What Remains Rotten In Russia

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A week after visiting Russia, I am still haunted by the sort of subdermal creepiness of the place. I’m not sure what it was exactly–the Russian security man who rode in our press van to spy on our conversations, the total disinterest people on the street showed for the Presidential motorcade, the educated assumption of eavesdropping in my hotel room, the abundant signs of the seediness of power (prostitutes in the hotel bar, the extravagant wealth, the averted gazes).

Then there was also the central lie of the state–the mob-like corruption that is never dealt with, the spoon-fed national press, and the (mostly) unstated threats to journalists or activists who demand a different fidelity to the truth. (It was a great disappointment to U.S. officials that the major Russian television networks declined to broadcast Barack Obama’s speech last week.) And then there were Russia’s American public relations flaks, who hovered around the traveling press like some sort of Orwellian brainwash guard, bright, smiling and familiar, arguing that the election of Dmitry Medvedev was free and fair, or delivering lines like “It’s a great day for Russia” with earnest affection.

All of it added up to a queasiness I felt, one made all the more ironic by the stunning beauty of downtown Moscow, the chirping tourists in Red Square, the five-dollar can of ham–think Spam–I bought in the mall across the street from the Kremlin. I kept telling myself that much of my superficial revulsion was little more than cultural difference. There is no doubt Russians are a proud people, and they do not have to prove themselves to outsiders, especially Americans. It’s possible that they might have waved at a motorcade not carrying the president of the United States.

But now, a week later, I open the newspaper to read a story of the abduction and murder of Natalya Estemirova, who worked in Chechnya exposing the kidnappings and abuses of the government of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s puppet president and a documented thug, who has a reputation that rivals the worst comic book bad guys.

As the New York Times reported earlier this year, Kadyrov’s former bodyguard, Umar S. Israilov, accused the Chechen president of personally engaging in the torture of the state’s victims. Kadyrov, said the bodyguard, amused himself by personally giving prisoners electric shocks or firing pistols at their feet, among other offenses. (Read that story, with considerable grisly detail, here.) Shortly after the Kremlin was notified that Israilov had talked to the Times, he was gunned down by at least two men on the street in Vienna. At the age of 27, he left three children and a pregnant wife.

Estemirova leaves a 15-year old daughter behind, and a legacy of risking her life to tell the truth about great crimes against humanity, many of them committed by loyalists to the Russian state. In March of 2008, Kadyrov summoned Estemirova to a personal meeting, and threatened her, leading her to flee the country for a time, before returning. On Wednesday, she was shoved into a white car as she left her home in Grozny for work. A few hours later, her body was discovered near a highway, a testament to all that continues to be rotten inside of Russia.