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Review of The Russian Democratic Party Yabloko by David White

27.06.2009 11:56

Who is he who is conducting the choir of the deaf?

I would say that for the entire post-Soviet period Grigory Yavlinskii, founder, leader, and the namesake of the Yabloko party, has been the only politician whose analysis has consistently been right, the only unwavering moral voice that always (and at great political and personal risks) spoke out for democracy and human rights in Russia, an able and tireless founder of the only true, long-lasting, and sizable democratic party in Russia, an endearing charismatic leader and an inspiring example for all Russians, young and old. A future leader of Russian democrats will most likely come from the ranks of Yabloko, because supporting Yabloko is the only uncompromising moral choice available in Russia now. I think Mr David White would probably agree with all of the above, and his book The Russian Democratic Party Yabloko supports this assessment. For that undeniable achievement, Yavlinskii has rightly earned himself an honorable place in Russian history. Unfortunately, I also met Yavlinskii personally, and know, as do many others, that he is a despicable man. Wherever is on the surface, and whatever we wish the reality were, Mr White describes well, whatever the reality happens to be, Mr White apparently leaves for his next book.

The above description tells us that the subject of David White's book is very important and also quite complex. Mr White is not equal to his challenging task because he fell victim to faulty methodology, and that is what makes this book so instructive. What is it that made him fail? We need to, once and for all, discover the causes. Here is a short test:

  • An aborigine has a red feather stuck into his hair. Is he a fan of ManU?
  • Two blind scholars have shared with us their discoveries. Now, the debate: Is elephant a palm tree or a big snake?
  • Are Russians good at cricket?

Here are the methodological faults that caused Mr White's analysis (as well as countless others) to be deficient:

You cannot assume that something is democratic if there is a label that claims that it is. Russians have no concept of personal rights and are unpleasantly surprised when they are treated with respect. The more democratic an respectful of voters is a Russian leader the more support he would lose. Russian government studiously cultivates rudeness and immediately rejects those who have no talent for it. You cannot assume that Russians are Brits that happen to speak Russian; their culture and history is fundamentally different.

You need to be able to look at a larger picture. Democracy is not a choice between candidates: democracy is a fundamental decision of most citizens to choose win/win over lose/lose; then and only then can voters start picking a candidate that best reflects the win/win view of life. From that, unfortunately, it follows that a democratic leader (or democracy itself) may not be the best choice for some nations in certain periods of their history. Unless you have chosen win/win, you better not have a voice.

Since the Russians have no idea what the functions of a democratic state and the rights and responsibilities of a citizen should be, they, by and large, do not talk back to their government and cannot, in a fundamental sense, distinguish political programs. As there are no criteria by which to tell right from wrong, whoever is on TV is right. You cannot be a voice of those who are silent and directionless, and if you appoint yourself as such a voice it negatively affects your psyche.

I am sorry that in this limited space I cannot discuss these very important points in detail. But I will give you an example.

In 1993, as a young American, I came to work for Yabloko's first State Duma campaign. I was supposed to develop the texts of ads, and to create a media plan: where, when, and for how much would the ads be placed. As an aside, I note that Russian politicians (Zhirinovskii excluded) never know what to say to their own people, and thus it is not surprising that an American was employed for that. When the media plan was ready, Yavlinskii approved it, thanked me profusely, and signed a check, for about $1.5M, to set this plan in motion. But by then the time was of the essence. Following Yavlinskii's suggestion, I ran to the agency that would be implementing the plan, screaming, "I saw Yavlinskii sign the check, you will get your money in 72 hours, please do not wait, start placing the ads NOW!" But the agency director was adamant, "First I get the money, then I place the ads". Yavlinskii did all he could to make me change the agency director's mind, to start placing the ads on my word of honor. All in vain, and yet the money were not somehow reaching the agency's account. "Do your best, please, don't you see that the state uses all its resources to impede us, it is them who are delaying the money, please go back to the agency director", pleaded Yavlinskii. And then I found out that Yavlinskii did not sign my check: in front of me, he signed a check for himself, for the exact same amount, better to mislead me. His plan was now clear: if the ads were to be placed on my word of honor, with no pay, he would save $1.5M, and when, as was then likely in Russia, me and the agency director would be killed for failing to pay the money, Yalvinsky would present us as victims of those who do not want his democratic party to succeed. When I confronted Yavlinskii with that, he gave me a broad smile, and soon I got a call from his office saying that I would be dead if I talked. As the money was stolen, no ads were placed.

What a day in my life that was! I remember myself thinking about all the people Yavlinskii betrayed, all his sponsors and simple contributors, and Russia, for which Yavlinskii was the only democratic hope. I was sad about my wasted effort: all these words about justice and fairness I had been feverishly writing. I felt so bad, I was not even thinking about the death threat that was very real: I had a larger hole in my heart than a bullet could make. Mr. White, fortunately for him, did not have this experience, and that is why I do not blame him for describing the 1993 elections in these words: "The CPRF chose to buy no extra advertising time and Yavlinskii's bloc very little, despite having the funds to do so. There is evidence to suggest that Yabloko would have benefited from extra media exposure during the campaign." (p. 123)

Comparing the insider's view and Mr White's description would enable you to make an informed decision as to usefulness of Mr White's book.

You cannot be a true democratic leader if your moral judgment has been atrophied or modified towards blaming the others while putting yourself above the rest, actually running as Deity that cannot be doubted or faulted. Even as a conductor of the choir of the deaf, a democratic leader would want to listen. In the age of tape recorders, many a scoundrel can convincingly mouth good words; these people are more dangerous than those who say the things we do not approve of. Our enemies assault us frontally and openly, while friends like Yavlinskii stub us in the back.

David White's book is a historical description of what was new Russia's only lasting grass roots democratic party, the description from beginning to end, as the career of Yavlinskii, the party's only leader, is now, thankfully, over. Wherever Yavlinskii will be in coming months: in an acrimonious court battle with his former closest associates, on trial for grand larceny and fraud, in Britain, in Ukraine, or in retirement, he is likely to have all the time he needs to read the book, and he will like it. Us, we are left waiting for a book that reflects reality as it is, not as it appears to be or should be.

Мой Мир

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