A ‘Lives of Others’ Strategy For the Sochi Olympics

December 11, 2013

In a blow to President Vladimir Putin, German President Joachim Gauck’s has declined an invitation to attend the Sochi Olympic games. President Gauck’s gesture is also a boost for opposition leaders who believe the attendance by foreign dignitaries at the games would legitimize Putin and give tacit acceptance to his mounting campaign against Russia’s democracy movement.

Anyone who does go to Sochi will themselves be subject to many of the same restrictions that ordinary Russians face. By decree, there will be no demonstrations in Sochi for the duration of the Olympic Games. In addition, say experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Russian security services will conduct intrusive surveillance of visitors, including of their laptops and cell phones. According to Soldatov and Borogan, Russian authorities are more worried about the threat of foreign ideological subversion than terrorism.

The U.S. State Department has advised travelers to leave these devices at home, or wipe them clean of private data. What if instead, visitors brought to Sochi cell phones and laptops loaded with material designed to persuade the eavesdroppers to desert Putin?

The importance of changing the minds of those in power was central to one of the most famous documents of anti-communist dissent Vaclav Havel’s essay, The Power of the Powerless. In it, Havel writes of a communist everyman, a greengrocer, who one day suddenly stops hanging a Party slogan in his shop window and begins to “live within the truth,” discovering “his suppressed identity and dignity” and learning to “express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support.” For Havel, the power of “living in truth” was its potential to unleash the same transformation among those inside the communist regime, “that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth….”

One such person is Alexander Kazmin, a police officer, was called to support the government’s charges of assault against Mikhail Kosenko, a participant in a May 6, 2012 democracy demonstration in Moscow that turned violent. When asked by the prosecution to identify Kosenko, as his attacker, Officer Kazmin refused. “I am not Russian trash,” Officer Kazmin said, according to the Moscow Times, when he testified that he didn’t recognize Kosenko and did not want him to go to jail. Nevertheless, Kosenko, described by an independent psychiatrist as non-violent, was found guilty and sentenced to compulsory, indefinite psychiatric treatment.

Admittedly, agents of Russia’s security services might not be moved by Havel’s elliptical language and abstract arguments. It might be better to emulate Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese human rights lawyer.  When Public Security Bureau agents follow him during sensitive political events, like the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre,  Pu screens the movie The Lives of Others in a conference room at his law office. The 2006, Oscar-winning film is about an East German State security (Stasi) agent and the playwright he has been assigned to spy on. In the film, moved at first by the poetry and music he overhears, the Stasi agent begins to sympathize with the playwright and ultimately protects him from the regime.

Encouraging people to abandon Russia’s repressive machinery is the implicit goal of the U.S. law adopted last year that seeks to penalize Russians responsible for gross human rights abuses and corruption. So far, the number of people sanctioned under the act, named for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail while struggling to expose official corruption, is small — 18 on a public list and an unknown number on a classified list. (A new list is due this week.) The important – and perhaps unknowable number – is how many Russians react to the Magnitsky sanctions by privately refusing to carry out the regime’s repressive program, choosing self-respect instead.

Hosting the games does not lead automatically to liberalization. If anything, Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic games turned out to be a net loss for freedom and human rights. The Communist Party rounded up dissidents and dictated news coverage, before and during the games, and still does. Today the Party is engaged in a new round of arrests and General Secretary Xi Jinping is arrogating new powers to himself. South Korea’s democratic transition in the late 1980s, often cited as an example of how hosting the games led to liberalization, owed as much or more to other factors, including pressure by the U.S. at crucial moments.

World leaders should follow President Gauck’s example. But anyone who does attend might consider turning Russia’s surveillance program back on itself, delivering to the regime’s foot soldiers films, poetry and music containing themes like empathy for suffering and admiration for the struggle for freedom. Or shame. Visitors might load up iPads and cell phones with the memoirs of dissidents, like the nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, or for that matter the KGB files on him published by Yale University Press, so that they will know their treatment of today’s Russian resisters will be preserved for future generations – including their own children – and think better of it.