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Russian dichotomies

Vladimir Putin recently visited Germany to talk oil pipelines with Gerhard Schröder and to meet Ms. Merkel. The occasion prompted author Viktor Erofeev to ask some questions about the nature of his odd bird of a president. By Viktor Erofeyev

What sort of a big Russian bird is that, flying in such haste to visit the Germans on the eve of their election? A friendly bird? A vampire bird? A werewolf bird? A bird of prey? Is this what Germany needs in its crisis, or will this bird pull it down into catastrophe? Is it strong, this bird with its dictatorial future, or is it a dying swan?

No one knows. The German press is all set to demonise the bird. Politicians in the Eastern Europe countries now liberated from communism demonise him too. And what's more, they are scared of him! But Gerhard Schröder is his friend. Or at least so he claims. So too is Chirac. And as for that Italian with the dodgy reputation – well, he's clearly buddies with the bird! And Bush? A major ornithology enthusiast. He coos regularly with Putin. What about? That's a mystery. But does the bird even know what he is himself? I don't think he does.

Let's ask the Russian intelligentsia, traditionally the conscience of the Russian nation, what sort of a bird is flying towards Germany? What do we hear among the rabble of voices? Diametrical viewpoints. Nothing new in that. Just think of the Yukos case. One group of intellectuals – writers, actors, painters, directors – were strongly against the tough nine year prison sentence handed out to entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The others, writers, actors, ballerinas and directors who seemed equally equipped with a conscience, were all for it. The intelligentsia is split in two. Does the Kremlin want to create a line-toeing intelligentsia? It is working on the project of a Public Chamber, an advisory organ functioning as a model for civil society. It will adopt the obedient and leave the disobedient standing on the side of the road. The disobedient count their losses, the obedient their gains.

Let's turn to the political accounts department. Do we have freedoms? In comparison with Soviet times we have many freedoms and we shouldn't simply erase them from our minds. These freedoms, even the ones that are restricted, are gradually becoming the personal world of the Russian people. There is the freedom to travel (if you are have a foreign visa and money), to do business (as long as you don't get involved in politics), to believe in God (Orthodox is the preferred religion), to read what you want and to vilify whoever and whatever you want, including our mysterious bird (but only in very specific places, sort of smokers' islands – in one or two radio stations and a few newspapers).

What are we missing? A guarantee for the future. The people in Russia are holding their tongues, as they always do. But if you approach them directly, another division reveals itself. Some of the mothers of Beslan, whose children were killed in the terrorist attack a year ago, believe everything Putin says. Others don't and they want to get out of the country as fast as possible. The same goes for the younger generation. Some of them are counting the days to the end of his presidency; others have answered the call of the Kremlin and have gathered together in the "Nashi" (meaning our lads or our kind) movement, and dream of serving him hand on heart. The families are divided too. My 85-year-old father loves Putin, but my mother who used to love him, now doesn't know what to make of him.

The communists are angry with Putin. He has basically forced them out of the political arena, which Yeltsin never succeeded in doing. But between you and me, is it really so bad that Russian communism has been destroyed? And the oppositional democratic politicians and journalists have no love to spare for Putin either. In their eyes, he's responsible for eliminating the democratic achievements of Perestroika.

Let's return to the figure of the bird. The symbol of the Russian state is a double-headed eagle – a truly odd bird. Like Siamese twins: one stomach, different thoughts. A schizophrenic image. One head looks West, the other East. When Putin became president, he fell under the spell of the two-headed eagle and it more or less metamorphosed into him. Perhaps the contradictory desires will tear him apart.

One head is thinking about the market economy and friendship with Schröder. The other is building a team with his former KGB colleagues and offering them the chance to make a lot of money and control the country. One head fights terrorism, the others understands that the terrorist threat is good for the consolidation of power because it keeps the population scared. The western head envies Europe and dreams of establishing commando capitalism in Russia. The eastern head thinks that European values are ill-suited to the Russian people - overly consumer-oriented and incompatible with the mystic Russian soul. One head has turned its back on Lenin and his revolutionary legacy; the other has much in common with Stalin, his imperial successes and his aggressive foreign policy.

And one more thing. The western head thinks it can improve the population with tenderness, wealth, and trains. It thinks that Russia is only one step away from being absorbed into the big European family. The other is convinced that genetics is stronger than ethics, that the Russian people is riddled with so much inherited vice that the only way to survive in this country is with a stick and carrot. The conservative party in Russia has never believed in the people, it has seen them as slaves, while believing in the power of fear. And indeed: it was fear that drove Yuri Gagarin into the cosmos.

Putin is not the first Russian politician to fall under the spell of the double-headed eagle. In the history of Russia, his closest precedent is Alexander III, the penultimate Romanov at the close of the 19th century, a man of colossal size and an enemy of drunkenness, who promoted the Orthodox ideology, created state capitalism, and quashed the "Orange" revolution of the day, with its socialist underpinnings, in its early stages. This earned him a such an honoured position on the world's political stage that the loveliest bridge in Paris was named after him.

Putin's oscillations correspond closely to the oscillations in Russian thinking, with its deep archaic roots that to some extent have nothing in common with Europe. Alexander III was no intellectual. He allowed Tolstoy and Chekhov to print their books, tolerated a number of other-minded people but never forgot tighten the handcuffs or to exercise his preferences for Russian nationalism. And everybody knows what happened to the Romanovs.

Of course the West must feed Russia's western head. Otherwise, it will run off to the East. It's in my interests that the eagle has a well-developed western head. It acts as a certain guarantee for the freedoms a writer needs, such as the air to breathe. But I understand that if you forget about the eastern head of the Russian statehood, as our reformers did in the 1990s, then you lose the connection with an important part of the "archaic" population. The West will have to learn to accept that the flight of the two-headed eagle has nothing to do with the rules of international air travel.


The article orginally appeared in German in Die Welt on September 8, 2005.

Viktor Erofeyev (born 1947) is one of Russia's leading writers. His most recent book, an autobiographical novel, "Choroshi stalin" (Engl: the good Stalin) was published in 2004.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european