In Russia, a Soviet revival grips leadership


Communist party members and supporters stand near a monument to the Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg, as they mark the144th anniversary of Lenin's birth. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)
April 22

— Gone these 23 years, the Soviet Union is suddenly alive and well again in the minds of a giddy cohort of the Russian elite. Not the ideology, please — but the gravity, the cold-eyed assertion of power abroad and at home, and the allegiance demanded by the state.

The equinox of Russia’s “Soviet spring” coincided with the appearance of the men in green who took over Crimea for Moscow. It blossomed with a wave of patriotic denunciations of fellow citizens and a torrent of new restrictive legislation.

On Tuesday came another sign: media reports that the Interior Ministry was banning foreign travel by every one of the nation’s police officers. And other law enforcement agencies were said to be following suit, so that as many as 4 million state employees may find themselves unwelcome to leave. And maybe their spouses and children, too.

Easy foreign travel has been the great advantage Russian citizens enjoyed over their Soviet counterparts. About 40 million Russians went abroad last year. But Tuesday’s report, semi-
denied or half-qualified by the authorities, suggested that restrictions are creeping back.

It’s not so much that ordinary Russians sympathize with stranded police officers, but they fear a reintroduction of the old Soviet exit-visa system, which left would-be travelers at the mercy of the bureaucracy.

President Vladimir Putin mourned the loss of Soviet greatness in his speech welcoming Crimea to Russia last month — and a group of legislators shortly afterward petitioned for the prosecution of Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing the collapse to happen.

But now real action is happening.

Rippling restrictions

The State Duma gave a final reading Tuesday to a bill that, as part of an “anti-terrorism” package, would require any blogger who gets 3,000 or more visitors a day to register with the state and be subject to state regulation. Other legislation before the Duma would make it a crime punishable by five years in prison to take part in an unsanctioned protest or to publish information that puts the government or military in a negative light. Members also are considering a bill that would add a course in political instruction to the school curriculum.

Last month, members of the upper house of parliament demanded an investigation into the venerable Taganka Theater after concerned “citizens” wrote a letter accusing the theater of insulting Russian history and institutions.

And Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s main social media Web site, VKontakte.com, told TechCrunch on Tuesday that he had left the country and was never going back. The Kremlin and the FSB security agency first forced him to relinquish control of the company, then leaned on him too hard to divulge information about opposition figures, he said. They were interested in everyone from Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who lost a libel suit Tuesday for having called a Moscow council member a drug addict, to the protesters in Ukraine.

“It’s particularly scary to see how Russia is isolating itself, and scary to see how quickly it’s happening,” Tatyana Lokshina, a human rights activist, said Tuesday. “After several weeks of rhetorical hysteria, the authorities are moving toward real restrictive measures.”

The reported travel ban is said to be temporary measure to avoid “provocations.” The Interior Ministry’s press service did not return phone calls. Someone in the ministry told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that the ban is only under consideration. Someone else reported that it’s a “recommendation,” not a ban — there being no difference between the two, as Lokshina pointed out.

A lawyer appearing on the station, Mikhail Barshchevsky, said there was no cause for alarm because the ban has been in place for years. That was news to police officers who called the program wondering what they should do with tickets to resorts in Turkey or Cyprus they already had in hand.

The confusion in itself had a Soviet air to it. Nothing is definite, no one is quite sure what the rules are, and people are left to speculate and simmer in their anxiety.

Whipping up patriotism

The sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries did a great deal to set the Soviet revival in motion. More than a few people here reveled in Russia’s isolation. Some seemed to embrace paranoia.

In newly Russian Simferopol, the Crimean capital, a monument was plastered with the photos of 10 leading critics of Putin under a banner that read: “Attention! Agents of Western Influence.”

The newspaper Izvestia reported that members of the Presidential Human Rights Council, which has become a punching bag for patriots, had circulated an e-mail with an English-language subject line. It was proof, the paper said, that they were in cahoots with the U.S. State Department.

“The idea that if you speak English you must be a spy really belongs to a different era,” ­Lokshina said.

Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, boasted this month that Russia would have manned spaceflights to the moon and to Mars by 2030, using no foreign equipment or technology.

It’s as if Russia is borrowing the “Juche” creed of self-sufficiency from North Korea, Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist, wrote on his blog. What’s most disturbing, he wrote, is that Russian leaders appear to be whipping up patriotic hysteria with grand proposals — today Crimea, tomorrow the moon — as a way of persuading ordinary Russians that they should willingly give up the material gains they’ve secured over the past two decades.

It’s not comparable to the commitment to communism in the idealistic days of the 1920s, he wrote, but to the commitment to power that marked the 1930s and 1940s — in other words, the era of Joseph Stalin.

Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the Kremlin’s new information wing, said in a recent interview with Izvestia that he can’t understand why “propaganda” has such negative connotations in the West, which is so intent on imposing its own values on Russia.

“I think we have switched roles,” he said. “Russia is now a beacon of freedom.”

Russians of a certain age were especially dismayed, though, when Putin recently announced the revival of an old Soviet physical fitness program. Everyone younger than 60 is expected to take part and be able to meet certain standards. The program will retain its unmistakably Soviet name: Preparedness for Labor and Defense.

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