dissenting voices such as Bonner's. On the other hand, one of the last remaining independent voices on Russian television is no more: a highly rated current affairs program hosted by esteemed journalist Leonid Parfyonov was shut down for broadcasting an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist leader.

In the old days, verbal attacks on dissidents went in tandem with arrests and jailings. So far, that has not happened. Or has it? The director of the Sakharov Museum in Moscow, Yuri Samodurov, is now on trial on charges of "inciting religious hatred" for hosting an exhibition about religious intolerance and authoritarianism. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

Once again, being a dissident in Russia is not safe.