Now that he's officially back in charge, Russian President Vladimir Putin is going after his opponents with a vengeance. But it's not just Western diplomats he's locking horns with these days -- it's also Moscow's most famous gossip columnist.
Bozhena, as she calls herself because she thought the name Yevgenia too boring, is an unexpected heroine in the uprising against Vladimir Putin. The president's system has brought Russia stability and economic growth -- as well as fame and fortune for Bozhena herself. As Moscow's most famous gossip columnist, Bozhena (the "divine") Rynska wrote for the pro-government newspaper Izvestia for years, worked as a lingerie model and fostered close ties with the rich and the beautiful.
"I had affairs and entertained myself," she recounts at a bar in a luxury hotel in Moscow. "Then I woke up because the Kremlin is in the process of destroying Russia."
Bozhena is wearing a tracksuit that looks ordinary enough to make one think she's grown weary of pearl necklaces and low-cut cocktail dresses. Until recently, she was romantically involved with an oligarch who had a KGB past and influence in Russia's metal industry. In Moscow's high-society circles, she's known by the nickname "kitten." It's supposed to indicate that the petite woman is beautiful, cuddly and -- if you ignore all her trash-talking about what the other party-going glitterati are wearing -- completely harmless.
But now Rynska has compared Putin and his clique with Nazis on her blog, the title of which translates loosely to "Aggressive Dog." She posted a photo showing a Russian policeman dragging an 18-year-old female demonstrator from the street in a stranglehold next to one showing Nazi officers hanging a woman in the Soviet Union during World War II. Under the images, she wrote the caption: "I was only following orders."
Rynska's path from glamour girl to Putin opponent is a good illustration of just how radicalized Russian politics have become since Putin returned to the Kremlin in early May. The writer Igor Malyshev speaks disdainfully of a "sadomasochistic pairing of a destructive government and an opposition full of good-for-nothings."
Parts of the opposition want to chase the freshly elected Putin out of office like leaders were during last year's Arab Spring and in Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. They have announced a massive demonstration for Tuesday, June 12, Russia's holiday of national independence.
For its part, Putin's team has lost no time. Immediately after his inauguration on May 7, it launched a genuine counterrevolution. Putin's spokesman suggested that, rather than showing any sympathy for demonstrators, one should "smear their livers on the asphalt." Last week, Putin's United Russia party, which enjoys a majority in parliament, pushed through a law that increases the penalties for people participating in unauthorized protests from a maximum of 5,000 rubles to 300,000 rubles (7,400 or $9,300). What's more, impeding street traffic or wearing a mask now suffices to convict a protester. Putin quickly signed the bill into law last Friday.
The West is outraged. Andreas Schockenhoff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's commissioner for German-Russian cooperation, condemned the new law, while a committee of the Council of Europe said that: "The dynamic activity of (Russian) society should be used to implement reforms instead of being suppressed."
Putin has had prominent opposition figures pursued with particular doggedness. In December, Rynska was temporarily detained for participating in an unauthorized demonstration against alleged electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections. "Next time, maybe I'll take along a nail and scratch out the cop's eyes," she wrote in a blog post at the time, adding that anyone who messed with her would be torn apart "as if by an attack dog." In early June, this public fit of anger won Rynska a preliminary judicial investigation on possible charges of "insulting a public official." If found guilty, she could face up to a year in jail.
Officials also stripped Gennady Gudkov, a leading member of the opposition party Just Russia, of his private security firm's license just after he had organized street protests against Putin.
Likewise, intelligence officials have eavesdropped on Putin opponents such as human rights advocate Lev Ponomaryov and the popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny while they were meeting with diplomats and high-ranking politicians from the West, including Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Soon thereafter, the Kremlin-cozy tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ran excerpts of the secretly recorded conversations that made it sound like the Putin opponents were accepting money from Western entities.
Putin is no longer even trying to hide the fact that the battle against his opponents is being waged in an extralegal fashion. He doesn't care what the West thinks, and he has no qualms about having his intelligence services not only bug top EU officials like Bildt, but also release their recordings to the public.
On Monday, the day before the big planned protest, Russian authorities searched the homes of several prominent opposition members, including that of anti-corruption blogger Navalny, the country's criminal investigation agency said. The action was part of an investigation into violence against police during a May 6 Moscow protest.
Rynska thinks it's pointless for opposition and government figures to hold talks. "The other side only thinks about whacking us with a billy club," she says. Last week, she left Moscow and flew to a film festival in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. Her response to the legal proceedings against her was to publish the text of the legal notice on her blog.
What's more, Rynska isn't afraid to let anyone know about all the other aspects of Putin's Russia that bother her. She once recounted how she -- yes, she, the divine one herself -- had to wait in line for six endless hours to pick up a package in a Moscow post office. She writes that there was "no chair, no air" and only "a single slowpoke postal worker." In Rynska's recounting, she first wrapped her arms around the uniformed guard, then she prompted some of the men waiting in line to detain him while she handed out the packages herself. "We were done after an hour," she says.
Resistance against the authoritarian state has even started to grow in provincial Russia. In the remote Siberian city of Irkutsk, a livid airplane captain for the state-run carrier Aeroflot reportedly used the onboard loudspeakers to inform his passengers that an on-time takeoff was being delayed because he still had to wait for the arrogant governor. Likewise, on the outskirts of Russia, residents used tree trunks to block a street because they could no longer bear the noise, the ceaseless traffic jams and the exhaust.
Meanwhile, police officers have spoken openly about how their superior officers force them to fabricate charges and engage in corruption. In their free time, doctors have organized fundraising drives to purchase medical equipment because their superiors are diverting public funds into their own pockets.
During the opening of the film festival in Sochi, participants made a point by choosing an image including Bozhena Rynska as the photo of the day. In it, she is walking down a welcoming carpet in a light-blue evening dress under the watchful eyes of smiling policemen dressed in white, short-sleeved shirts.
But should the divine one join in with the anti-Putin protests planned for Tuesday, she'll have to deal with police officers of an entirely different sort. These ones will be bulging with muscles, wearing black helmets and swinging their truncheons.
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
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