How an autocratic regime chooses to prosecute its dissidents can be very revealing.
Consider the case of performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who was arrested in November for setting fire to the entranceway to Lubyanka, the infamous headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Moscow.
By targeting the entrance to a building where so much repression was planned and executed, Pavlensky was making a statement -- and delivering a warning.
The threat of the Great Terror did not die away in the distant past, he wrote. It is very much alive and still hangs over Russia today.
After his arrest, Pavlensky -- who of course became world famous back in 2013 when he nailed his private parts to Red Square -- insisted he be charged with terrorism.
Instead, this week the authorities have charged him with -- and this is really rich -- damaging a cultural heritage site.
Yeah, you got that right.
Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Cheka, the NKVD, and the KGB, the place where Felix Dzerzhinsky and Lavrenty Beria once lorded over the terror in which millions perished -- this sinister place is actually a cultural heritage site.
And by choosing to prosecute Pavlensky for damaging it -- an offense that carries a six-year prison sentence -- the Kremlin is sending a crystal-clear message that it intends to preserve, protect, and defend that legacy. They intend to protect their culture of terror.
You sure can learn a lot about a regime by how it chooses to prosecute its dissidents.