To the accompaniment of the usual official drivel about democratic values, Russia’s political regime continues to reach new heights of authoritarianism. Or more accurately, it is stooping to new lows. Having already eliminated freedoms in television, federalism and parliamentarianism, elections and the formation of multiple parties, and having established an all-powerful ruling bureaucracy, the Kremlin is now reviving one more important element of the Soviet system — the fight against political dissidents.
In true Soviet fashion, individuals have appeared to speak out against the ruling powers and our leaders have sanctioned a campaign of ostracism and persecution against them. Human rights activist and journalist Alexander Podrabinek has kicked off the new epoch of Putin-era dissidents with a drama that is unfolding before our eyes.
After Podrabinek published an article with sharp criticisms of the Soviet Union and World War II veterans, commissars of the Nashi youth movement met with their long-standing patron, chief Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov. They began their organized harassment of the journalist immediately afterward. At that meeting, Surkov lavished praise on the “Nashists,” referring to them as “the vanguard of our political system.” Surkov even credited the Nashi movement for prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to reject plans to deploy elements of U.S. missile defense batteries in Central Europe. Surkov encouraged them by saying, “Therefore play on! Go ahead! The radar is gone!”
Heady after receiving such enthusiastic support from a top official, Nashi activists set out to “play on” with a vengeance. They demanded that Podrabinek publicly apologize “before Soviet veterans.” Nashi activists showed up at Novaya Gazeta, “serious about coming to terms” with the journalist, and demanding that editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov hand over Podrabinek’s cell phone number. Other young people rang at Podrabinek’s apartment and questioned his neighbors. With the sanction of authorities, and despite the inconvenience to the neighbors, Nashi activists set up an ongoing picket near his apartment building and publicly warned, “Podrabinek’s life is divided into two parts — before the article, and after the article.”
Threats of physical violence against Podrabinek appeared on the Internet — to the complete indifference of authorities and law enforcement agencies. One Nashi leader, Nikita Borovikov, announced that if Podrabinek did not apologize for his article, Nashi would seek his expulsion from Russia. Simultaneously, several lawsuits “in defense of honor and dignity” were filed in court.
In the face of this “hate campaign,” Podrabinek was forced to go into hiding and cannot return home to see his family. What’s more, the journalist wrote in his blog that he has information that a decision to use physical violence against him had been made on the political level and that the Nashi campaign is being used as a propagandistic cover.
Before the eyes of the Russian public, a major campaign of persecution has been unleashed against a fellow citizen who merely expressed his views in a newspaper article. The campaign is openly violating fundamental constitutional principles and norms — freedom of thought, freedom of conviction, the inviolability of one’s personal residence, the right to live in one’s own country and the right to state protection of life and health. State Duma deputies, the prosecutor general and the federal ombudsman have not spoken up for Podrabinek. The Russian Union of Journalists is silent, as is the Public Chamber. When Ella Pamfilova, a Kremlin human rights aide, dared to berate Nashi for “persecuting” a journalist, Duma deputies demanded that she apologize.
By remaining silent over the persecution of an individual for his criticisms of the Soviet authorities and their crimes — for his decision to express his views and convictions — that practice effectively becomes the official policy of the Russian establishment and the thinking of the political mainstream. This is wholly in keeping with the general policy of the authorities to rehabilitate Soviet leader Josef Stalin, idealize Soviet history and consolidate society on an anti-democratic foundation.
Nashi commissars would do well to keep in mind that on the evening of Dec. 1, 1977, Podrabinek was arrested by the KGB on a public street, and that his father and brother were at the same time being held for questioning by law enforcement officials. All three were accused of “anti-social and anti-Soviet activity” and given 20 days to leave the Soviet Union — or else be sent to a Soviet prison camp. Podrabinek refused and was exiled for five years to the Yakutian village of Oimyakon. He was rearrested there in 1980 for giving an interview to the Western press and was given another 3 1/2 years. In the 1970s, Podrabinek helped publish the underground press and defended the victims of Soviet punitive psychiatry. The persecution of Podrabinek and his family was carried out by the KGB under the supervision of Yury Andropov — whose name now adorns a Moscow street. Podrabinek now has legitimate grievances against the Soviet authorities, and he has ample right to air those grievances publicly.
Podrabinek was also detained and questioned by the Federal Security Service in the 2000s for distributing the well-known book “The FSB is Blowing up Russia,” published in 2004.
Podrabinek’s latest troubles have received the most media attention, but it is not the first instance of the authorities persecuting dissidents. Criminal proceedings continue against Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev (brother of the famous writer) for organizing the “Forbidden Art” exhibition in 2006. The prosecutor is demanding that they serve prison time for “inciting hatred and enmity, and for using their official positions to denigrate human dignity.” Dozens of nationalist nutballs have served or are serving time in penal colonies, effectively having been imprisoned for expressing such political sentiments as “Putin, leave!” Dissident behavior and its persecution by the authorities have become a fact of life in modern Russia.
Moscow and other Russian cities are still full of Soviet symbolism — streets named after Lenin, Marx, Engels and socialism, as well as public squares named in honor of notorious Soviet secret police chiefs Felix Dzerzhinsky, Moisei Uritsky and Vyacheslav Menzhinsky. The word “Anti-Soviet” — until recently the name of a small Moscow restaurant — can no longer affect them. But criticism of the Soviet Union has suddenly become tantamount to criticism of Russia. Now Russian officials, bankers and oligarchs have pulled on their gray Chekist overcoats, donned Soviet soldier caps with red stars, and hung chains bearing Russian Orthodox crosses around their necks. And Nashi activists have told anti-Soviet dissidents to “get out of our country!”
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvyradio.