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Writing immediately prior to the 2004 Russian elections, Sian Glaessner provides an overview (and update - see box) on the "state of the nation" and the prognosis for the future.

Things are not as bad as they seem: they are much, much worse

Russia after the election is a grim place. With electoral doubts safely swept under the carpet, Putin has been sworn into Office.

Greeted by Putin Youth Rallies in Moscow, and an explosion in Chechnya killing “Putin's man in the region”, Kadyrov, Head of Parliament Hussein Isaev and, at time of going to press, possibly Finance Minister Ely Isaev. No accidental irony this attack: on the Day of Victory. Putin's promise: the liquidation of the terrorists.

Speaking of which - one and a half years after the theatre siege, relatives of the 129 civilians killed by Russian Federal Forces still have no answers: What was the gas used? Who gave the orders? Why was there no antidote on hand? In recent weeks Russian conscripts wounded in Chechnya, now invalids, and their mothers, announced that they will start a nationwide hunger strike in protest at their treatment by the Russian authorities.

Meanwhile, new anti-terror legislation is being introduced to the Russian Federation: Suspicion of involvement (witting or unwitting) with terrorist groups will be counted as Guilt, and all property of the suspects will be confiscated. This comes only weeks after the anti-protest legislation that effectively renders unauthorised political meetings a criminal offence.

As the Russian satirists say: Is this the construction of a police state? No, merely a “redecoration” of the old one. In Russia my imperfect phrasebook Russian was answered with meticulous BBC English. Within a few years, the mask had dropped completely. Theatres could stage works that had long lain hidden in archives or desk drawers. Academics no longer had to do homage to Marx-Lenin in their prefaces. Moscow crawled with the red blazered Mafiosi just emerging from the cocoon of Communism. Taxi drivers charged $5 and a packet of cigarettes for any journey. Kalashnikovs were swapped for Levis. The atmosphere was one of hope tinged with desperation.

A spark of hope?

All the details of Soviet everyday life continued: conscription, queues, parades, corruption, surly shop assistants and insane bureaucracy. But nonetheless the country buzzed with hope for a future free from the shackles of authoritarianism, privation and dogma. The hope was that at last Real Life could begin, there would be no more working for the Great Tomorrow.

Kiosks selling the cassettes recordings of the dissident singer-songwriter Vysotsky appeared on every street corner. Suddenly Moscow had a soundtrack like no other. He had been banned for decades - labelled a dangerous dissident, but too popular to liquidate. Unofficial cassette copies of his work were circulated through the Samizdat networks that had kept the spark of hope alive. Publishing boomed as Russia rediscovered hundreds of authors, some banned for 100 years: first by the Tsarist censors and then by their Soviet heirs.

Rage and roll

In the years that followed the atmosphere in Moscow and life in Russia were to change dramatically. Like all crumbling empires, the Soviet Union did “not go gentle into that good night” - as it raged, the tanks rolled and economic collapse followed economic collapse. Russia and the other republics staggered out of the Soviet Union like drunks reeling through the streets after a heavy binge. For some there was money to be made, as Soviet assets were sold off to those in the know. People who had been at the centre of the Soviet system (like the recently arrested oligarch Mr Khodorkovsky) were not prepared to simply step aside. Nobody asked them to.

Verbal camoflage ensured the survival of the key elites. Some were sacrificed on the altar of “transition” but most simply changed lapel pins and carried on.

Collapsing state

The real transition was a social one as the middle classes were deprived of their privileges overnight. No more holidays to resorts on the Black Sea, or housing privileges for the scores of minor party functionaries, Kremlin doctors and academics who pushed the party line. State services collapsed - suddenly all the state provided in a hospital was the services of the staff - every catheter, drip or syringe had to be supplied by the patient. Pensions were worthless.

In spite of all this, people seized the opportunities afforded by the relaxation of censorship. As late as 1979 authors were sentenced to hard labour for dissident works, in the 1980`s they were simply declared insane, by the 1990`s they were published and performed, they gave readings, and wrote for new TV satire shows. Monuments were erected to those who fell to the Soviet axe. Closed towns began to appear on maps.

Full circle

By summer 2003 it seemed we had come full circle: 17 years on and Russian news led with stories of “bumper sunflower-seed harvests”, a hagiography of Putin appeared in St Petersburg schoolbooks, the “PutinJugend” march gleefully through streets all over the Russian Federation armed with pagers and purity. Every “right-thinking” New Russian can attend book exchanges where they swap books mistakenly purchased in the first heady days of Glasnost (Limonov, Akunin and friends) with State Approved Works of Russian Literature. Putin chocolate bars were marketed with the slogan “Now EVERYBODY can lick the President”.

Only the chronically nai”ve or the wilfully blind could see this “new authoritarianism” as benign. Yeltsin never was the Golden Boy the west painted him as. In 1993 Moscow Mayor Luzhkov expelled all “LKN” from Moscow. LKN means Person of Caucasus National Appearance - in supposed anti-Chechen terrorist measures he expelled anyone fitting this vague description. Imagine Ken Livingstone expelling the entire Asian community from London.

Conscripts were sent to their deaths in squalor and brutality. Provided with poor training, shoddy equipment and rotten food by the Great Russian Army, they razed Grozny to the ground, filled mass graves and destroyed a nation. Yeltsin started by announcing that all “criminal elements” would be cleansed from the region. He ended by saying there could be no military solution to the Chechen problem.

Who is responsible?

Today the bloodbath in the Caucasus continues. The Putin war machine swung into action after apartment blocks in Moscow were blown up killing hundreds. The inquiry into the explosion was clothed in secrecy, the accused: Chechen separatist terrorists.

Until 2003 Russia was not officially “at war”, its forces in the region were simply engaged in “military operations” designed to “mop up” “bandits” and “terrorist elements”. Whereas Tsar Boris sent the young conscripts to the front line and released psychopaths from prison to fight for Mother Russia, Putin sent the special forces in first and kept the conscripts as a useful resource to absorb enemy fire.

In the second week of January 2004, Putin announced that a) he was no longer legally responsible for the Human Rights situation in Chechnya, that responsibility had been passed to the head of the Chechen administration, b) the war in Chechnya was over, and c) all refugee camps are to be dissolved. No surprise then, that the slaughter continues, now under the auspices of the new “elected” head of Chechnya - Putin's man in the region. Meanwhile Russian troops move into Dagestan to fight elusive Chechen Terrorist Elements funded by Al-Qaeda. For the War on Terrorism has given him carte blanche to continue his attack on the mainly Muslim inhabitants of the region. He also learnt from the Bush election. The world watched as Putin broke the Russian constitution by adopting a political party in the Parliamentary elections. What can we expect from the upcoming Presidential Elections? Putin is running as an independent candidate, and is in the process of gathering the necessary two million signatures. Now how would a KGB man find so many friends?

Slavery is in our blood

During the election campaign, one of the remaining independent newspapers ran with the headline “You can vote for anyone: but there's only one candidate”. There is state control over all TV stations and most printed news-media. And this, dear reader, is called “managed democracy”. As Putin extends his power, the Russians that greeted the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union with enthusiasm feel tired, angry but resigned to what now appears inevitable.

While writing this article, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta led with the following:

”We are returning, silently, slowly but inevitably. We had a pleasant little walk and thought that the cells and cages had disappeared in a puff of smoke, of their own volition. But it's all there, freshly greased and with a new lick of paint. The Inspector - back too, updated but still specifying The Right Way: sit there, watch TV, don't think. We have not changed - slavery is in our blood. “Alas for times past” we sigh. We have now endured ten or so years of freedom. With difficulty. And now we give in, we give up. Brutality and amorality emerge from the cellars, from the gravestones, from the darkness and into the light. Do you like it? Does it suit? All it takes to participate - is silence. You'll find a way or your turn will come. Not at once, so who knows - you might survive.” If

that sounds melodramatic, perhaps it is only fitting. That newspaper published reports by Anna Politkovskaya on the quotidian horror of the Chechen war: when Khodorkovsky became the last in a long line of “Guilty presumed Guilty by order of the President” they led with the headline “We no longer have an independent judiciary”. Not melodrama, but the cold hard truth. Leading Russian politicians are certain Putin will stand for reelection in 2008, if he does, he would be in breach of the Constitution. Julia Latynina, also of Novaya Gazeta, writes:

”Until recently the key question was `are you a Democrat or a Communist?' Now it is `Are you for or against an extension [of the Presidential term]'“

”The Government handling of `the Chechen problem' has rendered this distinction irrelevant. No-one knows what really happened at Dubrovka [the theatre siege]. We were told that all the terrorists were shot to prevent them exploding the building. This paper published footage of our Special Forces dragging someone out of the building and shooting them dead after the theatre had been stormed.

The President announced that not a single hostage had died as a result of the gas used by our forces and that everyone had received the necessary antidote. Was he lying or misinformed? There are serious questions to be asked but everyone is silent. In Russia now there is no left or right, only those for or against the Constitution”

Assault on democracy

What we have witnessed from this “unknown” Mr Putin is a relentless assault on the democratic process.

His government created seven superstates to aid the extension of vertical power structures, has taken over the judiciary and a huge chunk of private commerce, approved the import of nuclear waste in the teeth of bitter and vociferous local opposition, is poised to sell off forests larger than England to logging companies, has extended state censorship of all aspects of the media, and continues the bloodbath in the Caucasus.

People have fought these centralising authoritarian tendencies every step of the way. People protesting against the ecological laws, the state discrimination against Muslims and people from the Caucasus, or the Chechen War, continue to be targeted by the police and are imprisoned on spurious charges for extended periods of time. Journalists and private investigators (Mr Shchekochikhin) are shot for speaking out once too often or for getting too close. The Duma (parliament) offers little protection, as the killing of Galina Starovoitova proves. Conscripts now have to pay their way out of military service in dollars their western counterparts could ill afford - where is a Russian 17-year-old supposed to find hundreds of dollars to pay for the much lauded alternative service? It is hard to imagine that things will improve. People simply don't have the energy. They have lost so much. Some say “hope dies last”. In Russia - the Presidential election might well prove its funeral.

Sian Glaessner works with Nonviolent Action.

Topics: Russia