MOSCOW — The atmosphere at Avocado, my favourite Moscow café, felt as cosy as usual: A kid napped in the corner with jazz music streaming out of his earphones, while others typed on their electronic devices, chewed salads or sipped green veggie cocktails. Almost automatically, I looked around for a bit of reading material, one of the Moscow magazines or newspapers normally piled near the entrance, but came up empty-handed.
It was a disturbing inconvenience for a person who can’t eat without reading. Noticing my confused look, a waiter explained it all had happened more or less around the same time in early March, when deliveries of Bolshoi Gorod, the Moscow Times and Moscow News had simply stopped.
“Welcome to a different world, free of independent media,” the waiter said with a smile.
The disappearance of newspapers from one of my favourite cafés was just one tiny part of a larger flow of change stemming from a profound shift in government policies and public-opinion processes all across Russia.
The state is mobilizing and Russia is returning to the mentality of a besieged castle. At the end of February, a majority of the nation was convinced the time had come to defend Russian nationals living in Ukraine from “fascists.” In mid-March, the Levada Center reported nearly half of Russians wanted Russia to once again become “a great empire feared and respected by other countries,” while 47 per cent of respondents hoped to see Russia as a “prosperous country,” if not necessarily a powerful empire.
On March 18, just two days after the lightning referendum in which a majority of Crimeans voted to “return home” to Russia, President Vladimir Putin gave a historic speech in which he vowed to react harshly to any challenges from domestic critics he described as “traitors” or members of a subversive “fifth column.” The authorities quickly responded by issuing new laws.
For most of Putin’s reign, the government has placed national broadcast media and national newspapers under tight control, while leaving the Internet, which is used by a relatively small subset of Russians, largely to itself. Soon after Putin’s speech, this changed. Russians woke up and found they could not open any of the main opposition news outlets or blogs; the government shut down four websites in a single night.
As Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Moscow bureau of Human Rights Watch, summarized: “Freedom evaporates with a clap of hands, independent media are closed, officials attack theatres, Internet providers are now obliged to shut down banned websites within 24 hours, without any notice.”
One day, Putin casually let drop he would like to be able to know who had dual citizenship in Russia; a few days later, Parliament came up with three different draft laws requiring dual nationals to register with the authorities.
Not all Russian liberals or members of the so-called creative class felt ready to accept the critical attacks or insults. The famous Taganka Theater demanded an apology from two Russian senators who accused it of promoting “homosexuality, violence, pedophilia and suicide.”
Everybody is wondering how far the ball of “Sovietization” can roll: How will it affect business, higher education, science? Will the new Cold War mean Russian professors and scientists have to stop publishing in western scientific magazines? Will students have to stop going on exchange programs? Will Russian and American astronauts put an end to joint flights?
“Psychologically it’s very difficult,” said Irina Prokhorova, a prominent publisher and philanthropist. “In an instant, we suddenly seem to be living in a completely different country, a country where freedom of speech and human rights are dying.”
At least for now, Prokhorova can maintain her independence from the state: Her billionaire brother, Mikhail Prokhorov, funds her publishing house, her cultural program and a political party called Civic Platform she now leads. As smoothly as the opening ceremony from the Winter Olympics, the old totalitarian machine has once again started turning its giant wheels. But Prokhorova isn’t ready to give up.
“They’re the real fifth column, not us. We’re the real patriots, people who have spent decades creating useful and truly beautiful institutions for our country.”
What has inspired the surge of pro-imperialistic and anti-western feelings? I decided to ask a spokeswoman for the nationalist Rodina (“Motherland”) Party, recently revived after being banned from the political arena for several years because of its xenophobic slogans.
Sofia Cherepanova told me the new political agenda of the authorities, aimed at “gathering the lands” of former Soviet territories back into the Russian fold, appeals to the population.
“Finally, people can feel proud and useful in defending Russian national interests,” Cherepanova said, noting volunteers have been eagerly offering Rodina their services across the country.
“After Crimea, the focus should be on Transnistria,” Cherepanova told me, referring to the separatist territory inside the former Soviet republic of Moldova, whose leaders recently declared their eagerness to join Russia. “We won’t give away a single piece of our land.”
» Foreign Policy
» This article was also published in the Winnipeg Free Press.