August is traditionally considered “disaster month” in Russia - and disasters are certainly taking place already.
First up is the trial of punk rockers Pussy Riot, which, as predicted, has turned into a circus. After performing a raucous “punk prayer” in Russia’s main cathedral, the women face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism “motivated by religious hatred.” Extremists would have them spend the rest of their lives in jail - or worse - while the legal proceedings against them have caused some consternation and division in the Russian Orthodox Church and elsewhere in society. The trial itself is a sorry sight - a bizarre event for an ostensibly secular nation.
Second, we have prominent oppositionist Alexei Navalny being turned into a Khodorkovsky 2.0, with charges of embezzlement being brought against him this week. It was expected that Navalny would be charged with intentionally causing losses to a state company, Kirovles, with the maximum sentence being seven years - while the embezzlement charges have a maximum sentence which is double that.
Public sympathy in support of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been growing in recent years - but I don’t think this sympathy will come close to what will happen should Navalny be thrown in jail. Let’s face it, Khodorkovsky is (was?) an oligarch. Oligarchs don’t get massive support in Russia. Navalny might be different. Way different.
With all of these legal proceedings going on, I am coming across more and more radical, even frightening leaflets in Moscow. Just this morning, an old man slapped one onto the wall of a metro carriage. “STOP THE LEGAL NIHILISM,” the headline spelled out in bold. I didn’t get a chance to read further.
“Grandpa, don’t vandalize the carriage!” A young woman next to me piped up.
“Shut up! I was an officer! In Afghanistan! I do what I want!” He shot back.
The young woman did indeed shut up.
Noticing my gaze, the Officer in Afghanistan, if he was really that, spoke to me next. “I fought them, I fought them when I still could,” he said. “My wife didn’t get her cancer treatment - she died in so much pain, so much pain. They want us all to die, to rot. Or to rot in jail. Like those girls. All they did was dance, the girls. That’s what young girls do - they dance, they do stupid things. Why is there so much hate and no forgiveness? They want the girls to rot.” I assume he meant Pussy Riot - I am not aware of anyone else in Moscow currently being prosecuted for dancing anywhere.
“Who are they?” I ventured feebly.
“They,” he pointed upward, ostensibly to the surface of Moscow (the metro, I will remind you, is below the ground). “The elite. And their attack-dogs. Will you pray for me? I need prayers.”
“I’ll pray for you,” I said, and got off at my stop.
The girl the Officer had verbally attacked also stepped out with me. She was pretty, dressed in standard office-worker attire, wearing a jacket I had recently coveted at Massimo Dutti. She had intelligent eyes. We began the long walk to the escalator together.
“I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings,” she said. “It just hurts MY feelings when people put up leaflets, you know? It makes the city so unclean. I realize that his was a political leaflet. I just... I don’t know what to think.”
“I also don’t know what to think.” It was the truth.
It’s easy to laugh at our Officer. Easy to write him off as a mentally ill old man, possibly pretending to be a war vet, gluing leaflets to the walls of a metro carriage because he has nothing to do and no one to look after him.
But there’s the rub - there are too many people like him, alone and disenfranchised, not part of any community, unnoticed and unloved, quietly radicalizing in their rundown apartments.
Should a second wave of the global financial crisis really hit Russia, it may be that more and more of these people will come out in the streets. They will not carry witty placards, like folks did at Bolotnaya Ploshchad. They will be motivated by anger and despair.
It’s not a future I want to think of. I want to work, write, raise my child in peace, sit by the water in the park at night and watch the autumn fog start rolling in as the hot Moscow summer cools down.
But August is “disaster month” - and, to use a quote that the nerds among you will surely understand, “Winter is coming.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.