Dmitri Medvedev has entered his last week as president of Russia: on May 7, he will hand back the office to Vladimir Putin. Having served just one four-year term, he will be remembered as one of the country’s shortest-lived rulers. He will also be remembered as one of country’s shortest rulers. At no more than 5’3”, and with his propensity to wear huge Windsor knots, he often looks like a fourth-grader trying on daddy’s business suit.
What else will Russians remember of Medvedev? My guess is, nothing. People do not like to remember being made to look like fools, which is exactly what many Russians feel he did to them.
At the outset, Medvedev reached out to liberals and intellectuals. Weeks before his election, in February 2008, he had announced that his guiding principle was, “freedom is better than unfreedom.” People might have worried about a leader who found it necessary to turn this truism into a grand pronouncement, but, having been left out in the cold during the previous eight years of Putin’s reign, Russian liberals were eager to be engaged again. Over 40 people accepted invitations to join a newly constituted presidential council for human rights and civil society.
At first, they just wrote speeches that the new president would read back to them — and only to them. But after some time, they did real work. They wrote comprehensive reports on the cases of the jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner, recommending that they be released for lack of evidence and because of numerous violations of due process during their trials. And they argued that prison officials be prosecuted for the death of the whistleblower auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who died in sketchy circumstances in a Moscow jail in November 2009. But the reports made no difference.
And so even as more and more people I respected jumped on the Medvedev bandwagon, I remained a proud skeptic. I even wrote that I believed Medvedev was playing first lady to Putin: his actions were ceremonial, I argued, and he was powerless to make policy.
But then it was said that Medvedev was going to support a project that was very important to me: he would sign a decree establishing a museum of Soviet terror on a symbolically important plot of land outside of St. Petersburg. I threw myself into the effort, even convincing a Russian company to contribute a large sum of money.
We were told that Medvedev would sign the decree on Political Prisoner Day, October 30, 2009. Then we were told it would happen in 2010. By last year, we no longer expected it to happen at all.
People now realize how powerless Medvedev was. The popular anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny has called him “pathetic” — in Moscow political conversation, the word has become the president’s nickname. In a poem, the satirist Dmitry Bykov writes that Medvedev is Putin’s “shadow.” And here’s a sentence from a blog post by the prison-rights activist Olga Romanova, “No fallen woman could ever fall as low as Medvedev has.”
As the end of his term approached, Medvedev did try to make a grand gesture: he pardoned Sergei Mokhnatkin, who had been sentenced to two and a half years in prison after an altercation with a policeman on December 31, 2009. Mokhnatkin, a pizza-delivery man, had been walking in central Moscow when he saw the police roughing up an older woman. It turns out that she had been taking part in an illegal protest, and so when Mokhnatkin, who had no knowledge of the demonstration, intervened on her behalf, he was treated as a political agitator.
By the time Medvedev signed the pardon on April 23, though, Mokhnatkin’s term was just about over. And so powerless is Russia’s outgoing president that the prison authorities simply ignored the decree and continued to hold Mokhnatkin. In the end, the activist Romanova went to the prison herself on April 25 and almost literally wrested Mokhnatkin out.
Last week, the members of the punk group Pussy Riot, three of whom are in detention for staging an unauthorized performance in Moscow’s central Orthodox Church, sent Medvedev an open letter. Four years ago, they wrote, they had believed that his inauguration marked the “victory of freedom over unfreedom.” But now, “The end of your presidential term is marked by the victory of unfreedom over freedom in Russia.”
Masha Gessen is a journalist in Moscow. She is the author of “The Man Without a Face,” a biography of Vladimir Putin.