Art and Dissidence in Eastern Europe: #ArkadyBabchenko and #FreeSentsov

I wasn’t going to write about the circus surrounding Arkady Babchenko’s “murder” and sudden resurrection, which continues to unfold, but I can’t stop myself.  It’s just too fascinating, and as far as I can tell the Western press has already moved back to the latest absurdity produced by Trump.  So here we go:

A bombshell released yesterday that Boris German, the alleged organizer of the hit on Babchenko and the person who had been arrested as a result of the sting operation, claimed in court during his arraignment that he, too, had been working for the Ukrainian security services.

The “Novaya gazeta” article reports that German, a Ukrainian arms dealer, had supposedly been hired by Russia to arrange a hit on Babchenko and many others, and had contracted a certain Aleksey Tsymbalyuk, a former priest (!!) and veteran of the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) in the Donbass, who supposedly immediately turned himself in to the Ukrainian security forces and helped with the set-up.  Afterwards he posted about it on Facebook, only to have the SBU press-secretary deny his involvement and then retract her denial; there is still no official confirmation that he was the actual hitman.

But wait!  It only gets better!  During his arraignment German claimed to have also gone over to the Ukrainian security services!  According to him, a long-time friend of his, a Ukrainian citizen who lives in Moscow and works for “Putin’s personal fund” by organizing “disruptions” in Ukraine and is supposedly planning terrorist attacks at the next presidential elections, approached him.  German agreed to work as his agent in Ukraine, but promptly (he says) reported his activities to the Ukrainian security forces, since he knew that Tsymbalyuk was a priest and would therefore “immediately go running to the SBU.”  German says that he knew the murder would be staged but he had to provide “an imitation of work” for his friend/hirer, whom he named as Vyacheslav Pivovarnik.

The security services responded by insisting that German was *not* one of their agents, and he has been remanded for two months.  What next?  I can hardly wait to find out.  No doubt the mystification will continue.

Meanwhile, Babchenko himself has given his first press conference, which you can watch (mainly in Russian) here:

In it, an obviously stressed, defensive, and exhausted Babchenko fields questions about the ethics of the operation, which he justifies as necessary to save his life, and perfectly legal to boot.  He avoids answering the direct question of how many of his family members knew about the operation, saying “We’re all adults here–those who needed to know, knew,” but admits that his wife was deliberately kept out of the country until shortly before the operation, when she was brought in to play her part.  And he bursts out, quite reasonably, against those who try to bring up his children and/or interview them–he’s also issued sharply worded threats on social media to those who have harassed his children at home, and has posted their names and telephone numbers.

No doubt this was, as Babchenko claims, a horrendously stressful time for him and his family, and it is all too possible that there really was a hit out on him.  At the same time, he seems shocked at the outrage of his friends, colleagues, and the international community.  When the subterfuge was first revealed I wrote about how I saw Babchenko as the Holy Fool of modern Russian letters; the next day I discussed in more detail his role as a story-teller, not a truth-teller (at least not truth as in objective facts).  Certainly he is a kind of court fool, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, of contemporary Russian journalism and literature, and someone who can’t keep his mouth shut to save his life–as one journalist asks him in the interview posted above, if all he wants as he claims is a quiet life, why was his first move after his “resurrection” to post about how he was going to “dance on Putin’s grave”?

In the video Babchenko goes on a tirade about how he personally hates Putin with a fiery hatred, which I can well believe.  And I have no doubt that Babchenko has the courage of his convictions.  But he’s also at heart a trickster and a jokester, which makes him a poor vessel for Western (or anyone else’s) hopes and dreams.  And like any trickster, he doesn’t seem to deal well with others’ expectations and demands.  He genuinely doesn’t seem to get why friends and colleagues would be devastated at his loss and then enraged when he popped back up again, or what a terrible breach of trust such a public prank is to everyone involved, and how mortifying it is to his colleagues to have broken down and cried on camera as reports of his death started rolling in–only to be revealed as gullible victims. As his (former) friend and colleagues at Novaya gazeta says, the fact that the story caught fire so quickly despite having as its source nothing but police statements, “revealed our general incompetence and compromised traditional methods of fact-checking.”  And neither Babchenko nor the Ukrainian SBU seem to get that even though it’s “legal” to fake a crime, doesn’t mean it’s okay to very publicly trick Novaya gazeta, The New York Times, Le Monde, the BBC, and so on and so forth.  There’s a story about the boy who cried wolf that they might find instructive to hear.

But now we come to where it gets tricky (haha!).  Supposedly representatives from the Ukrainian government have been hauled before the G7 to answer for what they’ve done.  What?!?  Who gives the G7 the power to jerk around and chastise a sovereign government?  Where’s all that lofty rhetoric about Ukraine as a fully independent nation?  Or is, as I’ve always suspected, Ukraine just seen as a toy to squabble over, by the G7 as much as by Russia.  Western leaders talk a good game about Ukraine’s autonomy and sovereign status, but what they *really* seem to mean is that they want Ukraine as *their* sphere of influence, not Russia’s, and they don’t have a problem making (sometimes outrageous) demands on its government for rapid reform and calling it on the carpet when they think it has misbehaved.

And then there’s also the problem that with this prank Arkady has subverted the image of what a Russian/Ukrainian dissident is supposed to be like.  We prefer our Slavic activists to be brave but doomed martyrs, like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, currently imprisoned in Russia and carrying out an open-ended hunger strike on behalf of other Ukrainian political prisoners, but not himself.  Others have joined in to support him, but so far the Russian authorities seem unlikely to release the Ukrainian political prisoners they are holding.

I’m sure we’ll all be very sad if/when Oleg Sentsov is horribly tortured and/or starves to death under the world’s watching eyes.  But we’ll also believe that that is the way a dissident and an artist should behave.  In our heart of hearts we believe that artists should behave in exemplary ways, and never break taboos, laws, or other people’s perceptions of themselves.  It’s unfortunate that it is the primary act of true artists to cross lines, open up perceptions, and generally disrupt everyone’s vision of themselves and the world.  The trick is in doing it in a way that are both reasonably legal and not too cruel.

Babchenko and the SBU’s stunt fulfills the first criteria, but not the second, something they don’t seem to understand.  But the world doesn’t seem to understand that it doesn’t get to be the arbiter of either Babchenko or Ukraine’s behavior in quite the way it wants to be.  Both of them have shattered the Western perception of the brave but (let’s face it) humorless Russian dissident-martyr, who makes the ultimate but pointless sacrifice for their principles and other people (never themselves–how dare Babchenko act to save his *own* life?!?), and the scrappy little post-Soviet country, which of course is a big believer in truth, freedom, and democracy at heart, and is only naughty because Russia made it be naughty.

As it turns out, some Russian dissidents like a good prank as much as the next person, and Ukraine is entirely capable of being naughty on its own, which is something that, as a sovereign nation, it gets to do.

Meanwhile, #FreeSentsov

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