Staunton, September 10 – Adam Michnik, the editor in chief of Warsaw’s “Gazeta Wyborcza,” says that many Russians he has encountered in his recent visit to Russia for the Valdai Club and Yaroslavl Political Forum are clearly 21st century people, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is out of step with them and “speaks the language of a Tatar khan.”
That was just one of the observations Michnik, who has long described himself as “an anti-Soviet Russophile,” made in the course of an interview published today in Moscow’s “Novaya gazeta” about both the current political situation in Russia and the ways in which the West is reacting to it (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/100/05.html).
Michnik said his coming to the two events was opposed not by his Polish friends but by his Muscovite ones, who feared that his appearance along with other Western commentators and experts would “legitimate” Putin’s regime, given that the Valdai Club is “a circus organized in order to improve” Moscow’s image in the West.
Indeed, the Polish editor said, such views reflect the notion among some that anyone who comes is playing the role of Leon Feuchtwanger who visited the USSR in 1937 and wrote an approving book about it. But that analogy is wrong. Feuchtwanger “lied about the Moscow trials,” and comparing today’s Russia with that of 1937 is “nonsense,” Michnik argued.
“My task,” the longtime Polish dissident continued, “was never to legitimate any regime, only to listen and express my opinion,” given that “except under extraordinary conditions, one should not completely refuse from taking part in a dialogue with the powers that be.” But that is not to endorse those who attend such meetings and then praise their hosts to the skies.
Michnik said that he had been most impressed by many Russians he met prior to Putin’s appearance, by the way in which they discussed openly their problems in a way that would be the envy of any country, including his own. But when Putin spoke, it became clear that there is not “one” Russia but “two” very different Russias.
The former is very much part of the 21st century, he said, but meetings first with St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko and then Putin made him feel that he had “returned to the times of 25 years ago” and was seeing “the classic style of the Polish apparatchik[s] of socialist times.”
Citing President Dmitry Medvedev’s observation about “legal nihilism” in Russia, Michnik said he asked two questions, one about the popular protests over the Khimki forests and the other about whether Mikhail Khodorkovsky might be released as an indication that Russia was “overcoming” this plague.
Michnik said he was “shocked” by the change in Putin’s visage when he heard the second question: “With passion, [Putin] began to say: ‘the chief of his guards killed people! How could he not know about this? He has blood on his hands.’” Up to that point, Putin was a cool professional, but in this case, he “displayed deep emotions,” suggesting a “personal” tie.
The reason he asked about Khodorkovsky, Michnik said, was because “here is the very important issue of trust.” “When did trust in Gorbachev appear? When he telephoned [Andrey] Sakharov in Gorky.” At that moment, “it became understandable that all this was serious and not simple a playing with words about perestroika.”
“I think,” Michnik said, “that today trust in the Russian powers that be [with their announced intention to modernization] depends on the fate of Khodorkovsky.”
After he had asked his questions, Michnik said, Piotr Smolar of “Le Monde” followed up with questions about the Russian Constitution and the rights it provides. On the one hand, he said, the Russian basic law clearly does not run in Chechnya where shariat plays a bigger role. And on the other, he asked Putin about the handling of public demonstrations.
Putin responded to the second the way a Polish communist official would have 30 or more years ago, the Warsaw editor said. “What are we talking about?” Putin asked. “People have take part in unsanctioned demonstration? They have. They’ve provoked the militia? They have done so. Well, they’ll get it in the head. What would be different in London or Paris?”
“I was shocked,” Michnik continued, “that none of his advisors had explained to him that one must not speak in such terms, that this is the language of a Tatar khan and not of a politician of the 20th century.”
(The Polish commentator noted that “the last question” was an easy one, asked by Natalya Narochnitskaya, who is notorious for her attacks on any Western criticism of Russia. She asked Putin where he found “the strength” to go on. Putin responded that this “is a serious philosophical question” and said that “one must believe in Russia.”)
Asked what had “most surprised him,” Michnik suggested that this was that Putin “had subjected to doubt the bases of a functioning democracy while suggesting that he is not doing that. Under Brezhnev, it was said that we and the West had different systems of values. … But Putin says that in Russia everything is as it is in the West and vice versa.”
Not only did Russian prime minister suggest that in his comments about demonstrators, but he repeated it when asked when Lenin might be removed from the mausoleum on Red Square. Having learned that the individual who asked that was from Britain, Putin asked in turn “But don’t you in London still have a monument to Cromwell?”