Democracy Lab

Life for Russia's Liberals Just Got a Whole Lot Worse

Moscow's annexation of Crimea is fueling a surge of "patriotism" -- and a new sense of claustrophobia.

MOSCOW — The atmosphere at Avocado, my favorite Moscow café, felt as cozy as usual: A kid napped in the corner with jazz music streaming out of his earphones, while others typed on their electronic devices, chewed salads, or sipped green veggie cocktails. Almost automatically, I looked around for a bit of reading material, one of the Moscow magazines or newspapers normally piled near the entrance, but came up empty-handed. It was a disturbing inconvenience for a person who can't eat without reading. Noticing my confused look, a waiter explained that it all had happened more or less around the same time in early March, when deliveries of Bolshoi Gorod, the Moscow Times, and Moscow News had simply stopped. Later, somebody even came by to pick up the stands. "Welcome to a different world, free of independent media," the waiter said to me with a smile.

The disappearance of newspapers from one of my favorite cafés was just one tiny part of a larger flow of change stemming from a profound shift in government policies and public opinion processes all across Russia. The state is mobilizing, and Russia is returning to the mentality of a besieged castle. At the end of February, a majority of the nation was convinced that the time had come to defend Russian nationals living in Ukraine from "fascists." In mid-March, the Levada Center reported that nearly half of Russians wanted Russia to once again become "a great empire feared and respected by other countries," while another 47 percent of respondents hoped to see Russia as a "prosperous country," if not necessarily a powerful empire.

On March 18, just two days after the lightning referendum in which a majority of Crimeans voted to "return home" to Russia, President Vladimir Putin gave a historic speech in which he vowed to react harshly to any challenges from domestic critics he described as "traitors" or members of a subversive "fifth column." The authorities quickly responded by issuing a set of new laws and rules.

For most of Putin's reign, the government has placed national broadcast media and national newspapers under tight control, while leaving the Internet, which is used by a relatively small subset of Russians, largely to itself. Soon after Putin's speech, this changed. Russians woke up and found they could not open any of the main opposition news outlets or blogs; the government shut down four websites in a single night. As Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Moscow bureau of Human Rights Watch, summarized: "Freedom evaporates with a clap of hands, independent media are closed, officials attack theaters, Internet providers are now obliged to shut down banned websites within 24 hours, without any notice." One day, Putin casually let drop he would like to be able to know who had dual citizenship in Russia; a few days later, parliament came up with three different draft laws requiring dual nationals to register with the authorities.

Not all Russian liberals or members of the so-called creative class felt ready to accept the critical attacks or insults. The famous Taganka Theater demanded an apology from two Russian senators who accused the theater of promoting "homosexuality, violence, pedophilia, and suicide." At a meeting last week, the members of the theater made a decision that they would not tolerate "slanderous" statements by individuals or authorities. "The atmosphere at the theater has changed," Taganka actress Ksenia Peretrukhina told me. "Most people disagree with the critical denunciations of our work sent to Putin and elsewhere."

Everybody is wondering how far the ball of "Sovietization" can roll: How will it affect business, higher education, science? Will the new cold war mean that Russian professors and scientists have to stop publishing in Western scientific magazines? Will students have to stop going on exchange programs? Will Russian and American astronauts put an end to joint flights together to space? "Psychologically it's very difficult," said Irina Prokhorova, a prominent publisher and philanthropist. "In an instant, we suddenly seem to be living a completely different country, a country where freedom of speech and human rights are dying." 

At least for now, Prokhorova can maintain her independence from the state: Her billionaire brother, Mikhail Prokhorov, funds her publishing house, her cultural program, and a political party, called Civic Platform, that she now leads. As smoothly as the opening ceremony from the Winter Olympics, the old totalitarian machine has once again started turning its giant wheels. But Prokhorova isn't ready to give up: "They're the real fifth column, not us. We're the real patriots, people who have spent decades creating useful and truly beautiful institutions for our country."

What has inspired the surge of pro-imperialistic and anti-Western feelings? I decided to ask a spokeswoman for the nationalist Rodina ("Motherland") Party, recently revived after being banned from the political arena for several years because of its xenophobic slogans. Sofia Cherepanova told me that the new political agenda of the authorities, aimed at "gathering the lands" of former Soviet territories back into the Russian fold, appeals to the population. "Finally, people can feel proud and useful in defending Russian national interests," Cherepanova said, noting that volunteers have been eagerly offering Rodina their services across the country. "After Crimea, the focus should be on Transnistria," Cherepanova told me, referring to the separatist territory inside the former Soviet republic of Moldova whose leaders recently declared their eagerness to join Russia. "We won't give away a single piece of our land."

Many of my liberal friends have been trying to offer moral support (on social media and elsewhere) to the only remaining independent television news channel, known as Dozhd ("Rain"). (In the photo above, protesters in Kiev carry umbrellas during a rally to support Dozhd TV.) Dozhd TV has been on the verge of shutting down for weeks now; it's widely believed that the trouble started with an order from the Kremlin. Earlier this week, I visited Dozhd TV's studio, based on an island in a hip neighborhood known as Moscow Village. The area is filled with art galleries, luxurious restaurants, and veranda bars in red brick factory buildings, and was, until recently, one of the main Western tourist attractions. "When the Kremlin called to invite me to Putin's speech, I joked with my colleagues that they probably needed me there as a representative of the ‘fifth column,'" Dozhd editor-in-chief Mikhail Zygar told me. "But when I actually heard Putin pronounce the words 'national traitors,' I was completely blown away."

Weeks after the country's major cable operators switched off Dozhd, the channel continues to cover the news online, making it one of the very few independent platforms for those labeled as "liberals" in the new Russia. To survive, the channel had to cut the salaries of its reporters by 30 percent. Last week, the channel's viewers and fans helped to raise enough money for Dozhd to go on working until the end of this month.

The channel has gone on doggedly covering the crisis in Ukraine, the West's response, and their consequences for Russian civil society and opposition. All the while (as Zygar puts it), Russia has been traveling in time, rolling all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the nobility described by Anton Chekhov in his plays was still living as if the cherry orchard would stay in bloom forever (while, in fact, it was already being cut down). Perhaps it was something like this sense of transience and loss that Zygar had in mind when he spoke to me so wistfully of his TV station: "It would be a shame for Russia to let a few ignorant, shallow people destroy such a beautiful and talented project."

ANATOLII BOIKO/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Ukraine's Unfinished Revolution

Radical nationalists want to continue the revolution that toppled Yanukovych. But they're probably just making matters worse.

KIEV - For Ukraine's far-right groups, the revolution is unfinished. Their politicians and paramilitary movements are continuing the hunt for enemies and traitors. Nationalists from the Freedom Party, the Right Sector militia, and splinter groups such as the ultranationalist White Hammer, are demanding what they call "total lustration," or cleansing, of the political and business elites. As they see it, the revolution won't be complete until this demand is satisfied. The interim Ukrainian government, which draws primarily on the Fatherland Party and moderate members of Freedom, doesn't necessarily share this view. As they see it, the revolution culminated in February, when President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the country and fled to Moscow. Now, they say, it's time for elections, not more protests and unrest.

New political scandals envelop the capital with each passing day. Last week a nationalist leader named Alexander Muzychko was shot dead by police attempting to arrest him. His death provoked another anti-government rally: hundreds of angry activists carrying the black and red flags of the World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army gathered on Thursday night outside the parliament, chanting and setting tires on fire. The ultranationalists threatened to take revenge on the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, unless he ordered the arrest of all those participating in the operation against Muzychko. Activists in the crowd issued calls for a "second Maidan" (a reference to the central square in Kiev where the February revolution had its focus).

Avakov said that he wouldn't back down from fighting those he now called "bandits." At a Friday meeting with law enforcement commanders and parliamentary deputies, the interior minister suggested banning Right Sector as a radical organization. Last month, the interior ministry and the SBU, Ukraine's domestic intelligence agency, issued a joint demand to all of the Maidan activists to hand in illegal weapons, citing "a situation of emergency in the country." But Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, has resisted disarming his paramilitary army, though he's also said that he will obey the law. Yarosh has now declared himself to be a candidate for president in the general election scheduled for May 25. His candidacy won't be official, though: Though he insists that he filed the proper documents, his name wasn't included in the list of registered candidates. It's not entirely clear why.

In an interview earlier this month, before the weapon ban took effect, Yarosh told me that he needed his allegedly 10,000-strong force not to help Ukraine join the EU -- that was never his goal, he emphasized -- but in order to fight Russia and realize his plans for a "nationalist revolution" at home. The nationalist leader said that he'd been consistent in his ideology for the past 25 years: anybody in favor of the Russian empire was his enemy. Many other Ukrainians take issue with that approach. Aleksey Verna, a supporter of the ex-boxer-turned-opposition-leader Vitali Klitschko, put it this way: "Instead of helping us to build a new, European-style system of governance, the Right Sector gave a wonderful present to the propagandists in the Kremlin: a perfect reason to criticize the Maidan."

The bad news from Right Sector has grown as fast as the rising dough in a traditional Ukrainian pie. Many recruits signed up after Yanukovych fled, when most people thought the revolution was over. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow suspects Right Sector of organizing the sniper shootings in Kiev that resulted in the deaths of Maidan activists in February. (Most of the revolutionaries and their western supporters believe, by contrast, that the Yanukovych government was behind the shootings.)

On the same day, the independent newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a report citing Right Sector activists who described how they've been using armored vehicles taken from a presidential garage, an admission marring what had been the street fighters' good record of refraining from expropriations and looting. The movement's activists said they could not imagine purchasing vehicles "during the revolutionary period." To them, apparently, it seemed obvious that the revolution has to go on. On Monday night, Right Sector activists shot and wounded three men on the Maidan. The next morning police evicted Right Sector from their headquarters in the Dnipro Hotel, where for almost a month their rough-looking activists armed with Kalashnikovs had terrified the hotel's visitors. (The photo above shows members of the militia leaving the hotel.)

Only recently have supporters and participants of the Maidan rallies begun to ask each other about the background of Right Sector and its leaders: By what right do they claim the leading role in the revolution? Until last December nobody in Ukraine had heard of the organization. In February and March I spoke with several Right Sector activists in the buildings they had seized in downtown Kiev. Some of them were veterans of post-Soviet crises, including the First Chechen War and the conflict in Abkhazia, where they fought against the Russian military. Yet they don't seem to be entirely anti-Russian in their sentiment. During the war over Moldova's breakaway Transdnistria region, some of Right Sector's recruiters are said to have fought on the side of the Russians.

Muzychko was one of those recruiters. He fought with Chechen guerillas against Russian army under the nickname Sashko Bilyi; upon his return to Ukraine he spent several years in jail for extortion. Russia accused Muzychko of atrocities in Chechnya, while at home he was charged with leading a criminal gang. In the midst of the Maidan revolution Muzychko emerged as one of Right Sector's leaders. On February 27, when Kiev was still mourning 102 victims of the violent conflict with police, Muzychko violently confronted a provincial prosecutor in an appalling scene that was captured on video.

Facebook exploded with allegations about Right Sector destabilizing the already vulnerable situation in Ukraine, leading some to accuse the group of working in favor of the Russian secret services. A prominent local journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, who was one of the organizers of the pro-European protests on the Maidan, criticized the radicals on his blog: "We came out to the Maidan to oppose the bullies in power. To me, the symbols of those bullies' rule are those who continue to humiliate, insult, and oppress us, pretending that they are our masters, exploiting their mandates, and threatening us with weapons and talk of revenge from mythical quarters."

Right Sector activists are not the only ones, however, to disappoint those who still believe in the values of the "Revolution of Dignity" (as some refer to the Maidan uprising). Another presidential candidate, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told a friend in a phone call that the 8 million Russians in Ukraine "should be destroyed with nuclear weapons." Their phone conversation took place on March 18, when Tymoshenko was having medical treatment in Germany. The audio of the call, apparently intercepted by Ukrainian or Russian secret services, was leaked last week.

The most popular politician in Ukraine is still Petro Poroshenko, whose reputation remains unspoiled. Poroshenko, currently the front-runner in the race for president, was the only Ukrainian billionaire seen on the front lines of the revolution. In a recent interview in his office, he told me that "it's never been my way to hide." Among the challenges Ukraine's new leader will face upon assuming office: how to prevent the country from falling apart, how to prevent criminal elements from exacerbating instability, and how to bring the revolution to a full and successful conclusion.

INNA SOKOLOVSKAYA/AFP/Getty Images