Are there still people in the world today who speak the truth to those in power who lie? This might seem a not unreasonable conclusion from two recent articles in the Times.
First, the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a widely respected founding member of the present Iranian religious hierarchy, is mounting his own verbal attack, questioning the present Iranian leadership’s legitimacy. Montazeri, now in his mid 80s, a former close collaborateur of Khomeini (before their falling out), and one of the present supreme leader’s, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, former teachers, seems fearless.
In his own words: “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate.”
Yes, fearless, because in Iran today people are imprisoned, tortured, and killed for saying, even thinking, much less than this. Could the Ayatollah Ali Montazeri’s words, assuming they were reaching his fellow Iranians, be a spark leading to a conflagration and eventual destruction of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s coterie of thugs currently ruling Iran? One hopes so.
Second, we read about Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, who yesterday, the 21st of November, while speaking at United Russia’s (the governing party’s) annual congress in St. Petersburg, accused the party of backwardness, warning its leaders among other things that they must learn to win elections honestly if their party is to survive.
His statement is a bit bizarre in that “its leaders” are, at the top anyway, Vladimir Putin and Medvedev himself. Couldn’t Medvedev have done much himself to undo the “backwardness” of which he speaks?
It’s well-known that Prime Minister and United Russia founder Putin is responsible for much of the “backwardness,” of Russia, as well as that of his party, in not allowing such Western beliefs in free markets, free expression, uncensored media and more of the like to become established among the Russian people. Medvedev ought rather to have been speaking directly to Putin.
In any case there is no indication that Medvedev’s words have many takers, many adherents, in the Party or in the country. And as long as his accusations in regard to the Party are not backed up by the Prime Minister nothing much will change.
What’s going on between the President and the Prime Minister seems to be the good cop bad cop routine. Medvedev’s good cop words are playing to the Western liberal media and Putin’s bad cop words and actions to the middle and old aged reactionary Russian nationalists, still bitten with Soviet nostalgia, still more than willing and ready to rehabilitate Joseph Stalin, and still, probably, a majority of the “electorate.”
In regard to the respective governing roles played by Putin and Medvedev there was a recent op ed piece in the Times by Maxim Trudolyubov, the editorial page editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and currently a world fellow at Yale University.
Trudolyubov tells us that when visiting in America the question he is most often asked is, who is in charge in his country, Russia. While he admits to not knowing the answer he does have a lot to say about the subject.
The present governing structure of Russia, he says, is a duumvirate, like that of the two ruling Consuls in ancient Rome. But unlike the Roman Consuls who had different powers and reponsibilities Putin and Medvedev have different audiences.
Medvedev’s audience are the young people, those who have little or no direct experience of Soviet Russia, those who tend to be sympathetic to Western liberal ideals. And his audience are the Western liberals themselves, the readership of the New York Times (of which I am one) where he is often and amply quoted, all those again including myself who want desperately to hear a Russian leader indicate by his words that he too is supportive of the beliefs and governing traditions stemming from the Enlightenment.
We have, it seems, forever, wanted Russia to be a part of our liberal, democratic, free market, and rights based world, and Medvedev’s words play to our longing in this regard. Again the good cop.
But ultimately Medvedev’s kind of truth telling is probably about as effective in changing the prevalent attitudes and beliefs in Russia as are the words of the Sunday preacher or the classroom teacher in changing the beliefs and behaviors of their parishioners and students.
Returning to my original observation that here were two truth tellers, Montazeri and Medvedev, attacking those in power who lie, I have to admit there may be no substance to my conclusion, especially as regards the Russian president. The words of both men are just words, words we like to hear, but that remain without impact on either country, Russia or Iran.
Montazeri did not stand up among the various crowds of Iranian protesters that we’ve recently read about. Would his actually being there in the streets have made a difference in the recently failed demonstrations in Tehran? Maybe.
Ok, he’s old and physically weak, and it’s probably not within his power to stand up in this fashion. For whatever reason he has chosen to remain out of the physical struggle, comfortable, secure, well provided for at his home in Qum.
Medvedev’s case, of course, is quite different. He is risking nothing at all. Instead, he seems to be enjoying a “comfortable” presidency. Most significantly he has not confronted directly the anti-rights and anti-democratic acts of his ruling partner.
Not yet is Medvedev walking the walk of the long line of truth to lie tellers who preceded him, the hundreds, the thousands of Soviet dissidents, those like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Bukovsky and so many others.