9 March 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
“When will Russian society finally wake from its slumber and overthrow Putin’s authoritarian regime?” polite people from thriving Western countries ask me with a tinge of impatience in their voice. “What will it take for the cattle to rebel and bring down the tyrant?” less polite people from the same countries — former compatriots, as a rule — ask me.
My friends from despotic regimes like Cuba, China, Belarus, and Turkmenistan don’t ask questions like that. They’ve had their taste of misfortune, and they know what it feels like to have death breathing down your neck. They aren’t trying to look like impatient and zealous fighters for freedom because they’re standing up for it themselves as much as they can and risking their lives. They know the cost of genuine risk and don’t ask foolish questions.
HOW LONG CAN ANYONE PUT UP WITH DESPOTISM AND TYRANNY?
Russian society is branded loudest of all for its inertness by people who once served Putin’s regime. People like Arkady Babchenko, who fought to his heart’s content in Chechnya as part of the Russian army. People like Aider Muzhdabaev, who worked quietly and happily as deputy editor-in-chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets. There are a lot of them in the West now, and they are furiously digging a trench between their pro-regime past and their “crystal pure” present. Others are calling for Russia’s destruction altogether, forgetting that people who like to destroy peoples and countries were hung by verdict of the court in the Nuremberg prison gymnasium in 1946.
This is not about clever men retouching their past, though. Many people in the free world are truly bewildered. How long can anyone put up with despotism and tyranny? Their bewilderment stems from the fact that they are measuring their passion for freedom against the conditions of their democracy, not our dictatorship. At home they can protest without fear and achieve change; here they behave completely differently. Simply put, the way we do, or even worse.
Highly placed Western politicians called upon to defend the values of democracy rattle off their cadences and happily go off to their lucrative seats on boards of directors of Russian state companies. Western businessmen in Russia are quick to join in on corruption schemes, fattening up the Putin bureaucracy as well as their Russian colleagues do. For 20 years, the West has willingly hosted the sleek bandits who made their fortunes by stealing from the state budget; the West has offered every opportunity for Kremlin propagandists, who don’t know what economic competition is; the West has gladly met with the dictator and his lapdogs, who have usurped power in Russia openly, for all intents and purposes.
“WHEN WILL WE WAKE UP?”
And now you ask: “When will we wake up?” But if the West for so many years was either under the influence of the Putin haze or in a state of permanent hypocrisy, then what do you want from Russians who have been denied alternate information, political competition, and basic civil freedoms? It’s hard to stand up to authoritarianism, especially when free countries are condescendingly and complacently supporting it. For 20 years, the West has carefully been cultivating a monster in Russia, gifting him hard currency for cheap natural gas, investing capital in the state sector of the economy and turning a blind eye to the outrages in Georgia, Syria, and Russia itself. And now that the matter has logically reached the point of genuine war in Europe, the West has passed belated sanctions, basically abandoned Ukraine to its fate, and is asking us why we are silent!
Freedom has been gradually suppressed in Russia over the last 20 years, and outside our country this has hardly upset anyone. The current war with Ukraine is the direct consequence of this terrorist policy. I’m afraid it’s not very well understood in the West. I think it’s understood even less in Russia.
I have to say, though, that there are people and organizations in the West who are aware of the importance of defending human rights for the preservation of international peace. There are people like that in Russia, too. Both here and there, there are only a few of them, too few to wield serious influence over the political decision-making process. Nonetheless, they are doing what they can. They are attending demonstrations, writing protest letters, supporting political prisoners.
Social opposition to despotism is subject to one simple law: the strength of the protest is in inverse proportion to the strength of the repressions. Therefore, in the Soviet Union, for example, where the repressive system was many times harsher, there weren’t any noticeable protests during the war with Afghanistan, even though, according to official figures, more than 15,000 soldiers died. Nor were there civilian protests in Nazi Germany, where the slightest dissatisfaction was punished by concentration camp. There are no protests in North Korea.
In Russia it is still possible to protest. The price paid for this is not as high as it has been in our history. But not many are prepared to pay it, unfortunately. And I advise those in the West who are surprised that the people are so inert to come here and take part in unsanctioned demonstrations. They may possibly find all the answers to their questions.
I also ask you not to forget that for 20 years we asked the West not to support the dictatorship — and no one heard us. Now there’s no one in Russia to hear you.
Translated by Marian Schwartz