Keith Gessen complains about weather, predicts end of world

Editor Keith Gessen is in Moscow this week. We caught up with him on g-chat.

n+1: How is the weather?

KG: It’s really hot. For a while I kept saying that it was less hot than in New York, because it wasn’t as humid, but I’ve since stopped saying that, because this is ridiculous. Half the country is on fire. The forests are burning. The fascists are gathering. It’s the end of the world.

n+1: Fascists?

KG: The main political event of the past two weeks has been the fight over the Khimki forest just north of Moscow. Some years ago the government decided that they were going to build the new superhighway to Petersburg through this forest north of Moscow. (The current Moscow-Petersburg highway, the M10, is really dinky.) It wasn’t a huge deal at the time, though there was a small initiative, led by a local gadfly journalist named Mikhail Beketov, to protest against cutting down the forest. In November of 2008 Beketov was attacked one night outside his home by a group of men, severely beaten, and left to die. He lapsed into a coma, had his leg and several fingers amputated, but survived; he was released from the hospital just last month. It was horrible.

Anyway, plans for the construction of the highway continued, and a few weeks ago they finally started clearing the forest. The company doing the work is VINCI, from France. Meanwhile the local anti-highway group has gained steam, and certainly some attention in the wake of the attack on Beketov, and it was able to get people together to try to stop the forest clearing. They climbed on the machines and generally made a nuisance of themselves. And what does VINCI–or probably not VINCI, but whoever VINCI has put in charge of taking care of this–do? They hire soccer hooligans to protect the equipment. They showed up in the forest all of a sudden with white t-shirts over their heads; some of them had kickboxing gloves on. (Lots of photos here.) Russian soccer hooligans, being Russian, can’t just hooliganize without some kind of idea behind it, and a lot of them are white-supremacists, my least favorite kind of Russian, and once in a while they’ll board a subway or a train and start beating up people who look non-Russian. This should be distinguished, I think, from the neo-Nazis who actually kill Tajiks and Uzbeks in Moscow. But maybe it shouldn’t be distinguished. Anyway, the fascist soccer hooligans also rent themselves out in case someone needs a dose of the old ultra-violence.

Now, this was kind of amazing to me, I have to say. The company doing the forest clearance had security people there… why would they also involve soccer hooligans? A friend of mine suggested it was a question of liability. He said, “One of your security guys could break someone’s arm, and then you get sued. Whereas with the hooligans, you can just say they were there for fun, you had nothing to do with them, they were just there as part of a sporting event.” I suppose that makes sense.

n+1: And then what happened?

KG: Not a lot. The environmentalists called the police, the police came, talked to the hooligans, seemed to get a satisfactory response, and decided to leave. The environmentalists didn’t want them to leave and blocked their car. So the police arrested some environmentalists for blocking their car. Anyway, I don’t think any trees were chopped that day.

Meanwhile, down the street from me here, there’s this ongoing memorial meeting for a young guy who got stabbed a few weeks ago in front of the metro. The guy who got stabbed seemed nice enough, but the truth is people get stabbed all the time, it’s a big city, people get stabbed and shot and things fall on their heads or they fall down a hole or they fall under the train like Anna Karenina. All sorts of things. But in this case, the person wielding the knife was a Chechen–“a guest of the capital,” as the leaflets at this meeting call him, sarcastically–and so it’s turned into an ethnic thing. It’s part memorial meeting, part call for ethnic revenge. I don’t like it at all. So that’s the fascists.

But there are also the anti-fascists. A few days after the stand-off with the soccer hooligans, a large group of anti-fascist and anarchist activists took the commuter train up to Khimki–it’s literally just north of Moscow, like Westchester–and attacked the building of the local administration. They threw rocks at it and smoke bombs and spray-painted “Leave the Russian forest alone” all over it.

Meanwhile, the Russian forest is actually burning, because of the heat. I guess it’s not very different from what happens in California every few years but the Russians have never had to deal with this before, so they don’t really know what to do. It’s spreading into villages; an army base burned down yesterday. In short, like I said, it’s the end of the world.

n+1: What’s going to happen?

KG: I don’t know, but I’ll say this. The government has been super-active in pursuing the anti-fascists who attacked the Khimki administrative building; they’ve been moderately active about fighting the forest fires; and they’ve been totally, utterly inactive about the wave of racist, anti-Chechen sentiment that’s been intensifying in the past few weeks, though of course it’s been an increasingly large part of post-Soviet Russian culture for a while now.

Now, the interesting thing is–and this is always the great question, which Orwell formulated many years ago–are the governing elites evil or just stupid? In this case, I don’t know. I don’t actually think the people in the Russian government are particularly racist or particularly excited about chopping down the forest north of Moscow or so stupid that they don’t know that if it gets very very hot in a dry country, things are going to catch on fire. And yet… it’s a combination of those things. There were two other versions of where to put the highway, and both of them would have involved a certain amount of land seizure and relocation of people from their homes. So naturally it was cheaper and simpler to go through the woods. And maybe, in the long run, better. Lots of highways go through woods and the woods can deal with it. But the government can’t be bothered to come out and explain this, and it can’t be bothered to treat with civility, and ensure the safety of, the people who oppose this plan. I don’t think Putin is particularly racist: He’s a Soviet person, and the Soviet Union was, in fact, anti-racist. And of course the government can’t have its administrative buildings spray-painted and attacked–but to devote more resources to fighting the anti-fascists than fighting the fascists does indicate a little bit what side you’re on.

So that’s what an evil government looks like now. A little carelessness; a little bull-headedness; a little bit of an inclination to short-circuit democratic methods. Nothing glamorous, no fire and brimstone and conspiracy in the middle of the night, just a series of banal and quotidian decisions, most (but not all) made in what passes in their minds for good faith–so that, as they actively if mildly persecute the best people in the country, like the environmentalists, and fail to prevent the worst people in the country from murdering some of them (as Beketov was nearly murdered; as his lawyer Stanislav Markelov was, in fact, murdered, by fascists), they can still, after all that, sleep at night.

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