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November 2, 2004


Matvienko Speaks Her (President's) Mind
by Alexander Podrabinek

A remarkably frank statement was made by the Governor of St. Petersburg in an interview with the magazine Itogi. Asked whether it would not be better for Russia to be a parliamentary republic without a president, Valentina Matvienko answered, “No, it is not necessary for us, we are not ready for such an experiment! The mentality of a Russian requires a Czar, a President…in a word, one-man leadership”.

  This statement should have been the main slogan of Vladimir Putin’s last  electoral campaign for the presidency. The statement holds the essence of  the Kremlin’s current policy, and the relationship of the powers to the  people. It contains a confirmation of the so-called “vertical of  authority”, the destruction of federalism, and reduction of civil  freedom. Such an attitude towards the citizen neglects the constitution  and laws, shows hatred towards the concept of freedom of speech, and  contempt for human rights. Such a view of the relations between the  powers and society nullifies the independence of the judiciary and the  choice of leaders by means of democratic elections. For what purpose are  all these complex democratic processes and structures when a baron, Czar  or president can simply answer any question himself ? Such is the logic of  today’s Kremlin, trumpeted out by Ms. Matvienko. 

Naturally the idea of autocracy is nothing new. It has merely become slightly dusty. The old Stalinist hymn has been brought out of the closet and dusted off as a Russian hymn. The autocratic “values” will also be brought out of the closet, dusted off, and dressed in supposedly democratic clothing.  Thus clothed, one will not hesitate to call oneself democratic, while also being proud of the “special historical path” of the country. 

Generally speaking, the question of who is a baron and who a lackey is a matter of personal opinion. It would not be a problem as such if the average citizen considered Valentina Matvienko to be a lackey or, if possessed with a particularly violent imagination, a baron. Heaven forbid! However, she is a governor, chosen to assert the democratic order in her province. Should the values of autocracy be closer to her than those of democracy, then she should leave her post and join the ranks of the adherents of autocracy: adherents not many in number, but here nonetheless. And nobody will say anything insulting to her, for she lives in something resembling a democratic system with something resembling freedom of speech. But no, Matvienko will not resign, and the president will not request her to. Or maybe just scold her for her inadmissible frankness? 

The Movement for Human Rights has demanded the governor quit, accusing her of racism, infringements against the constitution and against the law concerning “countering extremist activity”. Russia is surely a country of contrasts: the governor sees the people as cattle unworthy of a parliamentary system, while human rights activists accuse the governor of extremism for her autocratic statements (propaganda of the inferiority of citizens as a national attribute, the degrading of national honor). If the expression of points of view is considered extremist, then not much will remain of the concept of freedom of speech, not exactly an alien concept to the human rights activists themselves. The law on extremism might please Alexander Pushkin, were he alive today; once saying that Russians are “lazy and uninteresting”. 

In all honesty, the question of whether the thirst for freedom is stronger than humility before the authorities remains debatable. But Valentina Matvienko is mistaken in asserting that “we are not ready for such an experiment”. This is not an experiment but an attempt to escape centuries-old state oppression and move forward on the road to stable democracy. The first attempt at the start of the last century ended unsuccessfully, with decades of Bolshevism and Stalinist dictatorship. The second attempt, starting at the end of the 1980’s, similarly is ending in failure. And this is maybe not so much due to the mentality of the Russian citizen, supposedly used to autocracy; but rather the political elite, feeling itself to be simultaneously the servants of the Kremlin and the masters over the Russian people.

Alexander Podrabinek is an editor in chief of the Prima News Human Rights Service. The Prima News Human Rights Service web site may be found at

The Russian language version of this article can be found here.

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