An interview with Irina Flige, director of the St. Petersburg Memorial Research Centre (Part Two)

15 April 2012

"In Russia I think at the present time there is only one measure for political events: whether blood will be shed or not. Unfortunately, we are on the threshold of these events." 

Part Two of an interview with Irina Flige, director of the St. Petersburg Memorial Research Centre, by Masha Karp  

On 28th March Index on Censorship, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, awarded one of its Freedom of Expression awards to Memorial Research and Information Centre. Irina Flige, director of the Centre in St. Petersburg, came to London to receive it. In the first part of an interview with Masha Karp, Irina Flige spoke about the work of the Centre. In this second part she discusses the protests that have taken place in Russia from December to March, and the current situation in Russia.    

Masha Karp: Could you please tell me about the protest movement that began last December?

Irina Flige: I think dating the start of the protests to December is wrong. The atmosphere in the country started changing earlier, in the autumn.

MK After 23rd September when Putin announced his intention to become president for the third time?

IF Yes. Of course, all through the years of Medvedev’s presidency everybody kept saying: “They are going to swap places soon”. That this was going to happen was obvious to everybody, just as the results of these “elections” have been. But somehow, with all the jokes about the two-headed eagle, or about the two men swapping their names, when it was announced it was just too much. This was a real turning point, a watershed. Because somehow subconsciously we must have thought: “They wouldn’t dare”. Because this was like spitting in our faces. And from that moment the movement began.

The movement took off everywhere. Of course it was more noticeable in the big cities, because everything is more noticeable in there. But it was everywhere. My colleagues and I spent August 2011 on Kolyma in Magadan region. There were four of us and we went around the region talking, not just to museum staff and experts, but to drivers, to people staying in hotels, to people we met who were just coming and going, local people in cafes along the highways. We met people from all walks of life. Of course, it was clear that we were not locals. People asked us where we were from, what we were doing.

What was remarkable was the tough, even hostile, attitude to Moscow. Moscow for everybody in the provinces is the symbol of state power. Somebody would say: “What have you come here for? To look at the camps? What’s the point of looking at them? They should be repaired so that the whole of Moscow can be put there”. This was not a joke. Any driver, any worker we spoke with would talk to us about the criminal character of the regime, would explain the criminalization of the economy, the mechanisms by which it works. It is all crystal clear to everybody, there’s nothing you can surprise people with.

The economic devastation of the rich regions, the destruction of the poor ones – they see it all. The trouble is, it’s not just the rich regions that suffer from the tribute that they have to pay to the centre. The trouble is that all this is seemingly done for the sake of the poorer, subsidized regions, but they are doomed to complete destruction, because they are getting just peanuts from the budget, and are not allowed to develop! These regions have intellectual potential, they have a population that is capable of doing something, they are only lacking in natural resources. Now extracting natural resources is not the only thing people can do! But everything else is prohibited.

From Kolyma you can see it very well. People there understand what’s happening in their region. Kolyma is an extremely rich region, but it has been humiliated and is in trouble now. And the people in Omsk, which is subsidized, understand about their region too. You don’t have to have even a secondary education to understand it. You do not have to live in a big city. So the people see and understand everything. But it’s very easy to rig their votes before the number of votes cast reaches Moscow.

Of course, things are different in Moscow and Petersburg. What we saw starting back last autumn is an awakening of civil society. This was something we had been waiting for so long. Both in Moscow and in Petersburg there were lots of observers at the December elections. These observers were 100% sure in advance that the elections would be dishonest. But it’s one thing to know something in theory, and it’s completely different to see this happening with your own eyes. This came as a shock.

It’s one thing when everybody says: “They do what they want. They will arrange to get the percent of votes that they think they need.” Nobody bothers about it any longer. But it’s quite another when an observer or a couple of observers sit for 16 hours, side by side with other 12 people on the electoral commission. They all chat, tell jokes, discuss their families, share sandwiches and take turns to go and have tea. And then suddenly – bang! An elderly woman picks up these ballot lists, runs along a dark corridor at the school where the voting is taking place, reaches the back door, and escapes from these observers! They are, of course, young people and no fools. They get into a car, they catch up with her and ask: “What’s the matter?” She says: “I don’t know you!”

This is something you can’t put up with. When it becomes so concrete and personal, when they know that these are the people who teach their children, then it is no longer a joke. This happened in December. And in this respect Moscow and Petersburg were exactly the same.

In both cities what we have seen is that this situation brought forth this wonderful generation. These are people from 25 to 45 years old. This age group provided most of the people who took part in the rallies, the protests and, most importantly, election observers. These people have already achieved something in life, they are middle class. On the whole they are doing well in life. Although their levels of education vary, the majority have higher education – which is another feature of this group. There were very few students - people below 25. Recently statistics about this have been brought together. In Petersburg there were 6,000 observers. Of these, those younger than 25 were less than 10 %, and those over 55 were also less than 10 %. So the group of people that actively supported the protests is neither the young, nor the old, but adults, both men and women. And this was the same in both Moscow and Petersburg.

But there were differences too. First of all in quantity. Moscow is much larger. Petersburg is much more compact. In St. Petersburg, observers for the presidential elections began getting organized very early – at the end of January. Because Petersburg is not the capital, those who represent the big political parties, like the Communists, Zhirinovsky’s party, and so on, are usually at a lower level than in Moscow - less intelligent, less educated… And this allowed the Petersburg Association of Observers to become independent of the parties at an early stage. Officially you could only act as an observer in the elections as a representative of a party. But in Petersburg the Association managed to insist that people could take part as an election observer if they had a party observer’s mandate, without actually having anything to do with the party. In Moscow this was more difficult to achieve and people had far more to be in contact with Communists and others, which was not pleasant. In Petersburg the Association proved stronger than the parties. It’s a small thing, but it is important.

So the elections are over. It was a defeat, but experience has been gained and the Association of Observers has not disbanded. I should have said that at the end of February before the elections they held an Observers’ Forum, when over 4,000 people gathered at the Pribaltyskaya Hotel.

MK How was that possible?

IF The hotel is owned by a foreigner. They rented a meeting room with money they had collected among themselves. And then they gathered again, this time with slightly fewer than 2,000 people, and formed the organisation “Association of Observers”. The idea to which they are committed is an important one. It is that the concept of “observer” means the right of citizens to observe everything in the country. They are now collecting documents to register the organization as an NGO. The organisation is district–based: there are city coordinators, district coordinators. This framework actually helped them during the elections. That’s why there were practically no polling stations without observers. Sometimes at a polling station there were several observers, sometimes only one. But they basically covered every polling station, apart from a tiny number in a distant area.

MK But why did fewer people take part in the protests in Petersburg than in Moscow? I mean proportionately, of course. Was it out of fear? Or was there more pro-Putin feeling in the city?

IF No, no, no. It’s just that, sad as it is, politics is done in Moscow. In all other cities, including Petersburg, people would take to the streets if they are concerned about something that is happening here and now.

MK And finally, how do you think the situation in Russia will develop?

IF I am not of course a political analyst or a sociologist, I can’t make any professional forecast, and in fact I do not believe in political forecasts. But in Russia I think at the present time there is only one measure for political events: whether blood will be shed or not. Unfortunately, we are on the threshold of these events.

I hope, I very much hope that nothing like this will happen. I am not saying there will be enough political wisdom to avoid it or anything like that. I am hoping for a miracle. I hope that nothing like that will happen.

I really think we may be on the eve of large-scale bloodshed.

One the one hand, can you imagine Putin, who has had to put up with all this since December? He would have rather pressed a machine–gun to his belly and started shooting in all these squares… But he bore it courageously. And he will probably bear it till the inauguration. Can you imagine him bearing it for much longer?

On the other hand, people feel deeply humiliated. They won’t be able to bear it for long either – for each individual it’s a personal disgrace. 

So I am afraid that blood will be spilled when these two impulses clash. For this to happen it will be enough for one rally to be brutally dispersed and people will take to the streets. It is not by accident that the authorities are constantly referring to the Libyan scenario. This is what they identify with – it is their self-identification! It is not by accident that they call the people who are concerned about civic issues “opposition”. So the issue at stake now is not the possible nature of a future regime, or whether in a political sense it’s going to be 3 degrees warmer or 3 degrees cooler. The issue at stake is whether there will be bloodshed - or whether this can be avoided. This is the only issue for Russia today.