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Nobody is safe anymore

Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin talks to Caroline Fetscher on the new degree of fear in Russia after Anna Politkovskaya's murder

Der Tagesspiegel: Herr Ryklin, last Saturday the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her criticism of the government, was shot in Moscow. What does this murder mean for Russia?

Michail Ryklin: This criminal offence is a signal, a highly symbolic act. Until this happened, nobody would have thought that Anna Politkovskaya (more) was touchable, because we the critics of the government - saw her as a figurehead of independent journalism in Russia, a woman who is highly respected in the West and has received many prizes.

She seemed to be protected.

Yes. We assumed that Vladimir Putin and his system valued Politkovskaya as a democratic symbol and that her newspaper, the independent Novaya Gazeta, like the broadcaster Echo of Moscow represented a democratic showcase for the Kremlin elite that they wouldn't want to do away with - or couldn't. Even papers of less significance like the government-critical magazine of the chess champion Garry Kasparov seemed a guarantor that this niche would survive in some form. What is happening now is something like a paradigm shift.

And what is it exactly?

Until now, we, the critical voices, believed in a civilisational minimum at the least, that society stood on a more or less solid base. Now the message is: none of you are safe any more. Notability, Western friends, respect and awards can no longer protect us against violent attacks on the freedom of expression. If someone like Politkovskaya can be murdered in broad daylight in such an brutal way, any of us could be next. That is a shock. All the more so because in today's Russia, most political murders are never solved.

What made Anna Politkovskaya so dangerous in the regime's eyes? On Tuesday in Dresden, Putin called her a journalist with "extreme views." Was it that she named corrupt officials or torturers in the Chechen war? Are journalists safe as long as they don't name names?

That alone is not enough. "Putin" is just a synonym for an entire system. The vertical power structure on top of which Putin sits includes the army, the justice system, the Duma, the state-run media, the secret service, the police and the orthodox church. Although the principle of secularism the separation of church and state - is anchored in the Russian constitution, the Kremlin does not abide by it. At Christmas, for example, Putin and his functionaries receive the blessing of the patriarchs in what amounts to a VIP lounge of the church. He says they should "save Russia" and anyone who counters the "state religion" has to reckon with reprisals.

In your book "Mit dem Recht des Stärkeren" (With the rights of the stronger) on "Russian culture in times of a controlled democracy," you describe a case that you experienced and that you analyse as a symptom of society.

It was the vandalising riots against the art exhibition in the Sakharov Centre in Moscow (more) in 2003, when a group of extreme nationalists ravaged the exhibition "Caution, Religion!" which took a playful and critical look at religious symbols. One of the artists being exhibited was my wife Anna Altschuk. We spent five months in court, pretty much the whole time. At first the trial was against the perpetrators but the public prosecutor acquit them on a pretext. Then there was a trial against those who had been attacked. Against the director of the Sakharov Centre for "fomenting national and religious strife." The artists were threatened with prison sentences. The national Duma claimed before the attorney general that the artists had offended the sensibilities of orthodox believers.

What happened in the court room?

We were accosted by a practically illiterate mob, made the object of anti-Semitic insults. We received death threats. When I asked the judge why this kind of behaviour was being permitted, I was told: "You provoked this behaviour!" Amnesty International took up the cause on behalf of the artists, with a personal appeal to Putin. My book looks at the fatal repression of the traumatic history under Stalin, and Russian xenophobia and psychosis as a general tendency to negate the principle of reality.

Your book addresses the case of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (more), whose democratic ambitions displeased the Kremlin and who has been in jail since his show trial in Siberia.

Where he shouldn't actually be, because there is a law that prohibits prisoners from doing time more than 300 km away from their families. But the law is being broken. Khodorkovsky did what is taboo for oligarchs: he made public his fortune of billions and those of his top manager because American investors that were interested in Yukos were insisting on transparency. Thus he broke an unwritten law and was dispensed with.

"Deported" to Siberia, like under Stalin. How do you explain the social regression in Russia?

Millions of people have gotten poorer since the fall of the Iron Curtain and at the same time, people miss a certain imperial megalomania that compensated, at least subjectively, for certain deficiencies in Soviet times. So the people traumatised by a past that has not yet been worked through and poorly informed by a media that is anything but free are looking for scapegoats. Nothing is easier than to convince them that the Caucasians, the Jews, the Asians are to blame. Even the Georgians can be put in this camp, as we saw last week, even though they used to be a favoured fraternal folk that's where Stalin came from.

Putin condemns anti-Semitism...

... in word. You have to look at his deeds. Putin came to power in 1999 through the first Chechen war; since he's governed, there's been nothing but war there. By bringing electronic media under his control, he prevented the majority of the population from finding out what was actually going on there.

We often hear that Putin and his "hard hand" are very popular.

Kim Jong Il in North Korea is also very popular. It's easy to be popular as long as the population has no choice and gets to see almost nothing else. If he were really popular, he wouldn't need to control the media, but rather could participate in open discussions with his opponents, would recognise opposing candidates. But there's only Putin and Putin again and again. There is now much cynical speculation about who he will put in place as his successor. Not the voters, him. Our elections are a farce. The new parliament will be elected in a year, in 18 months the president. Before that, a signal must be sent to his potential opponents. This signal was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

What do you expect from Western politicians?

A clear message. Sometimes it seems almost schizophrenic in the West that the press reports openly and explicitly on human rights violations, while the Russian politicians blandish everything, as though they never read the papers. Gerhard Schröder for example. Before being elected chancellor, he loudly condemned the intimate "sauna politics" between Kohl and Yeltsin, only to call Putin a "flawless democrat" as chancellor and now to do business with him. I'm glad that Angela Merkel brought up Politovskaya's murder at a meeting with Putin in Dresden and demanded an investigation.


The interview originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel on October 12, 2006.

Michail Ryklin, born 1948, is a highly acclaimed philosopher, writer and translator who lives in Berlin.

Translation: nb.

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