A Martyr for All Seasons

That both ends of the Russian political spectrum are using the beating of Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin as clubs to bash each other should come as no surprise.  It was only a matter of time before the unanimous condemnation of the attack and demand for justice by members of Russian civil society slipped back into old habits and familiar postures.  A week after his savage beating Oleg Kashin’s transformation into a martyr for all seasons is complete.

But for a few days things seemed as if this was not the case.  Sure the predictable ineptitude of the authorities remained. But Russian civil society appeared unified.  Medvedev’s quick response and call for the perpetrators be caught and punished signaled a new attitude upon high.  Even Russian television, which typically gives little attention to the plight of Russia’s journalists, led their news programs with the Kashin story.  The reports on the state channels Pervyi, Rossiia 1, and NTV, according to Kommersant, were personally complied by the station heads.  This hands on approach, says the business daily, “generally confirms that the Kremlin has taken control of the story.”  State television even recognized that Kashin was attacked for his “professional activities,” in particular his reporting on “social and political topics, the activities of youth organizations and the scandal around Khimki forest, and even showed journalists picketing in his support.”

With attention like this “from above” it’s no wonder that one Russian blogger views Medvedev’s quick reaction was part of his bid for the Presidency in 2012.  After all, such gestures tend to evoke some sense that a much deeper motive is at hand.  “I, of course, don’t contend that Medvedev’s political strategists “ordered” Kashin’s [beating].” writes Sergei Ezhov.  “But after giving it some thought, it’s possible. And Kashin is undoubtedly the best figure for this role.”  I can’t agree with Ezhov’s conspiratorial logic.  But one thing is clear, if the perpetrators are caught, it will certainly give Medvedev a boost among the liberals in civil society.  That said, it is hard to dismiss something larger is at hand especially if you put Medvedev’s quick and forceful reaction to Kashin in the context of other recent moves in favor of liberal society.

If Medvedev’s reaction is part of a more long term strategy, he certainly can’t be scrutinized too harshly for it. Whatever warm fuzzy feelings emanating from the collective kumbaya on the part of Russia’s civil society were quickly dashed as politicos retreated into the comforts of partisanship.  It took Russia’s liberal opposition mere days to insert Kashin as the refrain in their usual condemnations of the “Putin regime.”  The usual suspects–Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Milov, Ladimir Ryzhkov, and Mikhail Krasyanov–all laid the blame on the gray cardinal himself, Vlacheslav Surkov and by extension Putin and Medvedev.  They believe that Kashin’s beating was a Surkov ordered Nashi operation.  Though the use of soccer hooligans and other thugs is not out of the question, one must ask what exactly does the Kremlin have to gain from Kashin’s beating?  Kashin was no political foe.  It seems the Kremlin has very little to gain besides scoring a few brownie points if the perpetrators are caught.  If history is any indication that tree isn’t going to bare any fruit.

When it comes to the opposition, I think Nemtsov’s opportunism in particular can be summed up with the following tweet from Ilya Azar: At the Friday’s picket in support of Kashin, “Nemtsov gave three interviews and left five minutes after he was done.”

Russia’s liberals, of course, aren’t the only ones using the Kashin beating to bash the other side.  The pro-government website Politonline.ru has probably been one of the more vocal in damning the opposition and its use of “Kashin’s blood for political struggle.”  Telling was the appearance of a supposed blog post Kashin wrote in 2005, where he feared that his death would serve as a weapon to bash the Putin system. He allegedly wrote:

What use am I.  Moreover, let’s suppose they bump me off.  It will be interesting who it will be of interest to because I didn’t expose nor fight with anyone. I worked humbly and devoted increased attention to personal PR.  And of course, not necessarily some police fuck.  I imagine that someone from the loudmouths [i.e. oppositionists] will create a site called pravdakashina.ru and will write on there how the bloody Putinist executioners killed Oleg Kashin, the hope of the free press–I honestly fear this happening.  I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing by writing this openly, however, if anything [bad] happens, do not believe what [they] will write on that website about my head.

Premonition or propaganda?  Well, someone has started the site olegkashin.ru.  So if Kashin did write this in 2005, he either has the gift of clairvoyance, or the actions of Russian activist community are just easy to predict.  Whether the passage is real or not, it is serving as a means to discredit the intentions of the opposition.  Like their liberal opponents, outlets like Politonline.ru are quick to claim Kashin for themselves and paint him as a true believer in sovereign democracy.

Politonline.ru’s efforts go beyond this.  In a rather clever move to further discredit Nemtsov, the site published a list of journalists killed during his stint as First Deputy Prime Minister from March 1997 to August 1998.  Twelve journalists were wacked under Nemtsov’s watch, making his hemming and hollering ring rather hollow.

Then there is Nashi.  The organization’s apparent sympathy for Kashin has quickly turned to its usual antics of mockery.  In a move that is nothing but cynical, Nashi has offered to supply bodyguards drawn from their voluntary youth militias to “protect” journalists.  Oh yeah I get it. Protect the Fourth Estate with the very same types of people who are (allegedly) hired to beat up them up.  Good one.  Nashi has also used the “canonization” of Kashin as a way to mock the opposition.  Then there is what has become Nashi’s favor tool: lawsuits for “slander.” Vasilii Yakemenko, the head of the Russian Youth Department and Nashi founder, is suing Marat Gelman, Boris Nemtsov, and Yulia Latynina for slander because they suggested Yakemenko’s involvement in the Kashin beating.  Molodaya gvardiia is planning on doing the same.

What all of this partisanship leaves to the wayside is why was Kashin beaten?  Instead, like with other murdered or beaten journalists, Oleg Kashin has become yet another assault weapon in a much larger political battle.  Perhaps here we should rethink the place of the beaten and murdered journalist in Russia.  Many assume that killing journalists benefits the government, and Putin in particular.  If so, that is only part of it.  The benefits of such violence are distributed much wider.  These journalists serve as martyrs of a much more malleable sort.  They are not just symbols of the perils of being a journalist in Russia or a “pummeled Fourth Estate.”  They are also the cynical truncheons Russian politicos use to bash each other.  Sadly, both political extremes need this violence because it gives validity to their holy crusade to “save Russia” from the other.  In this sense the cynical manipulation of attacks against Russian journalists in a rather morbid way forecloses the very social and political unity necessary to overcome it.