Saturday, November 14, 2015

Putin Moving Step by Step toward a New 1937, Ponomaryev Warns

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 14 – The Kremlin’s recent moves against the Ukrainian library in Moscow, Petr Pavlensky, Memorial, and the Ingush Human Rights Center represent “a transition of repression to a new level,” one that points ultimately toward a new “great terror” like the one Stalin unleashed in 1937, according to Lev Ponomaryev.

            The attack on the Moscow Library of Ukrainian Literature, the longtime human rights campaigner says, was clearly designed to sow “fear and horror” among “all those who seek to find out about the history, culture and political reality of Ukraine” lest they learn things the Kremlin doesn’t want them to (

            The Pavelensky case, he continues, is “an obvious example of selective and inadequate application of the law” in such a way that Russians are given to understand that no one is safe from the actions of the authorities regardless of how he or she behaves. As under Stalin, a charge can be lodged against anyone.

            And the new charges that the Memorial Human Rights Center is engaged in “’subversive’” and “’anti-constitutional’” acts crosses yet another line. Earlier, the authorities  treated what Memorial does as “’political activity.’”  Now, they are treating it as criminally close to extremism.

            When Moscow, in response to the adoption of the Magnitsky List, introduced the requirement that those NGOs receiving money from abroad must register as “’foreign agents,’” the government insisted that this registration requirement would not introduce any limitations on their actions.

            “However,” Ponomaryev points out, “very soon, the Central Election Commission took a decision about not allowing representatives of ‘agents’ as election observers.” Obviously, he continues, “the authorities will never allow an army of independent observers” to cast doubt on “’the legitimacy’” of Russian elections.

            “Now has come the next step: the treatment of criticism as ‘subversion of the constitutional system;’ and this is not as comic as it might appear on first glance,” the human rights leader says.

            Opposition figures have treated each new repressive action with the suggestion that it points to a new 1937, he says, but the authorities have gone out of their way to discredit that idea and insisted that each of their actions must be treated individually rather than seen as part of some general plan.

            “But let us consider carefully just what the ‘Great Terror’ of 1937 was,” Ponomaryev suggests.

            “Above all,” he says, “this was the final stage of the evolution of political repressions” that began when the Soviets punished those who took arms against them, expanded when Stalin punished those who in the leadership who opposed his policies, and then extended this kind of repression to society as a whole.

            “The true meaning of these repressive acts also was obvious: Stalin understood quite well that in the case of the collapse of his regime namely those will good training and pre-revolutionary ideas about normal life would lead the country out of the communist dead end” into which he had driven it.

            The next stage was the murder of Sergey Kirov on December 1, 1934, an action that Stalin exploited to declare any criticism of his policies by anyone as “’the moral support of terror.’”

            Stalin’s path to the Great Terror like Mao’s to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Ponomaryev argues, “was no accident. The goals of both was to paralyze society with fear, to make shootings as commonplace as they were in the civil war, and what is the main thing to take away any desire among the elites to influence the development of government policy.”

            “And we see,” the rights activist says, “that Putinism is evolving in the very same direction. His first victims were major independent business, independent media, and independent politicians.” Now he has taken the next step by accusing human rights activists of seeking to destroy the state.

            The Putin regime has provided itself with law-like possibilities to ban meetings and censor the press and the Internet. “It has worked out means of persecuting actions which earlier were considered by everyone to be completely legal.”  And it has exceeded the actions of other authoritarian regimes which all seek to “equate criticism with extremism.”

            Russian society has reacted in a “sluggish” fashion to these steps, and consequently, “the powers have made another step toward total control” of public life. Indeed, Ponomaryev says, they have so broadened in an anti-constitutional way the meaning of “’extremism’” that it can now be applied to any critical comments.

            That is not to say there has been no reaction, and the Kremlin has taken steps to try to limit it as much as possible, with military actions in Ukraine and now Syria, but both of those entail the risk that bodies will be coming home and that there will be a revival of “’the Afghan syndrome’ in full measure.”

            And the actions of the long haul truck drivers show the danger facing the Kremlin. The truckers were able to “instantly organize themselves in a dozen regions and paralyze movement on the roads. Neither the acquisition of Crime, nor the defense of Asad, nor the unending intrigues of President Obama and President Poroshenko continually unmasked by television could distract them from their impoverished position.”

            “A non-democratic regime when it finds itself at a dead end usually seeks to eliminate growing dissatisfaction by three means,” Ponomaryev says.  First, itt may promote “a military-chauvinist psychosis” but that only works for a while and can lead to open confrontation with the West.

            Second, such a regime can unleash “paranoia against ‘internal enemies,’” but the persecution of the remaining human rights organizations which are well-known in the world can satisfy only those who are professionally angry viewers of talk shows.” Most people won’t be mobilized by that.

            And third, in the face of rising popular anger, the regime can unleash “a broad purge” of all those who don’t fit into the regime’s matrix, including entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. One should note,” Ponomaryev says, that the regime is suggesting that such people “from the middle class” are “enemies.”

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