Staunton, May 19 – In recent weeks, Lev Shlosberg says, featured a remarkable development in several important legal and hence political cases: the authorities backed away from their original and baseless positions in the face of unified protests by society whose leaders pointed out that things would get worse for all if the powers went ahead as planned.
Put in simplest terms, the Yabloko regional leader argues in an article for Pskov’s Guberniya newspaper, “society didn’t back down; the authorities did.” cases alone, of course, have not transformed the situation in Russia; but they do show the best way forward toward that end (gubernia.pskovregion.org/columns/kogda-vlast-otstupaet/).
The first of these cases involved Yury Dmitriyev, the leader of the Karelian section of Memorial, who had been absurdly charged with pedophilia. After “thousands of ordinary citizens” wrote protests, the court in that republic found the charge baseless, a remarkable outcome given that in Russia, courts exonerate only 0.36 percent of those charged.
The second occurred on May 14 when the magistracy released Aleksey Malobrodsky, a film director and former head of the Gogol Center, from incarceration “in view of his age, state of health, and also the fact that the collection of evidence had been completed and that, having been released, the accused couldn’t in any way influence the results.”
Four days earlier, Malobrodsky had become ill at a hearing. Initially, the judge refused to call a doctor but then backed down. He was confined to a hospital where he was chained to a bed; but when that came out in independent media, the authorities removed the chains and then shortly thereafter released him on his own recognizance.
And third, after the Duma passed on first reading a “counter-sanctions” measure that would have blocked the importation of American medicines and high tech medical equipment, thus “threatening death to thousands,” Russians across the country protested; and the authorities dropped this ban and made the bill less horrific in its consequences.
These three otherwise dissimilar cases share a common feature: In all of them, “powerful social protest” and the display of “civic solidarity” prompted the authorities to back away from what they had initially planned to do and what it might have seemed they could do regardless of any protests, Slosberg says.
Most have assumed that “the Russian powers that be now can do whatever they want be it crowning an emperor, beginning a war wherever, stealing the budget blind, arresting and depriving people of their legal rights, and destroying the lives of those under their control. “But it turns out” that their ability to do these things is not unlimited.
“The forces of society remain the chief fear of the Russian powers that be,” Slosberg says. “Open civic protest frightens them more than political opposition because they know very well how to organize dishonest elections and steal power … But they do not know what to do with the civic anger of people not paralyzed by fear.”
Before displays of such anger, “the authorities retreat. They recognize the power of society and their own weakness … They do not know how to speak with people in a human way and will never learn. But when society begins to speak to them in the language of genuine anger and protest, they retreat.”
Indeed, he argues, “Russia now is in such a state that public protest for the powers is stronger and more dangerous than any political threats. The strongest weapon against the inhumane powers s human solidarity with those whom the powers threat.” And that means that in Russia today, “the defense of human rights is becoming the main function of civil society.”
“In the history of the 20th century,” Slosberg says, “the strongest politicians who became democratic reformers in their countries emerged out of the legal rights movement. Their work was based on the values and principles of the defense of legal rights.” Where they emerged, democratic reformed were “successful.”
“The defense of legal rights is the best school of democratic politics,” he argues. “Therefore, citizens, don’t sit on your hands, don’t be quiet, don’t be afraid, and always defend people when you learn about illegality and injustice. Defending them, we also save ourselves and the entire country from the darkness of inhumanity. Not only today but tomorrow as well.”