Leonid Nikitinsky: Bastrykin in the symbolic field (of battle)

25 November 2023

The Investigative Committee has replaced the principle of economy of criminal repression for one of demonstrative repression, and where has this got us?

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya Gazeta

On 24 November, the following message appeared on the TASS website:

On the instructions of Aleksandr Bastrykin, the Krasnoyarsk office of the Investigative Committee has initiated proceedings under Art. 243(4) of the Russian Criminal Code against teenagers who threw snow at and trampled on the eternal flame in Norilsk. This sacrilegious act was caught on camera, and the identities of the “criminals” were established within five days – they were 10- and 11-year-old boys.

Article 243(4), which appeared in the Criminal Code in April 2020, is quite lengthy, and even some adults would struggle to make sense of it in a single reading: 

The destruction or damage of war graves, monuments, stele, obelisks, or other memorial sites or objects commemorating those who fell in defence of the Motherland or its interests, whether located in the territory of the Russian Federation or overseas, or that mark days honouring Russian military glory…

Under Part II (group of persons), those guilty of such sacrilege would be landed with a fine of up to five million rubles or even face up to five years’ imprisonment.

Nowadays, the state is prepared to forgive serial killers, or even cannibals, who “redeem themselves with blood” (as Dmitry Peskov puts it), but not those who attack “traditional values”, by words or deeds. 

Having the eternal flame on symbolic graves is one of their crowning achievements, so pelting one with snowballs in the Arctic is equivalent to burning the Quran in Chechnya. In reading this message from Norilsk, we can already imagine – some of us with dismay, and others with elation – how the story may well end: at the investigators’ request, the court will have packed the parents off to a remand centre, and the minors themselves (evidently incorrigible) will spend the rest of their childhood in a special boarding institution.

In reality, of course, Bastrykin knows that he could not give the order to bring a prosecution here. He does a lot of strange things, opening cases left and right against those who do not come under Russian jurisdiction at all, and he has been telling his students for over a year now that the first prerequisite for a crime is the person committing the crime. That person must be compos mentis, meaning that in addition to sound mental health, they must have attained the age of 16 (for some crimes, it is 14, but Article 243(4) is absent from this list). In principle, a prosecution could be brought here “on the facts,” that is, against “unidentified persons”. Still, aside from the PR aspect, this would make no sense and it would give the lawyers plenty to laugh about.

So where did the TASS message come from, which on the next day, on Bastrykin’s instructions, disappeared from the site? Having conducted our own investigation, we have established that the information was saved on the webpage of the Investigative Committee (Sledcomru) enthusiasts club on VKontakte, and TASS appears to have borrowed it from there without first casting a critical eye.

There are several explanations for this. Judging from the Investigative Committee website, not to mention the VKontakte group, Bastrykin issues so many daily instructions to “check” this and “initiate” that, that he may well have put his signature to something without a second glance.

In turn, the Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk divisions of the Investigative Committee were quick to proudly report that they had “implemented” their duties, and hence, the message ended up on the Sledcomru website. So, you see, this was simply a mistake arising from the Basktrykin “cult of personality” of sorts within the Investigative Committee.

This “close-up” and simple version of events does not rule out another, more expansive one entailing far more serious consequences. Criminal law theory and criminology contain within them the principle of economy of repression, i.e. limiting the frequency and intensity of its use to avoid misidentifying crimes and preventing similar ones. However, when “patriotism” comes into things, the apparatus of violence counters the economy principle with that of demonstrative repression, with a nightmarish emphasis on intensity and frequency.

Where traditional values are involved, “law enforcement agencies” and courts function as propaganda organs that serve to create an image of the enemy and to intimidate people. 

If this is by sheer accident from a legal perspective, then there can be no mistaking the propaganda value.

Meanwhile, on the same day, 24 November, a message appeared on Saratov news sites stating that some 14 year-old teenagers had been identified as having toasted bread on the eternal flame in the city of Engels (a district of Saratov, in fact). The video, made by one of the toast fans, appeared online on 22 November. As the Saratov websites report, “Police officers held a preventive conversation with the teenagers. The parents will be held administratively liable, and administrative reports will be sent to the Commission on Juvenile Affairs.”

The Investigative Committee intervened here, too – for some reason, its Saratov division is “conducting an inspection”. Thankfully there is no talk of a criminal case. Still, the symbol of the eternal flame seems to attract those bent on teenage protest. This is a reaction to the imposition on teenagers of “traditional values” of which they are fed up to the back teeth. From a pedagogical standpoint, the principle of economy of repression really would have been more expedient, if you will.

Translated by Lindsay Munford

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