11 December 2021
by Viktor Shenderovich, writer, journalist, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group:
I scrolled through Facebook. I see some commentators are unhappy with Dmitry Muratov [editor-in-chief of Novaya gazeta, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 – trans.] and some with Aleksandr Sokurov [film director – trans.]. [Shenderovich is referring to the questions put to President Putin (a) by Muratov at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club meeting on 21 October 2021 and (b) by Sokurov (see also) at a meeting of the Presidential Human Rights Council meeting on 9 December 2021 – trans.] These two were not brave enough! They talked and talked, but they went round and round the subject. They did not call Putin a murderer. And our adherence to principles, hardened through discussions in the kitchen, suffers greatly from this…
A story from half a century ago: At an academic get-to-gether, there was a conversation about a director who was well-known at the time, and someone said about him: “He’s a fighter!” Pyotr Kapitsa [distinguished physicist and Nobel Prize winner] gently corrected the speaker: “He’s not a fighter, he’s a brawler.” Yes, the words are close, but they are not synonymous.
Muratov and Sokurov are fighters. They are fighting on our side. The battle has been going on for over a decade, and there have been many casualties on our side, any yet many have been saved. Sometimes literally: People close to Muratov were killed. And yet Muratov saved others…
In the past decade, the ability to save has been directly linked to the ability to compromise, and that’s a no-brainer. The Novaya gazeta newspaper, funded by Sergei Chemezov [a long-time Kremlin insider with close links to President Putin] is critical of Putin, yet the line of compromise runs straight through this individual. For the authorities, too, this is a compromise, and a significant one, but I am talking here not about the authorities, but about us, their opponents.
Essentially, our choice is a simple one: get the hell out (there are many examples), go to the battering-ram, got to prison or die (sadly, there also are many examples of that) – or find your place in whatever is going on in Russian society at the current time. ‘Everyone chooses for themselves,’ as Yury Levitansky said. And no one tells anyone else what to do, for this is a fundamental question, a matter of human nature. Whatever suits you best, so to speak.
I for one am entirely incapable of making agreements with bureaucrats, but I don’t need to. I am a private person with a weak nervous system and I can allow myself to call murderers ‘murderers.’ In my opinion, this is an absolutely necessary sanitary procedure.
But it is not enough.
At the last great turning point in our history the dissident Valeriya Novodvorskaya and the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Aleksandr Yakovlev both played a crucial role. Blessed be the memory of both of them. Who did more to achieve this change in our history? That’s a difficult question. And it’s a tricky one: in order to achieve the change, both dissidents and state officials were needed.
“You have to make the good out of the bad, because that is all you have got to make it out of,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in his great novel, All the King’s Men. And those who have the strength and the skill make good out of evil. ‘There is nothing else to make it from.’
A battle is going on. And Muratov’s Nobel speech is an excellent example of focussing on the essence of the matter, not on verbal waffle. It was a perfect example of how to use new, powerful status to move towards real changes in Russia — slowly, yes, and morally painful as regards procedure. But if we have to rely on Putin to end torture, that means we have to rely on Putin! And Dmitry Muratov knows the price of this compromise better than the brawlers who immediately rushed to smack him in the face for being insufficiently pugnacious.
…Aleksandr Sokurov also got a few smacks yesterday. He continues to serve on the Human Rights Council and to say things openly that most people are afraid even to think about. He speaks at the Council and in return he receives fresh insults and direct threats from our cave Hero of Russia. Sokurov! He could just stand back and live out his life with the well-deserved status of a living classic. But no, we are not happy with him either. He is someone almost with Kadyrov’s adherence to principles, albeit from the opposite side…
Making good out of evil is not a job for the weak.
Let’s at least not get in the way.
Translated by Elizabeth Teague