Aleksandr Podrabinek: Political Prisoners, Yesterday and Today. On a Concept Substitution.

30 October 2021

Aleksandr Podrabinek

 Source: Radio Svoboda

When in 1991 the RSFSR Supreme Soviet passed a resolution making 30 October the official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, I couldn’t believe it. Why would people who were implicated in the political repressions or who had watched silently on the sidelines so frivolously rename a date established by political prisoners back in 1974? We had called this the Day of the Political Prisoner. It was a day of solidarity and resistance and by no means a remembrance, especially of the victims. I don’t recall a single one of us considering ourselves a victim of the Communist regime.

But times were optimistic in the 1990s, and no one was in any mood to find fault with formulas. Soviet power was careening downhill with remarkable acceleration, freedom had won itself living space on the ruins of the Communist regime, and many thought the term “political prisoner” was out of yesterday’s political dictionary. Indeed, if there were no more political prisoners, then why not remember them with a grateful remembrance at least once a year?

True, deep down, doubts lingered. Had we really left the totalitarian path for good? Were we really moving toward democracy? Wasn’t it too soon to celebrate? The saying, “Don’t say ‘hop’ until you’ve made the jump!” doesn’t come out of nowhere, after all. We said “hop” then, but we hadn’t jumped out of totalitarianism into democracy. We were short on thoroughness, short on strength, and we didn’t quite make it.

For a while, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions was celebrated with pomp. Representatives of the Russian government and Moscow City Hall would come to the Solovetsky Stone on Lubyanka Square. They would utter heartfelt words, lay flowers, hypocritically mourn the past, and try not to recall their own Soviet past. Everything bad was in the distant past, during war communism, collectivization, and the Great Terror.

Then the past started catching up with the present. There started being political prisoners in the country. Cautious officials stopped coming to the Solovetsky Stone on 30 October. The wreaths from state organs disappeared. But the people remained, a very long line of people reading out the names of the victims of political terror. Occasionally they would also mention present-day political prisoners, but the names of the living were lost in the unending list of the dead. This suited everyone. After all, we love to dramatically remember those who have died and to ignore the living. It’s safer to mourn that way.

The more political prisoners there were in the country, the more insistently the state dug in its heels as to the historical nature of this date. On 30 October 2017, President Putin personally unveiled a monument in Moscow to the victims of political repressions, the Wall of Mourning, at the intersection of the Ring Road and Sakharov Prospect. The officials, tamed human rights activists, historians, cultural figures, clergy, and professional patriots present at the ceremony were ecstatic. It had been confirmed for them at the very highest level that political repressions were a thing of the distant past, and they didn’t have to agonize over what was left of their conscience, if anything was, or believe the slanderers broadcasting about new political prisoners in contemporary Russia.

The doubts that had been overcome in 1991 were vindicated, though; the country rolled back hopelessly into its totalitarian past. The number of political prisoners rose steadily. New political articles appeared in the Criminal Code. The sanctions in the old ones were tightened up. Extrajudicial persecution became common again.

Just five years ago, there were fewer than a hundred political prisoners in Russia; today, there are more than four hundred. More than three hundred of them have been convicted for peaceful religious preaching. For the most part, these are members of the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was banned in 2017, and also Hizb ut-Tahrir, a world religious-political movement that was also banned. The blow to religious organizations is symptomatic. Above all, the state is trying to break those who they can find no way to take under their control.

Dozens of citizens have been convicted for attempts to exercise their rights to free speech and their freedom to demonstrate one way or another. Political or civil society organizations that evoke the authorities’ displeasure are being declared extremist or terrorist, and anyone involved in their activities is correspondingly declared to be a terrorist or extremist. There are 11,553 such “enemies” and 518 organizations on the Rosfinmonitoring list, and if they were all in fact terrorists and extremists, there wouldn’t have been a stone left standing from the state long ago.

The grounds given for the political repression are getting increasingly trivial. A solitary picket, a critical comment on the Internet, a satire on the organs of the state, and even complaints of police brutality can serve as grounds for opening administrative and criminal cases. It appears that the machine of political repressions is no longer being guided in a centralized way–from the Kremlin or the Lubyanka–but has been farmed out in part to local organs of power and low-level punitive structures. The repressions’ decentralization, with guaranteed impunity for law enforcement, is turning the country into a concentration camp where every warder is lord and master in his own barrack. The prospects for the creation of an ungovernable machine of state terror are absolutely real, and even the present-day situation with the persecution of dissent is becoming more and more reminiscent of Soviet times.

The obvious upsurge in repressions is not preventing the decent liberal public from clever attempts to combine protest and loyalty. They persist in calling 30 October the Day of Remembrance rather than the Day of the Political Prisoner. Naturally, this is not about the name; the name substitution made 30 years ago denoted a shift in public interest: from solidarity with the people who defended civic freedom and human rights to touching memories of Russian history that in no way implicate the current state.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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