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Anniversaries, talk shows showcase division in Russia

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

In Russia, the year of the black water snake — 2013 — has already brought a lot of public events that have had their effect on central TV programming and Internet blog activities. The country has lost several notable public figures — famous movie and stage producers, actors and writers. Some other members of the cultural elite from elder generations have had their 75th or 80th anniversaries.

After a more or less prolonged pause immediately upon the presidential inauguration, fiery political talk shows resumed with a new vigor, attracting millions of nighttime viewers to the TV screens where political opponents have been trying to chop each other into salad.

Each such event provokes hot public passions and gives food for thought about the current state of Russian society and the way along which the country has been moving in the last dozen years.

Or rather not moving!

The topic of “zastoy” (stagnation) is in the air, bringing back memories of the last years of the Brezhnev rule. Very revealing, from this point of view, was the April 4 political talk show designed and moderated by Vladimir Solovyev on the channel Russia 1. Called “The Victor,” this late night weekly event staged on Thursdays always attracts much public attention and can, in a certain way, be regarded as a barometer of the public mood.

The show was devoted to a sensitive question: Does Russia need a new Perestroika — a radical reform process — or is the status quo regarded as satisfactory and the chosen path as a right one?

One of those who crossed swords in this ideological duel was the eloquent but often unduly abusive polemist Alexander Prokhanov who this spring celebrated his 75th birthday and was loudly praised for his pro-Stalin and “Russia-as-the-mankind’s-Messiah” views by his own newspaper “Zavtra” (“Tomorrow”). He brought with him a group of lobbying experts who share his neo-imperialist and openly populist ideology.

The second side in this fiery duel was represented by a relatively young historian and liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov. Born in the Altai mountains in Siberia, he is a well-known statesman who served in the Duma in 1993-2007 and even was its first deputy chairman for some time. Now he is co-chairman of the minor opposition party RPR-PARNAS, anchorman of a number of Echo of Moscow radio programs and professor at the Higher School of Economics.

For Prokhanov, “Perestroika” and the very name of Michail Gorbachev are synonymous with “disaster,” “treachery” and “geopolitical catastrophe.” In contrast, his opponent and liberal experts repeatedly pointed out that Perestroika emerged as a natural result of and a necessary answer to the complete failure of the Communist regime and the decades of “gerontocracy.”

Sarcastically, Ryzhkov stated that without Perestroika this very debate — public and open, happening before the eyes of millions of Russian citizens — would be simply impossible and could never take place.

Paradoxically, in the first half of the debate at least, both sides agreed on the basic issue — that the country has somehow lost impetus, both economically and politically, and that there are obvious signs of stagnation in sight.

For Ryzhkov and his “liberal-democratic” team, it was a clear argument in favor of a new Perestroika and of a further radical reform along the lines of political democratization, economic de-monopolization, securing of private property rights, radical improvement of the business climate — for domestic small and medium-size firms and of investment climate— for foreign capital.

For Prokhanov’s team, however, the problem looked not so clear-cut. As neo-Communists, they could not help criticizing the existing powers that be and acknowledged the signs of corruption, inefficiency and stagnation. It was while expressing his distress about the current state of affairs that Prokhanov recalled the dead-born and duly forgotten slogan from Gorbachev’s time — that of “economic acceleration.”

In the “patriotic writer’s” view, what Russia actually needs now is accelerated economic development — but without any new Perestroika which he regards as an “amputation” of the existing state system and a factor of further disintegration of the country. But how to “accelerate” without political and economic restructuring? Through decisive rearmament and war preparation because, he believes, Russia is surrounded by enemies and is facing threats from all sides.

Accordingly, Prokhanov praised Vladimir Putin for the current defense-oriented budget policy and his appeal to “patriotic forces” which nowadays unite such inconceivable allies as surviving Communists, anti-migrant and homophobic mobsters and a revived Russian Orthodox clergy.

What can be regarded as the main result of this hot public debate?

It’s a regretful fact that it is Comrade Prokhanov who has emerged as a clear victor — with about three-quarters of all phone and SMS votes from TV viewers going in his favor.

And even more distressing and sad fact of today’s Russian life is that this proportion — roughly 3 to 1 — happens practically every time a debate between members of the conservative establishment and their “fans” of various coloring, on the one side, and speakers for the liberal-democratic opposition, on the other side, takes place on the TV and in other official mass-media.

As stated in the beginning of this piece, other public occasions covered on the TV and commented in the Internet have been mirroring this ideological split within Russian society.

For example, the death of the great movie director Alexei German, who for decades had suffered from Soviet censorship and had spent his last eight years working on a screening project based on a clearly anti-totalitarian novel of his quasi-dissident friends, brothers Arcady and Boris Strugatsky, had a loud public resonance with overtones unequivocally critical of any freedom-restricting practices.

Also, Boris Messerer, a famous stage artist, painter and sculptor, who is still with us and whose 80th birthday has been widely celebrated around the country and lavishly covered by the mass-media, has used this opportunity to share with the public his libertarian artistic and political convictions.

In contrast, the 100-year anniversary of poet Sergei Mikhalkov, author of all three versions of the national anthem (consecutively adopted under Stalin, Khrushchev and Putin), has been widely used for embellishing not only this talented time-server himself, but also the way of life during the “father-of-the-peoples” rough dictatorship.

On the political scene, the overall ideological constellation seems to be as follows. The mostly silent but often aggressive conservative majority is generally pro-Putin (or rather anti-liberal), even if sometimes unhappy with concrete faults in the country’s everyday life. His critics from the official opposition, both left and right, seem to be loud but toothless opportunists. In many cases pro-Stalin, they regard the today’s regime as the next best, thus representing its “pocket” reserve in case of eventual social confrontations.

The liberal-democratic opposition, both quasi-official and underground, is clearly in a minority position and lacks mass-media backing. In this situation, open ideological debates of the type outlined above hardly can be productive and lead to social and political initiatives, however great the real need in them might be.

Democracy works best in a roughly two- party system where the choice typically is between “good” and “better.” Not so in a society where one dominant party monopolizes power with the help of twisted electoral rules. Under such conditions, people don’t have a choice. That’s why today’s situation in Russia looks hopeless.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.