Most post-Communist countries have made a transition to some form of democratic rule, notes Masha Gessen. Not coincidentally, most of them had a memory of such institutions to build on, as well as a thick and never-quite-eradicated weave of private, religious, and social groups — “civil society,” to use political-science jargon, she writes for Vanity Fair:
Russia lacks that memory, and civil society was largely supplanted by grim state-controlled substitutes over a period of seven decades. The years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union were full of contradictory events, including the explosive growth of civil-society institutions, but today’s Russia remembers the 1990s as an era defined by crime, corruption, chaos, political disarray, and economic despoliation—Lord of the Flies on a Eurasian scale.
But Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s new Open Russia is ambitious, Gessen adds:..
… it is an attempt to build an entire new leadership for Russian society that would exist and function parallel to the current one—until the current one implodes and Khodorkovsky’s pre-fab Russian leadership takes its place. Just as a shadow cabinet hones its skills while out of power, so too, in Khodorkovsky’s vision, must shadow leaders, shadow bureaucrats, shadow journalists, shadow organizers, and other shadow citizens practice their craft even though—or because—Putin’s regime has usurped all the institutions and activities that normally comprise a functional society….
The goal is twofold: first, to assemble an army of civilians who are capable of performing all the tasks that need doing in a country; and second, to find ways, in a nation where the public sphere has been effectively destroyed and communication severely restricted, to publicize the existence of such people and create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill around them, even as those of them who are physically in Russia are being silenced, marginalized, discredited, and killed.
Khodorkovsky may not appreciate a transformation in Russia that goes beyond the rabid nationalism, the flag-waving, and the war-mongering, she adds:
In the past four years, Russia has gone from being a post-ideological society to one that is gripped by a new ideology, centered around something the Kremlin calls “a traditional-values civilization.” This ideology, essentially medieval and hermetic, is facilitating the rapid restoration of totalitarian mechanisms. Culturally and politically, Russian society has returned to a pre-liberal state and planted itself there that much more firmly for having briefly encountered liberalism. Khodorkovsky brushed aside my concern about how much he really knows about the present state of Russia’s soul.
“It’s not like Russia has an alternative. We are a part of the European, or, to be more precise, the North-Atlantic civilization,” Khodorkovsky says. “We can try to pump ourselves up as much as we want, with talk of our own separate world. But the fact is, there are too few of us Russians to form a separate world.”