Russia has never been terribly good at handling dissidents, although its propaganda machine manages to do a fairly creative job. Thus, it unwittingly ends up handing over a whip handle to its enemies. What many of us suspected all along happens to be true, after all — Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago turned out to be for the CIA a ‘strategic asset’ to besmirch the Bolshevik Revolution and to undermine the morale of the Soviet citizen.
I invariably wondered during my innumerable weekend trips to Peredelkino as to why Moscow was so patently foolish as to fear that the Soviet system was so fragile to be undermined by the tear-jerking love story of Lara’s.
The heavens wouldn’t have come down by acknowledging the plain truth that the Bolshevik Revolution had its fair share of aberrations or that its anatomy, like any revolution’s, included Komarovksys (played by Rod Steiger in the David Lean film).
Wasn’t it Vladimir Lenin who once said, you cannot make a revolution with white gloves, you cannot make an omlette without breaking a few eggs?
Now, it transpires that Russia may not be good at handling its adversary’s dissidents, either. Frankly, I thought the recent question the ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden posed to President Vladimir Putin during a live TV interview was a ‘softball question’ — Do you spy?
Certainly, the strange exchange cast the Kremlin leader as a frank, witty, self-critical statesman. I even wondered whether Putin really needed a whitewash when he is doing extraordinarily well with a soaring popularity rating above 80 percent.
But one can go very wrong when it comes to Russia. It appears that the exchange wasn’t contrived. Put simply, Snowden hoped to put Putin on the mat and thought he was asking a genuinely tough question.
Putin of course is a Black Belt and Snowden fell flat instead. The impression became avoidable that Snowden behaved like a doormat asking a question that enabled Putin to pour some more scorn at US president Barack Obama.
It rankled. However, Snowden is not to be underestimated, either. He shot off a commentary in the Guardian newspaper where he just stopped short of criticising his hosts in Moscow. He turned a ‘hostile’ witness, to use the language of the court room.
How Russia handles Snowden henceforth will be an acid test of its ‘post-Soviet’ sophistication in handling dissent. Snowden claims he is earnest about inspiring a body of opinion within Russia challenging that country’s surveillance system.
Surely, this promises to become a high stakes game. There is every sign that the ex-CIA whistleblower is getting restive and is not liking what he sees around him.
This was bound to happen at some point. While reveling in the scandals that Snowden’s seamless disclosures provided — and, of course, the bruises on America’s reputation abroad — Moscow blithely overlooked that the young man is quintessentially a human rights activist and an idealist, and, therefore, a double-edged sword for the ‘hard state’.
It could have been easily foretold that some day Snowden would begin to reflect on the human condition in his new environs. China’s wise leadership could anticipate this happening and, therefore, Snowden was encouraged to leave Hong Kong unceremoniously. But, alas, Russia couldn’t — or, wouldn’t. From this point, the Snowden affair becomes a morality play.
– April 21, 2014