Staunton, February 11 – Many commentators have suggested that Vladimir Putin is leading Russia toward a new 1937, but few have considered the possibility that his repressions might begin in the provinces and then spread back to the capitals rather than as was the case under Stalin.
There has been some attention to the way in which the imposition of Soviet practices in Crimea and in the Donbas raises that possibility, with Crimean Tatars routinely pointing out that the occupation authorities have adopted Soviet approaches on many questions and officials of the self-proclaimed “peoples republics” saying that is exactly what they want to do.
And those who keep track of official violations of human and civil rights on sites like SOVA or the Sobkor information agency (sova-center.ru/ and sobkorr.ru) among others know that Russian officials outside of Moscow often behave worse than those in the capital because they assume they can act without attracting the attention of Western journalists or embassies.
Given that Putin often likes to test the waters and see how others react and then adjusts his policies accordingly and given that his much-ballyhooed “power vertical” is nothing compared to Stalin’s apparatus in the late 1930s, it would be entirely reasonable if disturbing to think that he might begin a massive crackdown where fewer outsiders would complain.
In an article posted on Rufabula.com today and entitled “A New ’37 in Karelia?” Vadim Shtepa, perhaps Russia’s most distinguished writer on regional issues, not only directly asks whether that might happen but also points to some of the reasons why Putin’s appointment of regional heads might dispose them in that direction (rufabula.com/author/shtepa/335).
Shtepa notes that “in the middle of winter in Karelia,” there have been some disturbing echoes of “long forgotten sad times.” On January 30, Oleg Fokin, the chairman of the Petrozavodsk city council, was arrested in what was almost a Hollywood manner: He was seized on the streets by masked men from the special department of the interior ministry.
Several days later, the same thing happened to Devlet Alikhanov, a deputy of the republic Legislative Assembly and another prominent Karelian politician. Both of them, Shtepa notes, are “known as active critics of the republic authorities.” On February 6, their colleague, Vasily Popov, head of the republic Yabloko Party, called a press conference to denounce the arrests.
Popov succeeded in assembling a large number of Karelian journalists, but a significant share of them, Shtepa said, did not publish anything about what was said, either because of director censorship by editors of state-controlled media or because of their own practice of “self-censorship” for self-protection.
The regional Yabloko party leader called the arrests “political” and connected them with the incumbent governor Aleksandr Khudilaynen. Popov said that “it is obvious” that this isn’t the end of the wave of arrests and that he, Popov, expects to be arrested in retribution for the fact that Yabloko’s candidate won the Petrozavodsk mayoral elections in 2013.
He said that the United Russia party and its man, the incumbent governor, have now decided to “correct their mistake by force” and begin to “cleanse the political field of Karelia from any opposition forces … if they proceed in that direction, they will be forced to build new prisons.”
Popov suggested that as a result of this campaign, “the use of the law enforcement organs in political struggle has become Karelia’s brand.” Many in Karelia had hoped on the basis of Khudilaynen’s Finnish name that he would be supportive of the Finnic nations there, but he has proved very much the outsider he was. Until his appointment, he’d never worked in Karelia.
Popov has an explanation. When Khudilaynen was in Gachina, he felt himself to be a marginal outsider in the Leningrad oblast political elite. Now that he has been given control of an entire republic, he views the local people as “aborigines” with whom he has no reason to reach an accord and has engaged in a “shameless” seizure of their properties.
The Yabloko leader says that he is “certain” that the only way for the republic to avoid a disaster is for it to have the opportunity to directly elect the governor and then have the right to remove him. Otherwise, the incumbent will respond only to Moscow and may do even worse things in Karelia because no one there can touch him and few will notice what he does.