“The crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff. As long as it seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone. But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out ‘The emperor is naked!’ - when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game-everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.” Vaclav Havel wrote these words in February 1978, in his now famous essay The Power of the Powerless. He composed it at the height of the Soviet-backed “normalization” regime in Czechoslovakia. Eleven years later he – a writer, dissident and political prisoner - drove into the Prague Castle to take up the post of the country’s first non-Communist president since 1948.
After Havel passed away on Sunday December 17, there was suddenly a spike of interest in his life and writings – something he never enjoyed in his lifetime. Dozens of editorials, countless blog posts, commemorative events and even a special website for condolences revealed a previously unheard of interest in Havel’s life of moral resistance to evil and coercion.
The Russian authorities “helped” this by wilfully ignoring the passing of Havel. His sharp criticism of Vladimir Putin and his support for Russia’s fledgling democratic movement expressed in a brief piece for Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper just a week before his death irked the authorities. Their petty-mindedness contrasted with the tributes sent to Prague from all over the world, and a line-up of world dignitaries who gathered for the funeral in the Czech capital.
Still this newly found Russian interest in Havel’s life and political writings is not accidental. With politics firmly back into the fabric of Russian life, there is a clear demand for moral leadership among the urban middle classes that spearhead the new democratic movement.
During the 1989-1991 democratic revolution, moral, as opposed to simply political leadership, was not in sight. Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, died in December 1989, having barely seen the beginning of the demise of Communism. Another Nobel Prize laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, remained in the United States until 1994 and was anyway sceptical of Western democratic values that informed the movement then. Boris Yeltsin, with all his monumental achievements and serious flaws, was hardly a moral authority for the nation. Moreover, the demand at the time was more for the Yeltsin-like firmness based chutzpah and lust for power than for Havel’s firmness of the spirit and convictions.
The second wave of the pro-democracy movement that we see today is different from what we saw 20 years ago in several aspects. But the important one is that people who gathered for mass rallies across Russia in December do not want to bring down the state institutions. They want to restore them to their original meaning and constitutional design. In a way, the Russians are trying to reclaim their role in managing the affairs of the country. Another significant thing is that they are past the “post-Soviet” era, with the USSR memories quickly fading and the authorities offering the people nothing but the old clichés of a “strong and sovereign state.” The search for new meanings leads to the quest for moral vision and leadership. Of which in modern day Russia there is precious little.
In fact there is probably only one person that even remotely resembles a Vaclav Havel-like figure. This is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. With all the differences in background, style and life stories, the two men have several things in common. Both chose peaceful resistance to the authorities as opposed to emigration or violence. Both understood that moral vision is equally important both for the individual and for the institutions. Both acquired an ability to talk about politics without sounding like professional politicians.
Billionaire Khodorkovsky’s unique odyssey from rags to riches to prison to civic activism comes across as a symbol of redemption for all the real and perceived sins of the 1990s: an époque which the majority of Russians still considers to be dark and chaotic.
No other leader of the protests can match Khodorkovsky in moral stature. The problem is that he is in jail. The question is whether Mikhail Borisovich would want to become a political leader if and when he is released from jail.
No one can predict how events in Russia will develop in 2012. I can easily imagine that Khodorkovsky’s release could serve as a last ditch rescue attempt by the authorities if things really get bad for them. At least the former owner of YUKOS has already said that he is “no Count Monte Cristo and is not seeking revenge.” This is not an attitude other opposition personalities could guarantee. Moreover, Khodorkovsky’s early release may also become a problem for them as he will prove a formidable contender for the opposition leadership. We will probably see this drama play out quite soon.
Russia may well move on without moral beacons. But it will be a much more difficult journey without them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.