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In Russia, History Makes Strange Bedfellows

The proposed measure is meant to help "overcome Bolshevism and Stalinism in the public mind."
The proposed measure is meant to help "overcome Bolshevism and Stalinism in the public mind."
It seemed like a joke at first. Russia's chief firefighter, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, declared that it should be a crime to deny the role played by the Soviet Union in securing victory in World War II. Surely he didn't mean to be taken seriously.

But the next day when Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika endorsed Shoigu's suggestion, it no longer seemed funny. Apparently the complete pointlessness -- from the legal point of view -- of such a moronic suggestion wasn't enough to dissuade our legally competent prosecutor-general. The proposal must seem serious enough to him.

I imagine that these high-ranking officials are scared to death by the rumors that a wholesale purge of the upper ranks is looming, and so they are doing everything possible to hang on to their posts. And what can ministers do to have the bosses notice them, value their zeal, and not show them the door?

I guess the only thing they know how to do is to stand behind patriotism and start tightening the screws on everything else. After all, even if the higher-ups don't praise you for doing so, at least they won't criticize you. When was the last time the bosses in Russia criticized anyone for showing too much pro-government zeal?

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also endorsed Shoigu's proposition. Of course, this was entirely to be expected.

But the matter didn't end there. It reappeared in a different light coming unexpectedly from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Now, I know that idiotism is highly contagious. But even I was surprised it can go this far. On February 28, the liberal Yabloko party proposed "making it a crime to justify mass repressions and the destruction of millions of innocent people," as well as "the denial of the fact of mass repressions and of actions aimed at the destruction of certain social and ethnic groups."

Yabloko's political committee made the proposal within the framework of "programs for overcoming Bolshevism, Stalinism, and nationalism in political practice and the public mind." The program is based on a report by former party leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

Echoes Of Stalinism

In short, in order to "overcome Bolshevism," Yabloko is resorting to purely Bolshevist methods. Under the proposed legislation, if anyone expressed doubt about the mass repressions of the Stalin era, he could be tried and imprisoned without even a discussion of what was said. After all, the facts will have been established once and for all, just like the facts of the role of the Soviet Union during World War II.

It should be noted that both Shoigu's and Yavlinsky's propositions go above and beyond even the old Soviet Criminal Code. Stylistically, the closest parallel is in Article 190 ("knowingly disseminating false ideas insulting the Soviet state or social structure"), but that law at least demands that the state demonstrate the "falseness" of the assertions, as well as the fact that they were "knowingly disseminated."

In the latest proposals, by contrast, there is no burden of proof. It is just a matter of handing down the sentence.

Of course, in practice the Soviet authorities never bothered proving any of the crimes purportedly committed under Article 190. It was enough just to list the seditious words and thoughts.

Take, for instance, this bit from one of my own prison sentences from that period: "Podrabinek, in his 'Punitive Medicine,' grossly distorts actual events from the history of our state; misinterprets the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet government; discredits socialist democracy and civil rights and freedoms; and identifies the socialist level of the Soviet government with totalitarian, fascist regimes."

The way I see it, it would only take a little editing to use these same phrases in a sentence handed down by some future judge using the commandments of Comrade Shoigu or the Yabloko party.

At the same time, I should say that many points of Yabloko's anti-Stalinist plan are completely correct and reasonable, but the call to criminalize all historical assessments that do not correspond with the official version of events undermines Yabloko's appeals. It is like adding just a dollop of you-know-what to a kettle of soup -- it tends to spoil the whole meal.

I can't understand how Yabloko ended up so close to the state on this matter. The chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who attended the Yabloko discussion and endorsed the final document, was quoted by Interfax as saying: "The democratic movement -- even though its positions are perfectly clear -- has long needed a document like this that clearly lays out the scope of its goals." And what could be of broader scope than resurrecting the Communist practice of persecuting people for expressing their personal opinions?

Legal Protections, Forgotten

Immediately after the first critical reactions to Shoigu's proposal appeared, there was an uproar within the "great power-patriotic" end of the spectrum, with commentators saying that the criticism was based on emotions rather than the law.

So, especially for them -- as well as for those wilting rights advocates and frivolous opposition politicians who have forgotten about existing legal norms that protect human rights -- I would like to remind everyone of the law. Proposals to criminalize expressions of personal opinion about historical events contradict the following legislation of the Russian Federation:

The Russian Constitution, Article 29: "Every citizen is guaranteed freedom of thought and expression. No one can be forced to express their opinions or convictions or be compelled to renounce them."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19: "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 10: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."

Many of these statutes mention exceptions relating to matters of national security, territorial integrity, health, or public morality, but none of them considers historical discussion to fit into one of these categories.

It would seem that these norms are not understood or respected by those who have drafted the latest legislative initiatives. Maybe they should join forces and seek out others who share their views. Russia is a big country with a lot of historical experiences, and it is certain that you can find many people who would love to have their interpretation of Russian history protected by the Criminal Code.

The first step would be to form an organizing committee that would bring together the people who had the inspiration for these ideas -- Shoigu, Chaika, Yavlinsky, Alekseyeva. Then we should hold a national congress with a name like "The Sanctity of Interpretations of Russian History" to begin the process of silencing wrong-thinkers and renegades.

No one will be allowed to interpret historical events in any way other than that which is endorsed by delegates to the congress. The simplest measure of all would be to slightly rewrite old Article 190 and bring it back into law, criminalizing "the dissemination of false ideas discrediting the Russian state or social structures."

This has been tried. It works.

Aleksandr Podrabinek is a human rights activist and a columnist for "Novaya gazeta." This commentary first appeared on "Yezhednevny zhurnal." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL