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Russia's Never-Ending Theater of the Absurd

When you look at what is happening in Russia from afar — in my case, from Kiev — you get the clear sense that you are watching the theater of the absurd.

For example, NTV recently showed a film titled “Krestny Batka,” which could be roughly translated as “The Belarussian Godfather.” The film was highly critical of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, depicting him as the last dictator of Europe and a cynical, cruel and deceitful leader. Previous attempts by Russia’s state-owned television stations to demonize Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in documentaries and news programs pale in comparison to the treatment of Lukashenko in “Krestny Batka.”

What makes this so absurd is that Russian state television is attacking its “Slavic brother” and co-chairman (along with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) in the union state between Russia and Belarus.

At the same time, nobody ever believed that Lukashenko would agree to switch from being the president of an independent European nation to what would amount to being the Belarussian governor within an expanded Russia. Leaders in Moscow understand that rebuilding the lost Soviet empire, starting with Belarus, is a nonstarter. This may explain their acute frustration with Lukashenko.

As for internal affairs, the word most commonly used by Russian politicians these days is “modernization.”?  Is modernization possible in a country where prosecutors attempt to prove that business activity aimed at turning a profit is a punishable crime? That is what the charges against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky boil down to. According to the prosecution’s case, Khodorkovsky stole all of the oil produced by Yukos. And to prove that bizarre claim, the defense called to the witness stand former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who headed the Russian government during the years in question, along with former Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko and former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. They all claimed that it would have been impossible to commit such a crime without them having been aware of it. Nonetheless, the prosecutor insists that the defendants stole the oil. And most important, nobody will be surprised if the court ultimately decides that the prosecution managed to prove all of its charges.

There is another act in this theater of the absurd. For the second month running, Russian society is discussing the televised conversation between Putin and rock musician Yury Shevchuk of the group DDT, who dared to pose a couple of tough questions to the leader. What Shevchuk asked specifically is not important: what matters is that he did it publicly, and that it was broadcast, uncut, to the entire country.

I sometimes wonder how to explain to a foreigner, uninitiated in the subtleties of Russian politics, why the Russian prime minister and president occasionally meet publicly with actors, writers and musicians and have long talks with them about the problems facing the country — all of which are shown in great detail on the major television news broadcasts. This is a continuation of the strong Soviet and Russian tradition of leaders forging alliances with the country’s top cultural leaders and vice versa. When the meeting suddenly becomes a dispute, with Putin raising his voice slightly to Shevchuk, why does that qualify as an event of global significance? Can you imagine a similar headline on the BBC involving Mick Jagger and British Prime Minister David Cameron?

The culmination of this theater of the absurd is the comedy starring the 10 Russian spies in the United States. The servile pro-Kremlin media maintained that they were exposed as a plot by U.S. hawks to undermine President Barack Obama’s “reset.” It was the same under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, when every failure of Soviet intelligence in the West was inevitably portrayed by Soviet commentators as an act of provocation by enemies who were determined to undermine detente.

The epigraph to the spy farce could be: “Forward into the past!” The tragicomedy begins with Russian undercover agents gathering information available to an ordinary school student using Google, using methods taken from spy stories of the last century about Max Otto von Stirlitz and James Bond, and it ends with the swap of the 10 undercover agents for four convicted spies who were serving their prison terms in Russia.

One of the four Russian “spies” in the swap was Igor Sutyagin, a researcher and analyst at the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies who was convicted of espionage in 2004 and given a 15-year prison term. Sutyagin was considered by many Russian human rights activists, academics and opposition politicians?  — as well as the U.S. State Department — to be a political prisoner. The Sutyagin case was a glaring example of the lawlessness within Russia’s law enforcement agencies.

Sutyagin’s imprisonment and swap is strikingly similar to what happened to Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was also imprisoned on trumped-up charges and later exchanged for Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan. Russians over 30 will certainly recall the popular chastushka:

We exchanged a hooligan
For Luis Corvalan
Where can we find a whore
To exchange for Leonid?

We never were able to exchange Leonid — that is, Leonid Brezhnev, who was becoming less popular and more decrepit with every year — for anyone else. He died of natural causes in 1982.?  Three years later, in his place finally appeared a relatively young, reform-oriented leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

But it was too late. The thoroughly rotten Soviet system could no longer be reformed or modernized. It could only collapse to allow something new to be built in its place — which is exactly what happened in 1991.

Unlike the old and senile Brezhnev, today’s Russian leaders are youthful, athletic and energetic. But they are just as certain as Brezhnev that their hold on power will continue until they die. And I have a disturbing sense of deja vu that we will never modernize and that we are sinking into the same Brezhnev swamp of stagnation.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.

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