03/05/2022, 00.00
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Dissent in Today's Russia

by Stefano Caprio

From the "old-believers" to the samizdat, dissent has always been a feature of Russian society. Despite the heavy censorship and repression exercised by Putin in recent years, it is once again emerging "from under the rocks", according to Solzhenitsyn's famous expression.

One of the most striking aspects of Putin's Russia, in the gloomy days of the assault on Kiev, is the passivity of the majority of the Russian population, which apart from youth protests has not expressed any real dissent from its leader's choices. Even the Church is reluctant to express itself, and the patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundjaev) seems unable to go beyond generic appeals for the pacification of the "Russian lands" descended from the ancient Baptism of Kiev, thus implicitly endorsing Putin's reading of history that has justified this "special military operation", which in Russia is not even allowed to be called a "war".

The closure of the humanitarian association "Memorial", decided in recent months and confirmed in recent days by the Moscow Supreme Court, seems to bring down the curtain definitively on the organised manifestation of dissent, which has known a glorious history in times at least apparently much harder, in the Soviet Union of Stalinist terror and the long Brezhnev stagnation.

Yet the extraordinary free creativity of the samizdat movement, the clandestine publications of Soviet times, was able to affirm a counter-culture at all levels, not only the social-political one of Andrej Sakharov, one of the founders of Memorial in the 1980s, or the historical-documentary one of Aleksandr Solženitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, to mention only the Nobel laureates, to whom we can also add another prize-winner, the poet Josif Brodskij, who did not directly challenge the regime, but only asked to write poetry freely.

The samizdat united the generations, starting with the writers who survived the camps and the jazz musicians of the first post-Stalin thaw in the 1950s, the so-called stiljagi for the American "style" of their hair and clothes. It was a musical, artistic and religious dissent, a fervour of 'clandestine seminars' in which everything was discussed, from the destiny of Russia to the ethnic and cultural conflicts of the immense country that wanted to subject the whole world to the official ideology of the Party. The end of communism also meant the end of dissent, due to the lack of adversaries and interlocutors, and today they want to completely erase all memory of it.

In truth, dissent has always been a feature of Russian society, at least in the phases of its great changes. Without going into the ancient medieval disputes, modern Russia has experienced the religious protests of the 'old believers', who in the mid-1700s did not want to accept the liturgical reforms imposed from above by Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexey, who wanted to bring religious traditions back into line with their origins. The schismatics maintained the superiority of Russian customs, even over Greek ones, and for this reason they were burnt alive, indeed many of them anticipated persecution by organising mass self-aggrandisements. The end of the repression of the Old Believers was applied with the Tolerance Decree of 1905, only to fall under the heel of state atheism after the revolution.

It was at this time that the Cossacks gathered, free men of mixed ethnicity who did not want to submit to serfdom, and who together with the Old Believers are considered the progenitors of Russian dissent. In those years, political and religious police squads were also formed, such as Ivan the Terrible's famous opričnina in the 16th century, an armed guard of horsemen dressed as monks who did not hesitate to suppress even dissident priests such as Moscow Metropolitan Filipp, who had refused to bless the Tsar "because he was shedding Christian blood".

It was the Cossacks who invented 'Ukraine', a term forged to denote their 'fringe' territories, which was handed over to the Tsar's Russia to escape the power of the Polish kings, giving rise to the conflict that is being renewed today in the 'lower Don' territories where they set up their main camps. These and other inspirations were then reworked by the great Russian writers of the 19th century, who were already writing in clandestine journals and were subjected to Tsarist censorship, but knew how to involve the whole of society in the disputes between the 'Slavophiles' and the 'Westerners' in order to answer one great question: what is Russia's destiny, and how can this change the whole world?

The champion of the Slavophiles, Fedor Dostoevsky, replied that "beauty will save the world", while calling for a great saving war that would lead Russia to conquer Europe, Constantinople and Jerusalem to affirm the truth of the Christian faith. His main antagonist, the Westernist Lev Tolstoy, took part in the ruinous Crimean War to discover that no dream of greatness can justify hatred and destruction, expounding this pacifist vision in the greatest novel in the history of literature, "War and Peace", which is well worth re-reading these days. Tolstoy contrasted orthodox intransigence with his own humanist religion based on non-violence, on which the young Gandhi was educated and later achieved the peaceful liberation of the vast India.

The Russians therefore have no lack of prophets of dissent in all ages, and their inspiration is expected to shake the population out of its long Putin-like lethargy, especially in the face of dramatic and epoch-making events such as those currently taking place. So far, the new tsar's consensus has been based above all on gratitude for the stability he has regained after the crises of the 1980s and 1990s, with the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the disorientation of the years of globalisation, when Russians feared they had lost their identity.

Then came the era of the great redemption, with an increasingly aggressive policy towards the ex-Soviet countries seen to be most at risk of 'western contamination', such as Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Consensus reached its highest levels, when to the cry "Crimea is ours!" Putin seemed to be really able to realise the great dream, to bring Russia back to lead the world as after the victories over Napoleon and Hitler. However the decline began, when the economic crises that were bouncing around the world began to undermine the social and economic system, to break down the guarantees of stability and security that made the figure of Putin similar to that of the authentic "father of the fatherland".

Since 2012, with Putin's return to the presidency, large-scale street demonstrations have begun against the corruption of the oligarchs' regime, against the restrictions on freedom of the press and of expression, and even against the fundamentalist moralism of the Orthodox Church. The reaction was initially tolerant, only to become increasingly systematic and asphyxiating, and in 2020 the regime re-qualified itself with the new Constitution and the new "inspiring principles": the defence of traditions and institutions, the cancellation of the rights of annoying minorities, the total gagging of the press, which was still relatively free, up to the point of a total ban on thinking differently from the "official version" as in Stalin's time, and the cancellation and re-setting of collective memory.

Today, the agitators of the protests languish in prison like Aleksej Naval'nyj or are in exile like Mikhail Khodorkovskij, who has served a decade in a lager. Any form of collaboration with foreign countries leads to inclusion in the infamous register of inoagenty, the "foreign agents" who risk condemnation for extremism and betrayal of the homeland. The most passionate religious denominations, such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Baptists, are also banned and constantly harassed, not to mention journalists who have to thank their lucky stars if they manage to stay alive.

Then came the great pandemic, which imposed all kinds of restrictive measures around the world, and the Russians rediscovered the pride of dissent in the form of no-vax, which is difficult to accuse of heresy or treason, but rather presents itself as resistance to the world powers inspired by the devil, often even obtaining the blessing of the priests. And now comes the fratricidal war, one might say a 'classic' of Russian history, in which Russia's entire dream of greatness and universal redemption is at stake.

Instinct therefore leads many Russians to support the army and commanders, almost a reflex of the unconscious to show the world what Russia really is. Being alone against everyone is the natural condition of the Eurasian people, who do not belong to any master of the world, and makes them feel even more deeply "orthodox", the last defenders of the true faith against all the depraved, heretics, immoral, as Putin himself said talking about the Ukrainians ("a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis"). It is no coincidence that the war campaign is defined as the "de-Nazification" of Russian lands, feeling like being back in Stalin's time.

However, the younger Russian generations do not fall so easily into the pitfalls of an inebriated conscience, as they are not very receptive to the great ideologies, so much so that Patriarch Kirill would like to shut down the internet and all its annexes to prevent young people from being distracted. Adults, too, are beginning to reckon with the effects of Western sanctions, and understand that Russia is losing its prosperity and its future. A new dissent is at the gates, and even with all the force of censorship and repression it is again emerging "from under the rocks", as Solzhenitsyn famously put it.

Anti-war demonstrations are taking place in Russian cities, and the police no longer know where to lock up the demonstrators, who have already been arrested by the thousands. The young people move together or alone, in 'individual pickets' with a placard in hand, posting drawings and writing slogans on the walls, trying to illustrate their reasons with stickers and colours, comic book almanacs and personal stories, constantly bouncing off the social media so hated by the regime.

From the prison in Vladimir, Aleksej Naval'nyj encourages everyone 'not to wait a moment to take to the streets on weekdays and holidays, gritting their teeth and overcoming fear, to demand an end to the war... I am already in prison, and I tell you not to be afraid, not to keep your mouth shut. Don't believe the pseudo-historical ravings of our mad czar, who wants to justify himself by distorting the events of past centuries so that the Russians will kill the Ukrainians, and the Ukrainians will defend themselves by killing the Russians.

They arrest women and children who lay flowers in front of the Ukrainian embassy, but doctors, professors and priests write appeals. A leader of the "Medical Alliance" trade union, Irina Volkhonova from Jaroslavl, believes that "signing a letter is not an act of courage, it is the bare minimum to preserve self-respect". On 12 March, both the supporters of the war and those opposed to it, organised by the liberal Yabloko party, have asked for permission to march, and it is not yet known whether permission will be given to both, or whether only parades of triumph for the victorious tsar will be allowed. Russia wants to impose its thinking on the world, but may find that it has not yet been able to impose it even on its own people.

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