Russia’s “Fierce Critics”

I was reading Amy Knight’s review of Letter to Anna: The Story of Journalist Politkovskaya’s Death and there were those two words again: “fierce critic.”  This phrase has become a mantra; a verbal medal pinned on those who oppose the Russian government.  For them, getting “fierce critic” following your name is like winning an Oscar for dissidence.

But where does this phrase come from?  What is the history of its use?

Interestingly, the first use of “fierce critic” in regard to Russia occurred in the Economist in 1975.  In “Poland: Gierek’s get well card,” “fierce critic” wasn’t even reserved for a Russian or a Soviet dissident.  Olof Palme, the then Swedish Prime Minister, won the honor for being a “fierce critic of the present Czech regime.” Like so many fierce critics of Russia or their satellites, Palme was assassinated while exiting a movie theater in 1986.  The murder was never solved.

The next notable fierce critic of the Soviet Union/Russia was none other than Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin.  In a short article in the Advertister in 1897, her biographical sketch included, “She defected from the USSR in 1967 and went to the US, where she became a fierce critic of the Soviet regime.”

The phrase, “fierce critic,” came into wider use in tempests of the revolutions in 1989-91.  Fierce critics were coming out the proverbial woodwork.   “Fierce critics of Lenin and communist ideology” were holding symposiums at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. All sorts of “fierce critics” were returning to Russia with wide-eyed and bushy tailed dreams of freedom and democracy.  But the granddaddy “fierce critic” of the day was Boris Yeltsin.  It is hard to find his name mentioned in 1990 without the title attached to him. Yeltsin was a “fierce critic of the lack of radical reforms” and a “fierce critic of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.”

By the next year, however, fierce critics took on a whole new face in the new Russia.  Now the fierce critics were primarily those “hardliners” who opposed the economic shock therapy of Yegor Gaidar.  However, after Yeltsin had tanks bombard the White House, Russia’s fierce critics seemed to all but disappear.  Fierce critic now lacked a singular, unifying face.  Granted, there were a few in the early days of the first Chechen War, where fierce critics lobbed critical verbiage at how Yeltsin prosecuted the war and for the conflict’s human rights abuses.  But there was no one personage who personified the fierce critic that dazzled the West in the old communist days.  True, the Chechen War may have irked the sensibilities of many Western liberals, but Yeltsin was their guy and elevating one Russian to that vaulted place seemed politically imprudent. Perhaps this is the reason so many of the fierce critics of the time faded into obscurity.  General Alexander Lebed, Grigory Yavlinsky, Sergei Kovalyov, Lev Rokhlin, and Galina Starovoitova have all landed either literally or figuratively in the dustbin of history. I guess one should note that of the five listed, three of them are now dead.

The phrase “fierce critic” didn’t get a fully reanimated until Putin became president in 2000.  His war against the oiligarchs spawned a whole new crop of fierce critics.  Vladimir Gusinsky was the first.  Gusinsky used his Media-Most to hammer the Kremlin in the hope of rattling the new president’s cage.  Rattle it did.  So much so that Gusinsky was suddenly arrested and imprisoned for fraud.  The charges were eventually dropped but the message was clear.  Upon his release, he hightailed it out of Russia to Israel.  He was joined shortly thereafter by former Kremlin Godfather turned fierce critic, Boris Berezovsky.  Perhaps both knew all too well the fate of some other fierce critics before them.

Nevertheless, the Western media seemed to have found their darling fierce critic in Berezovsky or one of his proxies like Ivan Rybkin. Berezovsky’s name was often bestowed with the title even when he faced extradition trial in London. In the end, Berezovsky was a difficult pill to swallow.  Cunning, crooked, and clownish, BAB could never barricade all the skeletons in his closet.  All his talk about democracy fell hollow as Berezovsky just couldn’t hide his true face.  BAB needed a proxy.  He found one in Ivan Rybkin.

Ironically, it was Rybkin, not Berezovsky, who would set the archetype for the fierce critic of the 21st century. With Rybkin, the fierce critic became a more heroic figure, a symbol of the liberal Russian looking to risk his or her life for the Cause. This fierce critic also contained some vestiges of Yeltsin.  Namely, he or she was someone the West could identify with.  This was something that the fierce critics of the 1990s, most of which being crusty Soviet dissidents and Russian nationalists, didn’t have.  Moreover, the new fierce critic didn’t necessary earn the title by his words alone.  No, the fierce critic of the Putin era would be one the state, i.e. Putin, struck against using his shadowy FSB agents.  The fierce Putin critic was armed with the rhetoric of democracy and free speech and spoke it with sincerity. His foes deployed kidnapping, poison, assassins, and other James Bond props.

The fierce critic’s new life started in February 2004, when Rybkin, who was running for the Russian Presidency with Berezovsky’s backing, alleged that his five day disappearance was the result of being kidnapped and drugged by FSB agents.  In a press conference held after his reemergence in Kiev, Rybkin told reporters that his captors informed him that he the target of a “special operation.” “Then they showed me a revolting videotape with my participation and they told me it was a plan to compromise me and force me to be co-operative,” he explained. “After what happened in Kiev, I am convinced that this election is a game without rules and it can end for me without ever beginning.” He dropped his bid for the presidency a month later.  Fierce critic he was. He just didn’t have the necessary fortitude.

By 2006, the phrase “fierce critic” appeared to make another interesting discursive shift. No longer was it applied to living critics of Putin. Now only the dead were honored with fierce critic.  For example, Anna Politkovskaya, who is probably the most undisputed fierce critic, was really only given the title after she was gunned down in December 2006.  In fact, Politikovskaya’s murder was so heinous that being a mere fierce critic of the Kremlin no longer sufficed.  To the Guardian and the Independent she was now Putin’s fiercest critic.

Politikovskaya being a genuine fierce critic is difficult to dispute.  Perhaps this is why she got the superlative. Still, the fiercest critic was not the earliest example of the posthumous fierce critic. That honor was reserved for none other than Alexander Litivineko. This postmortem fierce critic was virtually unknown before he became an irradiated, decaying living corpse. There is no record of Litvinenko ever being referred to as a fierce critic or really a critic of any kind until he was poisoned. Here are some typical examples of how Litvinenko was referred to after his poisoning:

“Alexander Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian secret service and a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was seriously ill under armed guard at a London hospital last night.” The Sunday Telegraph, 11/19/2006.

“Mr Litvinenko, 43, a fierce critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, suffered a heart attack on Wednesday night and his condition had been deteriorating rapidly.” The Guardian, 11/24/2006.

“Mr. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer, had fled Russia and became a fierce critic of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin.” The NY Times, 12/15/2006.

Even as late as a few days ago, the Courier Mail wrote: “Litvinenko, who was also a fierce critic of Mr Putin, died from polonium poisoning in a case which severely strained relations between Moscow and London.” 10/16/2008.  The article was about the poisoning of Karinna Moskalenko.

Luckly for Moskalenko, her alleged poisoning didn’t get her honor of being called a “fierce critic.”  So far she’s merely a critic.  The Western media only reserves adjectives for the dead.