The Russian People Take to the Streets to Fight for Truth and Decency
So why is it that the last time Americans formed a mob, it was to fight for lies and indecency?
Above: Protesters march down Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, Russia.
I was going to write this week about the Constitution, and the fact that you can’t be an adherent of the Constitution if you constantly twist its language to make it say what is politically convenient for you. Specifically, I had planned to focus on certain Republican senators’ historically ignorant claim that you can’t convict a president once he has left office. But that discussion will have to wait for next week, as I watch the images of Russians taking to the streets of major Russian cities, protesting the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Looking at pictures of Russian citizens struggling with police in black uniforms, I can’t help but notice the visual similarities — but very stark conceptual differences — between these protests and the insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol 17 days ago.
Viewing many of the images in Russia, you could easily believe they were from the Capitol revolt — if you don’t look too closely. After all, the images are of citizens fighting uniformed police on behalf of a cause in which the citizens clearly believe very deeply. (A less casual perusal of the images shows that the Russian police seem better prepared and more willing to be brutal, but the basic concept of citizens vs. police is evident in both situations.)
But that is where the analogy breaks down. Because, of course, the causes for which these two sets of citizens have fought are quite different.
It would be tempting to draw a comforting conclusion from the contrast. I would rather be living in today’s United States than in Russia; wouldn’t you? Of course you would. The Russian protestors are protesting a truly evil and repressive government that simply murders its opponents. Here, the desires of the insurrectionists notwithstanding, we still have democracy.
But I am not comforted. In Russia, the people are fighting for truth and justice, against a criminal regime. The full discussion of the origins of the Vladimir Putin regime are beyond the scope of this missive, but it began with Putin carrying out brazen acts of terror against his own people — literally bombing his own citizens and blaming the bombings on Chechen rebels. (If you are unaware of that history, I commend to you this 2017 post from my blog and the links therein.) The list of journalists and critics Putin has murdered is long. It is no exaggeration to state that the Russian government is a large criminal conspiracy. The people in the streets in Russia this weekend are fighting that lawless cabal of thieves and killers.
Here at home, the people who stormed the Capitol were fighting against truth, in order to violently reinstall a regime rejected by voters. A government, in fact, which had been headed by the most dishonest president in American history — someone who had spent two months denying reality, retweeting increasingly insane conspiracy theories, and generally whipping up an entirely manufactured sense of certainty among diehard Republicans that the election had been stolen from them.
Moreover, the people of Russia are fighting against the abuse of one of their most famous public figures. As I draft this newsletter on a Saturday morning, I am watching a Zoom press conference given by Russian dissidents and anti-Putin activists including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Bill Browder. As you would guess, everyone is referencing the protests over the arrest of Alexei Navalny for what Kasparov says is the crime of Navalny’s “failure to die.”
Kasparov’s accusation is accurate: Navalny’s technical offense is literally having failed to visit his probation officer . . . because Putin had poisoned Navalny. Navalny was arrested for a failure to report to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service as a condition of his probation for a trumped-up political charge of embezzlement that has been roundly condemned by the international community as phony and politically motivated. And why did Navalny fail to show? Because he had been poisoned by Novichok, the preferred chemical agent for poisonings of Putin critics. And, even more so than most murders of Putin’s opponents, the Navalny poisoning was indisputably a Russian government operation. By posing as a Russian National Security Council official, Navalny managed to dupe a participant in the plot to admit, in a recorded conversation, the involvement of Russia’s FSB in the murder plot.
Even as Russian citizens fight on behalf of one of their political figures, American citizens are being arrested for attacking the center of our democracy, in many cases as part of an apparent attempt to kill our political figures. I was struck this week by the following passage from a Washington Post article about the arrest of Thomas Edward Caldwell, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and “an apparent leader of the Oath Keepers extremist group”:
In charging papers, the FBI said that during the Capitol riot, Caldwell received Facebook messages from unspecified senders updating him of the location of lawmakers. When he posted a one-word message, “Inside,” he received exhortations and directions describing tunnels, doors and hallways, the FBI said.
Some messages, according to the FBI, included, “Tom all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3floors down,” and “Go through back house chamber doors facing N left down hallway down steps.” Another message read: “All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas,” the FBI added.
Did the “unspecified senders” of these messages or their confederates have “gas” they could have used to incapacitate or kill members of Congress? The story doesn’t say. The FBI has not said. I’m not sure the FBI knows. But the sense of something very sinister and planned-out looms over the article.
The contrast between what the Russian protesters are fighting for, and what the American mob at the Capitol fought for, is a source of deep ignominy for this country. When the most motivated Americans formed a mob recently in today’s America, it was to violently undermine democracy. When Russians took to the streets this weekend, it was to rally against one of the most evil leaders in the world.
The contrasts don’t end there. There is also the shameful comparison of the courage of Alexei Navalny to that of many top Republican leaders. First watch this video of Navalny saying goodbye to his wife at a Moscow airport, as he prepares to walk into the clutches of a regime he knows for a fact has tried to kill him and will likely try again:
Compare that to the cowardly behavior of the House Republicans in addressing the last president’s attempts to overturn a free and fair election:
"There were 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment. There were probably over 150 who supported it," said Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman and CNN contributor.
The Republicans’ behavior is epitomized by the incomparable lack of courage of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who initially claimed that President Trump bore responsibility for the attack on the Capitol — but now incredibly maintains that “everybody across this country has some responsibility.” McCarthy is like an arsonist who, when caught with the gasoline and matches, looks you in the eye and tells you it’s your fault the building is burning down.
Can you imagine a Trump diehard behaving with the dignity displayed here?
The people of Russia are fighting for truth, freedom, and . . . frankly, for what we used to think of as The American Way.
Why can’t we do that here?
P.S. On a personal note, I want to commemorate the life of Tom Stevens, from the great American band The Long Ryders. I woke up this morning to the terrible news of Tom’s sudden passing at the age of 64. I started listening to The Long Ryders in high school, and saw them at the West End Marketplace in Dallas, Texas (without Tom — he had left the band) in 1987. I had the pleasure of seeing the reunited band — with Tom, whom I got to meet — in April 2017 and again in October 2019. Here is a photo I took of Tom (on the left) with Sid Griffin from a Long Ryders concert at the Roxy on October 3, 2019. Rest in peace, buddy.