A couple of months ago, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, who had run the city for almost twenty years, and with great success even in the midst of the 1990s, was suddenly sacked by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The first problem is that Medvedev had authority to do that at all. A sensible Russian constitution would make it the prerogative of locals to elect the heads of regions and cities, and that's how it was before 2004, when Putin used the Beslan massacre as a pretext for abolishing gubernatorial elections. Instead, Medvedev was able to dismiss Luzhkov on a whim. Luzhkov was certainly corrupt and authoritarian, but I was nonetheless horrified by the move. The fact that Luzhkov had a power base independent of the ruling tandem was invaluable at a time when autocracy was bearing the fruit of sycophancy, and there was essentially no chance of a decent replacement for Luzhkov in a system where the only way to rise is to be a yes-man for Putin. Now Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has just carried out the kind of carelessly idiotic assertion of centralizing power that has blighted Russian history for generations:
For years, shoppers had flocked to a row of ramshackle kiosks under a bridge near Moscow's Belorusskaya railway station to purchase goods like alcohol, cigarettes, pirate DVDs, and hot pies.
Today, however, the path under the bridge is bare and desolate -- a legacy of one of the earliest initiatives of Moscow's new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin.
Soon after Sobyanin was named mayor in October, he took a walk around the city to meet the people and get a feel for the metropolis he would be responsible for governing. Sobyanin was appalled by what he saw at the city's downtown Krasnopresnenskaya metro station.
The new mayor denounced the placing of kiosks around the metro, saying they obscured the view of a statue outside the station. Moreover, using colorful language, he pointed out that some kiosks had unsafe wiring hanging together "like snot."
Soon thereafter, Sobyanin sacked the heads of two Moscow city districts, sending a clear signal that change was on the way.
When I was in Moscow the first time in 2002-- and I fell absolutely in love with the place, to the extent that I felt wildly homesick for it long afterwards-- one of the features of the city that I admired was these kiosks that crowded the tunnels under the metro. My admiration was both for their efficiency and convenience, and for a certain aesthetic appeal, the feeling of life and bustle. I saw in them a sign that underneath it all, Russians are a clever and resourceful people, good at solving problems in voluntary, decentralized ways. Alas, the country's development is forever stunted by boneheaded leadership. The fundamental problem lies not so much in any innate character flaws the Russians have: that may be a factor, but there are crooks and thugs everywhere, it's just that in sensible nations the Vladimir Putins are picking parts in warehouses, or in jail, not running the country. The real problem lies in Russian public opinion, the perennial perversity of ignoring human rights and approving of oppressors, which lets the crooks and thugs get away with it. I think many Russians are starting to see through Putin now, yet there are so many layers of defensiveness one has to cut through, so much resistance to just admitting frankly that the liberals were right all along. And anyway, it's too late: Putin is too entrenched now; it was necessary to knock him down in 2003, at the time of the Khodorkovsky affair, which should have been evidence enough of the need to overthrow him. Russia is on another terrible detour through the wildernesses of tyranny. Probably they will find their way back to the light of civilization at some point, but given the country's demographic decline, it seems doubtful whether Russia will ever shine in the firmament of the family of nations as, long ago in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, she seemed to promise.