In the holiday pause, it has become even more apparent that the revitalized Russian politics has acquired a new and rather untraditional character. Nobody is remotely interested in where President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are skiing or attending church services, and their reshuffling of henchman between the government and the presidential administration is of only marginal importance. The main news is the debate between the famous author, Boris Akunin, and the young activist, Aleksei Navalny, on a broad range of issues from the heritage of Stalinism to the expiration of Putinism (Ekho Moskvy, www.besttoday, Snob, January 3, 5). They published this lengthy exchange on their respective blogs, from where it was re-posted on dozens of Internet media sources and generated tens of thousands of comments and votes on questions like should Russia aim at becoming a “sympathetic” empire or abandon any imperial ambition? This huge resonance confirms the unique role of the blogosphere in creating space for alternative politics in Russia outside the officially sanctioned scripts for tamed quasi-opposition; it also illustrates the contribution of Russian literature to creating content for this new politics.
The phenomenon of the Russian Internet (or Runet) fascinates its researchers and users with its explosive growth. For that matter, Ekho Moskvy radio station website registered 121 million visits in December 2011, which is twice more than in November, and four times more than in December 2009 (Ekho Moskvy, January 3). It was Runet that turned Navalny’s one-man crusade against corruption in state corporations into a national campaign and made his description of the pro-Putin United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves” into an indelible label. It was the remarkable support from bloggers that popularized his idea about not boycotting the parliamentary elections but voting for any party except United Russia and delivered a humiliating setback to the Kremlin (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, December 19). And it was the fast Runet mobilization that brought some 50,000 Muscovites to the first rally on the Bolotnaya square on December 10, and twice that number to the second rally on the Sakharova Avenue on December 24 – and now work is underway on taking five times more people to the streets on February 4 (Novaya Gazeta, January 2).
There is plenty of sharp and original content in the popular Runet blogs (like Drugoi or Dolboeb) that register thousands of hits daily, but what made a difference in 2011 was the launch of several blog-projects by popular authors, including Akunin. There is certainly a strong anti-despotic and pro-revolutionary tradition in Russian literature going from Alexander Pushkin to Vladimir Mayakovsky, and it blossoms in the contemporary works of fiercely leftist Zakhar Prilepin or surrealistic Vladimir Sorokin. Perhaps the most successful recent project is the weekly production of Citizen-Poet, in which the actor Mikhail Efremov presents short satirical verse by Dmitry Bykov for an audience of hundreds of thousands of fans accessing YouTube (The New Times, December 26). These hilarious parodies on Putin’s and Medvedev’s pompous attempts at demonstrating leadership set the tone for the spectacular upsurge of political humor that spreads from the blogosphere to the joyful rallies.
Putin remains blissfully unaware of this irrepressible laughter, and if Medvedev is irked by the lampooning of his Twitter-blog, he is reluctant to share this information with his senior partner. Putin’s ignorance has important consequences, because without his explicit orders the special services cannot grant much attention and resources to monitoring the Runet and limit their interference to orchestrating occasional hacker attacks. The Kremlin together with the FSB excels in playing dirty tricks, and has denigrated many opposition leaders, including Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov, but they are stunned by the complete openness of the leaderless opposition movement in preparing the street offensive and gathering funds for it. Putin is also used to occupying high moral ground provided by unwavering public support and he cannot believe that this authority could be demolished by the opinions of some writers and bloggers and that his every crude joke bounces back in hundreds of satirical barbs.
Putin, while hardly a man of letters himself, has more respect for literature than politics and understands the need to attract some high culture under his banners, hence the appointment of the famous film-maker Stanislav Govorukhin as the head of his electoral campaign (RIA Novosti, December 27). There is no shortage of authors-for-hire, but the stifling anti-intellectual atmosphere in the Kremlin works as a repellant for real talent, and reputation damage from ties with the “dumb party,” which United Russia has loyally become, is also a serious drawback. The only courtier with some intellectual ambitions, Vladislav Surkov (allegedly the author of a provocative novel), has fallen out of grace and is placed in charge of “modernization,” which is more of a PR exercise than an economic program (www.lenta.ru, December 28). Even in the tiny, but sparkling, world of Russia’s rich-and-beautiful, expressing any sympathy toward the Kremlin has become a faux pas, and the ladies with claims for the role of arbiter-of-style take their furs for a walk at the protest rallies (www.gazeta.ru, December 29).
The powerful presence of literature in Russia’s suddenly expanded political arena is to a large degree a consequence of low public trust in the politicians, who for many years failed to build a meaningful opposition to Putin’s bureaucratic juggernaut, but it also gives them a chance to redeem their petty quarrels and gain new authority. In order to grasp this chance, they have to adopt a new standard of honesty in politics, which would make it very difficult to engage in the familiar bargaining in the Kremlin corridors. There is a new public demand for honesty, and Putin cannot deliver on it, and by executing his game-plan of manipulation and misinformation he only makes this demand deeper. He can pull many strings and fill many TV-screens, but every such move becomes self-defeating because the underlying fraud comes closer to the surface. He believes that everything in politics is for sale, but faces the risk of being expelled yet again – as a lifetime ago in Dresden – by a crowd that disrespectfully disagrees.