In Other Election News

Some claim Russia’s Medvedev is a False Dmitry; others—especially the new prime minister—insist he’s the real deal. A look at Russia’s post-election party-protests.

A day after Russia elected a new president—her third—some 6,000 kids rallied in the capital. They were members (at least for the day) of groups called “Ours,” “Natives,” and “Young Russia,” and many were bussed into the capital from out of town.

That evening, a few dozen people showed up across town at Turgenev Square to participate in a protest march. But nobody marched—they were mostly arrested.

There is nothing surprising in Monday’s events: a good showing by government supporters and a near no-show by the opponents. Sort of like the voting figures. But I’m still impressed by the disparity. I wonder at the display of national obeisance (70 percent for Medvedev nationwide! Ninety-one percent turnout in Chukhotka!) and the categorical simplicity of the protesters’ rally, called a “March of Disagreement.”

The truth is Russians are ornery. If they can’t find discord in substance, they’ll create it in expression. Disagreement is a state of nature that should be practiced, maybe exploited, but certainly not reconciled. Russians squabble and argue like all nationalities, and excel at supreme oratorical polemics. Sometimes, they passionately believe what they are saying. Sometimes, less often, they still believe it the next time you ask. Disagreement, as a noun, carries longevity like a gerund.

I lived in Moscow for several years more than a decade ago. It took some time to grow accustomed to conversations with strangers that began, “What, are you nuts?” and proceeded, prolonged with variations on the theme of, “Your point of view is mistaken and does not conform to reality.” In the Moscow I knew, contradiction was a national pastime; argument was vital. You smoked it, you drank it, and you read it in the papers.

You don’t read it in the papers so much any more. But I was there last week after a long absence, and I quickly argued with a hotel clerk, a taxi driver, and the director of an orphanage. I passed through Turgenev Square daily. It was always full of young people. They were never talking about politics.

When I hear the phrase “March of Disagreement” it sounds to me like the quintessential Russian anthem: a well-mastered composition, suitable for any occasion. I imagine the parade in which activists tramp down the boulevards, chanting in the lead, “What do we want?” and their demands echoed from the back by a full-throated, “No we don’t!”

I do not mean to belittle an aborted act of protest against a bullying government. I do not mean to mock the outrage of those who expect a true voice to emerge from a circus democracy. The self-proclaimed dissidents who showed up on Turgenev Square Monday did so bravely, knowing in advance to expect twice their number in riot police—“a rude force,” the organizers predicted. That’s pretty much the only kind there is over there.

But I can’t help but take issue with the protesters’ secondary claim. (Their first—that the election was a democratic farce—no one disputes.) Before the rally, which almost didn’t take place, organizers were promising to march against “False Dmitry.” As much as I appreciate any reference to 17th-century history in modern politics, I have to, well, disagree.

The original “False Dmitry” was an imposter who ushered in a prolonged and bloody era of succession confusion. He said he was Ivan the Terrible’s son and he wasn’t. Or if he was, no one believed him. At any rate, his legacy was one of chaos—the so-called “Time of Troubles” whose modern specter pundits and politicians have raised since 1994.

Medvedev won in part because some potential candidates were jailed and because none were allowed a true campaign, but he also won because he’s heir to the throne. Dmitry Medvedev, as Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, is the undisputed heir to the throne. His preordained status is precisely what galls. Tapped by Putin in December, Medvedev’s election has been a forgone conclusion ever since. There has not been such clarity in the Kremlin since the Soviet era. If Medvedev turns out to be false and his promise to stay on Putin’s path a sham—well, that could only be a happy ending for those who cherish their right to assemble in disagreement.

“Not free, not fair, but accurate,” concluded the Council of Europe about Sunday’s elections, stopping short of an assessment that if you can’t beat them, you should join them. I have to agree. Yes, Medvedev won in part because some potential candidates were jailed and because none were allowed a true campaign, but he also won because he’s not an imposter—he is the heir to the throne.

There is this notion in the West that Russians have been deprived of the opportunity to choose their new leader. This is misleading not because returns were not exaggerated (they were), but because being deprived of leaders is not the same as being deprived of the chance to pick one. With options like Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky (remember them from the Yeltsin era? The “Russian Milosevic” and the “biggest threat to Russian democracy” respectively?) do we really care that Medvedev was handed the election?

When Medvedev was declared the winner on Sunday, he stepped out onto Red Square with Putin to thank a rowdy crowd of enthusiastic supporters. He was backed by the live music of Lyube—a band who rocks out to covers of World War II favorites and who, on this night, sang, “Let’s do it for them, let’s do it for us…for Siberia and the Caucasus!”

If I could have changed my travel plans to be in Moscow for the election rather than a week prior, I wonder what would have impressed me most. The sight of an opposition that is again my age? The image of unabashed police interference? The traffic jams created by youth brigades mobilized for the Kremlin?

No—I think it would have been the rock-n-roll debut of the “False Dmitry.” Because I’ve never seen that—a 42-year-old puppet handed control of Russia with the apparent agreement of young people and old people and corrupt people and indifferent people and, in all likelihood, several dead people (especially in Khabez, where all 18,000 registered voters reportedly showed up at the polls.)

I would have liked to see Medvedev in his blue jeans standing on the spot where pretenders were outed, rebels executed, and generals displayed before being purged. Maybe Lyube broke out the metal version of the Soviet anthem, which Vlad resuscitated his first year in power. Maybe “Our” youth formed a mosh pit. Maybe Medvedev played air guitar.

I think it would have been a thrilling. Creepy and sinister—but stirring. At any rate, better than a March of Disagreement.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem