Monday, October 17, 2011

12 Who Don't Agree, by Valery Panyushkin

Europa Editions, 2011
originally published as 12 nesolasnych,  2008
translated by Marian Schwartz
259 pp

" live by your conscience, as the saying goes, you protest when you need to protest and you don't bow or grovel before the powerful. And one day you see that you have taught your little girl to protest."
Before I start on my thoughts about this book, I would like to thank Europa Editions for publishing it. Otherwise, I may never have picked it up and that would have been a shame. Keep it up, find more stories like this one, and carry on. Please!

In 12 Who Don't Agree, Russian journalist Valery Panyushkin gathers together the individual stories of  several Russian dissidents, linked together in various ways, especially as participants in the March of the Dissidents of 2007.  The first of these protest marches  was in held in Petersburg, and was only one of a series of planned events prior to the presidential election of 2008.  Their intention was to call attention to their opposition to the social, political and economic policies of then president Vladimir Putin.  During the first march, which was considered a "success" by its organizers (including Garry Kasparov, Russian dissident and former world-chess champion),  the authorities called out the OMON (a police special forces unit), who reacted with violence against some of the protestors, but before the march was over, according to one observer, a "crowd of 10,000 had broken through the police cordons onto Nevsky Prospect... a human river as far as the eye could see, ... friends and comrades in arms free, strong, and dissenting."  While much of the violence was officially blamed on the organizers, provocateurs hired by the regime took their place in the crowds, holding signs and stirring up trouble to make the protestors look bad.  And all of this after the fall of the Wall and the end of totalitarian rule. Supposedly.

Panyushkin's book offers the experiences of eleven people, who for their own reasons were affected by, or became victims of gradually worsening government policies and repressions.  For example, there's Marina Litvinovich, who worked at the Fund for Effective Politics, where she read and summarized the news each day.  By reading between the lines and by putting together all of the various information campaigns, she discovered how things really worked.  Eventually she figured out that she could help influence the "secret course of events," and began putting together a summary which ultimately became "Information Threats and Ways to Resolve Them," where she would give advice. Her job: navigating between the the personal interests of officials and the country's interests. She began attending meetings between her boss, Gleb Pavlovsky (who had once betrayed a comrade to the KGB on the basis of his "forbidden books") and Yeltsin's chief of staff Voloshin, offering advice on how to handle official publicity.  She drew up lists of topics for directors to cover on Ukranian television and even directed Putin's public appearances once he became the president.  And this is where the trouble began. During the Kursk incident of 2000, Putin was on vacation as men trapped in the sub were clanging out SOS signals against the sides and their wives and mothers waited for someone to do something.  Marina's advice was to go the see the families and offer some moral support.  But this tactic backfired -- instead of his presence offering assurance, they turned on him publicly, in the face of reporters.  This incident led to a change in policy: the president would from then on maintain silence during any disaster. When the hostage situation developed in the Dubrovka Theater in  Moscow  in 2002, Marina discovered she was no longer needed, especially after the Russian forces dealt with the situation by piping in some unknown chemical agent to subdue the militants but managed to kill over a hundred innocent people as well.   To handle the information situation, the NTV, the last independent political channel which  actually covered the Dubrovka incident, got a new director, and information began to yield to propaganda.  Her career was basically over, and she ran several campaigns (PR and political), but as she began to understand why it was that all of her clients were failing, that behind it all were the politics and underhanded policies of those in charge of the country, she'd had enough, and began to manage the campaign of dissident Garry Kasparov.

And then there was Beslan, 2004, and the terrorist occupation of a school where over three hundred teachers, parents and children were taken hostage, many of them killed as government forces launched an assault on the school.  That incident killed trust in the regime for a resident, Vissarim Aseyev, a deputy of the district legislative assembly. Vissarim (Visa) was the first civilian on the scene after hearing gunshots from the direction of the school. He worked tirelessly to help any of the families who had lost children or other relatives, and did what any human being would do in the situation. But he reached his breaking point during a protest by a grieving group of women calling itself the Mothers of Beslan along the highway.  They stood there with signs, demanding, among other things, an international investigation into the circumstances of the terrorist action and the response of the government, and they figured that the investigation such as it was was being conducted so that no one in authority would end up being held responsible for the deaths of their children.  It was cold outside; the women were freezing, and Aseyev, being a good citizen and understanding their grief, called a friend to have a tent sent over along with food and hot tea from different cafes. Soon others began to join the protest, but it was still on a small scale.  On day three, after being warned that the protest was illegal, the Deputy General Prosecutor, a "representative of Federal Power" came by and starting yelling at the moms to stop. Stating that it was "indecent" for the mourning women to be standing there holding signs, he also berated the men who had joined them, saying that if they wanted to sort things out, to go make war on the nearby people of Ingushetia.  Aseyev couldn't believe his ears -- was this official actually proposing a war? Things only got worse.  He was called to the Beslan prosecutor's office, who told him that he needed to take responsibility for this illegal protest, or his friend who had supplied the tent would get into trouble.  Criminal charges would also be brought against him.  As the author notes, "Now he was truly opposed to the state."

There are nine more stories along these lines, all of them dealing with the gradual erosion of freedoms, human rights violations, threats, and other events that made these protests necessary as these individuals (and others)  began to realize  that "...we had returned to the Soviet Union, to a life we knew. When, no matter who you were, you could not have any effect on the regime or rise to power."   These narratives also deal with the government's efforts to crack down on any form of public protest, as well as  measures taken to edge out any real political opposition to the Kremlin, including censorship of opposition viewpoints and changes in the election laws.  Did you know, for example, that in Russia, it's illegal to have more than one person picketing at a time? Add another person and you're violating the law, with jail time as a result. And did you know that there are people  hired by the Kremlin to come up and stand with a solitary picketer, which ends the picket and makes the picketer a criminal?  And now that another round of elections are coming up, and Putin is planning to run, well, the world should be watching.  And then what happens with the protests come to a halt altogether? 

If you are politically inclined or are interested in the state of human rights around the globe, this is a definite must-read that gets well beyond news stories we listen to with only half an ear (if at all, since it's not about us).  The book starts out a bit slowly, but as Panyushkin gets through the intrigue, the political plays, injustices and protection of oligarchical interests of the government,  he also gets into the hearts and minds of these eleven people as they try to find a vehicle for expression and change. He often exercises humor that doesn't belie the seriousness of what he's saying.  Sometimes the narrative gets a bit bogged down and I found myself going to the internet for dates, etc.,  but for the most part, it's easy to read and to understand.  Definitely and most highly recommended.