2 June 2020
Dmitry Bykov, writer, poet, journalist
The pandemic has led to the complete self-exposure of the Russian state.
It no longer takes offense at the word “regime” since we are all living in a regime of self-isolation and enforced unemployment. Not only that, but the Moscow police have made it perfectly clear that any protests during the pandemic are forbidden. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-person picket (which does not require approval) or a march. It’s just that nothing can be done in general, under any pretext. You get the feeling that the pandemic has helped them make their long-held wish come true: close up the country and shut down street protests.
The Russian state only knows how to forbid and repress, it manages all the rest rarely and ploddingly, including health care, which holds on thanks to the heroism of doctors, and space, which holds on thanks to Soviet groundwork. The state strives to forbid under any pretext: you can’t protest during military actions because that’s treason. You can’t during a pandemic because that’s unhygienic. You can’t during bad weather because you create obstacles for the Emergencies Ministry and for ambulances to get through. All the rest of the time, people shouldn’t change horses midstream.
The pandemic corresponds ideally to the nature of today’s Russian state. No one is working and everyone is routinely idle, but fireworks and parades haven’t been canceled, and military conscription happens when it’s supposed to. Everything that made life bearable has been canceled, and everything that reminded us of freedom has been forbidden; on the other hand, everything that reinforces the vertical of power continues to flourish. You can vote on 24 July but not assemble. The propaganda of war continues, but discussing statistics is equated with spreading fake news. Trials – which are becoming more and more like summary punishment – are allowed, but defending human rights is forbidden. This is logical, here we have their true face, which no mask can hide. Not that they wear them, and there’s no point in them demanding we do.
At this point I suppose I should add something optimistic, like how now everyone will see them in their natural state. . . . But we’ve already seen them in it for a long time. Russian society likes all that’s going on very much. After all, in a country where everything is forbidden, no one needs anything. Except the occasional dinner. But I think that this, too, is temporary. The spectacle of retribution against your neighbor distracts wonderfully from thoughts of a meal. And if when it comes to the glorious matter of cutting population to the bare minimum the coronavirus is clearly not trying hard enough – the hangmen are always ready to lend a hand. For them, be it war or pandemic – they always come out ahead.
Translated by Marian Schwartz