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arseny roginsky & sergei kovalevYevgenia Albats


Kovalev headed Russia's Human Rights Commission under Yeltsin until he resigned in protest over the first war in Chechnya. He is a veteran lawmaker who served in Soviet-era legislatures and in all three post-Soviet Dumas.

Arseny Roginsky is a historian. After being released from a Soviet prison camp during the Gorbachev era, he founded "Memorial," the largest human rights organization in Russia.

Arseny, when we met just a few weeks ago you said that the situation in the country is dangerous. Talk to me about that, both of you, what's dangerous, why is it dangerous?

ROGINSKY: It seems to me that the situation continues to be dangerous. It is alarming. Why is it dangerous? The change in the century that coincided with a change in government, didn't give birth to a new democratic enthusiasm - quite the opposite. What we feared most and what was felt during the entire 90s, is a nostalgia for so-called 'order'. By 'order', people mean here the power of the state from top to bottom and a strict obedience to the state.. Nostalgia for order, nostalgia for some 'strong hand', nostalgia for a quick and tough resolution of very complex problems. Soviet power was very good at all this, it had a penchant for order and for giving simple solutions to complex problems.. . . And now this nostalgia takes the form of public support for new trends. . . how did they reveal themselves? They are seen in a tough, I would even say cruel, very cruel war with the Chechens. The new trends are seen in endless conversations about national spirit, patriotism...The word 'patriotism' is good

KOVALEV: It's a bad word, a terrible word.

ROGINSKY: Sergei thinks it's a bad word, I think differently...but the way it is used now...it really has become a bad word. This nostalgia has also shown itself in the faith that a new person will quickly establish law and order, with precision, using a tough approach - restricting all kinds of freedoms. There is a horrifying and cruel war in Chechnya, and there is also an information blockade around Chechnya. There is unanimity in the mass media at large, there are quiet and humble people who are somewhat scared, who expect that the next day will bring worse news for them...All this together is the essence of this alarming feeling. These are bad signs. . .

KOVALEV: . . .The most horrifying thing is not even the ridiculous intention of Putin to be tough in his new capacity as a boss, but the public support that he gets. There was a surge of enthusiasm among people about an emerging democracy. Remember the early '90s? We were all bent on living in a democratic paradise and we became very disappointed when we discovered that there will be no paradise, that we will never have paradise. . . This was a horrifying disappointment.

As usual, the blame was laid on the supporters of this senseless and impractical democracy. So now the society feels different. The most horrifying thing is the readiness to support not new trends but old trends. It is definitely a step backward, not in terms of practical and political decisions, but in terms of ideology, the system that we all want to build. Another horrifying thing is that these changes in the peoples' feelings are being orchestrated by cynical people who are not deep thinkers, who have no conscience but who work very efficiently. . .

Can you explain what it was like after these explosions? Did it just entirely transform the country?

ROGINSKY: . . . People had been bottling up irritability, insecurity about what the next day would bring, disappointment in the government throughout the 90s. And because the government called itself more or less democratic, the disappointment is directed at the people who call themselves democrats. People have witnessed lots of crime and corruption. We always forget that the most meaningful word for this country's life is 'corruption'. This word has much more meaning than the war in Chechnya. The people witnessed assassinations, bandits and they also saw a government that is powerless to do anything.

KOVALEV: "And sometimes it doesn't want to, which is most often the case".

ROGINSKY:. . . The bombings were the catalyst for everything. There were bombings and people got scared: "There's danger right over my head". All these feelings of disappointment, distrust in the government, contempt for the government for being weak, since it can't do anything or doesn't want to do anything. All these feelings came together. And at this moment, a person appears who says, "I know who is guilty, the Chechens'. Let's move on with the war, we'll solve this problem and nothing will ever happen again - no bombings, no terrorists." The people are relieved. "This person is a defender, a defender because he will destroy the place where they came from." This is their impression. Then he says, "I'm young, I'm strong, I have a clear mind, I can solve problems and I will solve problems." So, you see, the bombings were just an impetus that brought about all the anxieties that people had built up over the years. So people of diverse political views are sympathetic towards this person and they support his tough approach.

After Yeltsin resigned in December '99, there was created a pure monarchial type of transfer of power.  Once again, it appeared that Yeltsin was a czar. Many communists, those people who vote communist, he's their hero, it's understandable. Many people who traditionally like the power of authorities, who traditionally vote for the power of authorities, naturally think of him as a hero. And many people who are more or less liberal democrats, but who are also tired and exhausted and who have no energy to think critically, they also say, "There should be someone who can solve problems somehow". That was the most important aspect of the bombings. If there had been no bombings, we would have the same thing. Frankly, I think we would have the same thing even without the Chechen war . . . it wouldn't be happening to such an extent, but the things were quickly taking a definite path: "The country should have a strong hand who will bring law and order". We would have come to this conclusion without the bombings and the war. There would have been extensive support for this kind of thing. This is most important.

Many people in this huge country felt humiliated in the past years. Everyone had their own reason to be humiliated. One highly qualified worker lost his job and was unable to adjust a new life. He is humiliated for one reason. Then there's another person full of Soviet patriotism (and there are lots of them) who feels humiliated because our great country fell apart, and the US now does whatever it wants.

I'm not sure that Chechnya would be in the state it is now if there had been no Kosovo. I think that Kosovo is a wonderful model for the masses. They are solving their problem and we are solving our problems in exactly the same way. The masses is not concerned with the fact that the problems are different and that they are being solved differently. Kosovo certainly paved the way here. And so we have this nostalgic patriotic idea of order, the idea that there should come a strong person and people say, "this strong person will conduct liberal reforms". A lot of liberally minded people think like that. The bombings are just the final straw, there would have been many similar things happening without it.

Sergei, you described in one of the articles you wrote, what's going on here now in this country as 'war hysteria.' Do you still think that's true?

KOVALEV: Yes of course. And I completely agree with Arseny's explanations. I want to add that the disappointment in democracy had serious causes. It is not that an unsavvy average person who couldn't imagine democracy as hard work should be blamed for this disappointment. The democrats themselves are to be blamed, those who call themselves democrats. Remember that in January 1991, when the bloody events took place in Lithuania, there were 14 people killed, think about it...14 people. And compare it to the blood and dead that reign now in the Caucases. Half a million Muscovites took to the streets of Moscow then. They stopped the Soviet aggression in the Baltic countries, they gave independence to the Baltic States. It is all a lie that it was Yeltsin who did that, Yeltsin simply took advantage of it.

There was nothing like this during the first war in Chechnya. Why? Because people started saying: "we are not taking to streets any more, it is you politicians who gain popularity from our protests and demonstrations, if you need it, go to the streets yourself". Because people who call themselves democrats immediately used the power that they got to their advantage. They live in a state-owned dacha, they live in a state-owned car, they have a big office and a big staff and so on. They give themselves a big salary, a big pension...

ROGINSKY: . . . You see, we are painting everything in dark and morbid colors. And if we are to answer your questions precisely, this is indeed what we should be doing. But I am full of optimism. It's the most important thing. We live in a country that is completely different from the one where we first met. Today, there are young people who have learned foreign languages , and they are persistent about learning foreign languages. They don't want to go to war, they want to do science, business, you name it.

KOVALEV: Well, Berezovsky doesn't want the Iron Curtain to come back. What will he do if it is back?

ROGINSKY: None of them wants the Iron Curtain back. There are many young people with this mindset now, lots of them. They are completely different. They are not very active politically because they've had freedom. If they ever face losing it, they will become politically active. This is our hope. Thousands and thousands of grassroots organizations have sprung up around the country over the past years. Our government doesn't listen very much to grassroots organizations, but these organizations got the government used to the idea that they exist. They are the beginnings of civil society in Russia. This is extremely important, because we didn't have civil society before.. . . Our 'Memorial' is active in 65 regions. They exist in one form or another, engaging in arguments and disputes with the government. People organize themselves in the face of various dangers. This gives us grounds for optimism. They have some influence in the cities. So, despite the fact that the general trend is going in an unfavorable direction and the situation is dangerous and alarming, if we look forward a bit then everything will turn out ok, because we have a new generation of people and they won't allow this country to turn back, or they won't allow it to become distorted. You understand? I believe in this, I absolutely believe in this.

KOVALEV: I agree with Arseny. I only want to give a brief quote from a poem, "it's a pity we won't be able to live in this wonderful time".

ROGINSKY: This is not true.

KOVALEV: We live in a different country, you are right. But, I would put it like this: "I'll remain a dark pessimist for the next four-five years but in 10-15 years when Russia becomes a civilized country -- and there's no way around it -- I won't be around."

ROGINSKY: You'll be around.

KOVALEV: . . . Something will turn for the better, something will turn for the worse. Let's look at what's going on in mass media now. . . . Your point about young people? Here you are absolutely right. We have a new generation, they are the source of our hope but also the source of our alarm.

In this connection, I like to recall a story about Siniavsky--Daniel, a friend of ours, was talking with his young friend, a very nice and capable student, and is saying to him, "Andrei Siniavsky died five days ago." And this guy asks, "Who is this?" Sanya tells him about the writer Siniavsky and the court case involving Siniavsky and Daniel. The young guy falls into deep thought and then asks, "Are you trying to say that they were jailed for their novels?". Daniel says, "Well, the verdict said a different thing, but in reality they were jailed for their novels." The young guy says, "This can't be true".

You see, this is hope. There is a new generation of people who believe that the authorities cannot jail a writer for his fiction. But this is also horrifying. These people don't know their most recent history. They can be subjected to God knows what, to our former mistakes. . . . Try to tell a Russian, "you built this horrifying country, you supported it, you created the gulags and killed people". It wasn't the Bolsheviks who did this. How many Bolsheviks were there? Let's count how many people served in the military forces, how many people were responsible for false accusations, how many people demanded executions. You see? Try to tell this to a Russian.

ROGINSKY: But that's the purpose of our work, we want the millions of people to have the feelings of remorse. And this won't be forgotten. It won't be forgotten.

KOVALEV: But it already is forgotten.

ROGINSKY: It is forgotten in the mass consciousness, naturally. Students don't know how to find out about this, but still they find out. Not everyone is like this student. There are many new professors at the universities, of course old professors need to be replaced...it's terrible what is still happening now. The same people who taught the history of the Communist Party, these are the people who are now called political scientists, contemporary historians, and experts in 20th century history. They are still teaching history. This generation is only growing now. I am very optimistic about young people. Of course, they can have quite different hobbies and they can be dangerous in other ways. They can go to extremes, for example, they can go bomb something. If someone stands in their way or brings the Iron Curtain back, they can get involved in illegal activities. This is the first danger. And the second danger is that the poison of nationalism can get into their heads. This is very scary.

KOVALEV: And it is getting into their heads. Both of these things are getting into their heads. Cynicism is also getting into their heads.

ROGINSKY: Cynicism is better than the other two, much better than nationalist idealism. Nationalist idealism that can be detected in them, "Russia is a great country that lost its great past, we should regain our great past". And there are a lot of these Russian nationalists, or quasi-Nazis. But this is not the main path the young people are taking; the main path is science, work, business, normal way of living, learning foreign languages, work on the computer, use Internet, travelling to the West. Travelling to the West and to the East, travelling everywhere. They want to feel themselves as part of the world, they reject isolation. And these people are growing in numbers. And the secretaries of regional party committees are dying.

KOVALEV: The secretaries of party committees are being born too. Always. One doesn't need to have party committees to have the secretaries being born. Unfortunately, there is cynicism. What I talk about the dangers associated with young people, I primarily mean cynicism. The mafia that still flourishes in our country tempts everyone. "Why should I be serious about setting up my business and manufacture pants in hopes of making an 8% profit on sales while Berezovsky makes money out of the air? I want to do the same thing." You understand? Of course, I'm exaggerating. When you say that we work in order not to let young people forget their history, this is so. But this work doesn't have a 100% guarantee.

ROGINSKY: It doesn't even have a 50% guarantee.

KOVALEV: It doesn't have a 50% guarantee.

What about these young people? You are talking about cynicism. Are they participating in the political process ? Or do they look around and say, "this isn't democracy, we don't have a democracy yet, and so why should I bother?

ROGINSKY: They are quite passive. But a lot more young people voted at these recent parliamentary elections. So, there is a small trend for the young to become more politically active. And I think that this trend will grow and solidify. Of course, young people like extravagant things, they are more inclined to participate either in the leftist movements or the rightist movement. A balanced liberal movement seems boring to them. And it's normal that it is boring. But thank God, young people are getting more interested in politics.

One last question. Sergei Adamovich, in the article that you recently wrote, you said that we might possibly look back at the year 2000 as the twilight of Russian democracy.

KOVALEV: There is such a possibility. It's a sad possibility. I think it will come true in the short term. You should realize that these are predictions based on intuition...nobody can give the exact time frames and I don't know whether Arseny will agree with me...

I think that in 2001-02, democracy in Russia will be in worse shape than in the year 2000. I am almost confident in this. I don't know what will happen in 2005 and I would like to hope that things will be improving and in 2010 or 2015 we'll have confidence that we are going in the right direction, although with some setbacks and at a slow speed. And then there will be no doubts. This direction will be supported by the society. I am almost sure that things will be worse in the first two years after the elections.

ROGINSKY: . . . If we say that things will turn for the worse, will it mean that the government will declare a war on mass media and will take it under its control. Will it happen or not? It may take one half of the mass media under its control, but it won't take the other half. You see? It may declare war on those grassroots organizations that support human rights by saying that these are Western, evil voices. What can the government do to these organizations? Well, the worst thing that it can do is throw them out of their offices, it can't throw them out of private apartments. In this sense, things may get worse. I think Sergei may be right here. But compared to the 70 years that we've lived through, these turns for better or for worse are quite relative.

KOVALEV: Of course, they are relative.

ROGINSKY: Frankly, I can't imagine that, say, the 100 most important opponents of the war in Chechnya will be arrested. I just can't imagine it.

KOVALEV: They won't do it.

ROGINSKY: Those actions would mean the return of the Iron Curtain, isolation from the world. These actions are impossible.

ROGINSKY: OK, tell me this. Are you afraid of the future?

KOVALEV: I am not afraid of the future, I am only trying to take an objective look at what it's going to be like. I agree with you. They won't succeed. For example, Putin said yesterday, "Of course we need to have freedom of expression, we need to use it in such a way so as to preserve morality". This is his level of understanding, you see? What does he want to say? He wants to say that we need censorship. That's it. He won't succeed. Although I'm an anti-patriot, I still feel bad that such a fool becomes the head of government in my country. He's nothing. He doesn't even understand what he is saying. And that Chubais, who is clever, supports this fool. This is where a danger lies for the society. That clever, talented and capable people think that it is possible to support a fool for some pragmatic illusions.

ROGINSKY: Are there pragmatic illusions?

KOVALEV: Yes, there are such illusions

ROGINSKY: Well, their main idea is this: Putin is a strong person, he is not going to do anything without the West, we'll teach him how to make the economy work and then the human rights will come on their own. First, the economy, then the human rights. This is the idea of liberals who support the current President. What is there to discuss? It seems like they're naive. But life has convinced me many times that I'm wrong. . . . The most important thing is this: there's a wide network of grassroots organizations, it will continue to exist no matter what. They will have difficulties, but they will still continue to exist, their voices will be heard, and this is the most important thing for me. I'm confident that our past 12 years of work weren't wasted building all this. Because some people were preoccupied with power and we were preoccupied with building society.

KOVALEV: I entirely agree with you. And we didn't really argue that much.

ROGINSKY: Not really.



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