Stanislav Yakovlev: Pen Mightier Than Sword

Stanislav Yakovlev is the leader of the Russian radical democratic youth movement, Smena. His commentary on the state of Russian politics and society appears regularly on His sharp and witty essays are recommended reading for anyone with an interest in Russia and her future.

Below, an abridged translation of one of Stanislav’s columns, entitled “Man-Eater” (Людоед), which appeared on on 10 April 2008 after the conferences of rightist and leftist opposition parties. The conferences preceded the first session of the united opposition’s parallel parliament, the National Assembly.


The conference of liberal democratic forces was held in St Petersburg’s Angleterre Hotel. I would like to provide a neutral assessment of the event, while at the same time try to explain why the results of the conference only gave rise to a disarray of emotions rather than enthusiasm.

There is no use in negotiating with a man-eater. The mentality of a Kremlin chekist [KGB man] does not allow for even the slightest concession to the opponent. If a person begs a chekist for something, it means the person has failed, and one can do whatever one pleases to him. Another possibility is that he is simply an idiot.

After Nord-Ost and Beslan, after the destruction of opposition media and the bans on political parties, after the fabrication of charges and heavy sentences on “extremists”, after the vicious attacks and political assassinations, only an idiot would fail to see the obvious.

Thus a basic and an imperative question to democrats is this: How to achieve the dismantling of Vladimir Putin’s regime and, at the same time, remain democratic? The answer is obvious: Through massive, non-violent campaigns of protest, through civic disobedience. However, a sizable portion of delegates to the conference of liberal democratic forces were of a different opinion.

Their main point was that it was necessary to draft a positive political programme which would make people stand in awe and then exult in praise. Moreover, during the process of implementing this grandiose programme, it was necessary not to reject “constructive dialogue with the authorities”.

Dear friends. Please recall the recent elections to the State Duma. Was the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) excluded from television screens? Did not billboards in Moscow carry beautiful bourgeois faces promising the building of capitalism in Russia? However, when SPS had the affront to criticise the authorities publicly, the party was first driven into “white heat” and then into taking part in the opposition’s March of Dissent.

The Russian people is very similar to the Ukrainian. It is only able to have two genuine feelings, which are, however, exact polarities. The first is “None of my business”, and the second, “Kill the bastards!” The distance between these feelings is long and there are no in-betweens. People either have patience or they have simply had it with everything.

When people’s patience one day comes to an end, democrats would do well to ensure that the people stood behind them, and not just anybody. This is where a “positive programme” comes in handy. However, one has to develop the programme in parallel with continuously reminding people that one cannot go on living like this, that such a life is unworthy.

How can one engage in “constructive dialogue with the authorities” in this situation?

I have often been asked what will all these demonstrations change. My answer is that, first of all, they change the people who take part in them. A person who feels pride in himself, who has conquered his fear, will never be the same again.

Having joined the March of Dissent, he will carry himself differently in his everyday life as well. And when an official demands yet another bribe from him, he will get the twenty documents needed just to spite the system, rather than give in to the thief in uniform.

This is exactly what the authorities fear when declaring the Other Russia to be their main enemy. Yet what makes “respectable democrats” play along with the authorities and speak against “brawlers who only know how to wave their dirty rag”?

Speaking at the conference of democratic forces in St Petersburg, I talked about the necessity of rejecting any cooperation with the government. Having completed my locution, I was handed a note, which said: “Kremlin is a terrorist, and the whole country is its hostage. Should not we enter into negotiations with the terrorist for the sake of saving innocent lives?”

The problem is that the terrorist in question does not make any demands. He has taken hostages just to torment them; hostages are not a means to an end, but an end per se to him.

The only demand that the terrorist in Kremlin makes is that he be let alone, that he be not disturbed, while he rapes the land he holds captive, extracting oil, gas, and other goodies from its bosom. This is not the behaviour of a terrorist, but of a maniac. What do you want to talk with him about?

A political programme is born through free political competition. There are no possibilities for such competition in Putin’s Russia.

When nerves finally boil over, the people will not stand behind “respectable democrats,” but behind their fundamental opponents, simply because of the latters’ intensity of emotion and furiosity of action. Any revolution, be it velvet or something else, is a fountain of emotions. Everything else is always left to the aftermath.

There is absolutely no sense whatsoever in drafting a political programme that is merely an empty statement. There is no way the programme will ever reach “wide sections of the general populace.” Those who can be reached will use the programme as toilet paper, simply because it is so long and tedious, and life is, after all, still bearable.

When life finally becomes unbearable, the last thing people will do is read political programmes. Such “theses about happiness” can only become part of public debate in conjunction with massive popular protests. Cooperation with the government, be it as “constructive” as it may, will only make those who engage in cooperation into accomplices in Kremlin’s crime.

Why did Vladimir Bukovsky, [legendary Soviet dissident] and participant at the conference of liberal democratic forces, not write letters to “Dear Leonid Ilyich” [Brezhnev]? Because the wolfhound is right and the man-eater is not.

There is no use in asking for people’s sympathy if one feeds the man-eater. Maybe you still think that Kremlin is, in fact, the wolfhound, just a wee bit on the wild side? Take another good look at who Kremlin is hounding. How can such illusions give rise to a “new agenda”? Will the old agenda not do?

There is some ill talk that the only problem that Vladimir Putin has not solved is the legalisation of the Russian elite’s capital in the West.

Gangsters in sportswear have found out that a fat wallet alone will not open the doors to artistocratic clubs in the West; one has to look good as well. Kremlin big shots therefore ditched their Turkish leather jackets in favour of strict tailcoats. This is what is called “the thaw.”

However, all sorts of Public Chambers will not hide the stench of Turkish leather jackets; the western bourgeoisie laugh at such stupid clowns. Kremlin therefore needs “irreconcilables” with untarnished protest capital, yet ready to serve as fig leaves for the regime. This is what a “new type democratic party” is really needed for.

Democrats will never win alone. Firstly, because people of liberal convictions are wrong in claiming an exclusive and natural right to the word “democracy.” Secondly, because people of liberal convictions are the moral and political hereditaries of the infamous 1990s and do not intend to renounce their heritage; rather, they often express pride in their historical baggage.

Let me state an obvious fact: The era of Boris Yeltsin was neither liberal, nor democratic. It was a period of transition, which is not over yet. The sale of property for a song at nightmarish “shares-for-loans auctions” made property owners into defenceless creatures who cut deals to grab assets. This is something that not even former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar tries to hide, admitting that the oligarchs were “appointed.”

Naturally, illegitimate capital is in need of heightened security. What other regime can offer better security than the mutant of “sovereign democracy,” where primitive nationalists shake hands with moneyed elites, and where one can “rule like Stalin, and live like Abramovich”?

Anyone who calls “Yeltsinism” democracy deprives himself of the right to criticise “Putin’s stability,” because the latter is a logical extension of Yeltsin’s system. The coming “thaw” is not a correction of past mistakes, but the last stroke in a grandiose and cynical experiment in “managed democracy,” the final phase in the process of legalising capital.

Democracy is merely a set of rules regulating the political process. Anyone really can accept these rules.

In European countries, liberals, socialists, even nationalists sometimes, win elections. Nevertheless, those countries never lose the right to be called democratic. The party that wins elections passes laws according to its party programme. If those laws are bad and voters do not like them, the party will lose at the next elections.

This is why any political force that accepts democractic values is an indispensable ally of liberals in the opposition’s common struggle against authoritarianism. Try proving this to “liberals,” however. The quotation marks are intentional; I am, after all, a person of liberal convictions.

The “democratic conference” ignored the need to send delegates to the National Assembly. The Assembly was conceived as a “protoparliament” and was originally proposed by opposition economist Andrey Illarionov — who, in Garry Kasparov’s words, is more liberal than most — as a step towards establishing parallel power structures. These structures serve two purposes: educational and political.

By following the workings of the “protoparliament,” voters in Russia will see how a “normal” government works, what sort of decisions it makes, and what are the principles it adheres to. This is the educational function of the National Assembly.

The political function of the National Assembly is to bring back real parliamentary competition: Ability to listen to one’s opponent, demonstrate that one is right, reach a compromise, and work out common decisions. The National Assembly is the “place for political discussion” which ceased to exist under the iron grip of Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.

There is no need for members of the National Assembly to love each other; on the contrary, the fiercer the debate, the better. However, the “united democrats” did not care for any of that. What should we talk with the Left about or, God forbid, with the nationalists, they wonder.

Pardon me for asking, esteemed delegates to the conference of united democrats, what would you do in the event you gained power? Ban all parties except the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS)?

The people you dismiss with such contempt would, in a real democracy, gain a sizable percentage of votes, and that support will only increase as long as you ignore their existence. The Left Front will replace the Communist Party (KPRF), and Great Russia will do away with Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). The decorations of nomenclature will come tumbling down.

Would it not be better if, instead of finding yourselves — unprepared and unaware — faced with these political forces in a real parliament, you tried your strength in the National Assembly? At the same time, the feeling of confrontation would blow over. The fact is that we dislike the most that which we do not understand. The National Assembly is as good a chance as ever to get to know each other.

Alas, this was not to be. The only coherent decision taken at the liberal conference was to reject criticism of “those who were not present.” One can only assume that the “new democrats” rejected criticism of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky. If Yavlinsky is beyond criticism, where then did Yabloko’s internal opposition — “Yabloko without Yavlinsky” — come from?

How can one not criticise the “systemic opposition,” if its only message, short of seats in parliament, is continuous slander against the non-systemic opposition?

There is, however, no reason to think that the democratic conference was a failure. I would like to note the excellent speeches by Garry Kasparov, Alexey Shlyapuzhnikov, Andrey Nekrasov, Ivan Starikov, Vladimir Bukovsky, and many others.

I will welcome the creation of a new united democratic party, but only under the condition that it will be truly new. I do not need yet another party, I need another Russia!

The conference of leftist opposition forces, which took place in Moscow, was in stark contrast to the conference of “democrats.” The socialists embarked on a clear course toward uniting their forces, elected deputies to the National Assembly, lambasted the liberals, yet recognised the possibility of a “tactical alliance.”

The leftists had an agenda that was indeed new: Kremlin is an enemy, and the opposition should always be united in its struggle. Dialogue with political opponents is necessary, given that the opponents are just that — political, whereas Kremlin denies any political activity outside of its walls.

Why can not a sizable part of democrats agree to do the same and recognise the obvious? We will be glad to help overcome the obstacles. Otherwise we will be crushed between the Scylla of “constructive dialogue” and the Charybdis of “principled particularism.”

Having returned from the democratic conference in St Petersburg, I read random passages from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

It struck me how, instead of rebelling, we still prefer to tread carefully, not make a noise, fear losing face, and not disquiet the neighbours. No matter if people disappear, we still cling on to “constructive dialogue” and “respectable conduct.” Anyone who is arrested thinks until the last minute that “it is a mistake and things will soon be sorted out.”

Dumbass, things have been “sorted out” a long time ago!

How about it if we still took up resistance, if not for anything else, then at least to escape the need to languish in camps? How long can one brush off a youngster with a red armband who has had it with the crooks in power, and at the same time look up to the inanimate eyes of a select KGB officer with a portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky in his cabinet?

I will end my essay with a question. I gave my answer a long time ago. Now it is your turn.

Stanislav Yakovlev

[Translation: Kerkko Paananen]

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