Here’s what happened when I held up a “Putin is a Dick” sign in Red Square

Fewer fireworks than you’d expect.
Fewer fireworks than you’d expect.
Image: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
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Stories of Putin’s opponents threatened, gunned down, imprisoned and disappearing left and right are abundant in Moscow and beyond. Every time I go to Mother Russia, a friend or two are concerned about my safety. “How do you write what you write (ie. critically about Vladimir Putin), yet travel so freely?” they ask.

Indeed, when in 2007 I wrote an article comparing Putin to a character from Nikolai Gogol’s 19th-century play The Government Inspector, I almost lost my Russian passport. Russia, I wrote, is still a country where czars are treated like gods, bureaucrats are corrupt, and people, fearing the authorities, are complacent as a result. An official warned me that my words could be seen as political extremism against the Kremlin.

Since then my website has been repeatedly hacked, I have been asked to fill in more than usual share of paperwork when travel, I received threats by email and even had once a webpage created in my honor, Complete Works of Nina Khrushcheva, with thousands of disapproving patriots leaving nasty comments about my writing. Although inconvenient and upsetting at times, I simply have laughed it off.

Not that other more relevant critics haven’t suffered much graver consequences for their views. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in the 15 years that Putin has been in power, over 50 journalists and activists lost their lives. The most recent loss is the fatal shooting of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Even more recently Vladimir Kara Murza, an aspiring Kremlin critic who was involved in Nemtsov’s posthumously published report about Russian military involvement in East Ukraine, fell ill under suspicions circumstances.

In a coma and suffering a kidney failure, he may have been poisoned by someone defending Putin’s honor, although the final tests suggest it could have been a chance combination of drugs that badly influenced his health.

Still, contrary to most media reports, Russia is not the totalitarian Soviet Union.

The grim days of Stalinism, when everyone who posed a threat to the state—real or imagined—would be invariably killed and imprisoned, are now gone. Then, even Joseph Stalin’s posters and busts were considered such sacred symbols of power that even accidentally destroying them was a crime.

An old family friend, then a child, unintentionally broke Stalin’s white marble bust in the 1930s. In fear that he’d be sentenced to five or more years of logging wood in a labor camp, all through the night his family ground the pieces in mortar, rushing to turn them into dust by sunrise so it would appear that the statue had been simply moved to another room.

Rather than total control—so last century—the Putin autocracy has perfected old KGB formulas. Today, ambiguity is the name of the game.

Putin claims no knowledge when opposition activists are killed, as it was in the case of Nemtsov gunned down next to the Kremlin. And I, for one, still don’t know whether the vigilantes who downed my website are freelance patriots or government internet trolls.

Putin, a former KGB clandestine operative, has come up with a resilient style of top-to-bottom leadership: the “managed democracy.” In it, rights and freedoms are available even if diminished; protests and criticism of the Kremlin are publicly allowed, thus giving an impression of strong but not unreasonable power. What’s more, it’s necessary to kill and arrest only a few. The rest will control itself in the name of stability, fearing chaos and disarray.

Recently a friend admitted that she is hesitant to like my articles when I post them on Facebook. What if she’d attract attention to herself, just by supporting some mild criticism of the state. “And if not Putin, who else?” she asked. “At least we have enough freedom to live a reasonably comfortable life. What are a few restrictions in exchange for the booming restaurant scene?”

The Kremlin thrives on this almost genetic fear. An overwhelming vigilance that we assign to the state—given Russia’s KGB-controlling history understandable but hardly excusable—saves the government a lot of actual scrutinizing. And even if in recent years anti-extremism laws have been expanding—now anybody from the NGOs to football hooligans could be accused of financing or supporting “foreign-funded” extremist activity, and punished for expressing discontent with the Kremlin—these blanket laws are cleverly used only when necessary.

Such was the recent case of the Dynasty Foundation, which was ordered to register as a “foreign agent,” prompting its closure in early July. Dmitry Zimin, a pioneer of the Russian mobile industry, had funded Dynasty’s innovative science projects with his own money, kept abroad. While science—contrary to media and activism—wasn’t initially deemed a threat, it has become a symbol of autonomy and diversity.

It’s not just that the suspicious Kremlin sees scholars as potential agents of the anti-Putin West. As a result of sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, scientists are also being punished by the other side: They have been refused sale of equipment from abroad, or have seen their manuscripts turned down by the foreign publications.

A dire prospect for the country’s intellectual future, yet barely a thousand went to the streets to protest against the Kremlin’s restrictive laws and militant policies. Attending the pro-Dynasty demonstration in June, I wondered whether people are truly afraid or are simply lazy, surrendering to the status quo.

The next day I went to Red Square to test my theory: that we should be afraid, but that we are even more afraid than we should be.

Pinning a hand-made sign Путин это Дик (“Putin is a Dick”, which has little meaning in Russian), to my t-shirt, I stood in front of the red Kremlin wall on a chilly summer afternoon. None of my friends, who thought I was deliberately suicidal, joined me to witness this socio-political experiment, so I had to convince a chuckling passerby to take a photo. Immediately a polite young policeman came up to inquire about the sign.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

“What it says,” I replied.

“Meaning what?” He was getting impatient. “Get out of here,” he said.

“Why? I’m doing nothing wrong,” I stood firmly.

“Why does it say ‘Putin’? Must be nothing good,” he replied.

The officer was conflicted. I am a middle-aged woman, not some rebellious 18-year-old hooligan in a hoodie. He was careful not to go too far so he won’t be accused of oppressing freedom of expression in Putin’s “managed democracy.” Yet he wanted to appear vigilant, in case my Dick sign was something sinister.

I kept pressing, “Aren’t you going to arrest me?”

“Go away, lady!” He hated me for making him doubt himself.

He checked my documents and wrote down my name. Kremlin kin are not expected to challenge the Kremlin, so he made no connection to Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader in the 1950s and 1960s and my great-grandfather. The officer just walked me to the nearby subway. Perhaps if he had made that connection, I wouldn’t have gotten off so easily. Still, flying out of Moscow a week later, I fully awaited consequences for my stunt. None came.

The Big Brother is not always watching after all. And if protesting against Putin has gathered millions rather than thousands, the sheer numbers may have forced the Big Brother to watch even less. In the memorable words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—…unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”