10 December 2021
by Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya gazeta columnist, member of the Presidential Human Rights Council and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group
During the first three and a half hours of the President’s meeting with the Human Rights Council, everything was predictable, and the whole thing was broadcast almost live – with a lag of no more than 5-10 minutes. The topics raised were the most urgent: “The people must be protected from bank fraud, while everyone should be ashamed of themselves when they look at the homeless people on the street,” said Putin in agreement. “But is phone fraud of people with Mir cards really a matter for the head of state? And which individuals should actually be ashamed? I would like to clarify, shouldn’t it be for the Human Rights Council itself to check the names against the Forbes list?
Then the president asked for a break for an urgent conversation, and came back, but for some reason, not every speaker who came afterwards was broadcast on the air. From St. Petersburg, Sokurov began his heated, confused rant about a village in the north that is in danger of being destroyed by a traffic junction, the injustice of imprisoning Ingush elders and women, the fact that the politicized police should not chase after youth, the fact that Dmitriev is now going to jail for 15 years, the need for a strong opposition, and the idea that if anyone wants to break away from Russia, then let them live their own lives themselves.
“This is some kind of manifesto and collection of fears,” Putin said sharply. “Do you want a Yugoslav scenario?!” Unlike the previous speakers, the president had no pre-prepared answers for this speech, and could not have had any. Sokurov twisted in his hands papers that had been scribbled all over and stuck together, looking over them so as to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, reading something he had just added in the margins. “Watch your words,” the president told him (in the literal meaning). “Words are a dangerous thing. Come and see me, we’ll discuss everything, give me a call and come and see me, I’m open to discussion …”
Suddenly, we saw him very much alive, though only on the screen, but in close-up.
Putin talked to the elderly director a bit patronizingly, a habit hard for him to get rid of when he is rarely challenged in what he says, but the mask of omniscience was gone.
Natalia Evdokimova, who was sitting next to Sokurov, was the next to speak: about elections, about how absentee and three-day voting deprives them of credibility… This is important, but I was looking at Sokurov, who was leaning on his hand and rubbing his tired face: had he said everything he wanted and had he done it in the right way? Would he still have a chance to say anything more? And, really, there is no one else to speak to: that is how the ‘power vertical’ is constructed.
For the first three hours, the President gave the floor to those included on a pre-prepared list, apparently compiled by Sergey Kirienko, who was silent during the entire meeting. Before the break, none of the difficult issues were discussed, with the exception of the speech by Eva Merkacheva, who spoke about torture and the investigating authorities. Pavel Gusev asked that the legislation on foreign agent media be amended, Kirill Kabanov suggested that something like the Young Pioneers be introduced in schools, and Kirill Vyshinsky that an article be added to the Criminal Code on the “genocide of the Soviet / multinational Russian people” (referring primarily to Donbass). We will soon see in practice what Igor Ashmanov, an IT technologies manager and multimillionaire, has invented in relation to the sovereign Internet.
All this was broadcast and is already in the transcript, but so far (at 7 am on Friday) there was nothing about from Sokurov or Nikolai Svanidze, who about the attempts to shut down Memorial* and about the imprisonment of the Shaninka rector, Sergei Zuev. With regard to Zuev, Putin said he saw no reason to keep him in custody, and reproached Memorial saying that among those repressed by the Stalinist regime, their lists allegedly included several people who participated in the Holocaust. Information about this – based on a study by Israeli historians – was on the table in front of Putin, but the preparation turned out to be rather clumsy: in the database of victims of political terror (base.memo.ru) there are more than three million similar victims, perhaps there has been the odd mistake in relation to a number of people, but after all, similar mistakes were made in relation to Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen.
After the broadcast stopped (we do not know if this was due to the broadcasting network), the President gave the floor to those whose speeches his administration might not agree with. Genri Reznik opposed the legislation on “foreign agents” and its application, citing it as an example of the non-distinction between “political” and research activities, such as the inclusion of the Institute of Law and Public Policy, the best centre for expertise on constitutional law.
Even if the President does not believe that there are no laws like this anywhere else in the world, it is important that this topic was discussed.
Five hours into the meeting, Reznik felt it was unnecessary to tell the President about the problems of the investigative authorities and the courts, and no one else who was going to discuss it was given an opportunity to speak.
One of the last speakers was the city conservationist and journalist Konstantin Mikhailov, who reminded Putin of the order he gave last year to review the legality of the construction of the Zolotoy housing complex on the Sofiyskaya embankment opposite the Kremlin. A UNESCO report was sent on behalf of the government, but only after the construction had been practically completed, and everyone was saying: “Well, you can’t just demolish it!” Now developers are advertising the luxury apartments with wonderful views of the Kremlin, across the river from their balconies, where in pre-Covid times the President met with the Human Rights Council. You can’t see the homeless from these balconies, of course – you will lfind no one there ashamed of poverty.
* added to the list of “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice.