Whenever a major event in the life of Russia’s “managed democracy” takes place, I end up with a laundry list of moments that are weirdly disorienting, a dizzying combination of sad and funny at the same time. They bring to life the famous maxim associated with Nikolai Gogol about “laughter through tears” and show what a strange, “black-is-white” kind of place today’s Russia has become.
Of course, the mayoral election in Sochi (I hope people aren’t tired of reading about this yet) was no exception. Some of the items on my list are predictable and happen every time as if according to a script. For instance, there is a whole genre that could be called “Communists complaining about unfair elections.” Yury Dzagania, the Communist candidate who came in third in Sochi according to the official numbers, had this to say to RFE/RL’s Russian Service:
I must say that the election campaign was conducted in a completely unacceptable way, completely undemocratically. That is, it is evidence that the democratic foundations of our country have been brought to this kind of ‘perfection,’ that we have long ago been transformed into a totalitarian state.
You know things are bad when Russian communists are complaining about totalitarianism.
I'd include all the statements from local election officials about how the vote proceeded without violations in this category of predictable cognitive dissonance as well.
And there are also the inevitable statements that the media coverage of the campaign was fair and professional. One of my favorite examples involves an interview Russia Today, the state-run English-language television channel, did with United Russia’s Anatoly Pakhomov (Did RT interview Boris Nemtsov? I think I missed it).
“The Moscow Times” reported how RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, personally went down to Sochi to interview Pakhomov in a room that looked suspiciously like his office. Using his office for campaign purposes would have been illegal, so a Pakhomov spokesperson told the daily that 28 mock offices had been created by the campaign for campaigning purposes. None of them were actually shown to journalists. And Simoyan herself was interviewed by journalists immediately following the Pakhomov interview – in the lobby of Sochi City Hall.
Many newspaper stories in Sochi about the campaign featured only material about Pakhomov and ended with a scripted note to the effect that “no information was presented by the other candidates.” This is “laughter through tears” in so many ways: The papers seem to be confessing that the material they ran on Pakhomov was presented by his campaign; they also seem to be confessing that they don’t actually do reporting, thus impugning their own journalists.
RFE/RL’s Russian Service, however, had the opposite experience. All of the candidates were easily available except for Pakhomov, whose City Hall staff, campaign staff, and United Russia handlers all seemed to spend the entire campaign in an amateur game of phone tag.
Some of the other looking-glass moments surrounded the negative campaign waged against Boris Nemtsov. His campaign manager, Ilya Yashin, documented how Nemtsov confronted a group of pro-Kremlin youth activists who were parading posters with pictures of Nemtsov and despised former oligarch Boris Berezovsky (it is illegal in Russia to use someone’s photograph in campaign material without their written permission). They were claiming that Nemtsov’s national political career was engineered by Berezovsky, a charge that was repeated and elaborated in a slick 20-minute smear video that was run by all the local television channels.
In the confrontation, Nemtsov pointed out that if anyone’s national political career had been engineered by Berezovsky, it was Vladimir Putin’s. Berezovsky, of course, was part of the antidemocratic Kremlin cabal that greased Putin’s rise to power and ensured his election as successor to President Boris Yeltsin. He also was the brain behind the creation of the Unity party, which morphed into United Russia. One wonders if this information came as news to the activists holding the Berezovsky portraits.
The 20-minute smear film against Nemtsov, which featured Kremlin-connected analyst Gleb Pavlovsky and scandal-mongering journalist Sergei Dorenko, also accused Nemtsov of “hopping” from job to job in an opportunistic fashion. The film noted that he went from being governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast in the mid-1990s, to deputy prime minister, to an official at a bank, to a leader of the Union of Rightist Forces political party. In all, these positions covered nearly a decade.
In the same years, Putin went from being first deputy chairman of the government of St. Petersburg in 1995 to being deputy head of the president’s office in 1996 to being deputy head of the presidential administration in 1997 to being first deputy head of the presidential administration in 1998 to being head of the Federal Security Service (also in 1998) to being prime minister in 1999 to being president in 2000. In fact, until he became president, Putin seems to have had considerable trouble holding down a job.
I’m sure there were a lot more looking-glass moments during the Sochi circus and its aftermath. If you have a favorite that I missed, please share it.