Marking the 40th anniversary of the Day of political prisoners in the USSR
There have always been political prisoners in Russia because the regime in the country has never been liberal enough. Political repressions of varying scale and type are connected directly to the lack of the rule of law, disregard to personal freedoms, obsession with collective values, mythologising of special Russian spirituality, and a special path for the Russian people. Thus, elimination of one of these factors will be useless to society, whose collective memory is so limited that, according to numerous public statements, the whole 20th century comes down to victory in the World War II. Only thoughtful understanding of historical events, including the most shameful ones, can give this country a new impulse for development. But instead, we keep playing the favourite game of totalitarian societies i.e. re-writing history: public speeches about the “controversial” role of Stalin, appeals to “stop black-washing the entire Soviet period”, bringing back the anthem of the failed state, discussions about the re-erection of the monument to Dzerzhinsky, etc. Instead of being considered as extravagant initiatives, these appeals are treated as logical steps under new political circumstances.
Things were not always like this. For a period of modern Russian history, there was hope that the legacy of the shadowy past of 20th century Russia might be overcome. That period started with President Yeltsin’s speech in the Hungarian State Assembly in November 1992. He acknowledged the crimes of the Soviet totalitarian regime. However, it took only 10 years to bring the shadowy past back into the present. The government creates internal and external “enemies” at a rate of knots and keeps breeding its “Big Brother” complex. A considerable percentage of the Russian population supports the imperial ambitions of the country. More people refuse to express their opinion in public if their views differ from the majority point of view (meanwhile, the opinion of the majority, according to an old Russian tradition, coincides with official statements of authorities).
How do political repressions happen in the 21st century Russia? The answer is – the same way as they happened in 1920s in Soviet Russia. Political persecutions are camouflaged as criminal prosecutions. Take a close look at the common accusations during the period of New Economic Policy (NEP)! Who was the “advanced guard of Soviet power” in that period, according to Lenin? The People’s Committee of Justice. Who brings about repressions against non-governmental organizations nowadays? The Russian Ministry of Justice in close collaboration with the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Just like in the Soviet period, today’s list of political prisoners includes quite a wide range of personalities and civil initiatives that do not comply with the “mainstream”. Certainly, there are no political (in the literal sense) articles in the Criminal Code of Russia. Nevertheless, a major part of them is known as anti-State articles and focused on the deeds committed by an accused party, not his political opinion about the state or his ideology. Yet, criminal and administrative law has certain norms (and their number is growing every year) that refer to deeds that precede or lead, according to the authorities, to general crimes. As a result, we have a wide “grey zone” of justice, in whose murky waters almost everything is possible. One can fabricate fully or partially a lawsuit against “terrorists” accusing of conspiracy and dissemination of “subversive” materials (information). One can also charge with extremist activity those people and organisations that are accessorial neither to violence nor to rousing hatred for one qualificatory characteristic or another. While in the USSR the scope of similar accusations was narrow and limited to anti-Soviet activities, today it is very large and full of blurry definitions allowing the state to initiate prosecution for almost every reason mentioned above.
Taking this into account, we hope that every year on 30 October – the Memorial Day of the Victims of Political Repressions – the number of people visiting the places of mass executions or participating in the memorial reading of victims’ names will not decrease.
On behalf of the Working Group “Human Rights and the Rule of Law”:
Elena Shakhova, Citizens’ Watch, St. Petersburg
Olga Sadovskaya, Committee Against Torture, Nizhny Novgorod
Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg