Kremlinology 2012

Road Rage in Russia

Moscow's elite has decided it doesn't need to follow the traffic laws. Will there be a pedestrian revolution?

It was a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon when Lena Miro (the pop-lit writer Elena Mironenko) was wheeling her way home, happy and sated after a Goya exhibit and some stuffed cabbage at a chic Moscow cafe. "When all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a vile old woman with a massive bag on wheels threw herself under my car," Miro wrote on her blog. "I almost knocked the bowling pin down." Miro was rattled, but then she had a soothing thought: "It occurred to me: I could've run over this scum (the world would only benefit from this), but to give myself a serious headache over some old cunt was a little silly."

And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow -- say, $200. "Then we'll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats," she mused. "And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma" -- the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. "Let them pan for gold. That way, we'd at least get some use out of their pointless existence."

Healthy thoughts, to be sure, in a city plagued by infamous congestion. Miro, a card-carrying member of United Russia, is not the only celebrity doing her part to give voice to the party's patrician inner monologue. When confronted with the growing public outrage over his behavior on the roads, Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov retold an old pre-revolutionary joke. "A peasant nursed and nursed his anger at his master," Mikhalkov said, "but the master didn't know shit about it." Last month, when Mikhalkov was finally stripped of his migalka -- a blue VIP car siren that, when turned on, allows the driver to circumvent all traffic laws --  his public bitching about the loss seemed to know no bounds. And it's not hard to understand why: With that blue light flashing, a driver can cut through traffic like an ambulance, and everyone else must scatter. (Although some VIPs don't even bother issuing that warning.)

In this season of strange movements of the bulldogs under the rug, the migalka and all it stands for have become what passes in Russia for a hot-button campaign issue: the people -- or the bydlo, the plebes, as the elite and the plebes themselves refer to the non-elite -- get upset at the constant abuse of gratuitous privilege, and the state throws a few of its most insignificant pawns under the bus to show that it has the interests of the people at heart. Which, of course, is not quite true.

In principle and by law, migalki are supposed to go only to the most important officials, officials who have really important meetings to go to, meetings that could make or break the future of Russia. Thus, Barack Obama has a helicopter to get around stoplights and traffic jams; Dmitry Medvedev has a blue migalka. Then what about the prime minister, Vladimir Putin? He has one, too. As do the finance minister and the defense minister and other cabinet members. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has one.

And then the definition of "important" becomes rather swimmy and 970 people get a migalka. Officially. Nearly double that number of "special sirens" are actually on the roads. Who has them? Some of the president's advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner's. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry's Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia's leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:

Radio host: "Tatyana, tell us, where do you work?

Tatyana: "I don't work."

Radio host: "Then in what way did you acquire a special siren?"

Tatyana: "Well, it's my car and it has a siren installed on it and I just wanted to say that people who demand to be treated well --"

Radio host: "Tatyana, Tatyana, one second. On what basis do you have a special siren?"

Tatyana: "Why would I tell you where I got a special siren!"

The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.

The plebes, and their cell-phone cameras, have started fighting back. That is how we know about the second in command at Customs going to the cleaners, or about the driver of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu asking another driver, via megaphone, whether his not getting out of the way meant that he wanted to be "shot in the head, dumbass."

Given the symbolic significance of cars -- they are a major commodity in a society obsessed with status and making it look conspicuously higher -- the issue has proved to be one of the very few that is able to galvanize and organize notoriously anti-political Russians. Some of the biggest protests Russia has seen in the last decade have been about, you guessed it, cars. This is why the Blue Buckets movement -- a bunch of people armed with cell-phone cameras, a blog to monitor abuses, and blue buckets resembling migalki strapped to their car roofs -- has become such a major concern for the Kremlin over the last two years. People I spoke to in Moscow expressed an understanding that the envelope had been pushed too far and that something had to be done.

But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo -- the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite -- but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have "taken up the issue" of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city's elite suburbs. 

The only clear advances have been the ritual punishments of Miro, who was stripped of her party membership, and of Mikhalkov. After his public whining over the lost migalka, he was caught on camera by the Blue Buckets team speeding and veering into oncoming traffic on Moscow's central Garden Ring -- minus a siren. Initially, he said he was late to a taping and said the "louts" and "jackasses with cameras" who taped him couldn't possibly understand. Then he backtracked and claimed it wasn't even his car and that he had never called anyone a lout.

Rare is a day in Russia when we don't hear of another accident involving a "VIP car." As I sat down to write this story, a new story came across the transom: In the wee hours of Friday morning in Rostov-on-Don, Dmitry Ostrovenko, United Russia deputy in the city Duma, barreled through several stopped cars with his Porsche Cayenne. One of the cars, a tiny Zhiguli, was rammed and dragged nearly 200 feet. Its 23-year-old driver (dead on the spot) had to be cut out of the car's mangled frame. "Ostrovenko was trashed and could barely stand and tried to pay off the cops right then and there," an eyewitness wrote on his blog. The gathered crowd nearly tore the deputy to bits.

This was not a new reaction; but then again, this is not a new situation. In 1920s Russia, cars were scarce and prestigious. Whereas before the revolution, only the wealthy could afford cars and chauffeurs, in the dictatorship of the proletariat it was only the party functionaries who were permitted luxuries so out of sync with the letter of the law. But Russia was still a rural, agrarian country back then, and the peasants resented these elite cars kicking up dust or scaring their animals as they roared past. Veering into fields and mashing up their crops didn't help either. So people fought back. They threw rocks at the cars; they strung up wires across the roads to trip them up. One driver was killed when an angry villager flung an owl at his windshield.

And yet the functionaries and celebrities privileged enough to have cars continued to exercise a familiar kind of recklessness and immunity. According to Lewis Siegelbaum's Cars for Comrades, on a hot summer day in 1929, Lilya Brik was driving through Moscow in her car, given to her by her lover, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, when a young girl popped up in the road right in front of her, an experience Lena Miro would share 82 years later. "She froze, as if rooted to the ground, and then began to rush about like a chicken," Brik later recalled. "Nevertheless, I knocked her slightly off her feet." Brik was tried -- and exonerated.

VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlinology 2012

All Tomorrow's Parties

When one fake opposition party stops effectively distracting the Russian people, what's the Kremlin to do? Give them a new one, of course.

I've just returned to Moscow after a two-week vacation to find that, true to the Gogolian model of Russian history, lots has happened, but nothing's changed.

In my absence, the electoral campaign has swung into high gear: Heads have rolled, others were made into official heads, still others lost their precious marbles. And yet, at the end of the two-week bonanza of firings and the first press conference of President Dmitry Medvedev's three years in office, no one knows any more than they did before.

Let's recap. In mid April, we heard of the sacking of Alexey Chadaev, the young chief ideologist of United Russia, Vladimir Putin's party. Two weeks later, Gleb Pavlovsky, a "politilogist" who is often quoted here and who runs Fund for Effective Politics, a think tank that was widely seen as a Kremlin stand-in, was fired from his position as Medvedev's volunteer political advisor. Tit-for-tat? Maybe. Significance? Unclear.

Around the same time, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian Senate (the Federation Council) and head of the dummy A Just Russia party, found himself in hot water, ostensibly for criticizing his native St. Petersburg. (He said it was the most corrupt city in Russia.) In May, he was removed from his government post, and talk of dissolving his party began to circulate. It was also around this time that Putin announced the formation of the new All-Russia People's Front, a strange amalgam of hail-Mary populism and Monty Python. Making way for a new Kremlin-made opposition party? Probably. End result? Comedy.

And then came the curve ball: On May 16, Mikhail Prokhorov, playboy billionaire and co-owner, with Jay-Z, of the New Jersey Nets, was trotted out as the man who would head another Kremlin dummy, the Just Cause Party. The names of the two parties sound similar because of an English translation glitch, and yet it's a telling one: Both were created by the Kremlin to funnel oppositionally-minded voters away from the actual opposition. The only difference is in target demographics. A Just Russia is aimed at people sympathetic to the parties that used to be the real threat to United Russia: the Communists and the nationalist-populist Liberal Democratic Party. More recently, however, United Russia has swallowed up some of their positions, and those two parties have become loyal vassals of the Kremlin, making A Just Russia somewhat superfluous.

These days, the people alienated by the Kremlin are the ones who have done well in the market economy, the young, economically liberal, well-off middle class and elite. Given Prokhorov's allure with this crowd -- he is an internationally successful businessman who has just clocked in as the third-richest man in Russia -- it seemed clear that his newly resurfaced Just Cause (a right-leaning, market-oriented party) was to be the replacement for Mironov's A Just Russia.

Fine. But what of Medvedev's first real presidential press conference, just two days after Prokhorov's big news? The presser, announced well in advance with great fanfare, was eagerly anticipated by journalists: What was Medvedev was planning to say? Would he finally put an end to the agonizing guessing game and declare his candidacy? Was he going to -- gasp -- fire Putin?

As it turned out, none of the above. When the big day came, Medvedev talked for just over two hours about, well, nothing. He talked about television, about parking, about reindeers. When asked the question that's been tormenting Moscow elites for months -- who, for God's sake, would "run"? -- Medvedev dodged. Awkwardly. "Finally, you asked this question," he joked, and then proceeded to discuss the nature of politics, very broadly speaking. "If I decide to make such a statement, I'll do it," he added, telling the journalists, confusingly, that a press conference was not the appropriate venue for such an announcement.

"This was a bit of an unfortunate performance," Pavlovsky told me afterward. "Everyone wanted to know one thing, and he didn't discuss it. You can't gather the press and not talk about what they want to talk about. It angers them." (A week out, the consensus seems to be that Medvedev wanted to show that he was not bent on confrontation with Putin. But who knows, really?)

As for his firing, Pavlovsky said he was let go because he was openly anti-tandem and had been publicly boosting Medvedev's candidacy for months. Says Pavlovsky: "It wracked a lot of nerves at the White House," where Putin has his office. Vladislav Surkov, the Russian Karl Rove currently serving as Medvedev's first deputy chief of staff, "suffered for this the most," says Pavlovsky. "I spoke with Surkov more than with anyone else, and all of my statements [about Medvedev being better for Russia than Putin] were attributed to Surkov's intrigues."

And Alexey Chadaev? Pavlovsky denies there's any connection between the two firings, but according to a high-ranking United Russia source, Chadaev, a White House (i.e., Putin) ally, was let go as a lamb sacrificed to the Kremlin (i.e., Medvedev), which was made to fire Pavlovsky for offending the White House. But this explanation is probably just an attempt at saving face. More likely, it was the other way around: Chadaev (who also has made numerous FP appearances) was let go for United Russia's relatively poor showing in the March regional elections, and Pavlovsky, long a thorn in someone's side, was thrown on the pyre with him.

That's all an aside, however. More important (that being a very relative term in this year of pointless uncertainty) is Sergei Mironov's ouster. Since 2006, when Surkov formed A Just Cause to offer an appearance of a two-party democracy, Mironov and his party had played the role of "system opposition" moderately well: garnering votes from people not willing to vote for United Russia and using them as a mandate to do whatever United Russia does in the Duma.

In the past year, however, pressure has built up in -- or, rather, around -- the system. The young, educated, globally minded urban middle class has become increasingly fed up with the corruption and empty rhetoric they see around them, paving the way for such massively successful projects like the KermlinRussia Twitter parody, or Alexey Navalny's anti-corruption work. A Just Russia failed to pacify this potentially combustible group, and so Mironov had to go. Though he continues to head the party (while it still exists), he has lost, along with his Federation Council seat (which he formally handed over today), an apartment provided by the state, a dacha, a private jet, personal security guards, and even the space where he housed his, yes, rock collection, accumulated while he worked as a geologist in the 1970s and '80s.

In his stead, we get Prokhorov, a man who is good at business, a man who, like his constituents, feels equally comfortable in Russia and in the West, a man who, in his acceptance, talked of changing things -- a clear appeal to those who would support people like Navalny. But let's be honest: Most likely, this was not Prokhorov's idea. "He wasn't in any party before," said Andrei Belyak, a spokesman for Prokhorov's Onexim Group. "He didn't touch politics before." According to Belyak, it was "a proposal from the party," proposals that, in Moscow, tend to be offers you can't refuse. As Russian sociologist Denis Volkov told the New York Times, "Major businessmen are under the authorities' control. If the government says you have to head a party, you head a party." (Prokhorov has been the subject of one such political offer before: his idea to build the first Russian-made hybrid car, the Ë-mobile. According to one Onexim insider, the idea wasn't his at all; it was a pitch from the Kremlin. The idea for the title -- which, to a Russian ear sounds like "F-mobile" would to an American one -- well, that was intentional, and another story altogether.)

So whose idea was it? A few weeks before the Prokhorov announcement, I went to visit a man named Leonid Gozman, a former professor of psychology who was long a fixture on the political scene as a political advisor, including to the two great reformers Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. Now Gozman is the co-chair of Just Cause and has a spacious office paneled in dark wood overlooking one of Moscow's sprawling bedroom communities. It is, strangely enough, part of the offices of Rosnano, the nanotechnology corporation once owned by the Russian state and headed by his comrade-in-arms Chubais. (Chubais, Gozman told me, provides him with political cover.)

Sitting in a big leather armchair and munching on sweets, Gozman explained his vision for the future of Russian politics. "The heroic period of Russian politics is over," he said. "Now we need normal, boring political competition; 5 percent here, 5 percent there.... The most important task is institutionalize the schism in the ruling elite. Right now, we have people working in one government whose political views are more different than, say, Obama's and Sarah Palin's. Much more." That is, the government includes both people like the liberal finance minister Alexei Kudrin, and hardliner former spook Igor Sechin. "This is normally called a coalition government, except in a coalition government, each of these factions has a party behind it," Gozman continued. The point, then, would be to create a second party so that the liberals and the hawks don't have to join the same one -- in other words, more simulacra.

Was tapping Prokhorov a move to make Just Cause into such a party, I asked Gozman after the announcement? "Absolutely," he said. Prokhorov himself has since said that he'd like to see Just Cause come in second in the fall parliamentary elections: a prediction that, given the engineered nature of Russian elections, will probably come to pass.

With all this political fidgeting, the end result is that little has changed in Moscow except the mood: It is increasingly tense and increasingly toxic, as people become increasingly fed up with waiting for such a big decision while watching the grand shows of incremental maneuvering. (Yesterday's instantaneous dismissal of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's appeal, combined with a barely reduced sentence, is a perfect example of how little these little things mean.)

"These are big questions, and business can't wait half a year to get the answers," Pavlovsky said, noting that the stalled-out tandem has led the country into political crisis. "It's unbearable. For business, for society, even for Putin's circle, which is clearly starting to put pressure on him because he can't solve a simple question." Pavlovsky is understandably frustrated, but there's really nothing to be done except wait and keep playing the utterly fruitless, frustrating guessing game. Or just wait for August. There's always August.

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images