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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » March 31, 2015
Politics & Society
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Naive or Hypocritical?
March 31, 2015   
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Looking at the reactions of international politicians to the murder of Boris Nemtsov it is difficult to resist the impression that Russia is still a terra incognita for the West. Or that the West simply finds it convenient to pretend that it doesn’t understand much of what is happening in Russia, measuring that country by the standards of liberal democracy.

De mortuis aut bene, aut nihil—speak well of the dead or not at all. Some may not know, but this Roman saying originally applied only to one specific kind of situation—funeral speeches. Now that it’s a few weeks after Nemtsov’s funeral we might as well open our eyes. The murdered politician was a symbol of a profound crisis in the Russian financial system in the late ‘90s as a result of oligarchs laying their hands on state assets. At the time Nemtsov was deputy prime minister and a darling of President Boris Yeltsin.

Some Western media have described Nemtsov as a “modest man, living in a one-bedroom apartment and driving an old car.” In fact, he owned a 180-square-meter split-level penthouse in the heart of Moscow and overlooking the Kremlin. According to real estate experts, such a home is worth around $7 million. The “old car” turned out to be a chauffeured Range Rover worth several hundred thousand dollars. According to Nemtsov’s lawyers, he left around 200 million rubles, or over $3 million, in cash to his four children (by three different women). Formally, in the last few years before his death, Nemtsov was no more than a deputy to a provincial parliament in the city of Yaroslavl. Is it not about time we revised the description of Nemtsov as “a fearless campaigner against corruption”?

One of the most frequently quoted Russian politicians after Nemtsov’s death was Anatoly Chubais, who was also widely described by the Western media as an “oppositionist, democrat and a campaigner against corruption.” That’s a long way from the truth. Chubais, now CEO of RAO UES, the Russian energy market monopoly (clearly, this is not a job that the Kremlin would offer to an opponent of President Vladimir Putin), was formerly deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1994-1998. According to many, Chubais was also the founder of the country’s oligarchic system under President Boris Yeltsin. He is accused of involvement in the embezzlement of $40 million from the International Monetary Fund. For an ordinary Russian citizen, Chubais symbolizes nothing but grand-scale corruption in the highest echelons of power. A few months ago, Russian tabloids reported on a red-haired cat that had gotten into a super-expensive duty-free shop at Vladivostok Airport at night where he ate up and damaged around $1,000 worth of seafood-counter delicacies. The tabloids announced a contest among readers for a name for the animal. One of the first suggestions was “Chubais.” Why? The reader submitting the proposal justified his idea briefly: “Red-haired and a thief too.”

Another example of how the West misunderstands Russia is how it sees the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of The Gulag Archipelago. Recently, one Western “expert” on Russian affairs suggested that Solzhenitsyn represented “the face of Russia they way we would like to see it.”

Herein lies another misunderstanding.

Solzhenitsyn was undoubtedly a great writer, but he also epitomized a kind of Russian nationalism similar to that now being promoted by Russian radical groups and evoking anxiety and criticism around the world. Despite spending more than 20 years in exile in the West (first briefly in Switzerland, then in the United States), Solzhenitsyn never concealed his resentment and contempt for Western “decadence and liberalism,” portraying Russia as the “Messiah of the modern degenerate world.” After becoming president for the first time, Vladimir Putin visited Solzhenitsyn and had a long conversation with him—in an event extensively reported by the Russian media. Later, less than a year before the nearly 90-year-old writer died, Putin bestowed one of the highest state orders on him. Finally, Solzhenitsyn’s funeral in 2008 was treated as a top-level state ceremony that was attended by officials including Dmitry Medvedev. Therefore anyone of sane mind will find it hard to believe that the Russian authorities treated the writer as an oppositionist; just the opposite, he was a valuable partner for them in rebuilding Russian national pride. Solzhenitsyn must have been aware of this role, and he never protested against it.

Does the West not understand Russia, or does it not want to understand?

Witold Żygulski
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