Photo: SXC.hu

Few countries have more negative myths associated with them than Russia. There are old myths about Russia being inherently authoritarian. There are new myths about Russia helping dictators or suppressing the gays. You can fight myths the long way – by finding gay bars in Moscow or by fishing out facts about Russia’s foreign policy in biased Western media. Or you can do it the easy way – by tuning in to the program “Myths About Russia” by Radio VR’s political analyst Dmitry Babich.

The year 2013 will be remembered for a series of amnesties and pardons, which happened in autumn and December and led to the release of several well-publicized inmates of Russian prisons. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the two remaining members of the Pussy Riot group were released from jail. The court case against 30 members of the Greenpeace-owned vessel Arctic Sunrise was also dropped. So, the 26 foreigners who were on board of the Arctic Sunrise and whom the international press expected to spend 15 years in Russian jail, actually spent just about two months there.

The most disappointing development for the foreign journalists was the fact that Khodorkovsky did not become a symbolic head of the Russian liberal opposition, the members of Pussy Riot were not met by enthusiastic crowds in Moscow, and Putin, seemingly unchallenged, stayed cool in the Kremlin. The French daily Le Figaro even wrote that the whole operation with the amnesty was a shrewd manipulation by Putin, who presumably, I quote, “deprived the liberal opposition of its most visible talking heads.”

Strange logic: how can Putin make the opposition weaker by letting out of prison the very heads which the opposition was so keen to see talking? And these speakers can’t complain of not having access to the media. Khodorkovsky’s first press conference in Germany was attended by hundreds of journalists and was broadcast live by two Moscow-based television channels, the two members of the Pussy Riot also spoke to dozens of radio stations, newspapers and other media with a Russian audience.

Obviously, the release from prison deprived these talking heads of the remnants of the aura of “forbidden fruit,” which had never been too tempting for Russians even during their stay in jail. In fact, even in jail all of these people continued to give interviews to the Moscow-based newspapers like Kommersant or Vedomosti, as well as to foreign publications like The New York Times. And Mikhail Khodorkovsky even managed to write books in jail.

The secret of the West’s deceived expectations can be explained rather trivially: while posing as political figures, all of these people had some substantial non-political reasons to be put in jail. The head of the international committee in the Duma, the Russian parliament, Alexei Pushkov has the following explanation for the lack of enthusiasm for this kind of cases in the broad Russian public.

“I know that from the British point of view the fate of Khodorkovsky raises questions and the court sentence on Pussy Riot members raises questions. In England this is seen as political persecution, but Russians know another story. They know that there was a group of girls who have come to the main Orthodox cathedral in Moscow where the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is serving and there they have put some kind of Ku-Klux-Klan hats on their heads and they have staged this kind of satanic performance – that’s what is all about in Russia. It is about insulting the religious feelings. That is why many people in Russia wanted to put the Pussy Riot’s members in jail for five years or four years. So, if you take into account the position of a part of the Russian public opinion, the court sentence was extremely mild, they would say.”

Recently, on a live program at the BBC World Service, the former British ambassador to Russia Tony Brandon refused to agree with the presenter when she said that there were, I quote, many political prisoners in Russia. In fact, there are people who are being punished for certain actions connected to their political beliefs – one could mention the participants in the fight with police near the Kremlin in May 2012. But the situation is not much different in many countries. In the UK, for that matter, 2013 was the year when Trenton Oldfield, an Australian national who staged his political protest by swimming in the river Thames during an Oxbridge boat race, was kicked out of the country. Before leaving the UK, Oldfield had to spend 6 months in Britism jail for being, I quote, “a public nuisance.” In his interview to the Voice of Russia Mr. Oldfield explained his action as a protest against the elitism, which the boat race on the river Thames came to symbolize and compared his plight to that of the Pussy Riot members:

“Considering how much the British media got behind the Pussy Riot, that was one thing that I was fascinated by. That was the difference in the ways the media responded to the situation with the Pussy Riot and with me. They really confronted some significant issues and they were sent to prison, like me. But there is something in the British culture that makes people focuse on other countries’ problems and behave differently when their own situation is concerned, their own politics.”

So, if Trenton Oldfield spent six months in jail for swimming in the river Thames, isn’t it fair that the Pussy Riot members spent a little more than a year behind bars for dancing in the altar of Russia’s most sacred church, calling that church’s patriarch a “bitch” and an “excrement of God” and filming all of this on video?

In the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the about-face, which the Western press made about his person in 2003, was stunning. Until Khodorkovsky’s quarrel with Putin, Khodorkovsky was described by the American press as, I quote, “a robber baron”. The German magazine Der Spiegel called him a fortune seeker with blank spaces in his memory, when the rights of the minority shareholders in his companies were concerned. There was a lot of investigative stories in the Western media about the way Khodorkovsky avoided paying not only taxes to the Russian state, but also debts to his foreign creditors in the United States. All of these investigations ended abruptly in 2003, when Khodorkovsky was suddenly elevated to the status of, I quote the press that supported Khodorkovsky, an “oligarchic Nelson Mandela,” “the conscience of Russian nation” and a lot of other pathetic names.

Yes, Mr. Khodorkovsky can be respected for staying for 10 years in jail without asking for pardon. Yes, he is a strong man. But he is certainly not a hero and the people from his company who ended up in prison are not political prisoners, since they never made political statements in their lives. They just helped Mr. Khodorkovsky to become the richest person in the Russia of the 1990s. Not the most honest and not the most humane time for rich people in Russian history.