25 August 2022

Ukraine, Roizman, and the future of Russia

Volodymyr Zelenskyy: "Earlier, we talked about 'peace.' Now we say 'victory.'" Screenshot from source.

From Roizman's Twitter account.

An exchange with reporters as Yevgeny Roizman is being led out of his Yekaterinburg apartment by police:

"Why are you being arrested?"

"For one phrase: 'the invasion of Ukraine.'"

"Where did you say that?"


In Russia, at the half-year point of the disastrous invasion of Ukraine, someone had the bright idea of arresting one of the genuinely popular Russian political figures, Yevgeny Roizman. Roizman never hesitated in denouncing the war, calling its authors and supporters "traitors to Russia," and replying with salty language to his critics in and out of government.

His popularity doesn't rest solely on his opposition to the current regime. During and after his years as his city's mayor, he held weekly open-door events to which people with seriously ill children and other difficult personal  situations could come, and he would try to get them connected with the medicines, funds, or other help that they needed. He established the Roizman Fund to support this activity. He founded a museum of icons from his region of Russia. He often led urban hikes open to anyone who would like to participate. 

Here, speaking with reporters about Roizman, is the father of a child with muscular dystrophy who got treatment after Roizman intervened. The father is saying, "Every hour that his [Roizman's] work is stopped, every hour another life will be lost." Screenshot from source.

His earthy language, his honesty about his mixed record as a student, and his stint in prison for theft and fraud -- all served to extend his notoriety and popularity well beyond the "liberal" sphere of most dissidents. Some still remember his aggressive and controversial approach to the treatment of addicts during his years with the City without Narcotics organization he ran before his political career started. As in the case of Aleksei Navalny's history of nationalism, this may be a limiting factor with Roizman's popularity among some. But if you've helped thousands of people in their struggles with personal disaster and tangles with bureaucracy, you will earn a place in many people's hearts -- and some of those people are now out on the streets of Yekaterinburg, risking arrest to show their support for Roizman.

"...What is going on now would be impossible..."

Now circulating on Russian-language Twitter is a brief video. It begins with an apparent question-and-answer exchange.

Roizman: "... Honest elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary."

Participant: "A world at peace."

Roizman: "See, that depends directly on what I just said. In other words, what is going on now would be impossible if we had a regular turnover of leadership in power. It would never have happened. You understand, right?"

Here's what I understand. Ukraine is suffering the dramatic and tragic effects of Russia's eight-year war and its six-month-old full-scale invasion. Every day, Russian artillery, bombs, and missiles are visiting violent death, destruction, and dislocation all over the Ukrainian nation, while Russian leadership claims that its slow progress in its "special operation" is explained by its care for civilians! Millions of Ukrainians are external or internal refugees. You don't need me to inventory the awful consequences of this war.

What are the consequences for Russia? I ask this question without any intention to imply that we should compare disasters and find any sort of equivalence. From what I hear, life goes on normally in most of the places I got to know in Russia. Elektrostal's three McDonald's restaurants, now sold, reorganized, and rebranded as "Vkusno -- i tochka" ("Delicious -- period") along with their counterparts throughout Russia, are apparently doing well. People are improvising their way around shortages caused by the departures of western businesses, or finding new ways to import what they want. A few mysterious explosions in the Belgorod region (and more serious incidents in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine) cause local worries, but in general most of Russia seems oblivious to the war.

The long-term economic consequences for Russia may be more serious, of course, given the loss of access to certain high-tech spare parts, reduction of petroleum and natural gas sales, and the emigration of many talented professionals. But the most serious consequence may be what Roizman pointed to: the utter rigidity of the ruling structure, and its complete subordination to the rule of one man. To that one man's decision to redraw the map of Eastern Europe, whatever his motives, we can link the needless deaths of thousands of Russians, and the diversion of vast amounts of Russia's wealth, in addition to all the costs that Ukraine has borne. To ensure that Putin and his system will never face a "regular turnover of leadership," an Orwellian ban on words such as "war" and "invasion" and the obligatory redefinitions of "fascist" and "Nazi" -- all enforced by threat of prison -- have been added to all the other ways that Russia's civil society faces strangulation.

Of course, nothing is "forever" in Russia. There are political, social, economic, and demographic cracks in the foundation. We will see whether the reaction to Roizman's arrest will add to those cracks. At some point, an earthquake is inevitable. But, judging by Russia's past, such an earthquake is likely to be very costly indeed, even in comparison with Ukraine.

Half a year ago, in the first days of the war, I remember watching webcam feeds on the Internet day and night, especially the cityscapes of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and the cameras at border crossings. I kept vigil on Kyiv at dawn, and Kyiv at dusk, trying to pray away the soldiers, missiles, and shells. I tried to envision hosts of angels in the skies. 

It was an elemental response, nothing of any wisdom or consequence. I did not want to be limited to the obvious alternatives of the world's ways: to arm Ukraine to the gills with ever-more-lethal weaponry, or to placate Russia with concessions under the stupid delusion that Putin could be satisfied. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12.)

Now I don't watch the webcams anymore, but I do pray for consciences to be awakened, and trigger fingers to be restrained. I pray for all those dreading the sounds of guns and bombs and the ghostly wail of air raid sirens. I keep up ties with our friends in the region while trying hard not to expose them to even more danger through our contacts. (I honestly don't know what to say when someone writes directly to me, "I feel as if I live in a prison.") I pray for those who cherish their languages and cultures, both Ukrainian and Russian. And I pray that those who are working for truth will be protected and encouraged despite all risks. Their example is important in every time and place -- including in the USA, where our own hold on democracy and the rule of law sometimes seems very precarious.

In this post from a month ago, I referred to Dmitri Bykov's assessment of some of the spiritual costs and risks to Russia in this current war. "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

Report on Yevgeny Roizman in court today.

A disillusioned Russian soldier on the war in Ukraine.

Remembering Frederick Buechner. Washington Post. Christianity Today. Philip Yancey (1997).

"The Sky Is Crying." Allman Brothers with a solo by Derek Trucks.

No comments: