6 March 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Sometimes a small news item lost in the stream of other news can give you a much broader picture of present-day Russian life than long-winded top-of-the-fold materials and experts’ analytical calculations. To be sure, this news may seem small to one person, but to someone else it’s actually very big.
The Supreme Court of annexed Crimea has sentenced a 40-year-old resident of St. Petersburg to six years’ incarceration for attempting to cross illegally from Russia into Ukraine. Right now, you can’t surprise anyone with verdicts like that. In Russia, judicial decisions are issued in political cases nearly every day. Nor is there anything extraordinary about the chosen means of escape. Last summer, the Petersburger bought a wetsuit, fins, a wrist compass, and an underwater lantern and swam by sea from Crimea toward Odesa.
Before he could swim very far, though, he was fished out by Russian border guards. What’s new about this story is that the fugitive was tried for state treason. Insofar as he did not manage to commit “treason,” though, he was tried for intending to betray our jealous state.
This verdict takes us back to the grim Soviet era, when for attempting to escape from the Soviet Union fugitives were accused of betraying the homeland and given up to 15 years in prison camps, or even death.
The police record has been drawn up, next comes the trial
The charges for an administrative violation brought against a deputy in the Samara provincial duma is wholly Soviet in style. This jokester recorded and then posted on the Internet a video that shows him listening to a Putin speech with noodles hanging from this jokester’s ears [“hanging noodles on someone’s ears” being a Russian idiom for “pulling the wool over someone’s eyes”]. There are no frames where you can see definitively that it’s Putin hanging noodles on the listener’s ears, no, but the police don’t need that. The police record has been drawn up, next comes the trial.
Another impressive sign of the full-fledged return of Homo Sovieticus was what the chief of the Orel investigative prison said to a political prisoner there at the time, Aleksandr Byvshev—an unassuming German teacher from Kromy who is accused of public calls for terrorism, which means up to seven years’ prison. (His whole “call” consisted of a rhetorical question about when we were going to find ourselves our own Stauffenberg.) It seems to me I can even hear the all-too-familiar intonation of the Orel SIZO [remand centre]-1 boss speaking to political prisoner Byvshev:
“It’s too bad the death penalty’s been repealed here in Russia. We should try everyone who speaks out actively against the SVO [special military operation] according to martial law and sentence them to the firing squad.” This does not mean that the prison boss lacks a sense of pity, actually, or that he has nothing to regret. According to Byvshev, the prison chief also told him this: “Unfortunately, we live in a state that shows excessive humanism. We don’t need humanism. It brings only harm.”
I don’t know in what times, but evidently, very distant ones, an idea, so sweet it makes you cry, took hold in the popular consciousness which said that we are too good and generous but a little reckless and impractical, as a result of which everyone takes advantage of us and tries to steal our last bast shoes and profit off our earthly riches and heartfelt generosity. This thought reassures the injured self-esteem of a certain segment of the people and justifies its laziness and cowardice. The Orlov prison chief was just putting out his servile narrative in neo-Soviet style.
“Echo Moskvy is the Yids’ radio station”
It would be strange if he didn’t point out enemies along the way. We have them, they are always nearby! “Echo Moskvy is the Yids’ radio station,” the prison chief explained to Byvshev. That’s who’s to blame for everything! And inasmuch as his involuntary interlocutor was not only a teacher but a poet, the valiant officer added: “Your Mandelstam was put up against the wall in 1939, and rightly so.”
Probably the prison chief would have been quite insulted had it been pointed out to him that Osip Mandelstam was not executed but sentenced to five years in prison camps and died not up against the wall but in the barracks of a transit camp in Vladivostok. He died of starvation, cold, and disease. “We are too humane,” the chief would probably have mumbled in reply.
Signs of a return to the Soviet regime are everywhere now. But this did not start today. Where the country is moving under Putin’s leadership became obvious on 20 December 1999, when Prime Minister Putin dedicated a memorial plaque to Yury Andropov on the former Soviet KGB building on Lubyanka. It was a very slight, almost imperceptible sign of the fact that the Kremlin intended to take Russia back to the Soviet Union.
This was easy for perceptive politicians to notice even then, but everyone preferred to pretend nothing special had happened. Today it’s impossible not to notice Homo Sovieticus’s return, but the perceptive politicians have retreated from the fray or are luxuriating in emigration, while the country reaps the harvest of its careless attitude toward the regime.
Translated by Marian Schwartz