At home or abroad — Russia’s heightened tension

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) and Maria Alyokhina, members of female punk band "Pussy Riot", look out from the defendent's cell in a courtroom in Moscow July 30, 2012.

T o go. To stay. To be Russian, to be once-Russian. To be here, but to be ready for there.

The political struggle that suffuses Moscow today has acutely heightened an age-old tension between “at-home” and “abroad.”

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There is agony in leaving, and despair at staying.

“Nothing good will happen,” said Maria Baronova, 28 and the mother of a 5-year-old, who once thought of leaving, but not since she became active in opposition politics — not even after she was criminally charged with inciting violence at a protest on May 6. “I’m very Russian. So I better live here.”

A year ago, the young and the liberal were set on leaving, according to polls and political conversation, but the thinking changed over the winter when tens of thousands demonstrated, first in favor of free elections, then against President Vladimir Putin. The speaking out and standing up after years of silence gave them hope, and now they are losing it as the authorities inexorably tighten their grip instead of loosening it.

The forces around Putin have, step by step, moved to vilify Russians with foreign connections. Opposition leaders visiting U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul have been videotaped and denounced on television news. Putin himself said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the signal for opposition protests against him. A new law requires nonprofit groups that receive funds from outside Russia to register as foreign agents. Alexei Navalny, a prominent blogger who not long ago spent a semester at Yale, has been accused of learning revolution there. The image of the Canadian passport of Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of a jailed feminist rocker, has been held up on TV and declared to be evidence that he is trying to tear Russia apart.

Navalny shot back last week with a blog post, accusing Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigating Committee, of having business interests in the Czech Republic, which is against the law for Russian officials and, Navalny impishly suggested, has opened Bastrykin to blackmail by Western agents.

For years, Russia’s business elite has been furiously buying up properties in London and New York, against the day when staying at home becomes untenable. Russian scientists have decamped to the West in search of opportunity. But now the authorities are attempting to revive once again the sinister implication that anything beyond the borders is inherently un-Russian.

It’s a durable theme that draws its strength from Russians’ sense of their native country. If American patriotism is largely about the founding ideals of the United States, and if Germans’ sense of identity is rooted in ethnicity, Russians derive their feelings of Russianness from the land itself. The Whites, losers in the civil war of the early 1920s against the Reds, carried little boxes of Russian soil with them when they left. The author Alexander Solzhenitsyn found a house in exile in Vermont, but not a home, and returned to Russia after his Communist tormenters had fallen from power.

Why leave?

In one important respect, Putin’s government differs from its Soviet predecessor: People are free to leave. It’s an important safety valve. For anyone who’s unhappy or unsatisfied, the government says, there’s always the airport.

Baronova, who was warned of her impending arrest last month in connection with the May 6 protest, and who was released on her own recognizance, is certain the authorities were trying to scare her into fleeing.

“But what for? I don’t see the point,” she said.

After she raised money to help flood victims in the city of Krymsk, she was accused on blogs, anonymously, of having stolen the funds. Police, she said, tried to find evidence that she was having a lesbian affair. She has received so many death threats that she has decided to move — but only to another address in Moscow.

The White Russians, who settled in Paris and New York, tried to create a sort of fake Russia, and Baronova said she could just never do that.

“I don’t want to sit in Brussels and read interesting books,” she said. “Right now we’re in the middle of something.”

In 2010 she did want to leave, but complications from her divorce got in the way. Now, if she stays, “okay, I can write a good story in 15 years.”

But all her friends from university days, when she studied chemistry, have long since moved abroad. And in that she detects a hint as to why the opposition in Russia has failed to move on from its exhilarating start with December’s rallies.

“We are lonely. We are not smart anymore. It is the lack of professionalism in Russia,” she said. “Because anybody who’s any good has left.”

Why stay?

One of Baronova’s co-defendants, Anastasia Rybachenko, captured the ambivalence of staying or leaving. Earlier this month she announced that she was seeking political asylum in Germany, but last week she tweeted that she had decided against that idea and would be returning — at some point — to Russia.

Verzilov, 25, belongs to the Moscow faction of Voina — which means war — an arts-oriented group that stages provocative “actions” against authority. He is married to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, a member of the band Pussy Riot. She has been in jail since March after she and two others were arrested for setting up in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral and singing a song against Putin. Their trial began Monday, and the three pleaded not guilty to the hooliganism charges filed against them.

Verzilov said he got his Canadian passport after having spent three years in middle school in Toronto. He believes the attention that passport has received is an attempt to portray the women in the band in the worst possible light. Their arrest and continued incarceration have created a strong backlash of sympathy, so, he said, the authorities are intent on portraying them as extremely anti-Russian and dangerous, implicitly acting on the orders of Canadian interests.

He expects the vilification will backfire in the end.

“The whole case has been the brightest illustration of the brutalities Putin is willing to go to,” he said. “But he crossed a line. And with every mistake made by the government, they’re hurrying their own end. The result we’re all looking for is regime change.”

If that were to happen, then maybe he could be both Russian and Canadian — and it wouldn’t matter.

 
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