Russia’s parliament – called the “Duma” in homage to parliamentary democracy under the Romanovs, an echo as incongruous in its own way as the hearkening of America’s deliberative assembly to the Senate of ancient Rome – is, of course, a misnomer. In fact, the body in question owes nothing to its imperial predecessor and everything to their common progenitor in the Kievan Russia of the early Middle Ages, the “Boyar Duma” that was essentially the curia of the feudal chieftain, packed with his vassals and expected to clothe his inchoate wishes in legislative garb.
“Chieftain” was, of course, the appellation of choice for generations of Russia’s vozhdi from the entombment of Lenin onwards. Now as then, a vast majority of the chieftain’s wishes bypass his curia altogether, becoming the law of the land de facto without the nuisance of de jure, yet still the Duma keeps busy. In the main, its deputies occupy themselves by devising proposals so modest they seem to have sprung fully formed, like Athena out of the head of Zeus, from the naughty mind of Jonathan Swift.
Not so long ago, for instance, national legislation was put forward banning high heels – excuse me, I mean, high heels worn by women. No high heels for women. In public or in private. Anywhere across nine time zones, from Magadan to Vladivostok to Yakutsk to Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk to Omsk to Yekaterinburg to Moscow to Kaliningrad.
Forget Peoria, that kind of thing wouldn’t play in Riyadh. And so – not surprisingly, one might think – the queer piece of legislation never made it past the committee stage. Oddly enough, however, a ban on (how shall I put it? dessous en dentelle? oh, to hell with it, Moose Malloy says it, why can’t I?) lace pants – again, for women – has now gone through and becomes law this month.
A deputy by the name of Elena Mizulina heads the Duma’s “Committee on Family, Women, and Children,” where many of these Lilliput proposals, some successful, some not, have originated. Mizulina is credited with opposition to the phrase “gays are people too,” though not on the obvious grounds that the Good Lord made His position in this regard sufficiently clear, but because – observe the artful collage of Soviet banality and Western scaremongering –“the phrase is potentially extremist.”
Unlike the shoes and the pants, a more recent trick up Mizulina’s sleeve may have been inspired by the chieftain’s wish to hear no voice save his own, chieftains’ privilege from Beowulf to Hitler. That is “Clean Internet,” filtered by providers to eliminate Western smut, for what is criticism of the beloved chieftain if not Western smut – unless, of course, it is potential extremism? “She is proposing the Russian version of the Great Firewall of China,” comments Dutch-owned Moscow Times, noting an improvement on the Chinese model that will make Russia “the world leader in Internet censorship.” Chinese censors only filter foreign sites, whereas Mizulina’s “Clean Internet” would zap the lot of them across nine time zones, from Magadan to Vladivostok, et cetera.
If the wishes of Russia’s chieftain, like those of Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad, do not add up to a coherent global strategy, all of the above is amusing to the point of tickling the ribs. But if they do – to the detriment of the non-totalitarian world, such as it is – then the Duma’s ongoing gulliveriana is no laughing matter.
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.