Grigory Okhotin: Politics is the art of the impossible. On the outcome of the round table discussion on the foreign agent laws

5 February 2022

by Grigory Okhotin, founder of the human rights project OVD-Info

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source:]

The round table discussion with State Duma deputies on the foreign agent laws left an ambiguous impression. On the one hand it was good the deputies are ready to consult with those directly affected by legislation and are ready to speak on an equal footing with us. In this way, we, as civil society activists, cease to be the objects of administrative and legislative manipulation and become the subjects of social and political life. This, in fact, is a quite normal situation to which, alas, everyone has become unaccustomed: both ‘they’ and ‘we’ have long been accustomed to considering ourselves only as objects. It’s time to remember. To begin with, we must cultivate our own subjectivity ourselves, and then, you see, it will be increasingly difficult for others to ignore it.

On the other hand, alas, the deputies already clearly have this sense of subjectivity, but activists themselves still do not. Of the eighteen speakers, only three confidently insisted on the total repeal of all the legislation – the head of the Yabloko faction in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Aleksandr Shishlov, the convenor of the meeting and executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group Svetlana Astrakhantseva, and I. Almost everyone else, while agreeing that the legislation is illegitimate and discriminatory and, in principle, should be repealed, urged everyone to be realistic. They said politics is the art of the possible, and complete repeal is now impossible. So let’s discuss possible amendments to the legislation: how to make toilets in the Gulag more comfy, with the help of air fresheners. Only our beacon of common sense, Ekaterina Shulman, struck a more positive note, by saying a simple and important thing: the demand to repeal the legislation and lobbying for amendments do not contradict each other, but go hand in hand. 

What is the political danger of flirting with realism?

First of all, in the choice of rhetoric. Are you a fan of Otto von Bismarck and his pathetic Prussian interpretation of 19th century politics? I prefer the Parisian students of 1968, who laid the foundation for modern politics in general, and their successor, Václav Havel, who reformulated Bismarck’s quote as follows: Politics is the art of the impossible. The situation in which Havel acted is much closer to our own circumstances than those in which the Iron Chancellor was working. 

Who is most actively trying to convince us that any complete repeal is impossible? Those in power. But if that really were the case, it wouldn’t be worth saying. All these various high-ranking officials would not be talking about this legislation at all. This mantra is a banal negotiating position, deliberately inflating one side of the argument. This is rhetoric, and an attempt to impose their own agenda on others. On us.

And why do both the president and the deputies suddenly feel the need to talk about the possibility of change for roughly the first time in ten years? This legislation was conceived as, and is used as, a tool of repression. But sometimes it can happen that if you overdo repressive measures, they no longer evoke fear but indignation instead. At that point, their effectiveness drops dramatically and change becomes inevitable. As regards repressive measures associated with the foreign agent law, this seems to have occurred last summer. Public opinion has already formed and it is unequivocal: the majority considers this legislation repressive and harmful (48% of those who had heard of the law, October 2021, Levada Center).

Is it possible to increase both the share of the population that are informed and the share of those who consider the ‘foreign agent’ laws harmful? Of course it is. Already by 1 May we can increase this figure to 75%. All that is needed is for the main civil society actors to stop being adherents of political monotheism and to stop believing that one person makes all the decisions in the country. We need to feel our own subjectivity. And then the situation will change by 180 degrees – it will no longer be possible not to repeal these laws.

And don’t give me the mantra that we have to understand what kind of country we are living in. I do! Believe me, we at OVD-Info understand a lot of things. And as for the country we are living in – we understand that better than most, with numbers and facts in hand. And it is from this extensive knowledge that our absolute certainty comes: it is not just desirable to repeal the legislation on foreign agents, but urgent and necessary. Otherwise, there will be a disaster. And a disaster not for us – the foreign agents, but for us – our society, and for us – the Russian state.

Translated by Graham Jones and Simon Cosgrove

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