It was an act of Soviet repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s victims and to investigating political persecution in the former Soviet Union, had its St. Petersburg offices raided recently. Acting on a spurious accusation by the Prosecutors Office, masked security agents stormed the internationally acclaimed group’s premises, seizing computer hard drives containing 20 years of work documenting Soviet crimes.
But while Stalin would have disliked the absence of arrests of those documenting his crimes, that may soon change. Almost simultaneous with the Memorial raid, new legislation was submitted to Russia’s parliament, the Duma, that reflects a return to Russia’s sinister, communist past. Concerning a new amendment on the treason law, critics fear the bill will broaden the law’s definition so much it will be used against anti-government dissenters.
According to Russian political analyst, Yevgeny Kiselyov, under the old treason definition one had to commit “a hostile act” that damaged “the external security” of the state to be charged. In the current amendment, the words “hostile” and “external” have been removed. With the words “act” and “security” now standing alone, critics say this allows for a much wider interpretation of the law. Also included as a traitor in the new bill is anyone who renders “financial, technical, consultative or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organizations or their representatives in their activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation...”
Due to this loose definition, some believe the state may now even interpret the new treason legislation any way it pleases, much like in Soviet times. It is suspected the new measure is also meant to curb Russians’ dealings with foreigners, especially with journalists. Contact with foreigners was strictly prohibited in the Soviet era. Even before the new amendment, Russians, especially scientists, had experienced legal difficulties regarding what is considered elsewhere as normal exchanges with foreign colleagues.
Also indicative that a political climate already existed for the new legislation was a recent announcement by the Prosecutors Office in Yekaterinburg that it is considering “sanctions” against journalists who have written about Russia’s current economic troubles. According to the Prosecutors Office, the press, one of the foundations of a democratic society, is actually part of the problem since it is “contributing to the panic.”
The treason amendment, which has passed the Duma’s lower house, is not the only legislation causing Russian human rights activists concern. The Duma also voted recently to ban jury trials on charges of treason and terrorism in favour of a panel of judges. Such charges include “involvement in armed units, violent seizure of power, armed rebellion and mass riots.” Jury trials disappeared in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but were restored in 1993.
Some believe the Russian government is pushing the anti-treason legislation at this point in time because it is preparing for any civil disorders that may arise from the economic crisis sweeping the country. Russia’s is an energy-exporting economy which, one analyst said, relies on a $70 per barrel oil price to stay afloat. Currently at about $50, if the oil price ever dropped to $20 per barrel, there would be “a revolution.”
Although Prime Minister Putin’s popularity rating is high among Russians, much of it is due to the fact the people received a share of the oil riches the last eight years. If this wealth evaporates, and Russians again experience the economic hardships and disorders of the 1990s, then all bets could be off regarding social unrest.
Others believe Putin, a former KGB officer, is simply using the economic crisis to pass legislation to enhance his authority and that of his many former secret police colleagues in the government. They cite the fact that Putin rolled back democratic measures while president; and the latest anti-democratic measures are simply a continuation of this trend.
But the main reason for the new legislation, as well as the biggest obstacle to establishing a democratic order based on the rule of law in Russia, is that the general attitude regarding a free society has changed very little since Soviet times. Russian President Dimitri Medevedev alluded to this in an address to the nation last November when he said: “The state bureaucracy is governed by the same distrust of personal freedoms as it was 20 years ago. That logic is pushing it towards dangerous conclusions and dangerous actions.”
Just as responsible for this damaging attitude is that for decades after the 1917 Russian Revolution the Russian people saw those in power devising and using the law simply to further their own, sometimes murderous, ends. This immoral and twisted use of legal systems discredited and undermined any faith in them, both among the rulers and ruled. Under Soviet rule, the only law both learned, like in many totalitarian states, was that might is right, which is also the law code of the gangster world.
And these gangster values still persist today, as is evident in some Russian politicians’ use of language. According to one writer, the gangland term, “rubbed out”, was gaining “popularity in Russian politics” in 2006. Even Putin, Russia’s prime minister, was not averse to this trend. On national television, he warned a sick business owner, who missed a meeting and whose dealings Putin didn’t like, to get well soon “or we will have to send him a doctor to clean up all these problems.” And Andrei Lugovoy, a Duma member and former KGB officer accused of murdering a Putin critic in London with a radioactive substance, told a Spanish newspaper this month anyone seriously damaging the state “should be exterminated.”
Since Russia’s leaders have refused to explore and analyse the evil of their country’s Soviet past, it is not surprising some of its aspects are being repeated today. Ironically, the one organization, Memorial, that could have led the way in publicising Soviet crimes and leading the country back to a healthy political and economic life was itself “rubbed out.”