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Very Little Hope and Very Little Change

Russia progresses from kleptocracy to tandemocracy.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By CATHY YOUNG
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In April, Russia’s biggest political story was a sex scandal dubbed “Mumugate,” involving secretly filmed videos of several opposition activists in compromising positions with one Katya “Mumu” Gerasimova, a sometime fashion model who had approached them while posing as a journalist. (The nickname refers to a classic Russian short story about a peasant named Gerasim and his dog Mumu.) While the videos were posted on the Internet by a shadowy group claiming to champion public morality, most independent Russian commentators believe the incident was linked to semi-official pro-Kremlin organizations—such as the “Nashi” youth group—that specialize in harassing the opposition with tacit official blessing.

Very Little Hope and Very Little Change

Alexei Dymovsky

This sordid affair neatly encapsulates the farcical nature of Russian political life today: the marginality and pointlessness of the opposition, the petty nastiness and sleaziness of the power structure, the authoritarian state as a grotesque parody of a once formidable dictatorship. In olden days, the KGB used “honey trap” operations to blackmail foreign diplomats into spying. Honey trap 2010 seems to have been intended solely to embarrass a few dissenters who have no chance of winning public office and no real influence on public opinion. Moreover, even the embarrassment was dubious: In Russia’s macho culture, most of the entrapped men reacted with barely disguised bravado, and their peccadilloes were widely shrugged off. Some Russian bloggers sarcastically inquired where they could sign up for an opposition party that gets free hookers from the government.

Mumugate is a shabby scandal for a shabby time. A year ago, the possibility of change and discontent seemed to be in the air; the economic crisis had signaled an abrupt crash of the relative prosperity associated with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and made a dent in public confidence in the government. There were also hopeful reports of a growing rift between Prime Minister Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev; many analysts claimed that, with his term entering its second year, Medvedev was at last emerging from Putin’s shadow and coming into his own as a real leader with a more liberal agenda.

Despite a spike in unemployment (now 9 percent) and underemployment, the financial crisis did not hit Russia nearly as hard as some had expected. Neither did a wave of mass discontent. Rather, the prevalent attitude seems to be a cynical, passive malaise: The government does not exactly inspire active loyalty or confidence, but no visible search for alternatives exists—both because the Kremlin regime has done its best to squash, cripple, and marginalize such alternatives over the past decade, and because there is little energy behind a push for change. 

The malaise is driven not only by economic factors but also by a general sense of a society plagued by dysfunction. Intensifying unrest in the Caucasus, where terrorist bombings and murders of policemen, soldiers, and local officials are practically a daily occurrence, serves as a reminder that significant, if peripheral, regions of the Russian Federation remain an out-of-control tinderbox. Meanwhile, the recent suicide bombings on the Moscow subway, which killed 39 people in two separate attacks, were a shocking reminder that this violence can still strike in the heart of Russia. And yet another peril has become a major topic in the Russian media: rogue cops. This problem, which points to a serious breakdown in the social contract, gained a new and terrifying visibility a year ago when a Moscow police precinct chief, Major Denis Yevsyukov, went on a shooting spree in a supermarket after a family argument, killing three people and injuring six.

Revelations that Yevsyukov had been allowed to remain on the force despite previous unstable behavior—and the fact that some of his superiors all but defended him as a good officer who had snapped under stress—shocked the Russian public. Whether or not violent attacks on citizens by police officers in Russia have actually become more frequent recently, coverage of such crimes became much more prominent after the Yevsyukov shootings. Faced with this rising concern, Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliev, the de facto national police chief, went so far as to tell an audience of college and police academy students in November 2009 that citizens have the right to defend themselves against police violence—though defense attorneys quickly warned people not to be emboldened by these remarks, since a citizen accused of assaulting a policeman would likely have a difficult time proving self-defense. 

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