30 October 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
When in 1991 the new Russian regime, like an inspired marauder, stole the Day of the Political Prisoner and turned it into the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, hardly anyone argued. At the time, you could count the political prisoners on one hand, new ones weren’t being imprisoned, and many in our country thought that political repressions were being replaced by freedom, democracy, and human rights.
The saying, “Don’t say ‘hop’ until you’ve made the leap!” doesn’t come out of nowhere, though. Russia never did make the leap from totalitarianism to democracy. Truth be told, it didn’t even try. It crawled along slowly and reluctantly, occasionally feigning determination to crawl all the way to a bright future, but ultimately giving up halfway in the twilight of midweight authoritarianism with the distinct prospect of returning to the pitch dark of the totalitarian past.
New generations of Russian human rights activists, having chosen the defence of human rights as their main profession, willingly took part in power games called “Let’s cry over the past and not think about the future.” A significant segment of human rights activists’ efforts and resources were devoted to harmless reminiscences about the tragic past rather than the creation of reliable instruments to defend human rights.
The unveiling of monuments, reading of names, plaques on apartment buildings, bitter reminiscences, prayers, tears, and flowers—it was all exquisitely emotional, heartfelt, and touching and gave the sense of a major deed properly done.
HYPOCRITICAL TEARS ABOUT PAST SINS
From time to time, the state would look at this condescendingly and sometimes even participate in similar initiatives. The apotheosis of hypocrisy was Vladimir Putin’s participation in the unveiling of the memorial to the memory of victims of political repressions, the Wall of Grief, on Sakharov Prospect, on 30 October 2017.
By this time, there were once again quite a few political prisoners all over Russia, while the state and its tame human rights activists kept grieving over the past and studiously ignoring the present. Naturally, not all human rights activists behaved this way, but the public energy aimed at reminiscences of the past and the concern about the future were woefully incomparable in scale.
Meanwhile, while shedding hypocritical tears over its past sins, the state swiftly stepped up the work of its repressive machinery. The number of political prisoners increased in accordance with the tightening of the regime, the restriction of civil freedoms, and Russia’s inevitable international isolation. The new wave of repressions after the invasion of Ukraine began was logical and predictable.
THERE WOULD BE MORE POLITICAL PRISONERS IF THE BORDER WERE UNDER LOCK AND KEY
After a major and satisfying slap in the face of the world community with its international justice, conventions, laws, and rules of conduct, the Russian state heaved a sigh of relief and started imprisoning the regime’s critics, giving no thought whatsoever to whether the sentences adhered to international law. If you can kill thousands of utterly innocent people in Ukraine, why can’t you imprison a couple of hundred inconvenient people at home in Russia? Such is the logic of an authoritarian state, whose aggressive foreign policy always goes hand in hand with repressive domestic policy.
Today, administrative cases against oppositionists number in the thousands; criminal cases in the hundreds. Three quarters of today’s political prisoners were convicted for peaceful religious preaching, as a rule, and not even in public. The number of political prisoners has been going up for many years. There would probably be even more if the border were under lock and key.
However, unlike the Soviet state, the current one prefers to release its opponents into emigration rather than overburden the prison camps and prisons with them. By no means does this attest to their humaneness. Ultimately, exit from Nazi Germany was also free for a long time, and tens of thousands of Germans were even stripped of German citizenship. None of this made the Third Reich less dangerous or more peaceloving.
The presence of political prisoners in a country is, of course, primarily a problem of the country itself, its society. But this is also a problem for the whole world because a regime that begins with political prisoners almost always becomes an international threat and instigates bloody carnage at the first opportunity.
Translated by Marian Schwartz