27 January 2021
by Vladimir Pastukhov, a research fellow at University College London
Source: MBKh Media
Why so hard on Mishka Efremov, after all it turns out he was not guilty of anything? Why is he worse than the others? They say that the police officer from St. Petersburg had a good excuse for kicking the woman in the stomach – his helmet had fogged up. Well, every helmet that Efremov puts on has long been fogged up and he was nevertheless given eight years without leniency. And, as the celebrated artist has apologised, the entire Dzerzhinsky division can do the same, even in formation.
Russian criminal law was enriched this week by a landmark innovation. A new basis for exemption from criminal liability appeared: a sincere apology. It is true that this innovation is being used only in exceptional cases, such as when the chief of police personally comes to intensive care with flowers. I would like to extend this useful practice to those involved in the Bolotnaya Square and Moscow prosecutions, especially those who received real sentences for inflicting emotional trauma on police officers with plastic cups. Just like Efremov, ultimately. Many apologise, but not everyone is forgiven.
The footage, in which a St. Petersburg policeman violently punches an elderly woman in the stomach without cause spread over the internet. The woman was knocked down by the blow, hit her head on the asphalt and ended up in intensive care with concussion. I venture to suggest that this is a typical situation in modern Russia and would have gone without consequences had it not been filmed in all its brutal detail by a Fontanka.ru camera operator.
Instead, after the video reached the public there was a deviation from the usual development trajectory in such situations. Rather than condemning the victim of police brutality and sending her to recover in isolation (as usually happened before in similar circumstances to those with broken arms and legs or battered faces), the police came to the hospital to apologise to the victim. Having wrung forgiveness from the stunned (in the most direct sense of the word) victim, the authorities considered the matter settled.
But this is far from being the case. In my opinion, the discussion is just beginning. Besides, this discussion can be approached from both the legal and civic sides. Rather a lot has already been written about the legal side of the case, so I will only dwell on it very briefly, highlighting only the most important points:
- The victim’s behaviour during the incident was impeccably lawful. She did not show aggression towards an officer or put up any resistance to his legal or even illegal demands, only exercising in a restrained manner her constitutional right to publicly express her opinion.
- On the contrary, the use of force by the police officer was unmotivated, disproportionate and illegal, and his actions contain elements of several crimes committed simultaneously.
- The officer’s actions caused significant damage to the victim’s health, resulting in a traumatic brain injury which cannot be described as slight bodily injury, and the immediate and long-term effects of this cannot be fully calculated at present.
- The admission of the police officers – that is, individuals who are suspected of committing a crime – to the hospital, where they actually had unlimited opportunity to inflict further psychological pressure on the victim, is in my opinion a separate breach of the law both by the officers and by chief medics.
- The victim’s refusal to invoke her legal rights, instead forgiving the officer, in the above circumstances provides absolute grounds for a prosecutor to take action, within which the appropriate prosecutor (God, what am I saying!) would be obliged to immediately assess the officers’ and medical management’s actions, as well as to issue a ruling obliging the Investigative Committee to open a criminal case. What’s more, it now turns out that having left hospital, the victim is rescinding her surrender of her rights.
- Regardless of the above circumstances, even if you don’t take into account that the victim was practically forced to abandon her legal rights, exploiting her helpless condition, the evidence of the police officer’s alleged crimes do not allow for a private prosecution but require that criminal proceedings should be opened regardless of the victim’s position.
God forgives. But render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s. A merciful woman can forgive her assailant a hundred times, but this does not absolve the state of its obligation to investigate a dangerous crime and determine a punishment for the criminal. The requirements of the law are such that the most “good” a victim can do with regard to their assailant is to waive all material claims against them, that is, refuse to bring a civil suit. Otherwise, her Christian faith is taken into account only as a factor mitigating the punishment.
But let’s not talk about the law, especially since there is none. It’s time to talk about unwritten rules. The situation is extremely clear – everyone in Russia has their own law: one for the protesters, another for the riot police; one for citizens, another for the authorities; one for Efremov and his fogged up mind, another for the policeman ‘steaming up inside his helmet.’ No amount of indignation or remonstration will help, and the system will not surrender its own. Does this mean that civil society is completely helpless and powerless? I don’t think so. After all, it’s not just thieves who have their own informal rules, so does civil society, and in acting on the basis of these unwritten codes, something can be achieved.
So what can we do about it? Not in general, but with regard to this and similar situations. People who have come face to face with state-sponsored violence may try to create a system of non-violent (I do emphasize this specifically to avoid misleading interpretations) collective civil defence. I will try to outline its basic principles:
Publicity. Even the most abusive regime prefers to hide its face and the faces of its agents under a mask, and not from fear of contracting coronavirus either. The perpetrator is often guaranteed impunity only for as long as he remains anonymous. As soon as he has been named, he is the guilty party. Look for their names and name their names. A country needs to know the identity of its evildoers.
Accuracy. Details are important. It is not enough to report evil – it should be properly documented in all its ugly detail. Evidence of crimes should be collected and recorded. Those who committed them should know that they will not be subject to statutes of limitations, and that the evidence against them, including documentation, will not be destroyed. Once more we need someone to take on the mission of being the chronicler of terror and, selflessly and at the same time systematically, of starting to register a new ‘Chronicle of Current Events.’ Nobody can hide in the shadow of the regime forever, because all shadows disappear at noon.
Specific evidence. It is possible someone may wish to criticise the regime, and perhaps someone might have to. Probably this would be an important long-term investment for the Russia of the future. But up to now the regime has been well immunised against accusations of a general nature. But with specific accusations of specific individuals committing specific crimes, especially when there is publicly available and there is irrefutable evidence, things do become worse for the regime. If you focus on that, the desire to chant “We can do it again!” will decrease a little.
Conssistency. As Lenin wrote before his death (aware of the total depth of the abyss into which he was falling with the country and the party), ‘Better less, but better.’ It is not necessary to take on all possible cases of arbitrary behaviour as weak cases will not get anywhere. But, having chosen one thing, and by seizing hold of it, you cannot let go and it is necessary to bring it to a logical end. Those who observe society from the other side of the jagged fence need to know that society also has teeth, and they are tenacious.
Collectivism. Working together is fundamentally important. You aren’t ready to go out on protest marches? Then there is no need, all the more since walking on today’s streets without a big dog is an occupation only for the young and healthy, who have their whole life ahead of them and for whom a sentence of a mere couple of years is of little consequence. Do what you can: volunteer to help the victim write a statement, talk about how you can identify the suspect in a crime, talk about it in your blog. Don’t want to draw attention to yourself? No worries, that is understandable. Just discuss it with your friends or think about it in silence at your leisure. It’s not just what you do or don’t do that matters, it’s your position and your complicity or simple empathy that counts. Heroism is the destiny of the few, conscience is a burden to which everyone is entitled. Civil society does not appear where the tall trees have grown, but where there are shoots of grass.
Legality. If you don’t believe in justice and don’t know much about the law, that is your right. Besides, you’re not so wrong. But legal formalities provide a weapon that should not be neglected. It’s not without reason that dissidents during the Brezhnev stagnation, and it’s obvious how they related to everything Soviet, went to prison under the slogan ‘Observe Soviet laws.’ The regime cannot formally abolish all laws for ‘their own’ and write, ‘But the law doesn’t apply to this policeman from Nevsky Prospect.’ It can only scrape and wash the punishment from him with more or less brazenness. There is no need to make life easier for the regime. You need to take a firm grip of its laws and use them against it, even if you think there is no chance of a fair and honest outcome. The regime and its agents come out of every such skirmish looking pretty shabby, and this reduces the likelihood of any precedent being set for future arbitrariness.
Ostracism. This word rang out recently, and not just from the mouth of one person. It is an age old technique that condemns someone to moral isolation. Apparently, in the absence of other tools, it is the main weapon that civilian resistance can use without restriction. This sweaty young guy should know that even though he won’t end up in prison, not one decent person will sit next to him on the metro or the bus if they recognise him. And when he quits his wonderful job, not one security service, or even local food store, will risk hiring him. Because, as our great satirist put it, he’s marked.
This may seem too simple and primitive. But we know that until there is a vaccine against coronavirus, the only reliable means of protection are hand washing and social distancing. A vaccine against coronavirus appears to have been created, yet no-one has created a vaccine against a Russian police officer. So, we have to be satisfied with what’s to hand. Regardless of the position the injured woman will take – I suspect, after they withdraw their apologies, she may well become a suspect in taking part in an unsanctioned demonstration (and everything will return to normal) –bringing the police officer who kicked her to justice is a matter of civic self defence and not the victim’s personal war.
The only party whose existence in modern Russia makes sense is the party of civic self defence. Such a party requires no registration, because its goal is not a struggle for power, but protection from power. Formalities only hinder the accomplishment of these goals. Only a civil society that bases itself on unwritten, informal rules can be effective against authority that refuses to operate by formal rules. All that’s important is that the unwritten rules should be different. Today, according to the unwritten rules of civil society, it is right to seek either the imprisonment of the ‘police officer who apologised’ or the release from prison of all those who have apologised, but who for some reason are imprisoned. One could make a start with Mikhail Efremov. Not least because he made the most eloquent apology.
Translated by Verity Hemp, Elizabeth Rushton, Graham Jones and Nathalie Corbett