Earlier this month, a Russian parliamentarian named Dmitry Gudkov came to Washington -- specifically, to the Dirksen Senate Office Building -- to participate in a conference on the future of U.S.-Russian relations. The discussion, which was titled, "New Approach or Business As Usual? U.S.-EU-Russia Relations After Putin's Crackdown," was hosted by three organizations: Freedom House, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Institute of Modern Russia (full disclosure: I am now employed at the Institute).
The substance of Dmitry's remarks in Congress, which I'll get to in a minute, were beside the point for the vast state apparatus that has determined what's happened to him since. Rather, it was his mere presence at such a venue, and in such a forum, that was labeled the height of treachery, if not a prosecutable offense. "Just showing up" might constitute 80 percent of success for Woody Allen, but for a Russian dissident the rewards are slightly harder to come by.
Gudkov's mere presence at such a venue, and in such a forum, was labeled the height of treachery, if not a prosecutable offense.
Gudkov was joined by Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who is to modern dissidence what Steve Jobs was to personal computing, Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister of Russia, and Kristiina Ojuland, the former foreign minister of Estonia and an outspoken Kremlin critic in the European parliament. All shared roughly the same view: that the Putin regime was escalating its attacks on Russian human rights and civil liberties and that the United States -- and Europe -- do indeed have a role to play in trying to stymie or reverse this grim trend.
The conference's keynote speakers were Maryland Democrat Sen. Benjamin Cardin and Massachusetts Republican Rep. James McGovern, the architects of the newly passed Magnitsky Act, which aims to impose asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials credibly accused of gross human rights violations.
Of the three Russians in attendance, two were either immune from overweening state criticism or simply dismissed given their longtime status as anti-Kremlin foils. Alexeyeva was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; at 85, she has defied yet another Russian government in refusing to register her internationally famous, and internationally underwritten, non-governmental organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, as a "foreign agent." "We survived the Soviet power, and we'll survive this," she has previously said, and no doubt she is right. Kasyanov, who had served in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin, was dismissed along with every other minister from Putin's cabinet in 2004; he is now the co-chairman of an "unofficial" opposition party called the Republican Party of Russia - People's Freedom Party , or PARNAS for short. He's been a longtime member of the anti-Putin opposition. But the third Russian was something new altogether.
At 33, Dmitry Gudkov bears a slight resemblance to the actor Jake Gyllenhaal , and he's got a not-bad jump shot. He was a point guard in the Russian National Junior Team alongside current Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko. Gudkov was elected to the Duma in December 2011 as a member of Just Russia, one of three "official" or regime-tolerated opposition parties in the country. Previously thought to be no different from the other two minority parties that offer up token challenges to whatever policy or platform is laid down by the Kremlin, Just Russia exhibited signs of daring independence, largely embodied in Gudkov himself. In October 2012, he was elected in an online vote to the Coordination Council, a small assembly of dissidents of varying backgrounds and ideologies, dedicated to creating a sort of parallel polis for Russia's embattled opposition and strategizing how to take the large protest movement that occupied Bolotnaya Square for a few remarkable days two winters ago into the homes of ordinary Russians.
Gudkov was one of eight deputies to vote against the Dima Yakovlev Law, which, inter alia, has banned Americans from adopting of Russian orphans. He then drafted a Duma bill that would scupper the ban. Last July, Dmitry joined his father Gennady Gudkov, at the time also a deputy from Just Russia, in leading an 11-hour Duma filibuster, or "Italian strike," aimed at preventing the passage of a bill that would increase the fines for any unsanctioned civil protests in Russia. The bill passed, and soon came to be seen as one of Putin's inaugural acts of retaliation against those who believe that Russian democracy needn't be managed, much less falsified.
It was the first filibuster in Duma history and caused many otherwise skeptical Russia analysts to wonder at the promise of Gudkov pere et fils, particularly because pere, like so many politicians in Russia, is a former KGB officer. Gennady has since become a popular fixture within the opposition for his anti-Putin philippics. He foresaw the Duma electoral fraud coming and warned it would lead to mass opposition. "Even a rabbit driven into a corner can turn into a beast," he said in November 2011. Gennady was expelled from the Duma in August 2012 following allegations from the Investigative Committee that he profited from a construction supply company during his legislative tenure, violating a law that prohibits deputies from earning revenue through commercial means. His expulsion came after a vote by his peers (291 to 150), but absent any trial.
Even before he returned home to Moscow after speaking at Congress, Dmitry Gudkov discovered that he was the subject of a round-the-clock print and broadcast smear campaign discrediting him as a spy, a knave, and a turncoat.
Vladimir Soloviev, a television host on Rossiya-1, a state-controlled channel which sent an interviewer and cameraman to the Dirksen Building but then decided to report on an event that never took place, had this to say: "I was surprised by the lack of charisma in a young and ambitious politician. I had an impression that he read out remarks prepared by someone else, with poor logic and native analogies, one not backed with numbers. A politician can employ strong language when criticizing authorities domestically but, once outside his country, he must be a patriot... He believes that the U.S. should be directly involved in overthrowing Russian authorities."
Vladimir Shapovalov, the director of the pro-Kremlin Institute of Policy, Law and Social Development claimed that "one can use the phrase 'anti-government activities' ... This is something that an ordinary citizen shouldn't have said, let alone a politician ... Gudkov demonstrates an example of colonial thinking."
Maxim Rudnev , a member of the Young Guard of United Russia, another Putinist youth movement, thought Gudkov was serving in the wrong legislature: "Dmitry wants to be a representative of Washington in the State Duma and protect the U.S. interests... I think that Gudkov must turn in his MP card and find another job... There shouldn't be U.S. puppets in government bodies that lobby the interests of another state."
Duma Vice Speaker Sergei Zheleznyak wrote on his Facebook page: "A politician who has decided to act in the interests of another country and who seeks its support, is a traitor to his country and to his people."
A letter formally branding Gudkov a traitor and asking for a parliamentary investigation into his activities was signed by all factions in the Duma, including Just Russia, the ruling United Russia, the Communist Party, and the wondrously paradoxically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The letter read: "We believe that Gudkov's statements are effectively tantamount to calls for illegal acts that violate the sovereignty of the Russian state." LDPR, according to leaked State Department cables, is suspected by at a top Spanish prosecutor of having been a whole cloth invention of the Russian security services; its head, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is best thought of as where Borat meets Slobodan Milosevic, demanded that Gudkov be indicted for "treason," a crime punishable by up two decades in prison.