| "Are you crazy?" |
People have been asking
me this question ever since I returned from the United States, where I
defended a doctoral dissertation on the Russian bureaucracy at Harvard
University and taught Russian and Soviet politics at Yale.
I was certainly happy both places. I enjoyed studying and teaching,
and it was nice not having to worry about where the money was coming from
to pay my bills for a change. I miss the extra-curricular activities as
well, especially the weekly Saturday Bible discussions at the Harvard
branch of Hillel, a Jewish campus organization.
Was I crazy to come home to a country where real journalism is on the
ropes and independent institutions of higher learning are struggling just
to keep their doors open? Considering the situation rationally, there
isn't much cause for optimism.
Recent events suggest quite the opposite, in fact. The State Duma has
given initial approval to a bill that would severely restrict the right
of assembly. Shortly after the Duma vote, the Moscow city government denied
the Yabloko party a permit for a May Day demonstration in downtown Moscow.
And finally, the Moscow City Court convicted arms control researcher Igor
Sutyagin of treason and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
Sutyagin maintained -- and the jury did not repudiate his claim -- that
the reports he wrote for a Western company were based on publicly available
The Sutyagin case serves as a warning to all of us who write for a foreign
audience, and has contributed to a growing sense of fear among journalists
and intellectuals that I haven't experienced since before Mikhail Gorbachev
came to power.
Television news also fuels my sense of pessimism. I felt as though I
were deaf, blind and locked in a room until I got hooked up to a satellite
service that allows me to watch the news on CNN and the BBC. In the Brezhnev
era we used to joke that the news was all about Brezhnev and a little
bit about the weather. News programs today follow the same pattern.
On a personal level, I was stunned by the atmosphere that now prevails
at the Ostankino production center, which houses the major television
stations. Once full of life and energy, Ostankino now feels like a place
of mourning for freedoms lost since President Vladimir Putin came to power.
Most of the cafes and bars where journalists used to gather for spirited
discussions have been closed, ostensibly for security reasons.
"The executives don't want the journalists to have a place to meet
and talk about politics, their work or anything else," a well-known
television personality explained to me the other day.
It is true that no one tells me what to say or what guests to book for
my Sunday political talk show. And every once in a while you can find
thoughtful articles in the newspapers and Internet sources such as Gazeta.ru.
But such publications have far less reach and impact than the state-run
television stations, which fill the airwaves with their daily mantra:
"Don't worry, be happy and remain politically unconscious."
The Kremlin's spin doctors are adhering to a clear-cut strategy of marginalizing
anyone and everything that runs counter to the party line laid down by
the president. The president, meanwhile, is busy building a paradise for
his loyal supporters.
Then again, people who oppose the party line aren't being sent up the
river just yet -- with a few notable exceptions, such as Sutyagin, a scholar
at Moscow's respected USA and Canada Institute, and military journalist
So what basis is there for believing that I wasn't crazy to return to
The answer is simple: there's no place like home. I enjoy hearing Russian
spoken on the street. I like to believe that in Russia I can make a difference,
whereas in the United States I was a spectator of the democratic process.
I trust that if I get the chance to teach here I will have something to
offer my students -- and reading thousands of pages every week for the
seminar on comparative politics that I took at Harvard will not have been
a wasted effort.
I am home, and I don't plan to give up just because some people in Moscow
-- the subjects of my research on the KGB most of all -- believe I should
have stayed in the United States. This is where I belong.
Yevgenia Albats hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio on
the original at
Speech and Media Law in Russia