Alexander Skobov has a long pedigree as a politically active citizen, a left-leaning editorialist, and a dissident. In 1976, he and a few friends formed the New Leftists and publicly distributed leaflets in Leningrad that called for socialism with a human face. Within two weeks, all the members of the group were rounded up by the KGB and expelled from the Komsomol and their universities. But Skobov was not arrested until the end of 1978, after organizing a commune, publishing two issues of the journal Perspectives, and attempting to organize a conference of like-minded leftists. He refused to emigrate and was sentenced to three years in a psychiatric hospital – a common occurrence for political dissidents at the time. Released in 1981, he was re-arrested in 1982 for labor union activities, and again imprisoned in a psychiatric facility for three years. In 1988 he participated in the activities of the Democratic Union and was involved in Case No. 64, the last trial for anti-Soviet activity prosecuted under Article 70 in the Soviet Union. The case was dropped in 1989. He has since been actively involved in the anti-war movement and in politics (his livejournal site is here). He has written a book on Russian history and taught high school history.
Russian Life publisher Paul Richardson caught up with Skobov in St. Petersburg in late September, where they spoke about the state of politics and reform in Russia today.
We are not a news magazine. We are more interested in long-term trends and views. So what is your opinion, as someone who first became a dissident in the Soviet era, of what is going on here long-term, in the context of history? How you would describe the situation here?
What we have here now is of course not a true dictatorship. Putting it in terms what would be perhaps easier for Americans to understand, this is typical McCarthyism. A rampage of obscurantism with significant limits on civil freedoms. Yet nonetheless it is not a dictatorship in its purest form. All of the known, true dictatorships of the twentieth century were far more cruel and severe.
For a civil society that is just being born, it is probably an unavoidable stage that must be passed through, with all of its difficult historical consequences. Yet of course there is nothing pleasant about this stage for those who must live through it.
I have been here many times over the last 30 years, but on this visit I have been surprised by how many people have told me, unprompted, that their friends and acquaintances are leaving, going to the West. Maybe not for good, but at least for a long time. They have just had enough.
Well, on the one hand, that points to the fact that the problem that existed under the Soviet regime, that it was forbidden to leave, no longer exists. Now, if you want to leave, go right ahead, no one will stop you. And it also speaks to the fact that a significant portion of those who feel suffocated here, have the material, and not just the legal, means to leave. Which is something that did not exist before. To some extent, it serves as something of a safety valve – for letting off steam. If this were not there, dissatisfaction would accumulate much more quickly.
If Russia is, as you say, living under a sort of McCarthyism, how would the West best be advised to deal with this? After all, there are no longer gulags or the sorts of Soviet era dissidents...
Well, there are a limited number of persons whom we consider political prisoners, those who have been unjustly convicted...
Like those arrested as a result of the 6th of May demonstrations?
Yes, yes, yes, yes... Either people who have had purely criminal cases fabricated against them... Or people convicted under some sort of illogical article. Because our Article 282 of the current Criminal Code is of course by no means the same as the Article 70 of the Soviet Criminal Code, yet it also nonetheless allows, if someone so desires, for people to be imprisoned for making critical speeches. There are not now any attempts to apply this article to oppositionists, so as not to give them real, lengthy prison terms, so instead they are limited to handing out fines or symbolic sentences that don’t land the oppositionists in prison. But they could at any minute, as they say, tighten the screws. Yet there are dozens in the country who have been sentenced under this article but without a definite term in prison. [Subsequent to this interview, a Russian activist alleged that he was forced to confess to plotting unrest.]
So what is the next act in this play? Will things get more difficult?
Right now we are clearly in a period of tightening-down. Whether there will be many upheavals or not, I don’t know... I don’t think there will be many. Yet they will be rather unpleasant. Formally, at least, the legal opposition will remain, yet I am not expecting any attempts to form a single-party opposition. A legal opposition will be formally allowed to exist within certain limits of public criticism. The question is what portion of the opposition, of criticism, will be defined as hooliganism. And it could turn out to be significant. Such is the policy of a semi-authoritarian regime of the twentieth century, to formally allow a managed opposition, while ruling any real opposition to be illegal.
I was in Moscow for the September 15 demonstrations, and I was struck how, as soon as Alexei Navalny was done speaking, the crowds began to dissipate – perhaps by 20-30%.
He is more popular than others, but of course he is not a leader accepted by the wider public. And the real problem is that the majority of people who are most inclined to be critical of the powers that be, who are completely dissatisfied with the current situation, do not trust most all of the opposition leaders. And that is in large part what keeps many of these people from participating in any sort of protest. If that distrust could be in some manner overcome, then the opposition would be of a much higher quality.
So what the opposition needs is its Lech Walesa or Andrei Sakharov, some sort of unifying figure that a wider public can trust?
Yes, yes, yes. We have a joke, “The main condition for the irremovability of the powers that be is the irremovability of the leaders of the opposition.” [Laughs]
On the other hand, this is not the 1980s. People are mostly satisfied, you and I can meet openly, there are things in the shops...
Yes, but it’s been a long time since we had the sort of thing that happened in December [the mass demonstrations against voter fraud]. A large collection of people took offence at something which it was previously not acceptable to take offence at. Namely, the widespread theft of votes. That’s how it’s done. The powers that be are expected to steal votes, or else they are not the powers that be! [Laughs] But this time suddenly people were offended.
Do you think this will be repeated after the October by-elections?
We’ll see. We’ll have to see what what comes of this OrgCommittee [for a unified opposition], what they decide. I cannot predict.
Do you nonetheless retain some measure of hope?
In the future? That things will get better?
I don’t now how long it will take, but I am certain that this regime will leave power, and not in a smooth way.
How do you mean? Like in Egypt? In one of your articles, you made a comparison with the Marcos regime [in the Phillipines]...
And the West should expect this, plan for this?
It is only a question of when. I can’t say when. Maybe in one year. Maybe in three.
Do you think then that Putin is not in control? Is he merely a puppet or is he the puppeteer in this play?
It is a classic historical subject, the moment when a marionette totally unexpectedly becomes independent of his creator... [Putin] came to power as a puppet, he was placed there by a certain rather narrow group of people – he was himself literally a political nothing, an absolute third rate bureaucrat who had done nothing to distinguish himself, he had no resources, nothing. This narrow group put him there as a puppet. And, as often happens, the puppet gradually began to replace those who had put him there. Yet they still remain connected to him, dependent on him; it is a mutual dependency. He is the type of puppet who has succeeded in making himself a first among equals, among those who put him there.
Some have said that Putin cannot leave, for the same reason that Yeltsin could not leave, for there is no one to protect him after he leaves the Kremlin...
Of course, of course. I have written about this several times. He can only leave for somewhere in the jungles of South America...
So what then should be the main task of the opposition? If they cannot realistically attain the post of governor, say, what should they be about?
The opposition’s main task should be its consolidation, to show that it has the capability to overcome the contradictions, hostility and antagonisms that exist between the various parties – and they are truly great differences among the opposition, which have historically divided the opposition one from another, and often led to the spilling of blood... Which is why there are all sorts of historical insults, claims and counter-claims...
Simply consolidate? Must there not be some purpose or goal?
Yes, there must be some sort of joint compromise program, at least for the transitional period. And there must be some sort of team. A team that is put forward specifically for all those who have their doubts, their strong doubts, about the opposition leaders. And they can say, “Here is our team, and here is our program. It is not ideal, and some may not like it for this reason, while others for another reason. Yet no matter what we can guarantee that this is the program we would enact.”And without this, it is not clear what will happen.
Clearly we’re not talking about some kind of “loyal opposition”?
It should not be a loyal opposition in any sense. I don’t believe that there can be any sort of cooperation with the present powers that be.
Given the egos involved, this would seem rather difficult.
Yes. There are some people who understand this and are trying to work in this direction, to build a coalition, to search out some kind of possible joint program, but it is very hard going...
Yes, well, bringing together the likes of Ksenia Sobchak and Vladimir Zhirinovsky...
No, Zhirinovsky is not taken seriously by anyone. He is simply a clown. He assumed this role in the very beginning and has been playing it for 20 years now. Successfully. Conscientiously. [Laughs]
Who do you respect most among the opposition leaders?
I can respect Duma deputy Lev Ponomaryov. And I would say I have a guarded, critical opinion of Boris Nemtsov. He’s not a fellow in line with my ideology, but what he has been doing recently [e.g. publication of a book exposing Putin’s financial dealings], seems to me to be very proper and intelligent. He is handling himself well... though it is not clear if it will be successful.
...There are others I could see more in the role of nominal leaders... for instance Sergei Udaltsov, more as a symbolic sort of leader...
So what are you doing now, journalism?
Editorializing [publisistika]... A journalist gathers fresh information on the ground; a editorialist speculates on the information gathered by others... [Laughs] Therefore I would not venture to claim the title of journalist...
But you were also a teacher...
For 18 years.
When you were a teacher, what sort of impressions did you gather of the younger generation?
Well, I remember the brilliant expression of interest in social problems and politics in the early 1990s. At the same time, there appeared a group of brilliant, talented kids, with very strong personalities. But then it started to decline, decline, decline, and another mood arose. The new generation was more pragmatic, more interested in their personal success, in getting ahead in life, and they were little interested in everything else...
I certainly saw plenty of youth at the September 15 rally...
Yes, now there are some. I haven’t worked in schools for three years, so I cannot say what is going on there. But in the mid 2000s, a sort of “whateverism” reigned, that and an orientation on purely consumer concerns.
Well, politics is a rather abstract thing. It is easier to focus on that which is near, tactile. And it is hard to help youth understand how things were 30 or 40 years ago...
Nonetheless, one needs to understand that in the 2000s our Russian people, or at least a large part of the urban population, perhaps for the first time in many, many decades, were able to eat their fill. They had a chance to consume whatever they wanted, to the extent of their earnings... Therefore, perhaps it was a natural reaction that, given their previous state of hunger, they first of all focused on consumption. But at some point, when satiation arrives, people may well start to think about something else.
If it is not too late?
No, I think that for the most part satiation has come and gone. The limit of consumption for a mid-range consumer has been reached... And for the majority of those who have reached this level of consumption, there is little chance of going beyond this. They have satisfied their primary consumption needs and they will quickly realize that this is their limit, that there will be no more, that their further advancement is blocked by those who seek to monopolize their class’s privileged position – those who will never have enough... Hunger is satisfied, but in the future entirely other sorts of needs will arise. Therefore I think that the coming generation will have even greater interest [in politics]...
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