Recently Moscow film maker and community activist Michael Schulmann was badly beaten for standing up to what was wrong in Moscow. In the over arching spectrum of what is happening globally this is just one small grubby bullying attack, but this time it personal for me because Michael is a relative.
For some time I have had grave concerns about democracy and the rule of law in Russia. The latest elections only seem to confirm that Vladimir Putin is making Hugo Chavez look like a paragon of democratic virtue. I have heard about fear of those with power, stories of people being beaten for expressing opposition to the kleptocracy in power, and other stories that seem completely out of sync for a well read and highly educated society. Recently it has become very personal - a 4th cousin of mine was beaten in Moscow for standing up to them.
Fast forward to only a couple of years ago and Michael managed to find the rest of the Schulmann family. I am now in contact with him and his wife Catherine. Getting emails and such from Catherine Schulmann is odd for me given that I was married to Catherine Novak for 16 years. The circumstances that defined how his life and my life have evolved only differed because of where each of our parts of the family were living in 1917.
Michael and Catherine, along with Michael's sister and some other extended relatives, own a number of apartments in a building in central Moscow. Real estate in central Moscow is now worth a huge fortune and there are people who want to get properties for free, the kleptocracy in action. Various apartments have been taken from their owners through what I can only call brute force.
Author Masha Gessen who blogs for the New York Times wrote about an attack on Michael.
Viktor Zhurbinov wanted an attic loft in the building that belonged to Michael but Michael fought back and was actually successful in the courts to get it back. Shortly thereafter he was beaten badly enough by some of what seem to be members of the Nashi and end up in the ICU. Michael has been in trouble with these pro-government youth gangs for speaking out against their violence and intimidation in the past. This was not the first attack on him.
Catherine left the Moscow with their two kids, she does not know when it will be safe for them to return to Moscow. Their second child was just born and now she has to be on the road. She was written about it all on her own blog, though it is in Russian and translation programs only give a jist of what she has written.
What is happening to them in Moscow reminds me how important a strong civil society is. When the rule of law breaks down and thugs with the most physical might gain the upper hand, having anything approaching a free and fair society disappears. This recent attack on Michael, which was shortly before the presidential election, is going to work as an effective intimidation of people who might consider speaking out.
I would like to think I would have the courage Michael has to speak out, that sort of courage is needed in all societies to make sure the bullies do not win.
I had also thought this sort of thing was part of the past for my family. When my aunt was released from the gulag in 1957 and allowed to come to the west, everyone thought that was the end of the anyone having to be in fear of the political climate of a country.