08.02.2008 | Halya Coynash



It is hard not to feel a specifically Soviet chill in the bellicose and binary model of geopolitical relations presented of late by Russia’s leaders.  Them and us, Russia and its allies (?) against the West, Russia’s national integrity, national borders, identity somehow all being assailed by “the enemy”.  Disturbing too was the repetition of this line at Davos by Medvedev, Putin’s more than probable successor.  Mr Medvedev stated that they could not force anybody to like Russia, but they would allow nobody to do it harm.

Now this is at one level commendable, of course and the leaders of a country must answer for its security.  They must not, however, manufacture enemies here, there and everywhere, for their own purposes.

There is something especially frightening at present in this frenzied reinstatement of old bogeymen and monsters in theoretically new circumstances. In Soviet times the coating for such methods was clearer: there are our friends who support our ideology, and our enemies, who do not.  Now there’s no ideology, unless we count “Putin’s course” which would seem to be a mystery to all except a small clique of the initiated. Nor is it easy for lesser mortals to fathom the difference between “managed democracy” and plain old unadulterated “democracy”. The danger becomes acute of it being simply “us Russians” and “them”.

  As one of the methods for quashing democratic opposition in your own country, this kind of primitive classification is unfortunately effective.  In later Soviet times they used punitive psychiatry to fight dissent: if the ideology is the Truth, then those denying it are mad and need treatment.  The new technique has even wider impact.  After all, if hose who wish to observe the elections, who speak of irregularities, of freedom of speech being crushed, the ever increasing number of political prisoners, are “against Russia”, then how can one defend them?

  Vladimir Putin and his ilk learned some lessons very well. Others however would seem to be beyond them.

  No, I cannot see the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.  Nor do I believe that this “real drama” in any way posed a threat to Russia. I fear Mr Putin and his KGB colleagues have reasons for their different perspective, and they are most categorically not mine.

Perestroika and the final disintegration of a rotten system gave hope for change.

The changes brought freedom for the last political prisoners in Soviet camps, and the hope that there would be no more.

They gave us the chance to remember those who did not return and to learn the fate of our relatives.

There was a possibility that a new generation could grow up without lies. ‘

Nor should we forget the chance to choose who governed the country, and to take a part in decision-making.

It was a chance for all our countries to confront our past and ensure that those mistakes were not repeated.

In the eight years of one man’s presidency of the Russian Federation, all of that has been eroded. 

Yes, television advertisements create the impression of a different world while the shows and concerts entertain and distract people from the less than glossy reality. However the old Soviet style of news presentation is increasingly evident and the chance of hearing balanced views and real debate minimal. When day by day Russian television shows Putin and Medvedev at work, wisely governing the country and gives almost no broadcasting time to opposition voices, words like “democratic choice” have a very empty ring.

Some journalists have been murdered, others persecuted for writing the truth.  The fear has become palpable of saying the “wrong thing” and all too many have yet again forgotten the true nature of their calling.

It has become much harder to gain access to the KGB archives, with files now only available to close relatives, with not everything being shown.  This restriction is for 75 years which means that archives relating to the most terrible years of the Terror in 1937 – 1938 will only be available to “Memorial” and other researchers in 2012.  This is no small thing.  For very many of us, information about relatives executed at that time have come through the selfless work of members of “Memorial”, who are now increasingly treated as a subversive element.  Worth mentioning too that the names of the KGB henchmen given in earlier volumes of the Book of Remembrance are now being blotted out and the Security Service is preventing publication of details about their predecessors who were involved in the repressions.

A few months ago, Putin spoke of “positive” moves in teaching history. It is not only the removal of KGB executioners which marks this move away from material which “until recently could make ones hair stand on end”, but also the “new look” history manual planned for mass use from September 2008.  Admittedly the description of Stalin as “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR” and other such contentious parts were finally removed, however school students are to learn about “sovereign democracy”, how “the YUKOS case finally killed the hopes of the oligarchs to retain their control over the Russian state” and the significance of Putin in Russia’s history in positive tones and all a la Kremlin.

The terminology has changed,  No more labour camp sentences for “anti-Soviet propaganda”, however what the Federal Security Service [FSB] deems “extremist” arouses doubts over interpretation, and many court rulings are difficult to take seriously, although the periods of imprisonment are unfortunately all too real.

Mikhail Trepashkin, who had dared to take part in an independent investigation into the 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities, was arrested on charges so feeble that the court threw one out. They still sentenced him to four years imprisonment.

The world’s media are open enough regarding Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, and that of many others formerly involved with YUKOS.  Even if one believes that there were some grounds and that it was mere chance that similar charges were not laid against other oligarchs, who unlike Khodorkovsky did not openly oppose Putin, the new investigation gives serious grounds for concern about the state of the justice system in Russia

It took widespread protest from human rights groups, public actions and protest from members of the European Parliament before the Russian authorities finally backed down and agreed to transfer the gravely ill former Vice President of YUKOS, Vasily Aleksanian, remanded in custody for almost two years, to a hospital for urgently needed treatment. The refusals to release him were not only in contravention of Russian legislation, but also flouted three directives from the European Court of Human Rights.

The list of scientists sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for “espionage” or similar increased two months ago with the sentencing of Igor Reshetin to eleven and a half years

I could continue. I would, in fact, willingly, only there has been a depressing lack of interest or strategic will to even “notice” the rising number of people in the Russian Federation whom it is difficult to not view as political prisoners.

Certain electoral changes over the last few years give a worrying idea of what makes “managed democracy” quite so different from its unadulterated counterpart.  President Putin used the Beslan tragedy as an excuse clear only to himself for abolishing elections for governors. Russians observing the elections in early December were persecuted, while serious candidates were edged out of the parliamentary elections, and have been stopped from taking part in the Presidential elections.  Putin’s successor is already known, and the only point of discussion is how much power Putin will be prepared to actually relinquish.

Mr Putin said in the last few days that efforts needed to be increased to prevent “interference in our internal affairs” and “we will not allow the course of the elections to be corrected from outside”. 

I have no doubt that Mr Putin is aware that the Helsinki Accords, signed by the USSR and not rejected by Russia, state clearly that human rights are not an internal matter.  The Russian Federation is a member state of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.  The right to a fair trial, to life, to freedom of speech and access to information, and the right to elect and be elected are not attempts to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs. 

Soviet history is seeped in examples where an “enemy” was found to divert attention from ills and injustice.  As we remember the frenzied hunt for “enemies of the people” seventy years ago, it is particularly distressing to see the same tactics once again at play.

Wanting Russia to keep its international commitments and protect the rights of all its nationals is not “interference” in the country’s internal affairs, and the motives of those leaders who suggest otherwise should be placed in question.  They are your rights and ours, while their vested interest is in nobody’s interest but theirs.

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