26 January 2024
by Ilya Shablinsky
Yet another step taking us back to Stalinist standards of punishment has been taken. The property of citizens convicted of anti-war comments may now be confiscated. A draft law has already been drawn up — it was passed by the State Duma in the first reading on 24 January.
Do you remember the ‘enemies of the people’ and the members of their families who, from about the mid-1930s, were evicted from flats and rooms in communal accommodation? Specifically, in the overwhelming majority of cases, from rooms their vigilant neighbours often had their eyes on. By the end of the 1940s, it was already a pretty decent business, linked to exploiting administrative leverage: a report, often not even an anonymous one, was written about the owners of a coveted room (or two rooms) in a communal flat and a couple of months later the author of the poison-pen letter moved, together with their household, into the living space just vacated by the previous owners. Of course, compiling a report implied a special skill. Reports were required to correspond to the general party line, the particular political moment, to take into account the categories of enemy currently being sought. A whole science, basically.
You may remember an episode from Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, Cancer Ward. In it, the family of a head of personnel, who obtained a fine flat after the execution and exile of its former owners, is anxious because some one of those who had seemingly disappeared is returning after an amnesty. This was really offensive: ‘Well, why should they come back? Let them stay where they are.’ That’s right, that’s how simple Soviet folk reasoned.
Now, in the contemporary Russia of the 21st century, writing reports isn’t going too badly either. Now these busy authors will have a fresh pretext. The new draft law stipulates the confiscation of property from people convicted under Article 207.3 [of the Russian Criminal Code] (‘the publication of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces… i.e. the dissemination of what is more commonly called ‘fake news’ about the army) and under Article 280.4. (‘Public incitement to carry out activities targeting state security’).
Putting it more simply, property may be confiscated from those who make even the slightest criticism of the activities of the country’s leaders. As regards both the war and any other pretexts. For example, when young poets Artem Kamardin and Egor Stovba read anti-war poetry by the Mayakovsky monument, the court interpreted this as ‘incitement to carry out activities targeting state security’. The young poets were given five and seven years. And we already know what prosecutors and courts may deem to be ‘fake news about the activities of the army’ — whatever you like, including the use of the word ‘war’ itself and even the asterisks that replace it *****.
What will be confiscated and how? The details aren’t clear but we can hazard a general guess. Here certain clarifications about the concept of ‘the confiscation of property’ are required.
In Soviet times – after Stalin now – the measure was applied as an additional punishment: alongside, let’s say, a custodial sentence. Usually in cases of economic crimes or where there were grounds to assume that an asset had been criminally acquired (that still had to be proven in court).
In post-Soviet Russia, the confiscation of property was initially abolished – in 2003. The fact is that, since the end of the 1990s, there has been vigorous debate on the question of how property in Russia is to be protected and how its economy can be made attractive to investors, foreign ones included. (Does anyone remember those blissful days? No way! They were thinking about the country’s attractiveness to investors).
The confiscation of property was reinstated in the Criminal Code in 2006: I heard from certain experts that it was done on Putin’s initiative. He had been very surprised that we didn’t confiscate anything any more. Since then, the measure has been regarded not as a basic or an additional punishment but as something special – a distinct ‘other measure covered by criminal law’.
What is the nub of enforcing this measure? It lies in the fact that, under Article 104.1 of the Criminal Code, money, valuables and other property obtained by criminal means passes into state ownership – in other words, it is, above all, about property crimes that have enriched a criminal. Or about items brought into Russian Federation territory in violation of customs regulations. Or about money intended to fund terrorism.
In addition, the instruments of crimes are confiscated, including means of transport used for criminal activities.
This is all clear. But what types of property are we talking about when it’s seized because of falsehoods about the army, for critical comments? What kind of property can they get (i.e. stockpile) for criticizing the insane politics? What about strong words about the ongoing massacre? What’s the instrument of crime there? We can make certain guesses. It stands to reason that they’ll confiscate computers and tech — the plenum of the Supreme Court took care of this, mentioning it specifically in its recent ruling. The ruling says that electronic devices, including phones, tablets, etc., can be designated as instruments for committing a crime. Even now these items are being confiscated when people are jailed for short terms for offences under administrative law, and even during searches when no one is jailed at all. They hold onto them for a while, though in the end they do give them back. Sometimes they give them back broken. The Supreme Court, as we understand it, long ago turned into a handy instrument of dictatorship. An ammunition carrier. It’s trying its best, although it often looks foolish.
Let me lay out the main concern caused by the planned bill: I think they’re targeting real estate and vehicles. They’re going to take away houses, apartments, and cars. Including from Russian citizens living abroad. Well, how else can you seriously strike out at someone, humiliate them, if you can’t get your hands on them? What else can you do to ruin their life?
For now it’s not quite clear how — with what Jesuit logic — they’ll justify this. But there’s no doubt: they’ll justify it.
According to the bill, confiscation will occur if the crime was committed for personal gain. What does this mean? The following: Any act that the court classifies as ‘dissemination of false information,’ the same court will be able to deem as having been committed for personal gain. What’s the personal gain involved here? Clearly, it’s receiving or hoping to receive some kind of reward for the ‘false information’ from the ‘enemies of Russia,’ domestic or abroad. You may ask: What’s the personal gain in the case of Sasha Skochilenko, who tried to inform shoppers at a supermarket of the truth about the destruction of Mariupol? Or in the case of Ilya Yashin, who talked about Bucha on his site (and who, by the way, quoted a Ministry of Defense report)? After all, they were simply expressing their views. You would get the following response without hesitation: They dispersed this information hoping to receive a payout from known or unknown sponsors. And you would be shown a transfer of 100 euros from an unidentified person. Evidence isn’t even a question.
Forget about the truth. They simply notified you that from here on out, not only will you be imprisoned for criticism, but your personal property will be taken as well. This should instill even more fear in those who deep inside resent seeing the monster the Russian state is morphing into. Let them keep this indignation to themselves, unless they want to do time and lose their house or apartment to boot.
The bill’s explanatory notes inform us that it has been ‘preliminarily drawn up and conceptually supported by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee, the Ministry of Justice and Rosfinmonitoring.’ Go figure.
The people in charge of these agencies are, to put it mildly, not poor. I wonder if they thought about the fact that the provisions they contrived in this urgent order could backfire on them? On their mansions, parking garages, and other little nice things. The fact of the matter is, both Sasha Skochilenko and Ilya Yashin wrote the truth, while the individuals in their uniforms and robes who gave them their sentences were forced to blatantly lie (or maybe they were happy to do so). Mariupol was hit by Russian bombs, and about a thousand people were in fact killed in Bucha. This truth will become obvious and upheld by the law in Russia as well. And then what? What if the day comes when the judges and prosecutors – those who have meted out monstrous sentences for the truth – are put on trial? Will they claim not to have known the truth?
No one will believe them. The provision allowing property to be taken away for ‘disseminating false information’ will remain in effect.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote another famous novel, The First Circle, with another famous scene. There, though, the subject is even bleaker. Minister of State Security Abakumov entreats Stalin to bring back the death penalty (officially it was abolished at this time), to which Stalin inquires, ‘Very well, I’ll bring it back. How about you first?’
We’re almost back to that. Almost. What do you think, how did Abakumov respond?