Aleksandr Podrabinek: ‘Political Prisoner’ Isn’t a Select Order

31 July 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

 Source: Radio Svoboda

After Igor Strelkov-Girkin’s arrest, a strange discussion unfolded in the public space over whether the arrested man should be considered a political prisoner. No one denies that the accusation against Strelkov is political in nature, but not everyone likes calling him a political prisoner. Why? The problem with the definition of “political prisoner” isn’t linguistic or legal. It’s mental. Existential even. Deeply rooted in the public consciousness is the notion that a political prisoner is by definition a worthy person deserving of all kinds of praise and public attention. This is inspired by Russia’s dramatic history and especially the Soviet era. This is accepted without proof and seemingly in no need of clarification.

Meanwhile, disputes do arise periodically as to whether to consider one prisoner or another political. Such was the case with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who at one time violated the internal rules established by Vladimir Putin and his circle, for which he was subjected to unfair persecution. From the moment patronage over the Yukos case began to be the purview of the president and government, this case ceased to be internal and interpersonal and became political. Not because Khodorkovsky was Putin’s political opponent but because the application of the law by the state’s top figures and highest judicial authority not in the interests of justice is a politically motivated action that encroaches on the state’s political structure.

Amnesty International recognized Aleksei Navalny as a prisoner of conscience and then recanted its decision, although he had obviously been arrested for nonviolent actions and his case was political. Navalny’s previous statements, by no means of a liberal bent, plunged Amnesty International into turmoil and indecision. Everyone, including Memorial, refused to consider Boris Stomakhin a political prisoner, although he was convicted several times strictly for his political writing.

In all these instances, disputes have arisen because the people arrested did not fit the “correct” image of a political prisoner. Before his arrest, Khodorkovsky had blended organically into the regime Putin created and had expressed no doubts about its political advisability or legitimacy. At one time, Navalny spoke in a nationalist vein and expressed approval of the war with Georgia. Stomakhin cursed Russia and called down divine retribution on the entire nation, making no exceptions for the feeble elderly and innocent babes. All this is, of course, highly unsympathetic, but are our sympathies a mandatory condition for considering someone arrested a political prisoner? Do we have to like them? Publicly expressing any political views without calling for direct violence is a free person’s legal right. If a person is subjected to repressions for this, that means he’s a political prisoner. By the way, both Navalny and Khodorkovsky have deemed Strelkov-Girkin a political prisoner.

Perhaps it makes sense to return to the sources of the definition of politics. This concept was introduced in the fourth century BCE by Aristotle, who defined politics as the art of governing the polis, that is, the state. According to this, any action that encroaches on state governance is a political action. And people who are incarcerated for such actions become political prisoners. For someone to be recognized as a political prisoner, it doesn’t matter what the ideology and nature of his actions are. What does matter are this person’s intentions and the motives for his persecution by state power. Political prisoners can include geniuses and heroes, but also scoundrels and enemies of humanity. Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler were both political prisoners in their day. Who would have a good word to say for them? But they served time in prisons for political activity, for attempts to change the order of state governance.

It’s time to stop viewing political prisoners as members of some select order. They’re all different. Not only that, the same people can be both criminals and political prisoners. A hardened criminal can speak out against the regime (there are many such instances), get a political charge, and become a political prisoner. And vice versa. A distinguished oppositionist can turn out to be a pedophile or a swindler and be justly charged with a criminal offence. In 1953, the Soviet hangman Lavrenty Beria was arrested and shot in a falsified political case. Strelkov-Girkin, who is guilty of the deaths of 298 passengers and crew on the Malaysian Boeing, has now been arrested on an obvious political charge. Naturally, he is not only a criminal convicted of mass murder but also a political prisoner arrested for his political statements. Political scientist Boris Kagarlitsky, who was arrested a few days ago, and who is called a Soviet dissident, was exposed for collaborating with the KGB in the 1980s, giving the Chekists extensive confessionary evidence, and buying his freedom at the price of betrayal. After the annexation of Crimea, he welcomed the creation of the so-called “DNR” and “LNR.” Today, though, he is also a political prisoner, although, more than likely, he will wiggle out of this situation. I wouldn’t shake hands with any of the above-mentioned individuals, but it is at the very least foolish not to consider them political prisoners.

Aleksandr Cherkasov from Memorial talks about the criteria for exclusion—certain unseemly circumstances that do not permit a person arrested to be considered a political prisoner. You could collect as many of these criteria as you like for any life occasion for a song on market day. Right now, European fashion considers hate propaganda and  incitement to discrimination, violence, or hostility to be exceptions. Any of these criteria can be expanded to any proportions and applied as needed. This especially concerns inciting hostility, which in today’s Russian legal practice is encountered at every step.

The British jurist Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International 60 years ago, well understood the ambiguity of the “political prisoner” concept and so brought into circulation a new concept: “prisoner of conscience.” This was a correct decision that immediately set the limits on public sympathy for the large category of political prisoners—those convicted for nonviolent political actions or religious confession.

Basically, one problem stands behind all these disputes about Russian political prisoners: how to set apart the people to whom we want to pay our debt of sympathy and assistance? This definitely does not mean all political prisoners. It’s not even all “prisoners of conscience,” who include dreamers of a new totalitarianism, Stalinists, and supporters of military aggression and subjugating countries and peoples. As victims of human rights violations, they do, of course, require legal and humanitarian support, but there is scarcely any call for sympathy. I would propose another definition: “prisoner of freedom”—a political prisoner whose political activity is aimed at strengthening freedom, democracy, and human rights. There are many such political prisoners in today’s Russia, and I have no wish to lump them together with supporters of despotism.

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