Ilya Shablinsky: Dictatorship is always short-lived

11 May 2022

Darya Kornilova interviews Ilya Shablinsky, doctor of jurisprudence, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and member of the Human Rights Council from 2012 to 2019, who talks about imperial nationalism and the necessity that groups of people with different points of view come to an agreement.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: For Human Rights website]

– Ilya Georgievich, please tell us what your reaction was to the events of 24 February, when Russia began its special military operation in Ukraine. Your feelings, your emotions, what you experienced.

– It came as no surprise since there had been an evacuation of inhabitants from nearby towns and a troop buildup. Everyone had been expecting this. So you can’t call it a shock. A heavy, gloomy feeling arose that won’t let go.

What has changed in your life over this period?

– For a certain number of days I waited and hoped that the sides would reach some kind of agreement, would seek some kind of compromise. I started gathering information regularly about what was happening in Ukraine.

As of 31 March I was fired from the university. Before that I was lecturing, mostly remotely, and not interacting with colleagues. I did interact with friends, and their positions varied. That did not become clear right away. Because not everyone is prepared to share their opinions right away. Later I also had a chance to discuss with my colleagues from work, after I’d been fired. I noticed that there was this same schism inside the teaching staff, too.

There was a kind of purge in the university. I will cite a few names: Elena Lukyanova, Irina Alebastrova, Elena Glushko, Sergei Pashin, Gennady Esakov. I was the fifth or sixth. It all went entirely as expected. They got rid of professors who to one degree or another had spoken out critically on various aspects of current policy.

Elena Lukyanova, Irina Alebastrova, and I spoke out critically about the 2020 amendments to the Constitution. Our firing was easy to predict. But I wouldn’t say now that this was a major drama for me, since after they were fired, and Sergei Pashin and Gennadi Esakov after them, I would have felt awkward staying on.

What are you doing now? Have you been able to fulfill yourself?

– I have not been able to fulfill myself completely. I have to find a job. That’s problematic. Conditions are completely unfavorable for a professor of law with my reputation to get a place at some major university. I’m involved in research projects, but there are almost none of those now, either. And it’s clear that it won’t be getting any better or easier.

– If you receive job offers from abroad, would you consider leaving Russia an option?

– If there’s a chance of finding work abroad, I’ll leave, of course. Maybe not to just any country, somewhere where the climate is more or less acceptable. You have to be where you have work. In this case, I connect this only partly with the political situation. Criminal charges have not yet been brought against me. But if there are job offers, I’ll leave, of course.

– What do you think, why have we ended up where we are, why is Russia in such a difficult situation?

– My opinion is basically the following. In Russia, in our society, there is a fairly broad stratum of people. This is a big stratum. This is made up of people of different professions, different social origins, ethnically different. The majority are Russians, of course, but in this case it’s not a matter of this stratum being connected with a certain ethnic background. There are a great many people who think in imperial categories, categories of imperial nationalism. They have that in their souls.

Nationalism is everywhere — Poland, Hungary, Germany, the United States. There are people with nationalist convictions everywhere. I wonder, do we have more of them? Yes, maybe we do. And this may have been clear even before. This mindset can be called imperial nationalism.

Many times over the past twenty years I’ve met with an expression of arrogance on the part of representatives of our multi-ethnic Russian nation regarding other nations – Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians — those who live on the other side of our state borders. I’ve seen plenty of this arrogance.

Of the special manifestations of nationalism of an ethnic nature I would single out anti-Caucasian phobias, they were very strong. Somewhere they acquired a visible embodiment, in the fanatic milieu, where they acquired the expression of racism. They have it in Europe, too, in the European countries, but lately there’s been less of it. And there it’s not respectable to express it. Whereas among us it’s always been respectable. We’ve had a great deal of it.

But right now we’re not talking about that but about the fact that a huge mass of people — I don’t know in percentage terms what stratum — were always ready to accept the idea of conquering another nation, another country. They were ready for that, you see. It’s didn’t matter whether it’s Georgians or Ukrainians.

How is that psychology made, the psychology of someone in whom the sense of nationalism plays the main role? He believes that his nation has the right to dictate its will to other nations, and that other nations are usually obliged to them.

Why these feelings have been so widespread among us is a separate conversation. But widespread they are, and they are expressed. This is the ground on which any belligerent summons aimed against another nation will find support. It’s a disaster. It’s like an illness.

— How do you feel about the thesis that Russians have a slave mentality, influenced by years of serfdom?

— The expression ‘slave mentality’ is inaccurate. There is less social activity in Russian society than in France and Germany.  Speaking generally, a majority of Russians are socially passive.  That’s what I can admit. More passive than in most European nations.

I think that this is the legacy of the Bolshevik regime, serfdom is too far back. It’s like they took a vein, cut it and let out blood, two liters. From 1933, from the last year of collectivisation, to 1945, how many Russians did we lose? And I mean the strongest, most active people. Some died at the front, some in prisons. And how long after that did we live in fear? I regard this as a legacy of the Stalinist regime, the Bolshevik regime more generally, but not of the tsarist era.

Because, well, wow! Russia has gone through two powerful revolutions. How did the February Revolution come about? About 300,000 people took to the streets. Mostly factory workers. All the political activists also came pouring out. Such a powerful national uprising. This uprising swept away the monarchy. What came out of it is another matter. The radical party took over. It turned out to be cunning and skillful, but it could have turned out differently. After that, this radical party eventually deprived the people of all their strength.

At first there were pre-war repressions and in the war there were still more. If you ask me about the reasons for the current insufficient social activity of the Russian people, the answer lies in these losses, from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Before the Bolshevik regime, we had a huge peasant population, but by the beginning of the 20th century these people were already quite active. The peasants were sometimes also prone to radicalism, they simply burned the estates and that’s it. What good did that do? But they were not passive. What about the workers? The workers also used the most radical forms of fighting. There was all of this in Russian society.

No, I think that we are exhausted. I assess this regime as a regime that has caused terrible damage, first of all to Russians as an ethnic group and to the country. And in comparison with this damage, achievements, like the space flights, fade.

In the Second World War, the people won, and I would put the role of of the leaders in second or third place. It’s just that people were ready to fight the invaders. What did the leadership do? It carried on executing people. How many victims of the intelligence services [SMERSH] we had, shot by verdict of the tribunals? – about one hundred and ten thousand. That is ten or eleven divisions. I compared these numbers with the numbers of those executed by military tribunals in the Wehrmacht – seven thousand. Ten divisions of people shot – was that one of the conditions for victory? I’m not so sure. It’s just like opening one’s veins and pouring out two liters of blood. These were strong, able-bodied men, smart probably. That is the reason.

– A question about the list of the Navalny team, which includes six thousand names of people who, in the opinion of members of the Navalny team, are not good for Russia as the members of the Navalny team see it. Do you think this is an effective feedback tool? How effective is it?

– When I think about it, I realize that I am not a politician. I don’t know how to handle this question from the point of view of politics. For the time being I think a major transformation of the political regime can take place even though roughly the same people will be in power as now. They will still be there for some time. And what, are they going to pass lustration laws? I don’t think so.

There’s another side to this question. For the possible reforms which are necessary and absolutely inevitable to have a social base and support, it is necessary that this base also include those people who are now afraid to get on the lustration lists. But at some point, the political struggle will demand that the base for reforms be as broad as possible. There will have to be an effort to get everyone involved. We must not think about how to cut off those who acted as the mayor under the dragon, but on the contrary we’ll need to find a common language with them, because this fight and this confrontation will probably be very intense.

It will be important for the future reforms to be supported by as many influential groups in society as possible. Why quarrel with them head of time? Although, when you see the decisions that some judges, very many judges, make, you hold your head in your hands. When you hear the statements made by some of today’s politicians, you have a feeling of hopelessness. You think there’s nothing to talk about with people like that. But we’ll have to talk to everyone when the time comes. Because there will have to be changes in the economy, in the political sphere. And everyone will have to be involved.

– In your opinion, how will it be possible to ensure the independence of the judiciary?

– The way judges are appointed must be changed. Now it is simple enough. Judges are appointed by presidential decree. Candidates for the judicial posts are drawn up in the presidential administration. The candidates are interviewed there, and then they are appointed. There can be absolutely different people there, including people with bad reputations. But for some reason the officials from the internal policy department of the presidential administration like them. They suit them.

I remember in 2013 there was a meeting of the Human Rights Council with Putin. And the question arose that they had appointed a judge who was known, to put it mildly, to make statements that were completely indecent – anti-Semitic things, insults to women. Irina Khakamada and Brod, I think, shouted at Putin, “How did you appoint a judge like that?” And Putin was saying, “They’re bringing me draft decrees for appointment as judges. You know, Irina, there’s a whole stack of these draft decrees. I sign them there. I trust that they had sorted things out. Do you think I know who they are?”  In brief, everything is decided by a few people in the relevant department of the presidential administration. That’s how judges are appointed in our country.

The procedure should be such that the candidates should be discussed by panels, as in many European countries. Panels consisting of famous lawyers, journalists, professors, people who know what the job of a judge is – lawyers and former prosecutors. People with a legal education of different kinds. They sort out these candidates and make decisions, make recommendations.

— Where do you find the resources to look to the future with optimism or, perhaps, even a degree of hope? As I see it, our country is currently in an economic, political and, even perhaps, a spiritual crisis. How can it emerge from that crisis and where are our common resources? Where are your personal resources? 

— Clearly we will emerge from this crisis through war. I’m not saying anything original here. It’s the very worst option. The worst route and we’re moving along it. Could it turn into some kind of civil war? In theory, it could. That’s to be avoided because the participants in that war would include former participants in military actions in Ukraine. We can only guess at what positions they’ll take. A civil conflict would cost us very dear. It’s best avoided.

This situation in itself ought to serve as a lesson to some portion of thinking people. I don’t know how harsh a lesson it will be, how severe it will be for us. But it is a lesson and something useful needs to be drawn from it to develop a new economy for a new state. The state has to be renewed somehow.

Where can I draw an optimistic view of this process? I can draw a pessimistic one as well. Say we try to look at it positively. The seasons change. Winter is followed by spring. 

Then there is the objective situation that large groups of people with various points of view exist within society. They really do exist. With imperialist, liberal, socialist points of view. I’ve given three but there are more. They’re real and they’re not going anywhere. And people in the administrative elite – I no longer talk about a political elite, there’s no politics essentially, but there is an administrative elite – people who are even the slightest bit thinking people, they understand that somehow people with these different views will have to rub along together. And the mechanisms of democracy will have to be made use of all the same. How could it be otherwise? For this reason, all these conversations about state ideology, they’re all fairly pointless because society consists of divergent groups with a variety of viewpoints. And the only thing that can be used as a basis for all this difference of opinions is simply a more or less comprehensible mechanism of State Duma elections, presidential elections.

In short, I have genuinely encountered an interest among the most varied people in our returning to democracy. Of course, I’m not naming names. They currently hold senior posts. They would be delighted to go back to a normal economy, a normal democracy. They would simply feel calmer. Essentially, it’s a natural state of affairs. Whereas dictatorship is unnatural. Dictatorship is always short-lived. Essentially, that’s practically a quote from the early Putin. He said something like this, that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are a temporary affair while democracy enables the formation of a lasting state. A state on a firm basis. He said literally that somewhere in the early noughties. You can find it on the Internet. But let’s not focus on his quotation, it’s just that it’s a natural state of affairs. People with differing opinions and they have to rub along together within a single country. It doesn’t matter. They will all come round to this. 

— Is there something we haven’t touched on in our conversation that would be worth saying?

— I would say that the very best that has been created in Russia is its literature and its monasteries. And the very worst is its prisons. This is the view of a great many people. I would like Russia to manifest itself somehow in what her best sons and daughters have given the world, what Russia has given the world most of all. That is art. And some examples of faith. The faith that was preserved under the Bolsheviks, under an atheistic regime. There are problems with that now too. And I would want there to be fewer prisons. That is the path of development. 

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Ecaterina Hughes, Simon Cosgrove and Melanie Moore

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