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World & Nation

Prophetic Russia novelist Voinovich speaks of Putin era’s end

Writer Vladimir Voinovich has spent decades skewering Russia’s bureaucracy and power structure — and in some cases predicting the future with uncanny accuracy. Soviet officials punished him by stripping him of his citizenship in 1980 and expelling him.

Six years later, writing from exile, he published the novel “Moscow 2042.” It described a shrunken, post-Soviet Russia run by a former KGB spy who had been stationed in Germany. That was years before Vladimir Putin, a former spy based in Germany, actually did rise to power. Voinovich, now 79, returned to Russia in 1990. He sat down with the Los Angeles Times last week to discuss the protest movement against Putin.

How did you manage to predict back in 1986 that Putin would rise to power in Russia?

When the Soviet power was drowning in its own senility and decay, I already had a feeling that it was time for the KGB to step in and take control. They had been loyal servants to the [Communist] Party throughout its history, but they were also much more cynical and better educated than their party bosses.... And I sensed that a time would come when they dared to ask for a bigger price for their loyalty.

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Do you find things in common between Putin’s United Russia party and the CPGB [Communist Party of State Security], the ruling party in your book?

Of course I do. United Russia is typical of the CPGB from my book, consisting of former Communist Party members and former KGB agents, none of them professing any ideology except a career motivation and an urge for material and monetary gains. People call them a party of swindlers and thieves. But whatever they do now, even if they expose and expel all the thieves from their ranks, they have been forever branded.... Any move they make next will make their position not better, but worse.

Has Putin been re-creating the Soviet Union?

Not really.... They have been restoring the old Soviet-type political structure because this is the only way they believe they can manage and control the country and divide among themselves and appropriate its immense wealth and resources. I recall how back in the ‘80s [Russian nuclear scientist-turned-dissident Andrei] Sakharov said that the KGB was the only state body free of corruption. Now we can say that he somewhat underestimated them.

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What has Putin done wrong? He was extremely popular when he started. He still commands enough popularity to be elected president in March, doesn’t he?

Frankly, I am already beginning to doubt that. Putin’s big problem is that now he absolutely needs to win a fair election to be legitimate, but he simply can’t have a fair election because his opponents were all picked according to his plan and his rules.... In 1999 Putin more or less corresponded to the times, but in the course of the decade he has gotten hopelessly outdated as a leader, like a typewriter in the era of computers. He kept appearing on television every night and ordering government ministers to raise pensions, to save people from fires and all that, and people loved that, but it went on and on for years.

And then this other guy [President Dmitry Medvedev] joined in and they did the same old act with variations one after another every night.... And finally the two leaders admitted they had conspired four years ago to trade places. And that became the beginning of their undoing.

Why all of a sudden did the opposition rallies last December draw so many people?

It is believed that the previous [2007] parliamentary elections were not much fairer than the last vote in December. People saw that too, but they were sitting in their kitchens, grumbling to themselves.... But now the Internet and social networks like Facebook succeeded in uniting all these individual kitchens in one huge common kitchen, and people saw they were not alone in their frustration and anger.

Do you think Putin can reverse things?

Putin is making a big mistake again if he thinks that a 100,000-strong demonstration is not big enough to topple him, and that millions of those who didn’t join the protests are on his side. They are not on his side. They are just being silent for now.... It doesn’t matter if Putin soon produces a very new, a very liberal and convincing program. People won’t listen, as they don’t love him anymore.... It is all over for him.... The sooner he realizes that and the sooner he cedes power, the better for him.

What if Putin decides to suppress the opposition by force?

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If Putin chooses to stay and respond to the growing popular resistance with violence, it will be very bad for the country, but it will be even worse for Putin.

I know the mood in the army and the mood in the police. In a real crisis they won’t defend Putin. And Putin’s rich friends will be in no hurry to come to his rescue, I am sure.

How much time do you give Putin?

In 1991 during the August coup [against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev] I said … that the putschists wouldn’t last a month. They lasted three days. Now my prediction is that Putin won’t last two years as Russia’s ruler, at best. But I won’t rule it out that he will not get elected at all.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com


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