12 April 2023
By Aleksandr Podrabinek
With the beginning of the war against Ukraine, the moderately severe authoritarian dictatorship in Russia began swiftly transforming itself into a merciless military-police regime. Had there been an official declaration of war, this crackdown could have been called martial law and would be temporary by definition. But war was not declared, and there is no reason to think that the regime is planning to reject its harsh repressive policy in the future. Or military action against neighbouring states, actually. Now, according to the regime’s idea, all Russian citizens are supposed to accept the present military conflict as the norm, that it will be this way always.
The laws are changing with unusual dash, on the fly, without discussion or, I suspect, even the slightest intellectual reflection. There used to be “state treason” with a term of up to 20 years; now it will be life. There’s no need even to come up with or substantiate anything—everyone understands as it is. As Prosecutor Loktionov sincerely said at the trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza, “an enemy must be punished.” The lexicon of the Great Terror of the 1930s. And legislation is catching up to that lexicon.
There is a proposal to increase the maximum punishment for a terrorist act from 15 years’ incarceration to 20. The minimum punishment for involvement in terrorist activity will be seven years instead of five, and the maximum 15. Legislators are intent on increasing the punishment under the article on sabotage from 15 to 20 years. This refers to sabotage at transportation infrastructure sites and is a clear response to the dilettantish (not to say childish) attempts to stop military trains moving toward Ukraine’s borders.
To an outsider, someone a long way away from Russia and its problems, it might seem that stern punishment for serious crimes is an appropriate reaction by a state to a rise in crime. Kremlin political strategists and their parliamentary staff play on this—they play on words, on the misunderstanding of Russian realities, and on notions of just revenge for terrorism and violence.
But what is terrorism in present-day Russia? As General Staff representative Vladimir Tsimlyansky stated, this includes setting fire to military enlistment offices, attacking their employees, and intimidating draftees and their parents “by means of fake reports in the media.” All this is going to be considered a terrorist act, even if no one actually suffered. And “intimidation” is a warning to draftees about the consequences they are promised by army service and war in Ukraine.
In Russia today, what constitutes the “state treason” for which they’re planning to hand down a life sentence? Public criticism of the government and its decisions if seditious words are heard from tribunes in “unfriendly states.” Consultation with or participation in the activities of foreign organizations (public as well as governmental!) if those organizations have been deemed “unfriendly” by the Kremlin.
And so forth. The most everyday human actions, the most ordinary acts, the most elementary civic behavior and appropriate reactions are becoming criminally punishable acts. The regime is criminalizing people’s everyday life, plunging society into an atmosphere of total terror and ingrained fear of making a mistake that will lead to legal prosecution. Refuse to kill in a war of aggression — get a sentence for dodging the draft or mobilization. Refuse to accept a summons from the military enlistment office — bans on leaving the country, operating transport, making real estate deals, registering a sole proprietorship, taking out a loan. Post a “seditious” picture on your smartphone — a term in jail under administrative law. A schoolgirl drew a peace sign in her scrapbook — the girl gets taken to a shelter, the father is put on trial. Publicly condemn the war — they get you fired, cancel musicians’ performances, don’t publish writers, take the stage away from actors. The attack on society is proceeding on all fronts.
It’s not yet the Great Terror, it’s not 1937, for now it’s still the lite version. A lot has already been borrowed: judge troikas for state treason; closed trials; extrajudicial retribution against “internal enemies”; the fight against the “foreign threat.” They’ve outdone the Stalin 25 with a life sentence. Once again, the notorious “fifth column,” perfidious NATO, the constant threat from the West, and the search for friends among dictators and war criminals.
In the near future, they’ll restore to legal practice the death penalty, since it never went anywhere from the Criminal Code. They’ll bring back political prisons so politicals don’t corrupt criminals. They’ll close the borders once and for all, especially since the West has already made considerable efforts in that direction. They’ll introduce prior censorship in the media, “first departments” in institutions, political workers in the army and police, and ideological directors in schools and higher education. This regime is going to do the only thing it knows how to do: suppress its people and make war against its neighbours.
Translated by Marian Schwartz