Scoundrel Time

April 3, 2017: Two Tragedies Occurred in Russia

Photo by Mikhail (Vokabre) Shcherbakov

One was a shrapnel-bomb blast on a subway train in St. Petersburg: eleven people killed, as of this writing; dozens severely injured. This happened in the very heart of the city’s subway system: there is hardly a Petersburger who wouldn’t have passed through one of the two stations in question, Sennaya Square and Technological Institute, in their lives. At this point, it still is hard to comprehend: my city, even after thirty years of my living far away from it—the most beautiful city in the world, the city of my childhood and youth, the city of my life, where the oldest of my friends live—was hit by a bomb, blown up. It feels, clichéd as it may sound, as though part of my own being has been exploded and gone up in acrid smoke. It feels as though all of us Petersburgers have been violated.

The second tragedy—admittedly, a less brutally corporeal and more cerebral one, yet still blood-curdling in its implications—is that just minutes after the news of the explosion had reached media outlets, the “Russian” Internet—the Russophone segments of Facebook and Twitter—fairly erupted with confident assertions that this was the work of “the regime.” The posts asserted that it was a “black flag” operation undertaken to divert the public’s attention from the country’s growing protest movement, the sudden emergence of a whole new generation of Russians as an active and potent political force. This is the generation born “under Putin” who have never known any other Russia but Putin’s Russia.

Let that sink in: the very first thought to cross the minds of a large number of people in Russia was that the bomb explosion in the St. Petersburg subway was the work of Putin’s regime intent on changing the course of the current anti-regime political developments. That they hope to divert the millions of increasingly discontented young Russian people from their focus on the cosmic levels of corruption and inequality in the country. That the regime wants to use the subway attack as a pretext for cracking down on any and all forms of public dissent.

It was the regime’s own work, the Facebook posts and tweets in Russian are asserting—and how could they not be? Who would be able to convince all those thousands of online posters of the opposite, given everything they know all too well about the nature and the general modus operandi of Putin and his regime. The highly suspicious explosions of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk at the very outset of Putin’s rule, which he used as a pretext for starting the Second Chechen war. The mysterious deaths of the prominent investigative reporter and the incorruptible politician involved in looking too closely into the details of the above tragedies. The terribly botched and still unexplained “Nord-Ost” hostage crisis in the Dubrovka theater in Moscow. The veritable torrents of lies regarding the annexation of Crimea, the “hybrid” war in Donbass, the shooting of the Malaysian passenger plane over Southeastern Ukraine, the polonium-poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko; the Sergey Magnitsky murder; the as-yet-unresolved assassinations of leading opposition figures and independent journalists. Who would possibly believe the regime?

The old Soviet Union had fallen, in large part, under the weight of its own lies, as a result of the great majority of its citizens losing the last shreds of faith in it. It had delegitimized itself out of existence. Back then we, the Soviet citizens of old, used to read Soviet newspapers instantly and automatically converting all “pluses” into “minuses” in our heads, as a habit of simultaneous mistranslation: whatever was stated there, we knew, was a lie. Whatever or whomever was praised was bad by default, and whatever and whoever was vilified was just as unquestioningly good.

This is the predicament Putin’s regime is finding itself in: it won’t be believed, no matter what. No matter what it does now, no matter what kinds of proof it is going to present, or the presumed apprehended culprits it’s going to parade in front to the TV cameras, it will not be believed. It will never be able to cleanse itself of the layers of lies and illegitimacy that it has covered itself with over the last decade and a half. This is a Russian tragedy, the tragedy of Putin’s Russia, the second tragedy of April 3, 2017.