With the resurgence of political protest in Russia in 2012 and the emergence of the Pussy Riot scandal which is slowly transforming Russian society there is one figure whose name is rarely uttered and yet who points to an experience that is essential to understand the Russia of the past two decades. Without knowing how Russia got here it is surely condemning itself to repeating the mistakes that it has been making until now. The story of Stanislav Markelov is one that in many ways represents one that is rarely told about Russia in the mainstream Western press and gives us other clues about what is happening in Russia today.
Gunned down by Neo-Nazis in the centre of Moscow near Kropotkinsaya metro station alongside anti-fascist journalist Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov was one of those rare figures who saw things clearly when others were losing their heads. At the age of nineteen Stanislav Markelov joined a few others in saving lives in Yeltsin’s October 1993 crackdown on internal opposition. While many great writers, poets and essayists signed a collective letter to ‘eliminate these scum’ (and there is no doubt about it many of these figures were the cream of the Russian intellighentsia) only a few lifted their voices or hands to act otherwise. One of these was Andrei Sinyavsky who went on to write a scathing portrait of the Russian intelligentsia which still deserves to be read today. Another was Markelov who worked with the Maximilian Voloshin sanitary brigade attempting to save the lives of many of those who may have been his political opponents at a later point.
Experiencing at first hand what repression under Yeltsin looked like, Markelov turned to the Left and not to the right or to neo-liberalism as much of the intelligentsia had done in the next decade or so. In the silent (and often dark) years of the mid 1990s and the early noughties Markelov worked with independent trade unionists, anti-fascists, political prisoners as well as victims of war crimes in Chechnya (Markelov, as a lawyer, was to win the only conviction for war crimes in Checnya in a Russian court). He himself characterised his position as that of a Left Social Democrat – a position at that time of near complete isolation politically. While Ziuganov’s communists were flirting with nationalists and Orthodox fanatics and purging any internal groups who came out with a leftist position, most liberals didn’t break with the political elites until 2003 at the time of the Khodorkovsky trial and a whole morass of Black Hundred mythology along with proto-monarchist ideology swept through whole swathes of Russian lower middle class society as the ‘common sense’ of the time.
Markelov was one of the lone figures to start to picture things as a whole. To see the links with the privatisation scandals of the 1990s and the orgy of nationalistic rhetoric under Putin (his brilliantly polemical essay ‘Patriotism as Daignosis” does an excellent job of unmasking these facts), he was the first to defend human rights cases of left wing activists which many of the established liberal human rights advocates were wary of and he was also one of the few figures to establish links with Social Forums in Western Europe (and for his pains on one what was one of his only trips outside of Russia and Belarussia he was hit over the head with a Swedish police truncheon at the Malmo Social Forum) in contrast to the many Russian liberals who were only happy to pour scorn on the feckless European working classes and whose comments on the French revolts in the banlieu or on the English riots last summer make the Le Pens & assorted British reactionaries seem rather moderate.
Stanislav Markelov was the kind of figure who never fit any boxes. A leftist he didn’t suffer from nostalgia for the Soviet Union; a lawyer who spent most of his time defending victims of political repression, he never ignored social and economic realities; one of the most acerbic and radical critics of Russian nationalism he never thought that Russia should imitate the west but rather discover its own path which bypassed neoliberalism. His self-description as Left Social Democrat was complicated by the fact that he was one the least sectarian figures that the Left has ever had – he worked with anti-fascists, anarchists, student revolutionaries, and yes the nobler reaches of the liberal intelligentsia – the Anna Politkovskaya’s and Natalia Estemirova’s – who fought tooth and nail with their lives against the political authoritarianism that has been the legacy of Yeltsin’s economic experiment and carried on under Putin with a few changes of scenery.
In the next few months I’m hoping, if time and resources permit, to translate some of Markelov’s incisive essays, interventions and interviews in the hope that they eventually can become more widely available (and the hope that some leftist publishing house will eventually decide to publish his writings as a whole). Markelov was not a theorist like Antonio Gramsci but many of his thoughts do have their own significance – they are witnesses to a recent history rarely told either in Russia or abroad about Russia and contain a point of view about Russia that all too rarely gets heard (even amongst the European Left).
In terms of his relentless struggle agianst political and social repression of all forms, Markelov surely represented a strain of leftism most perfectly embodied in Victor Serge.