Today's date:
Summer 2007

Democracy Has Nearly Disappeared in Russia

Tatiana Tolstaya, the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy, is one of Russia's most popular novelists and TV hosts. She is most celebrated for her novel, The Slynx. She was interviewed by Michael Skafidas, former editor of Greek NPQ.

NPQ | Putin's Russia is deplored these days in the West as an increasingly autocratic state that has betrayed the spirit of perestroika and glasnost and moved backward. How many galaxies away is Putin's Russia from Gorbachev's Russia?

Tatiana Tolstaya | You can't compare perestroika with Putin's Russia because Putin's Russia is a result of Yeltsin's Russia, and Yeltsin's Russia is the outcome of perestroika, which itself was the culmination of dissent that followed all the previous stagnation years. You have all these different eras embedded in our recent memory, and Putin's Russia is only the result of a gradual process. Some things were gained along the way, some were lost.

Since Yeltsin's time, the democratic element in Russia has diminished greatly. I would not call it a democracy what's going on now. But still there are plenty of freedoms which were first gained in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin periods. Somehow the failed uprising of the communists in 1993 was the triumph of the so-called new Russian freedom.

This freedom is still with us in many ways. At least the younger generation is used to this freedom; part of this freedom you cannot take away from them because they were never part of the terror years of the Soviet regime, so they don't know what that was like.

So on one hand, the young take this freedom for granted; on the other hand, the democracy as envisioned in the perestroika years has nearly disappeared.

NPQ | Your dystopian novel, The Slynx, is an apocalyptic vision of a future that takes place 200 years after Russia's fictional doom. Books are prohibited by the old tyrant who persists in plagiarizing or rewriting the old masters himself. Russian society is condemned to darkness and ignorance. Is this a premonition of the real Russia to come?

Tolstaya | It's my view on certain things. It's perhaps a scenario that could materialize not only in Russia but anywhere in the world. People and societies are always subject to the same dangers and temptations.

But I know Russia best. And in Russia we always go back to square one after the revolutions or changes like perestroika. It's like a pattern: Everything collapses and then we have to build it again. This whole idea came to me in 1986, just when perestroika was starting. You may call it a prediction, or a premonition as you put it, but I think that above all it's a path I discovered with a recurring pattern.

I based my imagination on things that did happen already, things that indicate that there is a kind of social pattern in the life of the country. When the Russians realize that their country is not ruled the way they like it to be ruled, they want to overthrow the authorities; they see them as the sole reason for all the failures and the bad things that have happened to people. This is not a culture of personal responsibility.

For example, the main character in Slynx realizes that the liar-rogue that runs what is left of Russia must be stopped and people should take the power in their hands. But what actually happens is that this noble crusader for freedom eventually becomes an instrument in the hands of the terrible tyrant. This, of course, is part of what has happened in Russia time and again.

There was a huge collapse of the country and its culture back in 1917; the revolution threw the country into a terrible void. At the time it was quite obvious that the Tsarist regime was horrible, unjust and had to be overthrown. Fine, it was overthrown and what happened next was worse. So I also kept that in mind. I understand the pressure that pushes people toward revolution, but each revolution, at least in Russia, has taken the country back. If there is any lesson here, it is that it's always the evolutionary as opposed to the revolutionary ways of changing things that works better.

So, today in Russia, it is not an exaggeration to observe that people are holding on to their myths because they don't want to know the truth. The new Russians do prefer wealth over freedom because, in a way, there is enough freedom in Russia nowadays for Russian standards.

Russians often don't understand that freedom is like an airplane: It has to be maintained. It might disappear as quickly as it appeared. In a way, wealth is a good thing. Wealth gives another kind of freedom. In the capitalist world, you cannot be free without money, so people choose money in order to become free, or so they believe. While they're chasing this money, of course, they lose part of their freedom. It's a complicated never-ending story, but this is it.

People in Russia don't fight for freedom, but at the same time they're not slaves. Sometimes they don't know exactly what they need their freedom for. Let's not forget that in Russia the process of democratic elections was quite a new thing, as well as the effort to change things through the elections. There was a brief period of relative freedom after perestroika, but then the corruption did not let it flourish so it never matured enough and these little new freedoms were taken slowly back. Russians feel it's impossible to fight the tornado of corruption and power. For them, it's a force that is larger than life.

NPQ | Especially after the assassinations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, the image of Russia has fallen to a new all-time low in the Western world. Between the increasing concerns of the West that a new era of authoritarianism is being established in Russia and the seemingly business-as-usual-attitude of the Russians, there is a widening void of perceptions. What's the truth?

Tolstaya | You think I know? I'm Russian, I don't know where the truth lies myself! In many countries in the West, people have their idea of what's authoritarian. We have our own perception of it. First of all, we are very much used to authoritarianism. For us, law and order do restrict one's freedoms for the sake of public order. Law puts things in order. In Russia, people don't care much about the law until, of course, it strikes them.

The police, for instance, work against and not for the people in Russia. Russians must become street smart in order to avoid the police because the police are part of the authoritarian regime. It's another bureaucratic organization used by the regime as a tool to rob people of their money.

So you cannot really put your finger on the exact source of authoritarianism and corruption. It's not simply on the top; it's everywhere. It's a lifestyle in Russia. That's why corruption will never stop. The country was corrupted during Yeltsin, it was corrupted during Gorbachev, it was corrupted before them. But in Gorbachev's time it seemed less corrupted because there were no rich people to talk about and now there are plenty of them. The corruption is growing along with the wealth—these two components are co-dependent in Russia. Will it ever stop? I don't think so.

NPQ | Do you ever feel restricted or threatened as a writer in Russia?

Tolstaya | Absolutely not and that's a paradox. All this has nothing to do with my writing. We don't have any censorship in the publishing world. The only people who may feel in danger are investigative reporters like Politkovskaya who deal directly and personally with people who don't want to be exposed because they've got so many things to hide.

In this way, I suppose, fear becomes another way of censorship. But it's always been like that. Investigative journalists all around the world are in the same position in a way, whether in Putin's Russia or the Mafia's Italy. If they are too nosy, sometimes they are murdered.

Everyone more or less believes that Politkovskaya had a personal conflict with someone, we just don't know exactly with whom. She was a very irritating personality, I'd say. She was in a pursuit not of the truth—she did not care much about the truth; she was in a pursuit of a kind of justice as she saw it. And in this relentless pursuit, she really crossed someone's path. She knew the dangers, but still she proceeded.

NPQ | Is writing literature a moral obligation in Russia? Must it be engaged politically?

Tolstaya | Not at all. I don't think that writing is somehow connected with moral duty. Two hundred years ago, Pushkin initiated the beginning of modern Russian literature. There was literature before him but not as important. Pushkin never regarded literature as a moral obligation, but as an act of pure art, free from any dogma or any moral obligation For him, the writer is the only judge.

After him, I'd say that no other good writer was able to reach such a height of inner freedom. Many writers in Russia described the social situation, and the social situation, of course, is always bad in Russia! When you realize as a writer the horrors of injustice, especially of the past, that keeps you writing and keeps you indignant.

NPQ | You are a very popular figure in Russia. Your books have an impact on housewives and political scientists alike. You also have a popular TV show, The House of Scandal, where you interview representatives of Russian culture and politics. What explains that popularity?

Tolstaya | It's true. I have a wide audience in Russia. One thing, I guess, is that I use metaphorical language that is appealing to many people. At the same time, I use something many writers avoid in Russia: humor. Not many people can do that. Many good writers make a big mistake: They think too much about themselves. They lose their sense of proportion along with their sense of humor because they think of themselves as being great. Humor is a very important component. You can't survive in Russia without it.