With just two weeks to go before the Russian presidential election, renowned cultural figures, opinion-makers and trendsetters have been throwing their weight behind candidates in public statements made online. A special page has been set up on YouTube by user vote4putin, where the likes of theater director Oleg Tabakov, conductor Valery Gergiyev, actress Alisa Freindlich, Theater of Nations founder Evgeny Mironov, and even Eurovision winning singer Dima Bilan endorse Vladimir Putin for president.
These elements of Putin’s electoral campaign have spurred a great deal of controversy: against the backdrop of massive numbers of protesters marching (or driving) down Russia’s streets, no man’s allowed to roam in between camps. “I accuse Valery Gergiev, Yuri Bashmet and the likes of corrupting generations of young musicians, who are convinced, thanks to them, that talent and prowess are only measured in money…I accuse you, my renowned colleagues with global reputations who have become part of the system, of being unable to find either the intellectual courage to understand that Putinism is doomed or the personal courage to take a stand against Putin,” wrote conductor and pianist Mikhail Arkadyev in his blog.
The endorsements have indeed compromised a few reputations, with debate raging as to how many of them are being made in good faith. But none has been as polarizing as the latest addition to the collection: a statement made by one of Russia’s best actresses, the founder and head of the Give Life Foundation Chulpan Khamatova. The foundation, which Khamatova set up in 2006 with fellow actress Dina Korzun to help children fight cancer, is a shining example of successful philanthropic work in Russia. Vladimir Putin has gotten personally involved in helping the cause, and in the video, Khamatova, who nonetheless looks visibly disturbed, says: “I will vote for Putin because he has kept all the promises he ever made to the foundation. Help needs to be tangible.”
The reaction from the liberals on RuNet was swift and brutal. Some claimed Khamatova was forced to make the video under threat of losing her financing. “This is all our fault, together and individually. For the sake of sick children, this holy creature is forced to bear such terrible things. We will have to pay for it, not her. And damn those who forced her into it, waving state money in her face,” wrote TV host Olga Bakushinskaya in her LiveJournal blog. Journalist Andrei Malgyn agreed: “As head of the state and the government, Putin’s objective is not to help foundations like Khamatova’s, but to maintain a countrywide level of healthcare that eliminates the need for philanthropists to sponsor medicine,” he blogged. Yes, there is still an army of sick people Putin didn’t help.
Accusations that Khamatova was pressured to publicly back Putin aren’t completely groundless. In a video interview she gave to Snob magazine in July of 2009, she said: “In my profession, you can’t be a fully independent and honest actress. All the time, something appears that makes you look away and say: well, I have to make a living somehow, I have to do something for the foundation. I can’t just say everything I want when a decision is being made, or a roof is being built over a clinic by the state. Here we have a very difficult debate: what’s more important, children’s health, the chance that they will get at this clinic, or my civil stand?”
Not everyone is buying that Khamatova fell victim to Putin, that, in the words of filmmaker Sergei Kraynev, she has become a “martyr in the fight against the bloodthirsty KGB.” “Chulpan wasn’t forced into recording the video in support of Putin at gunpoint or under threat to her foundation. This was entirely her own decision and choice. I know this for sure and I have no illusions about this,” wrote Russia’s top blogger, LiveJournal user drugoi (Rustem Adagamov). Others put it simply: like any citizen, Khamatova has a right to back a candidate. So leave her alone.
Even though I personally am inclined to side with those who suspect foul play, I also agree that Khamatova has the indisputable right to make her own choices and deserves the utmost respect: only those of us who’ve achieved something of comparable magnitude should be allowed to speculate. But just because Khamatova deserves the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean that many others have not been subjected to pressure, and this pressure does not have to be applied by an outside force. It comes from within. In Russia, we are all shrouded in a cloud of unspoken obligations that follow us around, day in, day out. And if you’ve been a lucky recipient of a bureaucrat’s personal favor, it is a very heavy load to carry.
Everyday deals with the devil are an unfortunate reality of a Russian’s existence: everywhere you go, compromise is forced down your throat. You won’t get anywhere without violating traffic rules. You won’t get anywhere without paying a bribe or two. You will think twice, and then still resort to that Russian panacea: the “blat.” Those who don’t want to keep compromising – leave. Those with enough courage for true defiance are marginalized. Those who desperately need something take Putin’s side. Most importantly, those fighting for change are forced to trot a very fine line between results, beliefs and obligations. And yes, such is the fault of our society. But thank God the latter exist.
Soviet history knows many instances when people refused to buckle under pressure from the NKVD, to sign fake papers implicating themselves or others, to betray. They bore excruciating pain; they went through unspeakable horrors. It should arguably be much easier to heed the conscience’s call today. Or is it? Modern Russians will be unconditionally free only when they can follow their hearts without fearing for the things they’ve poured them into when they speak their minds. The best thing Putin could do would be to keep the promises he made to Khamatova even if she was on the other side of the barricades. That would really be something to talk about.
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