MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insists that “without normal democratic development, Russia will have no future.” We Russians are pleased to hear these enlightened words, yet Putin adds a “but” to his argument that renders his points senseless.

We have hated this “but,” this coordinating conjunction, ever since the dawn of the Soviet era. Then we were told that freedom is good, but that one can’t live in an individualist society without common concern for the communist state. Democracy is great, but only in the interests of the working class.

Now Russia’s prime minister tells us that democracy is indeed great, but that public protests cannot take place around hospitals and such. Never mind that the Russian Constitution does not list hospitals among places forbidden for public assembly.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev does understand — with no “buts” — that “freedom is better than not freedom,” that “legal nihilism” is bad and democracy is good. He understands that Stalin was a criminal, that his order to murder Polish officers in Katyn was an act of depravity that has no excuse or explanation. The president understands this; unfortunately, we don’t understand the role our president plays in our society. He says all the right things, yet they don’t seem to be reflected in reality.

The Dissenters Marches, which take place on the 31st of every month (Article 31 of the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly), could be (and are) easily dismissed as a marginal protest of a few hundred people with no common goals or ideas. Putin’s and Medvedev’s poll numbers are so high, many argue, that they don’t need to care about a few dissenters. Besides, most Russians support the government with no dissent at all, they say. This doesn’t say much, however, because the Russian majority always supports the government, regardless of the policies it implements.

Today’s dissenters are indeed a minority and, of course, can be disregarded, but only up to a point. After all, this minority is one of thinkers — musicians, artists and writers, and those who move forward Russian science, technology and economic innovation. Such people cannot be dismissed as useless, since we need the innovation that they deliver, even if we think Russia doesn’t need democracy. True, not all members of the thinking minority attend the dissenters’ marches, yet many more of them silently oppose the regime.

Our leaders talk obsessively of Russia’s industrial modernization, of their support for innovations such as nanotechnology, so that Russia can catch up with the developed counties.

In line with Soviet traditions, a nanotechnology project was given a piece of land with plans to set up various scientific facilities. The best brains in Russia — engineers, scientists and inventors — will gather in one place, and from there begin moving the country forward. The hope is that not only those living in Russia but also expats will be overcome with patriotic feelings. They will come back to Russia (also drawn by high salaries) to make themselves famous and their motherland proud.

It’s a wonderful plan, but I don’t see how it will work. For example, imagine a genius who left Russia years back. He has achieved prominence in a foreign country, inventing something outstanding. Now he is asked to come home: Your motherland is waiting for you; it values your contribution; it forgives your betrayal; and it will pay you more than what you are getting elsewhere.

This brilliant scientist is still a human being. He is nostalgic for the birch trees, his old friends, ex-wife and children from the first marriage. He wants to come back, to revisit all that he has left behind, in the meantime helping his nation to become economically strong, technically advanced and prosperous.

Before making the final decision, he turns on the radio, watches a bit of TV, browses the Internet and finds out what Russia is like. Journalists are killed, scientists are accused of espionage, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains unjustly imprisoned. Various blogs tell him that Russia’s parliament is just a place for rubber-stamping decisions already taken at the top. He reads the confusing speeches from our leaders: freedom is good, but . . .

This brilliant scientist learns that Vasily Aleksanyan, the terminally ill Yukos lawyer, was held in prison in inhuman conditions. Another lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison after being refused medical treatment. Yet another one, Stanislav Markelov, was gunned down on a Moscow street.

Then this scientist may be surprised todiscover that the Russian majority views Joseph Stalin as the country’s third most popular person in a contest to be known as the “Face of Russia.” In the meantime, his junior colleague in Russia, who still has his whole future in front of him, does not attend the Dissenters’ March, but simply emigrates, which is also a form of protest.

In Soviet times, communist leaders tried to lure people into the kolkhozes (collective farms) with promises of great crops and spectacular meat production. Nothing worked, because the kolkhoz system was incompatible with high achievement in the long run. Similarly, in a country where the concepts of democracy and freedom are balanced by “but,” achievements in science, technology and economy are not possible.

The thinking minority needs a system of laws and institutions, real presidential elections, a working parliament and justice that is independent, rather than merely following orders from above.

Vladimir Voinovich, a former Soviet dissident and one of Russia’s most acclaimed novelists, is the author of “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.” © 2010 Project Syndicate

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