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Free Thinking : The world

From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta

Naked Power

  • Rana Dasgupta
  • 10 Aug 06, 06:49 PM

In Andrew Meier's fascinating Russian travelogue, Black Earth, we find the following vignette from Moscow:

"Beyond lust and fear, Moscow breeds power. You cannot help feeling that you are trespassing in its path. Every effort is made to impress upon the populace its privileged proximity to the unlimited power of the state. This is not just state power as in other countries. This is not merely the pomp of officialdom, but the deliberate demonstration of the state’s power over the people, an ever-present slap in their face.

It is mid-morning. You walk through the cold, dank underpass, lit by long fluorescent lamps. At one end stand two grandmothers, selling cigarettes, hand-knit caps, dried flowers. The underground walkway fills with the sounds of an accordion. A mournful Russian ballad. Every day the accordion player, a Moldovan refugee, is here busking. Every day he squeezes out the same song. It is a long underpass. When at last you emerge and climb the stairs up into the cold wind of the far side of the street, you suddenly hear it: the silence. Nothing announces power like the silence.

Kutuzovsky Prospekt may well be the broadest street in Moscow. At its widest it has seven lanes in each direction. In its center the road is divided by a lane reserved for the political and financial elite, or at least any Russian sufficiently well moneyed or well connected to procure the coveted migalka, a little flashing blue light that, once affixed to a car roof, announces the right of the faceless passenger hidden behind the curtained, smoked windows, to break any traffic rule or regulation. In the morning as the city’s bankers and bureaucrats rush toward their offices, the road is filled with cars and heavy trucks trying to tack their way into the center. The roar of the traffic, with all fifteen lanes fully loaded, is deafening. Walking the sidewalks of Kutuzovsky, as I did nearly every morning, can be unpleasant.

Until the silence comes. It happens at least twice a day, usually in mid-morning and just before the sun sets. You are walking down the sidewalk, and then in a single moment, you realize something has changed, something is amiss. All you hear is the crunch of your boots on the hard snow. On the street, the slow-moving river of cars has not simply stopped; it has disappeared (In minutes a road as wide as a highway is completely cleared.) he trolley buses have pulled over and stand along the edge of the prospekt. The citizens too, waiting at the bus stops, stand still. Everyone waits. Hundreds of poor souls, trapped in the stilled traffic, sit mute in their parked cars. The street has frozen into a photograph, and you are the only one moving through it.

For several minutes nothing stirs. Then suddenly a black Volga, an illuminated migalka fixed to its roof, speeds down the middle of the prospect. Then another, and a third, a fourth. And then the chorus of sirens accompanying the flashing lights. A convoy of automobiles, a dozen in all, each duly impressing the motionless citizenry with its size, speed and cleanliness. As men, women and schoolchildren (and the secret policemen in plain clothes sprinkled among them) stand and watch, a squadron of BMW militsiya sedans sweeps past, followed by an extended black Mercedes limousine and a quartet of oversize Mercedes jeeps. As the convey passes, the cars leave a ripple of turned faces on the sidewalks.

A visitor might imagine the world had stopped because of a dire emergency. But the Muscovites frozen in place along this vast slate gray avenue recognize the scene for what it is: their president, the leader of all Russia, making his way to work. More than twenty miles of roadway in the Russian capital are closed in this fashion every day. In a city already paralyzed by too much snow and too many cars. And still no one complains, ever. It is the essence of power, Moscow style. It is naglost. In general, naglost is an unseemly blend of arrogance, shamelessness and rudeness. In this instance it is the contemptuous disdain of the rights of ordinary Russians."

The only word of this fantastic description that jars with me is the word "rights" in the last sentence. This is a piousness creeping in, as if rights were naturally existing entities that "ordinary Russians" possessed.

To people living in my city, this description would not seem exotic or strange. The city is criss-crossed every day by bureaucrats and senior military men with red lights on the top of their Ambassador cars. Their wives or children going shopping often take the starred vehicles and sound the siren to ensure that the ordinary public gets out of their way. Senior politicians are accompanied by soldiers in jeeps who point guns if you happen to get too close. The reality of power in the streets is very clear, and the invocation of "rights" is a pure anomaly.


  1. At 01:45 AM on 11 Aug 2006, Eman wrote:

    Yes, it's a slap in the child's face (the new entrant to the culture). But if he accepts that Russia is strong (is to be strong) and has to have a strong leader, then such displays also become acceptable.

    Referring just to the events of yesterday, the tenth, the almost 10/8 (or 8/10 if you're U.S. minded) might there not be a glamour developing? Politicians long to appear important, more important than rivals who long to displace them. And we have to hope they keep their heads, not be seduced as knights slaying the almost-invisible, hydra-headed, new monster. A monster so much more fleshily horrific than inflation, immigration -- or, for the moment, global warming.

    The "trappings of power" are becoming more intricate each decade that passes, it seems to me, yet it also stays the same: you wait for me, not vice versa. Are we still going to be stopping the traffic in a thousand years' time?

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  2. At 07:24 AM on 11 Aug 2006, Fitz wrote:

    Imagine a God if you will who is of course all knowing; all seeing; all beauty - what ever that is - all pure - what ever that is and after a while gets bored with this 'allness' and purity.

    What you have described in the Russian scenario and in many more played out across all continents -

    particularly more so in the South Americas and MIddle East and Far East - is all - yes absolutely ALL the imperfections that God never has or can never see -

    unless he says to us - Go henceforth - multiple and be imperfect for me!

    hard one to swallow - not necessarily - there is nothing stranger than fact!

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  3. At 09:57 AM on 11 Aug 2006, jason wrote:

    too many cars ?

    Electric buses are the answer :)

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  4. At 02:27 PM on 11 Aug 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    Powerful reading. The austere descriptions are reminiscent of old Russia, raising questions over Russian Politics sincerity to commit to democratic values. The complete halting of activity, the silence, this is distinct and indicative of oppression.

    The notions of power made me think, strangely, of the Tate Modern gallery in London. Anyone who has been there will have been impressed by the exterior, its simple lines, scale and smoke stacks jutting toward the heavens, daring to touch God. The understated entrance to the gallery is an illusory gateway into an awe inpsiring space that demands this same silence and respect of power. Entering you feel your pace first slow and then stop, if words are spoken they are few and spoken softly.

    Visible organised power, whether that be the power to build monuments or institutions leaves an impression, a statement, 'We can do this!' The intent attached to 'this' is sadly not always positive. The sytematic abuse of the institutions of power is surely the worst of crimes against humanity.

    What little consolation I have to offer is this: These people are not powerful, they are weak and eternally at our mercy.

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