Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 26 March 2022

Moving account of how political apathy leads to disaster.

Translation from Le Monde.

Jonathan Littell: "My dear Russian friends, it's time for your Maidan"

 Evoking the revolution in kyiv in 2014, the writer addresses, in an open letter, his "friends of soul and spirit" who have remained silent in the face of the aggressions committed by their country in Chechnya, Crimea and Ukraine.  He calls on them to regain their freedom by bringing down the regime.

 By Jonathan Littell(Writer)

 Posted today at 01:56

 Reading time 11 min.

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 Grandstand.  My dear Russian friends: some old friends, some newer, some I only know from afar, friends in soul and spirit.  Times are tough for you too.  Like those of all Ukrainians, your lives, never simple, are turned upside down.  Many of you are fleeing Russia.  And many of you tell me of the feeling of guilt and shame about what your country is doing, in your name, to Ukraine.

 Those of you who were activists had long been on borrowed time and were preparing for the final attack.  On March 4, I wrote to Alexander Cherkasov, a very old friend from the NGO Memorial.  "I'll tell you later," he replied laconically.  After the search [that day by the Russian police], we wander among the ruins.  Gutted computers.  Forced safes.  Others, cultural figures, artists, writers, are stunned by the sudden collapse of their fragile world.  None of you like Putin and his regime of thieves and fascists;  most of you hate them.  But let's be honest: with a few rare exceptions—friends at Memorial, Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, and a handful of others—how many of you have lifted a finger to resist this regime?  Could it be that your feelings of shame and guilt are not entirely abstract?  That they are also due to your long indifference to what was going on around you, to your apathy, to your passive complicity?

 You didn't want to know

 It wasn't always like this.  There was a time in the 1990s when you had freedom and democracy, chaotic, even bloody, but very real.  But 1991 ended the same way as 1917. Why, every time you finally make your revolution, you get so scared of the Time of Troubles [period of Russian history from 1598 to 1613] that you run to hide under  petticoats of a czar, Stalin or Putin?



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 It's true, there were mistakes.  Instead of exposing the archives of the KGB, as the former East Germany did with those of the Stasi, the political police, you let yourself be distracted by the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky [1877-1926, figure of the  Bolshevik movement, whose statue was removed from Lubyanka Square, Moscow, in 1991], and you let the KGB hunker down, then rebuild and take over the nation.  When you were offered the choice between plundering the country or bringing back the Communists, you did not fight to impose a third choice and you accepted the plunder.  In 1998, your economy collapsed: no more mass protests for social justice or against the war in Chechnya [between 1999 and 2000].  Survival then became the primary concern.

 Then you were introduced to Putin.  Young, bold, aggressive, promising the destruction of terrorists and the recovery of the economy.  Few of you believed it, but you voted for it anyway, or you didn't vote at all.  And when he started razing Chechnya, most of you closed your eyes.  I remember those years very well.  I worked in the field, delivering humanitarian aid to the countless victims of his "anti-terrorist operation", criss-crossing the ruins of Grozny and so many other towns.  Sometimes I would go to Moscow, party with you guys.  We drank, we danced.  And then, I was trying to tell you about the horrors over there.  And you were like, "Jonathan, we're sick of your Chechnya.  I remember those words precisely.  And I was furious: “Guys, this is not my Chechnya, this is your Chechnya.  This is your fucking country, not mine.  I'm just a stupid stranger here.  It is your government that bombs one of your cities, that kills your fellow citizens.  But no, it was too complicated, too painful, you didn't want to know.

 Assassinations of opponents

 Then came the great Russian economic boom of the mid-2000s, fueled by soaring oil prices and some of the stolen money that Putin willed trickled down to the middle class.  Many of you have made money, and even the poorest have been entitled to new apartments and better jobs.  When an opponent was murdered – journalist Anna Politkovskaya [October 7, 2006], ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko [died November 23, 2006], and others – you expressed your horror and shock  , but it didn't go any further.  When Putin, after two terms, castled in favor of his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, you hardly noticed.  When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, most of you ignored it, or remained silent.  And in the years that followed, how many of you have I passed on the ski slopes of the Georgian resort of Gudauri, or strolling through old Tbilisi, while your army occupied part of the country?  Not that we here in the West have done much either.  A few complaints, a few penalties;  but what are gross violations of international law in comparison to oil, gas and the Russian internal market?

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 At the end of 2011, however, you, my Russian friends, woke up.  When Putin again took over from Medvedev, many of you decided that was one bad move too many, and took to the streets.  For six months, you filled the seats, causing the regime to falter.  Then he fought back, raining down arrests and long prison sentences.  And those of you who were left went home.  "What could we do?  I've heard that so many times, and I still hear it today.  “The state is so powerful, and we are so weak.  Well, look at the Ukrainians.  See what they did, two years after you.  Once they had occupied Maidan, in their rage against a pro-Russian president who had broken his promise to move closer to Europe, they did not return.  They set up a tent village, organized and ready to defend themselves.  When the police came to dislodge them, they fought, iron bars and Molotov cocktails in their hands.  In the end, the police opened fire;  but instead of fleeing, the guys from Maidan charged.  Many died, but they won.  It was President Viktor Yanukovych who fled, and the Ukrainians regained their democracy, the right to choose their leaders and to fire them when they did their job badly.

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 Maidan really did not please Putin.  It was a bad example.  So, while everyone was still stunned, he took over the Crimea.  Some of you protested that too, in vain.  And so many were enthusiastic!  " Wonderful !  Crimea is ours!  sang an overwhelming majority of your fellow citizens, suddenly drunk with imperial glory.  I'm not just talking about the poor people in the ravaged depths of the country, where vodka and potatoes take the place of politics, but about some of you, my friends.  Writers.  Publishers.  Intellectuals.  And for the Donbass, the same.  "Novorossia", the New Russia.  Suddenly there was this myth, and some who until then had despised Putin and his clique came to worship it.  I don't know why, we quickly stopped talking to each other.  As for the others, those who have remained my friends, you have mostly kept silent.  "Politics don't interest me," you said.  And you returned to literature, cinema, Ikea catalogs.

 “Putin has sought to show you what happens to a people who not only dare to claim their freedom, but attempt to take it back.  If you do nothing, so much will be lost anyway."

 Syria, you hardly noticed.  Anyway, they were all terrorists, right?  Daesh, or whatever.  Even my Moscow editor criticized me in an interview, saying that I did not understand what was going on there.  At least I had been there, I had seen, in the streets of Homs, children of my age being slaughtered like rabbits.  The only Russians to have been there are those in your army who, in 2015, began bombing Aleppo and training for their next big war.

 Many of you, I'm sure, know the famous words of German pastor Martin Niemöller [1892-1984]: "When they came for the Communists, I said nothing because I was not a Communist.  When they came for the trade unionists, I said nothing because I was not a trade unionist.  When they came for the Jews, I said nothing because I was not Jewish.  And when they came for me, there was no one left to defend me.  »

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 How many of you have stood up for Chechens, Syrians, Ukrainians?  There are, of course, but far too many of you have remained silent.  Some, it is true, are raising their voices today, most from abroad, a small number from Russia, taking the risk of being sent to join Alexei Navalny in the gulag.  As for the others, you understand well in which country you live.  And so you get this: when Putin is done with the Ukrainians – but even more so if he proves unable, as seems likely, to subdue them – he will come looking for you, my friends.

 Who will defend you?

 For those who bravely came out to protest.  For the thousands of you who have signed petitions, or expressed your disagreement on social media, if only by posting a black square on Instagram.  The days when ten years of deprivation of liberty, or even twenty-five, were taken for a joke are not so far away, and they are coming back, it seems.  And who then will defend you?  Who will be left to do it?

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