Putin Rules Russia Like an Asylum. My op-ed for The New York Times
All the previous month I was in a state of nebulous burnout. The war, the sudden unprepared move to a foreign country, health problems, etc., have drained me. And now I'm slowly recovering.
This week I had the honour of writing an op-ed for the New York Times. Many of my colleagues and friends including myself after the start of Putin's war with Ukraine began to turn to the publications of Valeriya Novodvorskaya, a Soviet dissident who had gone through the KGB's punitive psychiatric system. Her observations previously seemed too radical and at times inadequate. Now they look like grimly accurate diagnoses. There is no prophet in his motherland.
“Since the 16th century,” wrote the dissident Russian journalist Valeria Novodvorskaya, “we have existed according to the laws of manic depressive psychosis.”
Published two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ms. Novodvorskaya’s article captured a particularly chaotic, deranged period of Russian history. But it also makes a long-term argument about Russian society. Since the time of Ivan the Terrible, Ms. Novodvorskaya argued, Russia has suffered from manic depressive psychosis — “flaying” the weak government and “kissing the whip” of the fierce autocrat. The result was a country “hanging between fascism and communism,” and citizens unable to live like normal people.
Those are the quotes from the article called "Russia No. 6", published in January 1994. The title of the article is a reference to Anton Chekhov's novel "Ward No. 6," which centers on the provincial mental asylum. Inspired by Novodvorskaya's piece, I decided to transfer this metaphor to today's events. And I think it works and conveys what is happening to our society very well.
Her article was published two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and two years later, on the eve of the scandalous presidential election in 1996, a criminal case was brought against Novodvorskaya for inciting ethnic hatred. The case was dismissed after a few months. Today, the penalty for such words in the sterilized information space in Russia would be at least permanent deportation from the country - as happened to Idrak Mirzalizade, a comedian who joked about xenophobia in Russian society. Any criticism of the state and society in Russia, even in its artistic form, is considered an insult in Putin's Russia and is liable to severe punishment.
In 1969, when she was a 19-year-old student, Novodvorskaya spent two years in a psychiatric hospital for distributing anti-Soviet leaflets. Vladimir Putin was not much younger than Novodvorskaya at the time - he was 18 years old, entered the university and became a member of the Communist Party there, only to start working for the KGB later. The future president of Russia will revive the system of punitive psychiatry - both literally and metaphorically.
Valeria Novodvorskaya died in 2014 a few months after Russia's annexation of Crimea, which she strongly condemned. She was called the "grandmother of Russian democracy".