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The Revolution Of The Nerds

A protester shouts slogans during a demonstration in central Moscow on July 18.
The fact that a Moscow court found Mikhail Kosenko guilty of assaulting a police officer despite video evidence to the contrary didn't exactly come as a surprise.

In recent years, Russian courts have convicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky of stealing oil from himself and Aleksei Navalny of embezzling money without making a profit, just to name a couple of the more illustrious cases.

And this ludicrousness, says London-based writer and Kremlin-watcher Peter Pomerantsev, is the point.

"The Kremlin’s priority is to show it has full control of the script," Pomerantsev wrote in a paper, "Russia: A Postmodern Dictatorship," that was published this week by the Legatum Institute and the Institute of Modern Russia.

"This absurdity appears to be deliberate. It proves to the public that the Kremlin can reimagine reality at will, can say ‘black is white’ and ‘white is black’ with no one able to contradict."

And reality-bending show trials are just one element in what Pomerantsev describes as a "society of spectacle with no substance," where "the regime's salient feature is a liquid shape-shifting form of power." Unlike the Soviet Union, which attempted to crush opposition narratives, Vladimir Putin's regime operates by "co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist in."

Trying to pigeonhole this regime into classic categories "is to miss the point of its trickster nature," Pomerantsev writes. "By the time it has been defined, it will already have recreated itself and its leaders."

But recently "the system tripped over itself." It tripped over itself by miscalculating the middle class's reaction to the "castling" of September 2011. It tripped over itself in the whole Navalny saga, which has resulted in the ascendance of an effective leader able to articulate the anger and aspirations of urban professionals and the post-Soviet generation.

And it appears to be tripping over itself in the Bolotnaya case against the 27 people charged with participating in mass disturbances during demonstrations on the eve of Putin's inauguration.

The Kremlin has presented a spectacle of a massive foreign-funded conspiracy to destabilize Russia. But many of those on trial are ordinary folks who went to a sanctioned demonstration and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And none among them evoked as much sympathy as Kosenko.

A 38-year-old army veteran who suffered a concussion during his military service, Kosenko has been successfully undergoing treatment for a mild psychological disorder ever since.

Video footage of the Bolotnaya demonstration shows him simply standing by as some protesters clashed with police. The police officer who he is charged with assaulting testified that he had no recollection of Kosenko attacking him, wished him well, and said he should not be incarcerated.

Nevertheless, he was sentenced to a psychiatric clinic against the advice of his doctors. In a blog post after the verdict, the prominent Ekho Moskvy journalist Anton Orekh wrote, "The court has found itself insane."
And then there was the cruelty. Kosenko was not allowed out of pretrial detention to pay his last respects to his mother, who died in September.

And his eloquent and passionate closing statement at his trial, in which he offered heartfelt thanks to all those who supported him and argued that society's highest value was freedom, made Kosenko a more sympathetic figure still.

Navalny, who himself stole the show at his own show trial, has called Kosenko "an example to us all." The crowds outside the courtroom chanting "Misha! Misha! Misha!" appeared to agree.

In his paper, Pomerantsev argues that Putin's postmodern virtual politics, in which elites "are still only capable of the politics of performance and simulation, rather than meaning," enjoyed fertile ground in post-Soviet society because public attitudes remained very Soviet.

"Homo Sovieticus learnt to live with a split consciousness; a private world with one set of values and a public one where lying was ritual," Pomerantsev wrote in his paper. "Soviet citizens grew up with several narratives in their heads, and switched between them whenever necessary."

But as the first post-Soviet generation comes of age, as an urban middle class finds its voice, and as social media allows these people to connect and network, a new alternative mindset is taking hold.

"What is fascinating for us Russia-watchers is seeing this new consciousness appearing. It didn't exist before and the fact that it has appeared makes it feel very big," Pomerantsev told me in an interview that will be featured in this week's "Power Vertical Podcast."

"They have small businesses so they have to function rationally. Of course, there's been people like that in Russia before, but what we're seeing for the first time is for them to form as a political class and its fascinating. It's almost a revolution of the nerds. It's like people walked off the set of the Big Bang Theory and into Russian political discourse."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Please tune in to the "Power Vertical Podcast" on October 11 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-host Kirill Kobrin, editor of the history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovennie Zapas," and guest David Satter, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of numerous books on Russia -- including most recently, "It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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