Stars and Authors Square Off in Russia: Leonid Bershidsky

The battle lines are drawn in Russia's political standoff: It's the movie stars against the literati.

The movie people are assembled in the camp of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leading candidate in presidential elections scheduled for March. Nationalist film director Stanislav Govorukhin is running the campaign. A roster of Putin's 499 top campaign functionaries, released last week, contains big showbiz names such as actor Oleg Tabakov and film director Vladimir Khotinenko. And when Putin declined to participate in televised debates, following a tradition started by Boris Yeltsin, he sent Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov in his stead.

The opposition, which has staged three major anti-Putin rallies in Moscow since December, prides itself on being leaderless. But two authors have been in the front ranks of all the rallies: Boris Akunin, Russia's most famous mystery writer, and Dmitri Bykov, a prolific poet and novelist. The latter became the public face of the most recent opposition march through downtown Moscow. His rotund form was visible in many photographs, carrying a sarcastic sign saying “Rocking the Boat Makes Our Rat Sick” -- a not-too-subtle reference to Putin's rodent-like intensity. When Mikhalkov appeared on national television on Putin's behalf, he debated Irina Prokhorova, sister to billionaire presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and head of a small but highly regarded book publisher, New Literary Review.

Whom would you rather have on your side -- bestselling authors with their power of putting the vaguest emotions into words, or actors and directors versed in the Stanislavsky method?

For Putin, the movie people make sense. He needs to sell voters on the idea that the opposition is a fifth column financed from the West, but he lacks ironclad proof. So the message has to be delivered with verve. Who better than a trained actor to speak a line like “I would advise Putin against seeking support from the liberal intellectuals because they are essentially traitors, the ones Lenin called not the brains but the crap of the nation” (Govorukhin in an interview with the news website or “the fact that some of our 'friends' in the West do not want Putin is enough to make me vote for Putin” (Mikhalkov during the televised debate with Prokhorova)?

Authors are not as good at delivering the right lines in a way that precludes argument. They are also by nature anarchic and wary of organizations. While many in the opposition camp have urged Akunin and Bykov to be more active in leading the protests, both have shunned organizational tasks, preferring to march with the rank and file. At the latest rally, Akunin refused to speak, choosing instead to publish the text of his speech in his blog. A lot of the ideology behind the protests has taken the form of posts on Livejournal or Facebook rather than old-fashioned political speeches or media interviews. The many writers and journalists opposing Putin are more comfortable writing things down than speaking to crowds.

Putin has had some problems with his campaign crew, particularly when the movie people decide to improvise. In the interview, Govorukhin admitted that he didn't understand what Putin was driving at in a series of policy articles he has published in higher-quality Russian newspapers in the run-up to elections. The film director also revealed that he sometimes found his candidate's sense of humor objectionable, such as when Putin likened the white ribbons worn by the opposition to condoms. And last but not least, Govorukhin said he considered Putin's economic program too liberal. Mikhalkov, for his part, said during the televised debate that if Prokhorova herself had been running for president, he would have voted for her.

The literary camp has so far avoided such embarrassing slip-ups, but there is the mind-twisting question of how to handle the March 4 election. Both Akunin and Bykov believe the opposition should present a united front, despite an ideological spectrum that runs from extreme liberalism to hardcore nationalism. It is difficult to agree on a single candidate, especially since none of the five men in the running was nominated by the protesters.

Akunin, ever driven to develop the plot, asked the readers of his popular Livejournal blog what to do: Spoil their ballots in protest, or actually vote for someone? Nearly 7000 people participated in the poll, and 82 percent came out in favor of picking a candidate. Akunin then ran another poll, this time forcing a choice among candidates but narrowing down the field to exclude ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Again there were about 7000 participants, and billionaire Prokhorov won by a wide margin with 49 percent. His sister Irina Prokhorova is also gaining support after her strong performance in the televised debate.

Still, it isn't easy for any two authors to agree on anything. Bykov, whose poliitcal views are far to the left of the liberal Akunin's, has told Echo Moscow radio that at this point he has “little desire” to vote for Prokhorov.

In short, the movie crowd looks somewhat more results-oriented so far. Given that Putin will almost certainly win even a fair election, the literati are likely to find themselves plotting a common strategy for after March 4, if they can plot one at all.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Russia and Ukraine correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)



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