21 December 2022
Author: Fedor Krasheninnikov is a Russian political scientist and journalist who was forced to leave Russia in 2020. Telegram: @fyodork
The elimination of Russia’s oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, has symbolic meaning, and this is a very dark symbolism, Fedor Krasheninnikov believes.
On 20 December, we learned that the Russian Justice Ministry’s Main Administration for Moscow had gone to court with a demand to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) and prohibit its activities inside Russia. One would think that after the ban on Memorial a year ago there was nothing left to be surprised about. The authorities are frenziedly eradicating civil society in Russia, and in the last few years nearly all the human rights and opposition public organizations, as well as those for which the regime simply has no use, have been shut down and banned.
Nonetheless, the process launched to liquidate the MHG is symbolic even in this gloomy context. The last time the group was forced to cease its activities in Moscow was in September 1982, since the majority of its members had been arrested by the organs of state security or found themselves in emigration. The Helsinki group did not revive its work in Moscow until 1989. From 1996 until her death in 2018, the MHG was headed up by human rights activist and dissident Liudmila Alekseeva.
Vladimir Putin and Liudmila Alekseeva
It seems amazing now, but relatively recently Putin treated the MHG with demonstrative respect. Thus, from 2002 to 2012, Liudmila Alekseeva was a member of the Presidential Human Rights Commission. A few days before her death, on 3 December 2018, she became a member of the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. In 2017, Putin paid a personal visit to the human rights activist to congratulate her on her birthday, and in 2018 he attended her funeral.
At that time, Vladimir Putin hardly treated human rights and their defenders with more sympathy than now, but then he still considered it important for himself to publicly demonstrate his respect for key figures of the human rights and dissident movement. Actually, even in those ritual gestures of Putin’s, one can see a cynical attempt to disorient the West and a segment of Russian society by inspiring the false opinion that he was not all that bad since he was prepared at least sometimes to listen to Liudmila Alekseeva herself.
Given this view of Putin’s attitude toward Alekseeva, his participation in the human rights activist’s funeral has a sinister look. If for the majority of participants in those funeral rituals Alekseeva’s departure was a tragedy, then Putin might well have been triumphing inwardly. Now gone from Russia were key figures of the dissident movement who could not be ignored and whose claims and comments one had to listen to sometimes.
The apotheosis of Putin nostalgia for Soviet conformity
As has already been mentioned, the last time the regime compelled the Moscow Helsinki Group to cease its activities in Moscow was in September 1982. Despite the complete difference in situations, a parallel suggests itself between Putin’s Russia and the dark days of the early 1980s. A brutal and unjust war is under way, the existence of opposition groups, human rights organizations, and independent media is impossible, all the even slightly visible critics of the regime are either in prison or in forced emigration, and relations with the West are at the freezing point and a nuclear war seems perfectly possible.
Now we understand which Soviet Union Putin has been nostalgic for all these years and what exactly he wanted to revive: Soviet practice of the early 1980s. Despite the fact that life for ordinary people then was anything but sweet, it was the peak of Soviet military and political might. The Soviet Union countered the West on every continent, brutally suppressing any manifestation of dissent not only at home but also in countries from the then still quite vital Socialist camp. And the West was forced to reconcile itself to that, having no levers of influence whatsoever on the Soviet leadership.
Putin has restored everything he could, including adventures in Central Africa and friendship with one of the heroes of early 1980s Soviet propaganda, Daniel Ortega. In this atmosphere, especially since the start of the war against Ukraine, a second elimination of the Helsinki Group that Andropov’s KGB had suppressed and that had been recreated in the detested perestroika era was merely a matter of time.
A repetition of what has already been done
The Moscow Helsinki Group of the early 1980s could scarcely have hampered the Soviet regime in any practical sense. Dissidents were few, and their real influence on Soviet society was minimal. But the dissident movement, and the MHG as a part of it, were ideologically intolerable for the regime then, demonstrating the presence in the Soviet Union of people with non-Soviet views on the world and human rights.
In 2022, the Moscow Helsinki Group cannot harm Putin’s regime in any way either. Its inevitable liquidation is a symbolic and even ritual act of the first water, yet another demonstration to the whole world of which times have returned. Only now, instead of a dying Brezhnev and a mortally ill Andropov in the Kremlin, we have the still perfectly robust Putin, and instead of Afghanistan the much more wide-scale and terrible war in Ukraine. How long all this will continue and when the MHG is going to be able to restore its legal activity in Russia one can only guess.
Actually, historical parallels inspire a certain optimism. Just a few years after the MHG’s activities were halted, the Soviet system began to reform itself, and then the Soviet Union fell apart altogether, something even the most optimistic critics of that system could not have anticipated in the early 1980s.
Translated by Marian Schwartz