MOSCOW — The last few months have been tough on the people of Moscow. The exceptionally hot, dry summer resulted in peat fires in the capital’s suburbs.
Because the metropolitan area sits on a huge peat bog, heavy rainfall is crucial to keep the peat damp. When peat — also known as “devil’s dirt” — dries, even a recklessly abandoned campfire or a cigarette butt can set it ablaze. Then the fire spreads underground, as if led by Satan himself. It announces itself with thick, pungent smoke; then the ground yields — having turned to ashes — and a forest or a hamlet falls into the flaming pit.
Moscow’s summers are normally wet and cool, and the last peat disaster occurred 30 years ago. But 2002 has been most unfortunate in this respect. When the peat hell was at its peak at the end of August, even downtown Moscow was engulfed by clouds of smoke, reducing visibility to just 50 meters and causing people to gasp for air.
There is not much one can do to fight a peat fire. Trenches are dug around villages and towns to prevent it from spreading, but only heavy rains can extinguish it.
As if peat smoke was not enough, Moscow politicians decided to add to the atmosphere of fear and pollution. Two noisy scandals broke out. In one, a youth organization close to President Vladimir Putin launched a lawsuit against writer Vladimir Sorokin for smearing the memory of Josef Stalin. In the other, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov announced his intention to restore a monument to KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. Both events reinforced the fear that Putin is going to rule Russia with an iron hand in a velvet glove.
A postmodernist author, Sorokin was once exclusively known by intellectuals. His texts have always been deliberately arcane, highbrow and mocking. “Blue Lard,” the novel that caused the current controversy, describes, among other things, passionate sex between the ghosts of former Soviet rulers Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.
In modern Russian, blue means gay and lard stands for something terribly unappealing. Obviously Sorokin’s intention was to mock both leaders. Of course, the story-line of “Blue Lard” is not in good taste — but teasing, provoking and shocking has always been part of postmodernism, particularly in Russia, with its fixation on extremes. A lawsuit based on a novel written for a handful of connoisseurs looks plain stupid — unless it has been initiated by a high-ranking official for ideological reasons. Many took the suit as a sign that Putin was restraining intellectual freedom in Russia and patronizing aggressive patriotism.
But the Kremlin has denied Putin has had any interest or involvement in the case. Sorokin’s rival writers, envious of the enormous publicity he received, began saying the lawsuit had actually been staged by his publisher as a cunning PR campaign. A specific sum of money — $20,000 — has been mentioned as the amount of the bribe the publisher allegedly paid to the patriotic youth organization to file the suit.
But this assertion is hardly true. To annoy Russia’s new patriots is to play with fire, and the commercial success of a single novel is not worth that. In any case, what’s important is the role the past plays in present-day Russian politics.
Stalin died almost 50 years ago and his crimes against humanity have been repeatedly exposed in every ugly detail. Yet a group of young people still think it is an offense to treat the infamous dictator in a disrespectful way.
Meanwhile, Luzhkov also got involved in the glorification of the Soviet past. When communism collapsed in Russia in August, 1991, the statue of Dzerzhinzky in front of the KGB Lubianka headquarters was viewed by crowds of Muscovites as a symbol of totalitarianism. They promptly toppled it and took it to a mock museum of Soviet memorabilia. A few days ago, Luzhkov said he was going to return it to its original location because Dzerzhinsky should be remembered for his patronage of homeless children and railroads.
Dzerzhinsky did help homeless children — to recruit them as secret police officers when they grew up — and he managed the railroad system, but he also established the pattern of fanatic brutality that has since characterized Russia’s secret services.
Many people were puzzled. Luzhkov had never been know for his feverish patriotism or his enthusiasm over the Soviet past. Common sense said that his effort was not the result of a miraculous conversion, but rather an attempt to be nice to Putin, a former KGB officer. Luzhkov will be running for re-election shortly, and in contemporary Russia, if one wants to win, he or she had better be a supporter of the president.
Interestingly enough, just as it did in the “Blue Lard” case, the Kremlin disavowed Luzhkov’s plan and even reported that it had upset Putin. Again a conspiracy theory immediately emerged, saying that the Kremlin had first persuaded Luzhkov to make his revisionist announcement and then withdrew its support to make a laughingstock of him.
This fall, Russia’s usual smoke-screen of Byzantine politics became especially thick, just like the smoke from the peat fires. It was built not around relevant issues like the war in Chechnya or poverty, but around the nonexistent glories of the Soviet past. This forces one to come to the sad conclusion that in Russia it is just as difficult to dispense with the myth of totalitarian merits as it is to extinguish a peat fire.
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