MOSCOW — After Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution last week, many Russians started to panic.
Their beloved country, famous for groundbreaking novels and poetry, for fabulous nature, perfect ballet—for sending the first man into space!—looked like the odd man out on the global scene.
The resolution in question would have set up a tribunal to investigate and try those responsible for shooting down a Malaysian airliner, MH17, over Ukraine last year. All 298 people aboard were killed, and Moscow-backed rebels are widely thought to have launched the missile that blew up the plane.
So when 11 of the 15 members of the Security Council voted for the resolution, three abstained, and only Russia voted no, the move met with near-universal condemnation.
In the aftermath, many in Moscow began to wonder how far backward Russia is going to slide.
“The veto at the UN is a bright, clear sign of wild, medieval times coming to a once-great country,” independent political observer Sergei Porkhomenko posted on Facebook. He invited Russians to comment on a page discussing the new “medieval morals”; hundreds did, and examples poured in:
The Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who had been on a hunger strike in a Russian prison for weeks, was denied a jury trial because she was a woman.
An Orthodox priest is being appointed director of a site of Greek ruins and a pagan temple in Crimea, and that’s just a minor symptom of a major phenomenon: The Russian Orthodox Church plays an increasingly important role in domestic politics, not only in various Russian regions but in rebel-occupied eastern Ukraine.
It is rare in modern Russia for a public or political event to place without the Church present. In the insurgent Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, priests bless armed rebel soldiers going to war against Kiev. Some experts have compared the Russian president to Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, who also surrounded himself with priests.When did this Russian retrogression begin? Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, a critic of the government so bold and outspoken he’s sometimes called Russia’s “enfant terrible,” tells The Daily Beast that the major turning point was the Crimea annexation, which “let the genie out of the bottle.”
Gudkov says many parliamentary deputies are ashamed of the way Russian institutions are degrading, but that the decisions were not made in the Duma.
“The Church dominates,” says Gudkov. “The legitimate state is being destroyed by censorship and persecutions. Hardly anybody has the power to stop the country sinking into obscurantism and lawlessness. … The clans who really make decisions in Russia calculate their moves by reading Putin’s gestures, his moods. Nothing makes sense any longer.”
On the surface, life in Moscow looks civilized enough: lots of wonderful restaurants, even free WiFi in the subway, taxis ordered online arrive instantly, pedestrian streets are trimmed with flowers. In big Russian cities people live a much more comfortable life than 20 years ago, shopping in Western malls, driving Western cars, relaxing on the verandas of cafés.
But at what cost? Complacent public opinion is rapidly growing hostile to free speech. On Monday the pro-Kremlin polling center VTSIOM reported that nearly half—49 percent—of Russians welcomed Internet censorship.
The Kremlin’s officials seem satisfied as they look out of their vehicle windows and live in their own parallel world.
On Monday, Russian media discussed the $65,000 watch on the wrist of President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. Why would a top official demonstratively mock his poor countrymen with such a bauble when millions live on less than $500 a month? And for good measure Peskov’s 17-year-old daughter, Yelizaveta, told the online publication gazeta.ru she plans to reside in France.
“No officials at the top of the power pyramid think of Russia’s future,” said Gudkov. “Their families live abroad, while they steal millions of state dollars from Russian society.”
By refusing to let an international tribunal investigate the MH17 tragedy, Russia chose self-isolation. Since last summer millions of law enforcement officials and bureaucrats had been banned from traveling abroad, and the country is losing its chances to integrate into the Western world. Indeed, in the quarter-century since the Iron Curtain came down, Russia has never opened fully to the West.
Domestic politics looked darker this year than in a long time. A Human Rights Watch researcher, Tatyana Lokshina, said that the Kremlin took a huge leap backward by intensifying its crackdown on civil society, media, and the Internet, as it sought to control the narrative about developments in Ukraine. “Russia's parliament adopted laws, and authorities engaged in practices, that increasingly isolated the country and inflamed anti-Western hysteria unseen since the Soviet era,” Lokshina told The Daily Beast.