What is not simple is Russia. That quintessentially Russian query — What is to be done? — continues to bedevil the Kremlin. The country is, after all, falling apart. The price of oil is down sharply from its high of $147 a barrel in July 2008. The markets have been badly shaken by Putin’s attack on steel giant Mechel, the breakup of the oil conglomerate TNK-BP (during which the Russians none-so-subtly squeezed out their British partners), and last summer’s war with Georgia. And then, of course, there’s the global financial crisis, which has hit Russia particularly hard. On top of all the economic woes, there’s a shrinking population, a military that remains something of a joke and a problem with AIDS. Plus, you still can’t (or shouldn’t) drink a glass of tap water in central Moscow.
All this has aroused Lebedev’s reformist zeal. More than ever, hesays, Russia needs an independent judiciary and legislature, a freepress, real elections, real political parties. The oligarchs, he says,understand that the system cannot survive forever. They are scared andlooking for handouts. (At the top of the list is Oleg Deripaska, headof investment firm Basic Element, which has interests in the aluminum,energy and financial-services sectors among others, and recentlyreceived a $4.5-billion infusion from the state.) “Once they foundthemselves in trouble they started this sort of SOS signal, calling onPutin’s door, ‘Give us the money,’ ” he says. Lebedev says he is notreceiving any government cash, and that the crisis and the bailouts areonly widening the chasm between the “first tier” of people who own (andrun) Russia and everyone else. “The first tier, this is where thecrisis happened. As far as the second tier of the country is concerned,there could be no crisis because the crisis was there permanently, for500 years.”
Russia’s problem, Lebedev thinks, is not Putin but the bureaucracy,which is sprawling and antidemocratic, and stymies reform. “As far asPutin is concerned, I’m not blaming it on him. I think he doesn’t seeit. These TV channels pocket billions of dollars in exchange forflattering Putin.” Lebedev has hopes for Medvedev. He was impressedwith the President’s decision to meet with Novaya Gazetta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov and Gorbachev earlier this year, following the killing of yet another Novaya Gazettareporter. “Medvedev … said he’s a full supporter of the GulagMemorial project,” Lebedev says. (Memorial was the most importanthuman-rights group to emerge from the perestroika era. Foryears it has pushed for a monument in the center of Moscow recallingthe victims of the gulag.) Putin, Lebedev says, would never backanything that subtracted from the Soviet record. “I think Putin thinksthat this commemoration would spoil the everyday spirit,” Lebedev says.”Stalin, for them, represents the state, and sometimes you can seePutin as sort of — in that way.”
But is Lebedev the reformer he sees himself as, or does he playanother role? “There’s a belief — and this existed in Soviet times –that allowing a pressure valve of dissent and allowing certain voicesout there is important for legitimacy,” says Robert Amsterdam, aCanadian attorney in London who has represented Khodorkovsky andfrequently blogs about Russia. “In a strange way, and whether or notLebedev is part of this, he may well be seen as a demonstration of theregime’s legitimacy.” As long as he doesn’t “cross any of theseinvisible lines, Lebedev may actually shield the Kremlin from furthercriticism,” Amsterdam says.