Staunton, October 21 – Something more horrific has happened this year in Russia than the pandemic and the increasing acts of terror by the Kremlin, Sergey Medvedev says. And that is this: with each new outrage, ever more Russians are coming to view such terror as normal and inevitable, thus reducing something that had constrained the Putin regime in the past.
The Radio Liberty journalist says that “society is beginning to get accustomed to this situation, and repressive actions no longer elicit the surprise” they did only three or four years ago, an attitudinal shift that opens the way to the institutionalization of “a Russian anti-utopia” and still more attacks on individuals and rights in the future (svoboda.org/a/30903451.html).
To explore this change and its implications for the future, Medvedev spoke with rights activist Aleksey Fedyarov who has written a new book about how the chekists are seizing power in Russia, and opposition politician Leonid Gozman who has continued to denounce the regime’s crimes despite growing indifference to them among Russians as a whole.
Gozman observes that “we believe that in Russia, authoritarianism and dictatorship are natural and that being slaves under an autocracy is natural for our fellow citizens.” The current situation doesn’t reflect the return of hangmen from the past but the continuation of these attitudes, attitudes that the government encourages by its distortion of history.
At the same time, he suggests that those in charge haven’t operated according to a single long-term plan but have responded to how the population has responded to what they do. When the population tolerates one kind of abuse, the authorities will continue to impose it and try new ones.
This reflects a combination of two things: an obsession with the Soviet past with its sense that repression is needed, and the gradual loss of control by the powers that be over the current situation prompting them to go back to that past, as long as the population acquiesces and the regime doesn’t run out of resources, Gozman continues.
There is little reason to think that the situation is about to change, Fedyarov says. It may go on this way for a very long time. And Gozman argues that in his view, the regime won’t be changed by evolution but will require violence from those below to push out those who continue to repress the people.
That makes the new “normalization of terror,” the acceptance of its use by the population especially worrisome because it means that the powers can use terror ever more often without the fear of a backlash, Medvedev adds. The change in Russia is obvious if one compares the outrage after Nemtsov was killed with the quiet acceptance of the poisoning of Navalny.
A similar evolution happened among Germans in the 1930s, Gozman says. At first, ordinary Germans didn’t form crowds and shout “Heil Hitler.” Then they did, and then they ceased to do so after their country was defeated militarily. Normalization is the perfect term for this phenomenon and for what is happening in Russia today.
Medvedev concludes this discussion with perhaps the saddest words of all: “One of the losses of 2020,” he was “is the loss of the ability to be surprised” by the direction in which things are moving. That simply opens the way for more of the same in the future rather than giving hope for a better future.