When You Chop Wood, Chips Fly
Note: This essay was originally published on Robert Amsterdam’s blog.
In expectation of the inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian siloviki structures are conducting their latest “mopping up” of the opposition not under their control. The hopes of optimists for a “thaw” are being demolished by these police operations. On 17 March, I had a talk with officer of the militia Sergey Nikolayev, the policeman responsible for one of the precincts of Moscow. In this precinct is being rented an apartment, where meetings of the movement «Oborona» take place. Lying on the desk in the policeman’s small office as “material evidence” are newspapers put out by the organizers of the «Dissenters’ Marches» and «Oborona».
Hanging on the wall, side by side, are portraits of Vladimir Putin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka – the foremother of the KGB. In August 1991, the whole world watched as the monument to “Iron Felix” was taken down on Lubyanka Square, accompanied by the jubilant cheers of a crowd of thousands. Now, the likeness of this hangman is quietly returning to many offices. And it never even left some of them, not for a minute.
The candidness and the audacity of the threats that are coming out of captain Nikolayev’s mouth are unusual even for me. He says straight out that on his territory there must not be any opposition organizations and that soon there won’t be any «Oborona» there either. The policeman promises to arrange daily checks of the space and to organize pressure on the owners of the apartment. For greater effect, he intends to involve in the process higher-standing structures of the MVD and the FSB, to which he is specially sending specimens of those same newspapers «Dissenters’ March» and «Oborona». “You’ve got no business doing anything in the center of the city; after all, he might drive by here”, says the officer, unable to decide whether to pronounce the name of Putin, and merely pointing with his gaze at his portrait.
The guardian of the law doesn’t even try to find some kind of legal grounds for his demands; he is simply confident in his impunity. On the next day, I get a phone call from the owner of the apartment. I can hear disquiet and fear in her voice. She asks to cancel the lease contract: she doesn’t need problems with the police. I explain that the actions of the police are unlawful and constitute blackmail. “But you know what kind of country we live in and in what times!”, she exclaims despairingly.
On a human level, I feel sorry for this woman: she has always been loyal to the power, didn’t go to the Dissenters’ Marches, and has patiently borne all the humiliations that the state subjected her to. Nevertheless, she too has turned out to be a passing victim in the struggle of the siloviki with the democratic opposition. During the times of Felix Dzerzhinsky, people liked to say about this sort of thing: “When you chop wood, chips fly”. But isn’t it shameful to be a “chip”? Innocent victims of the repressions can evoke only pity, but those who have suffered for their consciously-taken position and for trying to change something – these evoke respect and admiration. Luckily, there still are not a few people in Russia who do not find the role of chips in a forest acceptable. In actuality, there is no benefit whatsoever to the power from such “wood chopping”. Okay, maybe it will help keep them warm…
It is naïve to assume that you can annihilate «Oborona» by kicking it out from this space. Instead of this, we will gather in the apartments of activists, in cafés and parks, each time choosing a new place. If before, there was an outdoor surveillance car on duty under the movement’s windows for days at a time, now it will be much more complicated to keep a watch on «Oborona». On the other hand, with such an example Vladimir Putin’s regime demonstrates its most unsightly features: arbitrariness, lawlessness, cynicism, intolerance of another’s opinion, indifference to the fates of ordinary people. They are pushing «Oborona» into a semi-underground state, but in this way it only becomes more attractive for young romantics: in the depths of their soul, everybody wants to be a part of something secret, prohibited, inaccessible to the majority.
The power, by its own stupidity and cruelty, is once again creating martyrs for itself and making its enemies stronger. One day, the lumberjack is going to get crushed when he chops down one tree too many.