Society 19 June 2020

A famous actor’s lethal drunk driving splits Russia’s elite

A fatal car crash took place late Monday in downtown Moscow when a jeep drove into oncoming traffic and hit a van at high speed. The driver of the van died in hospital. The man behind the jeep’s wheel was Mikhail Yefremov, a famous actor who has not shied away from criticizing the authorities. His political opinions meant this human tragedy became a mud-slinging match.

  • At the moment of the accident Yefremov, who is known to battle alcoholism, had the equivalent of a bottle of vodka in his blood, as well as traces of narcotics. A video from the site of the crash shows him barely able to stand upright and heavily slurring his words. He faces a prison sentence of up to 12 years, and a court quickly put him under house arrest until August. The actor has admitted his guilt.
  • Yefremov is a famous actor, known and loved by many. He was a stage actor for many years in Moscow’s best theaters and has starred in dozens of films. Yefremov participated in the popular Citizen Poet project in which he read funny poems critical of Putin and the government, performing to packed auditoriums all over the country. He also cooperated with independent TV channel Dozhd.
  • Predictably, the accident was seized on by pro-Kremlin media outlets. Leading propagandist Vladimir Solovyov called a special episode (Rus) of his show ‘Citizen Murderer’ and claimed there is a “liberal crowd of alcoholics who approve of drunkenness”. Other TV shows on state controlled channels took a similar approach.
  • Often screenshots from a few ‘liberal’ posts were used on these shows to illustrate the views of Russia’s apparently united liberal opposition. But this was particularly out of place because ‘liberals’ were deeply divided on the tragedy involving Yefremov. The discussion is not about whether or not Yefremov should be sent to prison. Many Moscow liberals know Efremov personally and expressed sympathy for his situation. Others disagreed, arguing that he understood what he was doing, and it was a crime not a tragedy (one such thread (Rus) already has  more than 600 comments).
  • There was a great deal of argument about how to align ethics with progressive ideas and opposition to the regime. In many ways, it was all reminiscent of the discussion that arose from the recent story of sexual harassment allegations against prominent liberal Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of opposition-leading radio station Ekho Moskvy.

Why the world should care Neither Russia’s so-called liberal opposition elite, nor Kremlin supporters, are as monolithic in their views as it might appear from the outside. Yefremov’s case was a stark indicator of this.