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Text of Remarks by David E. Hoffman During 2010 PMA Ceremony

October 27, 2010

I worked in Russia in the 1990s, and I remember well the violence. In those first years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the rule of law – so essential in a democracy – did not exist. Without enforceable laws and courts that functioned impartially, disputes were settled with coercion and violence.

I know that it became fashionable to say this was ll Boris Yeltsin’s fault, that Russian was chaos in the 1990s. But the truth is that the fault was much deeper – many people don’t’ realize this, but in those first years, the laws of the Soviet Union were changed only gradually. Entrepreneurship was against the law in Soviet times. When the country disappeared, there was the dawn of a new system but a lawless space. It took several years to just pass a law on how private enterprise companies could function. Yeltsin certainly is to blame for this – he didn’t build rule of law fast or carefully enough – but it is important to understand that this was a vacuum , a space without rule of law.

At first it was the businessmen who were victims, but soon it became the journalists too. When I look down the lists of the journalists who have died int he line of duty, I see some who were my friends and sources in the 1990s.

Two in particular stand out.

Valery Ivanov was a courageous editor of the Togliatti Review and provided me and my researcher then with a great deal of valuable material about the workings of Aftovaz, a huge auto factory there. Ivanov was gunned down April 29, 2002. His assailants have never been caught.

The other was my friend and colleague Ivan Safronov. Ivan had served in the rocket forces and he helped me with some very important stories, including the one about the 1983 false alarm that opens my book The Dead Hand. Ivan was a tall, strapping fellow and to this day I cannot believe that we know the full story of hi death on March 2, 2007, when he fell from a fourth floor staircase window.

Neither of these cases was adequately investigated.

And this lack of rule of law which I mentioned earlier persists now, almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I know that both President Medvedev and then-President Putin have paid lip-service to establishing the rule of law. Remember that Putin promised “diktatura zakon,” or dictatorship of law, whatever that means, and Medvedev promised to end “legal nihilism,” but the fact is they have not.

Rule of law means that no one is above the law. But we see now that some people in Russia think they are above the law. We see it in the reaction to Ilya’s recent article exposing the Moscow riot police and their methods.

Ilya’s investigations are a testament to the courage of all journalists in Russia who work against such terrible odds. This kind of work is not glamorous and not easy. There is a great deal of secrecy, threats, and coercion.

And there must be days, many days, when you ask yourself, Ilya, is it worth it? Why do this? Why get up every day and go out to ask these difficult questions and put yourself at risk?

And I am sure that there are days when you must ask, if Russia has been without rule of law for two decades of post-Soviet history, what will the next two decades bring? If this is what Russia inherited after seven decades of Soviet rule, then was it really worth it, all this effort to end the Soviet system? Will things ever change?

Ilya, and to all of us, I want to say, yes. It is worth it, and here is why.

What the Soviet Union lacked was a functioning civil society. Civil society is the glue, or the sinews, that connect the rulers and the ruled in a democracy. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Part and it extinguished any other organization or person – there was no oxygen for others.

Now since the Soviet collapse, there have been some new green shoots of grass growing up – there has been a change. There is some oxygen. Russia today is not the Soviet Union. It is not an absolute dictatorship. Rather, Russia is at a crossroads. After communism, it did not develop as a full democracy. It has gone backwards in recent years.

But I think we should not entirely despair about the press in Russia today. The New Times has 50,000 readers and about 300,000 visitors a month to its web site. The magazine is distributed in all the major cities of Russia, and winds up on the desk of Putin and Medvedev.

In fact there is a fair measure of press independence today in the non-government media – print, radio, Internet and some television. Some do their best to expose the government while others are openly analytical or carry angry opinions.

These are tender green shoots of civil society. They have not been extinguished. Now they are small; they are often struggling – the New Times has difficulty gaining advertising – and they are easily intimidated. But fortunately they are surviving.

Meanwhile, the big media, such as state television, commands a huge audience. The big media are controlled by the state and don’t make waves.

When the small independent press makes noise, it is often ignored by the authorities. Scandals can be uncovered, but no one reacts. The powers either ignore it or intimidate it.

There is no link – no glue – no sinews – between the rulers and the ruled.

But this is not so much the fault of journalism. It is bigger than just journalism. Much bigger.

The rulers have sucked up the oxygen for free politics.

They have failed to build a rule of law.

Moreover, there is a certain passivity among your readers today. People are focused on personal freedoms and standard of living. They do not protests against the authorities. My good friend Masha Lipman has written, “the atomization and passivity of Russian society makes matters worse.. even the advanced and critically-minded audiences of alternative news outlets do not take action and do not seem to mind that the government keeps them from participating in national affairs.”

This is not a healthy situation. It is not good to have rulers who are not accountable to the ruled. It is not good to have a people who are indifferent to these kind of rulers.

But the situation is not hopeless.

When society changes – and I think it will – they will need you, Ilya. That is why you should get up every morning eager to continue your work. To use some stale words from another era, you are the vanguard, you are a pioneer! Everyone else will come. You need to be there for the day when civil society and rule of law will be created.

I cannot say how long it will take, but inevitably the courage of your work will feed a feeling among people that something must be done.

So realize that your articles are part of making history in Russia, making a new society, building a new democracy. All around you it may seem like a dry desert – but you are a green shoot of grass. You are an example of what has gone right with Russia since the collapse of communism.

Don’t give up!

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.