So America, let’s talk a little bit about Vladimir Putin, since Trump hasn’t been able to contain his affection for the man and his style of governance. And nearly half of American voters think that this country needs run more like Putin runs things. He appeals to them: the ruthlessness, the directness, the aggression, the refusal to compromise, the constantly espoused dedication to making Russia great again.
Putin’s got that quiet sort of charisma that derives from shocking you by doing exactly what he wants and not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. So when he walks off with Bob Kraft’s Super Bowl ring, or names his dog after Condoleeza Rice, or shows up an hour late to a meeting with the Pope, that resonates in our brain as the way that the coolest people walk their own path with no regard for social convention.
Rebellion is in defiance of authority, but when it’s authority itself acting, it’s just a raw exercise of power. A rebel flaunts convention despite the consequences, a tyrant doing it merely demonstrates that no consequences apply. It tricks our brains, you see, and we mistake the callous indifference of power as a kind of punk rebelliousness.
Back around 2008, the small suburb of Khimki outside of Moscow gained some measure of fame when small local protests began over plans to clearcut the ancient Khimki forest in order to put up condos and a new highway to St. Petersburg. Khimki is not the first place you’d think of on the subject of grassroots mobilization. It’s relatively well-to-do. Moscow’s international airport is there. It hosts Russia’s only Ikea. It is the opposite of every cliched image of students crowding into the vast squares of the capital. Until 2008, it was best known simply for being the highwater mark of the Wehrmacht’s advance.
Yevgenia Chirikova, an electrical engineer and the local resident who found the x’s marking endless swathes of the forest, started organizing. There were petitions. There were protests. She ran for mayor of Khimki. Bono talked up the cause at a benefit concert. There was a glimmer of hope there for a moment, that under the right conditions, at exactly the right time, real change could happen in Russia. That truth really could be spoken to power.
But you know that’s not how this story ends. Not in a country where in moments of honesty and privacy, professors will tell you “democracy was a myth sold to us by the West.”
When protesters lay down in front of the harvesters ripping out the forest, they were savagely beaten, not by the police or anything so mundanely authoritarian. No, it’s other Russian citizens who beat them, descending upon them day by day. And when they called for ambulances, they are mysteriously delayed by hours, despite almost being within sight of the hospitals.
Chirikova ran for mayor of Khimki and lost badly. Afterwards, child protective services audited her, threatening to take her children away. She repeatedly received death threats. Because she tried to prevent trees from being cut down.
Articles in nationalist newspapers declared that “journalist traitors must be punished” and published pictures of journalists covering Khimki or corruption with the words “will be punished” written across their faces.
Remember how we were told to not overreact when conservative newspapers put crosshairs over the faces of Democratic politicians? Or that we were grossly misinterpreting a statement of constitutionalism when Trump said that Hillary could be solved with the Second Amendment? Or that the stories of reporters being threatened at Trump rallies were fabrications and liberal exaggerations?
Mikhail Beketov was the editor for Khimki Pravda, the tiny paper with a circulation of less than a thousand, serving the town. He was beaten in the yard of his house, to the point of amputation and brain damage. And while in a coma, he was convicted in absentia of slandering the mayor and ordered to pay damages.
Oleg Kashin, a journalist with Kommersant Moscow also wrote about Khimki and was beaten nearly to death.
Sergei Protazanov wrote for a tiny paper in Moscow called Grazhdanskoye Soglasiyez, circulation of only about a thousand. He was beaten in the street, and then poisoned after being sent home from hospital. His editor in chief was stabbed 10 times outside his home in February 2008.
“Beating” just doesn’t do justice to the brutality of the violence involved. It makes you think of getting punched a few times, ending up with ice packs on black eyes or bruised ribs. But let me walk you through what it really means, what really happened to these people. There are even grainy tapes of some of these attacks online, captured from ATM cameras across the street in the middle of the night, if you’re so inclined to die a little inside. It only takes a few seconds with a crowbar, almost in passing as you walk by someone on the street. One swing breaks a knee, the back swing the other knee. Then each elbow, a steel-toed boot stomp to each hand breaks all the fingers, and then a final swing to shatter the jaw. The victim tries to run, tries to stagger back to his feet, to get away from the thug already strolling away without looking back, but with no bones or joints left it’s like a puppet with tangled strings dancing only to collapse. A life annihilated in six seconds.
And that’s just the handful of journalists that dared say anything about Khimki in particular. Should we consider others?
Anna Politkovskya died alone in the elevator of her apartment complex, shot four times, once in the head. On Putin’s birthday.
Natalia Estemirova wrote about extrajudicial executions in Chechnya. Her car was stopped, her body was found after having been shot several times at point-blank range.
Abdulmalik Akhmedilov covered Dagestan. He criticized the federal government for suppressing dissent under the guise of fighting extremism. He was executed by a group of armed men as he left his apartment for work.
Olga Kotovskaya, director of the Kaskad independent TV and radio company, was thrown out of a 14th story window.
Konstantin Popov, was beaten to death by a police officer after leaving a bar.
Shamil Aliyev, founder of the Priboi and Vatan radio stations and director of the Makhachkala television network, was machine-gunned along with several others in his car in broad daylight.
North Caucasus correspondent Malika Betiyeva, was killed in a car crash in Chechnya, that no one believes was actually an accident due to the lack of investigation and repeated death threats. Her husband and both their children also died in the crash.
Dmitry Okkert, editor of news on Expert TV was stabbed to death in his locked apartment several days before being found. There was no sign of struggle, no robbery. The only thing missing was his laptop that contained all of his work.
The list goes on and on.
Over 200 journalists have been murdered in Russia in the last twenty years. The number of cases that even went to trial can be counted on one hand, and of those only half even managed convictions. The only two places in the world more dangerous to be a journalist than Russia are Algeria and Iraq.
We don’t need to strain our imaginations to understand exactly the sort of place Trump’s America would be. He and his followers have already told us, repeatedly, with their words and their actions. With every act of violence, verbal or physical, with every threatened journalist and promise of retribution.
Dictatorship is rarely something imposed only from above. It’s always a collaboration, between the thugs in power and those on the streets. Between those who do official violence by filling out forms, and those who will listen to the winks and nods and take it upon themselves to burn out the witches and traitors.
Vote on Tuesday.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.