October 24, 2019

A State of Repression


A State of Repression
At a 2006 Moscow demonstration. Kojoku | Dreamstime.com

Svetlana Prokopyeva, a Pskov-based journalist, broadcast this editorial on November 8, 2018, via Ekho Moskvy in Pskov, in a segment titled “A Minute of Enlightenment.” The original Russian text is archived here.

As reported by The New York Times and others, for expressing her opinion, Prokopyeva is facing the possibility of seven years in prison for "publicly inciting terrorism." We offer the translation of her editorial as a public service for those interested in her case. As Russian Life reports in its November/December 2019 issue, Arkhangelsk Oblast has Russia's highest rate of trumped-up prosecutions of this nature.


The apple does not fall far from the tree. A strict state, with a harsh, or, more exactly, cruel law enforcement system, whose main concern is not defending the law but punishing the criminal, has raised a generation of citizens to match. This is how I understand last week’s most significant event: the explosion inside the Arkhangelsk FSB.

On October 31, in the center of Arkhangelsk, a 17-year-old boy walked into the FSB building with a homemade explosive device. He activated it directly inside the frame of the metal detector. Only the bomber himself perished. Three FSB workers were injured.

Barely a few minutes before the explosion, the boy posted a message on an anarchist Telegram chat. He warned that a terrorist act was at this moment taking place in the FSB building, took responsibility, and explained his motives.

“Since the FSB… is fabricating cases and torturing people, I decided to do this,” the terrorist wrote.

In other words, this is not something personal, but an entirely political act. Terrorism as a means of political struggle – it’s not for nothing that people were reminded of members of the People’s Will. The similarity is all the more monstrous if we recall the differences: those young suiciders, the nineteenth century terrorists, lived under monarchism, when civil rights and freedoms were not only not accepted in Russia, they were not even formulated properly, and the channels for the distribution of information were, at best, daily newspapers.

And now, 150 years later, in a democratic state that has elections and a multi-party system, where freedom of speech is proclaimed, and where, in seconds, one can reach many millions with one’s ideas and demands, a dissatisfied youth has once again built and detonated a bomb. A youth that was born and raised in Putin’s Russia saw no other way to make known to others his protest against torture and the fabrication of criminal cases.

This explosion, in my opinion, proves better than any political scientist’s opinion piece or any Human Rights Watch report that ther are not in Russia the conditions for political activism. Despite the Constitution, hundreds of registered parties, and regular elections. All of this does not work – at least this is how it was seen by this young man who had something to say to those in power.

He did not go out and protest. He did not try to organize a meeting. He did not publish an article or a manifesto, an open letter with demands to halt fabrication of cases and the torture of people. He did not approach a political party with a proposal to include this point in their political platform. He did not reach out to his deputy in the State Duma.

You say the boy was too young to think such adult things? But that is the point, that he did not see his growing up as a way out: “I will get older and fix it.”

For his conversation with the FSB about civil rights he chose a bomb.

I think that the Arkhangelsk FSB is taking the rap for the whole system. All law enforcement organs act the same way, and, even if they squabble amongst themselves, when it comes to how to treat citizens they are in rare unanimity. Punish. Their singular task is proving guilt and judging. The factual side of the case is not important. Motivation and guilt, intent that is, are unimportant. Just the tiniest formal pretext is required to drag someone under the millstone of legal proceedings. And if a criminal charge makes it to a court, then the court will accept the conviction. There is no other way.

The state openly presses on those who are not loyal to it. No other reason is required, except opinions and beliefs. Here is a fresh example: on our Day of National Unity they arrested Artyom Milushkin, the organizer of an approved rally against corruption and tyranny by the police.

Artyom was driving with his wife and children and was stopped at the entrance to the city in a document check. He was pulled over from the leftmost lane, which says plenty already. Then they asked him to get into the GIVDD [traffic police] car. And then another car arrived – a black Mitsubishi with private plates. Some plainclothes fighters hopped out and pushed Artyom face down into the mud, then forcibly dragged him into their car and drove away. They could have been bandits, but the equanimity of the traffic cops proves that no, these were their people.

Later, Liya Milushkina found her husband at Komissarsky station. They had charged him for being disobedient toward the police and detained him for two days at the station. They had to let him go, true enough, after a call to their personal security service. We will have to see what happens next.

This is an example of deliberate and targeted aggression on the part of the security forces. But do not think this only pertains to activists. It pertains to every person who accidentally or not comes into contact with services that are vested with the right to commit violence. And the fact is that they seem to take pleasure in exercising that right.

I recall the police officer that recently stopped me on the street. It was obviously happenstance, simply to check the license number on my bicycle’s frame. But five minutes later the patrolman was threatening to arrest me and take me down to the station. He did everything he could to keep me from going about my business for as long as possible, even as he was checking on the license number on the frame, as he was verifying my passport and struggling with the [national] root of my family name, he continued to explain to me his rights and my duties. He happily wasted my time, demonstrating his tiny power.

A strong state. A strong president, a strong governor. A country in which power belongs to the security forces.

The generation that the Arkhangelsk bomber belonged to grew up in this atmosphere. They know that you should not go to meetings, that they will disperse you off, beat you, then condemn you. They know that solitary pickets are punishable. They see that you can be a painless member of only a limited selection of political parties, and that only a limited range of opinions can be expressed without fear. This generation has been educated by example, that you cannot achieve justice in the courts – the court only rubber stamps the decision that Comrade Major has arrived at.

Many years of limits on political and civil freedoms has created not simply an unfree state in Russia, but a repressive one. A state that it is rather scary and unsafe to have anything to do with. Every representative of this state considers it his duty to exert his power over any citizen. And not only the security services. Guardianship agencies, bailiffs, fire inspectors – they will all be against you, if you give them an opportunity. To acknowledge one’s mistake, to show leniency, to forgive – these are simply not options here.

Repressive to its own citizens, the state is now being met in kind. The young citizen who sees in the powers that be only prohibitions and punishments, is unable to think of any other means of communication. Cruelty breeds cruelty. A ruthless state brought into the world a citizen that made death his argument.

Let us hope that he is an exception.

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