Can you guess which country the following quote describes?
“We cannot abide this at all … key political institutions, the disciplinary structures of the states — the uniformed services, the army, the police, the secret police, and the corresponding means of ensuring political stability: prisons, preventative detentions, the tools of exerting rigid control over citizens’ behavior.
“We also cannot abide by the forced civic passivity of the majority of the population as well as the total domination of the executive branch over the legislative and judicial ones.” [added emphasis]
Recently, in my nightly COVID cocoon, I came across this passage while plowing through books about corrupt societies and dysfunctional strongmen.
I admit this is not pleasant bedtime reading, but given the situation we currently find ourselves in the United States — a nation close to Balkanization, an executive branch out of control, a ravaging pandemic, an autocratic president, and the militarization of our police forces — I wanted to find a historical and an international context.
Russia and the Rise of Putin
I an avid reader in the range of 75-85 books per year. As is often the case, this year’s list includes almost all non-fiction, with a mix of new and past titles. An exception: I could not resist rereading The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker because, well, I had not heard myself laugh out loud in months.
I am also a world traveler who is now prohibited from going abroad. Americans have the cooties. This is the first year in the last half dozen that I am not planning an overseas trip. A first-world problem? Absolutely. But still.
So instead of settling in to a glass of Merlot and a movie on an overnight flight to Dubai, Paris, or Delhi, I’ve been on political journeys to Iran, the Balkans, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and, most notably and most disturbingly, to Russia.
Given the persistent Donald Trump-Russian connection, I cannot seem to read enough about that nation and the rise of Vladimir Putin.
Understanding the Master Plan for the Russian Federation
In Heidi Blake’s riveting and incredibly sourced From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West, I learned the chilling details of Putin’s hideous poisonings and other murders in the United Kingdom. Note this week’s disturbing news regarding the suspected poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Putin’s fingerprints are all over this.
One can find out why the enemies of Putin keep falling “accidentally” from the upper stories of apartment buildings. No one is safe from Putin’s reach, even those in the United States.
Maksim Borodin, 32, a #Yekaterinburg-based investigative correspondent for the independent news website Novy Den, died April 15, 2018, after falling on April 12, 2018 from the balcony of his fifth-floor apartment. #Russia https://t.co/pq4sOATNIK
— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) May 8, 2018
Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton meticulously chronicles the unlikely ascension of Putin from an obscure KGB agent in former East Germany to his present position as president for-as-long-as-he-wants and possibly the richest leader on the planet.
The link between Soviet-style gangsterism, the government’s monstrous security apparatus, a thoroughly crooked judicial system, and the Kremlin is instructive, frightening and, closer to home here in the States, ominously predictive given the very real possibility of another four years of Trumpism.
Belton spent years as the Moscow correspondent for Financial Times, and her contacts would be the envy of any journalist trying to understand the master plan for the Russian Federation.
Belton’s book in turn led me to Luke Harding’s canon, including Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West. As the title suggests, Harding, a veteran Guardian reporter who was eventually expelled from Russia after years of psychological harassment from the Federal Security Service (FSB), provides the historic grist for how Russia has spent millions of dollars to interfere in our own 2016 presidential election, the UK’s Brexit movement, and the current nationalist trends in Europe.
Spoiler alert: Putin’s scheme is working out to his great advantage.
Next up on my shelf were two must-read books by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. The titles are Surviving Autocracy and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
Long before the media caught on Trump’s autocratic tendencies, Gessen knew what was coming. She had already experienced it in Russia. Trump capitalized on an America already in decline. As she writes in Surviving Autocracy, “He preyed on the fear [of immigrants and the outside world], he weaponized the hatred, and he filled the void left by the lack of vision.”
Now for the answer to the question I posed earlier. The quote that opens this essay describes Russia and comes from the aforementioned Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
The three members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, who were each sentenced to two years to toil in that country’s punishing penal colonies for a 30-second performance that “desecrated” Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, had closing statements at their “trial” that are as powerful as anything I have ever read regarding freedom of expression.
The passage I quoted comes from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was 23 and the mother of an infant at the time of her sham trial.
When I read her words, and later her letters from prison, I could easily imagine an American resister in 2020 writing those same words.
US Ascent Back Toward Democracy
Our executive branch is indeed dominating (one of Trump’s favorite verbs) our legislative branch. Laws such as the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act with 10-year sentences for vandalizing monuments are being employed to pacify dissent. Unidentifiable federal agents kitted out like Star Wars stormtroopers are flooding American cities also with the intent of squashing protests through violent “rigid control.”
Unlike Russia, we have an opportunity at this November’s elections to begin what will be an arduous ascent back toward democracy. But this time, we need to discard those false illusions of what America stands for and, instead, imagine a democracy truer to its original intent, one that offers equal voice and opportunity to all, no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status.
Only then will we be able to escape the devolutionary clutches so evident in Russia and, increasingly, around the world.
As shown by those courageous and inspiring young women such as Nadezhda, it begins with words and continues with actions. Batons and bullets are no match for ideals.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.