Russian Revolutionary (Page 2 of 5)

Pustyntsev, 74, was born into the austerity of World War II. Russian civilians are, in many ways, the unsung heroes of this formative conflict. Their ability to survive the brutal winter sieges of Leningrad and Moscow by resorting first to shoe leather and then to cannibalism saw them outlast the invading force. Maybe it’s because he had nothing to eat as a child that Pustyntsev is so short, or maybe it’s because of the wounds he has suffered later in life. He hobbles and slouches like a stroke victim, though this posture is the result of broken bones, not blood clots.

In 1956, he was a student of English philology at Leningrad University when Soviet tanks crushed an uprising in Hungary. Pustyntsev and a small group of friends issued leaflets in support of the Hungarian freedom fighters and protested for the immediate withdrawal of troops from the occupied nations of Eastern Europe. In a matter of months, the KGB arrested Pustyntsev and his friends. He spent the next five years – half of his 20s – in jails and concentration camps.
The secret police have continued to dog him, but recognition has also followed his efforts. In 1993, Pustyntsev was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Republic of Hungary, the highest honour a foreign national can receive. It was conferred by the Hungarian President himself ‘as a token of the nation’s deepest gratitude’ for Pustyntsev’s efforts on their behalf.


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Fifteen years later, and I am in Russia to observe the election that delivers Dmitry Medvedev to the presidency. Upon arriving, Anna gives me a crash course in bribery. I assure her I’m not going to do anything illegal. ‘Oh, it’s not for if you’ve actually done something,’ she laughs. ‘It’s just that if a couple of cops approach you and say you owe them a fine – because you’re wearing a green T-shirt on a Monday or something like that – they just want a bribe. The going rate is about 300 rubles [about US$10]. Pay it and they won’t arrest you. But don’t ever pay more than 500. That would be a rip-off.’ She laughs again. ‘Some of these young guys, they just don’t understand that there are rules.’

From top to bottom, it’s the unwritten laws that run Russia. Before nation states, customary codes of conduct such as hospitality and vendetta rituals performed the stabilising function subsequently assigned to national political and judicial systems. When a modern state fails, or when a group exists outside of its laws, similar codes re-emerge. The 2007 film Eastern Promises featured the Russian Mafia’s tattoo system. This kind of group identification — a tool for enforcing hierarchies — does not exist where individuals have personal rights and can call on higher authorities to defend them. Cities like St Petersburg are tattooed with indicators of their poverty and lawlessness. Abandoned factories are heaped with rubble and twisted steel, while smokestacks stand against a permanently grey sky – except in the evenings when a slick of haze scatters yet another iridescent sunset. Within minutes of arriving, your phlegm has turned black. Packs of wolf-like strays roam the streets. There are hundreds of them, not just one or two, and right away you know that a state without time for animals is having trouble with its people.

In 2007, Putin was named Time‘s Person of the Year. He had presided over remarkable growth in the Russian economy, but this supposed affluence came at a cost. It required stability of an extreme kind. Citizens lost certain rights – to mobility, to legal representation – ‘for their own good’. Pustyntsev wonders whether new products on supermarket shelves can really compensate for losing your freedom of speech.

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