The Blog

Feeding the Russian Opposition

How do you change things? Patiently. You invest in people. You build communities around liberal ideas. You nourish dissent. Happy 20th anniversary, Moscow School of Political Studies.

Elena Nemirovskaya is a force of nature. Now in her early 70s - she was born in 1939 at the height of Stalin's terror - the one-time art historian turned civil society leader is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her Moscow School of Political Studies. I'm here, in Golitsyno outside the capital, to give a speech on "the Crisis of Capitalism - in East and West." And pay homage to a remarkable woman, and a very wonderful idea.

Nemirovskaya started running discussion groups out of her Moscow apartment during Perestroika, but the real impetus for Nemirovskaya's involvement in political life came in 1991 when she found herself feeding protestors outside the White House during the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Patriotic opposition is a mantra of the Moscow School. "We have to end the Soviet tradition of viewing the opposition as enemy of the people," Nemirovskaya instructs her symposium of some 130 young journalists, reform politicians and public policy intellectuals gathering here for one of her conferences.

Golitsyno is tucked in snowy woods 90 miles outside Moscow, an area once favored by the Czars, I'm told, and today by oligarchs. The conference venue, now a traditional meeting place for Nemirovskaya's school, is a former Soviet-era hotel and retreat that once played host to Communist trade unions. All these years later and the place retains its aura of shabby bleak. There are astro turf-like carpets, cheesy sculptures, Soviet style toilet paper in bathrooms and the obligatory, ubiquitous fake leather chairs in public spaces. The discussion in the conference room is modern and vibrant, though, and of very decent quality.

The roundtable is packed, with additional participants sitting shoulder to shoulder in a back row around the walls. Nemirovskaya, with her robust intellectual and physical presence, plays the role of chair and mother hen. She shushes colleagues who chat in the corner behind her. She takes control of conversations at key moments to frame an issue (on "Pussy Riot," the feminist punk rock group that had been staging anti-Putin performances until several of its members were jailed, "the reaction was disproportionate to the action," she tells participants).

I'm struck by how earnest the students are. They come mostly from various parts of the Russian Federation (there is, in addition, an attendee from Georgia; two from Poland, at least one from Ukraine). The group seems to be equally balanced between men and women. Astonishingly, no one falls prey to the posturing or preening that haunts most Western conferences.

One student asks a speaker for a balanced assessment of Wikileaks; and gets one. Another wants to know about opposition leadership in the regions. One young woman asks why there's no apparent public interest in an imprisoned colleague of hers. Is there "freedom fatigue"? Most of the people here are the same people you'd find in Moscow street protests these days. One participant bristles at the idea that Russia's democracy movement is just about well-to-do Moscovites.

The Moscow School has a mission and a motto - "Civic Enlightenment for Civil Society." Its noble aim is a simple and audacious one: to try to help re-establish that which Soviet Communism so efficiently and systematically destroyed over 70 years (for a careful, gripping treatment of just how brilliant and brutal the Communists were about this business, see the new book by my colleague Anne Applebaum, "Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956").

Still, it's easier to tear things down than it is to build them up. One of the most pernicious legacies of Communism comes from the wholesale destruction in those years of the habits, values and behaviors essential for a healthy, vibrant civil society. Under Communism children informed on parents, physicians and clergy cooperated with the secret police, lovers betrayed one another for fear of sanction, or worse, seduced by the prospect of career advancement or foreign travel. I recall an East German friend of mine looking into his secret police file after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For some, this meant catharsis. To this day, Stefan won't speak about what he found in his file about family and friends.

How do you change things? Patiently. You invest in people. You build communities around liberal ideas. You nourish dissent. Happy 20th anniversary, Moscow School of Political Studies.

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