22 March 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
On 21 March in the early hours of the morning officers from the Investigative Committee and ‘Centre-E’ [anti-extremism police] searched the Moscow homes of staff of the Memorial organisation and their relatives, as well as of the organisation’s premises on Karetny Ryad and Maly Karetny Pereulok.
The search warrants stated that the searches were related to a case of ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’ (Article 354.1, Part 2 [c], of the Russian Criminal Code). It is clear that this is the main charge, to which will later be added other charges in individual cases. For example, Oleg Orlov, co-chair of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, has also been charged with ‘discrediting the army of the Russian Federation.’
Article 354.1 of the Russian Criminal Code on the ‘Rehabilitation of Nazism’ was passed by the State Duma on 5 May 2014 immediately after the annexation of Crimea. It was a very transparent hint that everyone immediately understood: whoever dares condemn the seizure of new territory and draw historical parallels with the seizures of the past will be considered a defender of Nazism, with all the criminal, repressive consequences this entails.
For a long time, the article was largely dormant. Two people were convicted under it in Russia in 2016, three in 2017, just one in both 2018 and 2019. Then something clicked somewhere and everything changed. In 2020, eight people were put on trial for offences under this article, and in 2021 there were 30. In all that time, one person was acquitted and two were sentenced to terms in prison.
A legal monstrosity
The authorities’ interest in searching out Nazis in Russia and beyond escalated after President Putin declared the current Ukrainian government a Nazi regime. This absolutely nonsensical accusation, which is without any foundation, was enough for the propaganda machine. The word ‘Nazism’ became entrenched in the propaganda lexicon. The cliché is being intensively inculcated in the public consciousness. Evidently it became desirable to add something tangible to the propaganda, such as a criminal prosecution under a corresponding article of the Criminal Code.
This article, a legal monstrosity that tramples on the constitutional right to freedom of speech, reads as follows: ‘Denial of facts established by a verdict of the International Military [Nuremberg] Tribunal for the trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries, approval of the crimes established by the said verdict, and also dissemination of information known to be false about the activities of the USSR during World War II and about veterans of the Great Patriotic War, committed in public…’
This article not only contradicts the fundamental right to freedom of information, it is also unbelievably stupid in its own right. How can one be prosecuted for ‘denying facts established by a verdict of the International Military Tribunal’ when the Tribunal had no unanimous opinion on the facts mentioned in the verdict? For example, after the announcement of the verdicts, Iona Nikitchenko, a judge on the Tribunal from the USSR, expressed a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the acquittals of diplomat Franz von Papen, propagandist Hans Fritzsche and Reich Minister Hjalmar Schacht, the ‘mild’ punishment (life imprisonment instead of death penalty) for former deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, and the refusal to recognize the German government, General Staff and the Wehrmacht High Command as criminal organisations. Today this Soviet judge, one of Stalin’s most active henchmen, would fall under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code!
Denial of facts established by the Nuremberg verdict has already occurred, and this has been not in everyday life or in journalism but in the realm of law itself. The case of Colonel General Alfred Jodl of the Wehrmacht was reviewed by a court in Munich seven years after his execution and he was posthumously acquitted. Should not the Russian Investigative Committee now initiate criminal proceedings under Article 354.1 against the judges in Munich who acquitted General Yodl?
Revival of the traditions of Stalinist terror
The penalties under various parts of Article 354.1 are many and varied. Memorial staff, for example, face up to five years in prison. The charges against them come down to the fact that the list of victims of Stalinist repression maintained by Memorial includes three people who, according to the Investigative Committee, collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. It is difficult to say at this point whether this was in fact the case, but it does not really matter.
Even if the three really were collaborators, this does not exclude them from being victims of Stalinist terror. Surely a criminal can be a victim of another crime? Was not Marshal Tukhachevsky, who in 1921 used chemical weapons to put down a peasant uprising in Tambov and who suppressed the sailors’ Kronstadt rebellion, a victim of Stalin’s terror in 1937?
If tomorrow the head of the Investigative Committee, General of Justice Aleksandr Bastrykin, is shot without trial and due legal process for today’s falsified court cases, he too would be a victim of arbitrariness. And it is highly likely that he would be added to Memorial’s – or any other human rights organisation’s – list of victims of political repression. Inclusion in such a list is neither a recognition of merit nor an award for later generations. It is a statement of historical fact about which people can have different opinions.
One thing is certain about this whole story: the repressive measures against Memorial, like the very existence in the Russian Criminal Code of the article on the rehabilitation of Nazism, are a revival of the traditions of Stalinist terror and the persecution of political dissent.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove