Staunton, August 8 – Perhaps the most widely cited cry of despair among those who suffered under Hitler’s fascist regime came from Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller who observed that “first they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.”
“Then,” he continued, “they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.” But in the end, “they came for me, and there was no on left to speak on my behalf.”
Tragically, a similar pattern is now taking place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The victims of his regime, of course, initially seemed very different from those of the Third Reich. First of course were “persons of Caucasus nationality;” then, Muslims and immigrants more generally; and in recent months, liberal opponents of the regime and members of the LGBT community.
In each case, there have been those in Russia and in the West who have sought to downplay the violations of human rights that these attacks have involved, to plead extentuating circumstances for the regime, or even worse to suggest the West should ignore them in pursuit of larger interests or that Russian opposition figures should also play to nationalist sentiments.
Reaction to Putin’s harsh law against LGBT "propaganda" suggests there is groing recognition both among Russians and in the West that the Kremlin is moving ever more methodically toward the truly despicable. But even now, there are those who are trying to justify what the Russian president and his supporters are doing or to downplay their significance.
However, an event two weeks ago in a Russian courtroom may make far less likely that people of good will either in Moscow or in Western countries will be able to avoid condemning the signals Putin is sending. At the very least, this event and its spillover effects should force both groups to stand up and be counted.
On August 1, a Russian regional court sentenced Petr Farber, an unemployed actor and teacher, for 85 months in a prison camp and imposed a three million ruble (100,000 US dollar) fine for allegedly exceeding his authority in a community organization and stealing 300,000 rubles (10,000 US dollars).
Despite the severity of the sentence, this case might have attracted little attention had it not been for a statement to the court by the prosecutor who asked “could someone with the name of Farber [a clearly Jewish name] help the village for free?” (nazaccent.ru/content/8681-v-moskve-sostoyalsya-piket-v-zashitu.html).
While some in Moscow suggested this statement had less to do with anti-semitism than with the arbitrariness of the Russian court system – see, for example, Leonid Radzikhovsky’s comment at ng.ru/blogs/leorad/prigovor-farberu-i-norma-zhizni.php – the Russian Jewish Community quickly recognized the dangers inherent in such comments and organized support for Farber (help.rjc.ru/site.aspx?SECTIONID=85646&IID=2444628 and help.rjc.ru/site.aspx?SECTIONID=345556&IID=2444912).
Those dangers are all too real not just in that Russian courtroom but beyond because they send a message to the worst elements in Russian society, elements that may now feel free to act in ever uglier ways, and to some opposition figures who apparently have concluded that they have little choice but to play to at least part of that crowd.
In a commentary on “Osobaya bukhva,” Vitaly Korzh calls attention to the former threat. “Unlike in Surkov’s times,” he writes, “when ‘public force’ against ‘unacceptable citizzens’ was precisely directed and dosed out, today the [Russian] state is distributing mandates for force right and left, often against its own interests” (specletter.com/obcshestvo/2013-08-05/chto-pozvoleno-jupiteru-to-pozvoleno-bychju.html).
Official tolerance for if not outright support of xenophobia and anti-semitism sends a message, intended or not, to extremists in the Russian population that they can “beat people” with impunity. And that in turn means not only that there will be more beatings but also that the state itself is losing the monopoly on coercion.
Indeed, as Korzh suggests, there are growing indication that the regime is all too willing to have these groups do its dirty work so that the powers that be in Moscow can deny that they are responsible for what is going on.
At some point, of course, the Russian government will either have to engage in massive repressions to stop such actions by angry members of the Russian population or try to coopt those who are participating in such actions by offering them greater ideological if not outright political cover.
Both present real dangers, but the second is especially scary given developments over the last week. One St. Petersburg blogger has asked where are Russian liberals who should be leading the charge against such horrors but appear to be trying to reap political benefits (rosbalt.ru/generation/2013/08/05/1160663.html).
And one candidate for Moscow mayor has distributed campaign literature in the form of a crossword puzzle, one of the answers to which was a highly offensive term for Jews (lenta.ru/news/2013/08/06/levichev/).
The time has passed for “understanding” and “explanations.” Such actions by the current Russian government must be unequivicably denounced for what they are: violations of human rights. And to be credible, these denunciations must entail real costs for Moscow, costs that will be kept in place until it changes course rather than only changes its public relations strategies.