18 March 2021
by Leonid Nikitinsky, columnist for Novaya Gazeta, member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize
In university law departments they teach that law is an internally coherent and beautiful system in its own way, rejecting what is superfluous and absurd, if only because there is a Constitution: an act of a higher power, applied directly, as if cancelling out whichever fantasies come to whoever’s mind.
The law adopted on March 17 by the Duma amending Art. 354-1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, like this article itself, which appeared in the 2014 code, is such a fantasy, turning a strict legal text into an arbitrary piece of propaganda .
Until now (until the imminent approval of the amendment by the Federation Council, and the president signing the law), Article 354-1 of the Criminal Code, “Denial of Nazism” established responsibility for “denying the facts established by the verdict of the International Military Tribunal … (meaning the Nuremberg trials. – L. N.), approval of the crimes established by the specified verdict, as well as the dissemination of knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War.”
According to part 3, “the dissemination of information expressing obvious disrespect for society about the days of military glory and memorable dates in Russia associated with the defence of the Fatherland, desecration of the symbols of military glory of Russia” is punishable. The amendment further adds to Art. 354-1: “insults to the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland or humiliation of the honour and dignity of a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, committed in public” and establishes the punishment for such actions – if the Internet was used – as up to 5 years in prison.
Criminal liability for denying the Holocaust has been established in many countries, though primarily in Germany, which set an example in this; and also in Russia. One can argue how far this rule too is more symbolic than functional, but there it is a question of denying crimes, and in Art. 354-1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, it’s a question of denying a victory. Based on the assessment of risk to the public and the general principle of limiting repression, well known to jurists, where is the need to establish criminal punishment for this? Who in their right mind denies historical facts? (Blasphemous actions are covered by other kinds of crime.)
How often do we encounter “entities” who deliberately humiliate veterans, and is it possible to educate them in some other way, in a pedagogical way?
How is “humiliation of the honour and dignity of a veteran” connected with “denial of Nazism”, for the sake of protection from which, if we believe its text, this article was added to the Criminal Code?
The trigger for the introduction of the amendments was the trial of Aleksei Navalny, who offended a 94-year-old veteran of the Great Patriotic War. Perhaps, from an ethical point of view, it was not worth putting him on a par with other “corrupt lackeys” who issued calls on TV to vote for the amendments to the Constitution, but from Navalny’s side it was an assessment, not a statement of fact. The magistrate was not confused by this, and in order to punish the villain with a fine, invented a new kind of crime, defining the nature of his statement as “offensive and slanderous”. However, the deputies in the Duma noticed the contradiction and rushed to accelerate the process in the framework of the pre-election review before the Kremlin.
It seems that this is purely propaganda and not a dangerous story: there are few war veterans left alive, and hardly anyone will humiliate them more than the state does with the pittance it hands out to them. But, firstly, the new element in the law is designed in such a way that you can “humiliate” someone by accident, even if you don’t know that they’re a veteran – for example, by accidentally bumping into them on the stairs. Will law enforcement practice go along the path of criminalizing offence to “equivalent persons”, which includes the participants of the campaigns in Chechnya in terms of a number of benefits they receive? Secondly, on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the amendment about “veterans” will give law enforcement agencies the go-ahead to use “non-veteran squads” more often; something which has until now lain dormant in the text of Article 354-1, in order to proudly report this to the political leadership.
And this is a witch hunt: primarily aimed at those who allow themselves to speak on the basis of historical fact about the price that the USSR had to pay for victory as a result of Stalin’s mistakes and crimes.
The loss of logic and coherence by the law is an undoubted symptom of its degeneration. But the use of criminal repression for propaganda purposes results in many innocent victims: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
Translated by Anna Bowles