Staunton, June 20 – A most interesting case is wending its way through the courts of Moscow: Igor Stepanov is challenging the Russian legal system to admit that the Soviet state was guilty of crimes and thus must be brought to justice, an effort that if it succeeds, Leonid Gozman says, will entail “truly historic” consequences.
In a New Times commentary, the Moscow publicist says that the case, the last hearing of which occurred on Tuesday, is perhaps the most remarkable effort yet to move toward a Nuremberg trial of the Soviet leadership for its crimes, an effort that the Russian leadership has made possible by its own rewriting of history (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/181968).
Gozman begins by noting that “the USSR, the disintegration of which in Vladimir Putin’s opinion was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century (I however think [the commentator says] that the greatest such catastrophe was the establishment of the USSR), began to kill people as soon as it appeared on the earth and even already in its perinatal period.”
At a certain point, it became impossible to deny the fact that there were mass murders, and Moscow had to come up with an explanation by specifying who was guilty. For the Putin regime, which identifies with the Stalinist version, that Soviet state and its ideology cannot be blamed.
In Khrushchev’s time, Stalin was held to blame, a man whose “poor character Vladimir Ilich [Lenin] had warned. “But now Stalin is again great – he has become the victor in the war, the savior of the economy and in general almost Pushkin like as our all.” Consequently, the Putin regime has had to come up with another explanation.
It has chosen one that always existed but never before was at the center of public discussion: “excesses in localities.” FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov laid out that position in an interview he gave to Rossiiskaya gazeta on the centenary of the formation of the Cheka, the direct predecessor of his own organization.
According to Bortnikov’s version of events, it turns out that in Soviet times there were “indisciplined, irresponsible, and even as hard as it is to believe criminal chekists who in violation of orders from above killed people. And those above them thus have no responsibility for what they did,” Gozman summarizes.
What that means, of course, is that those who were killed under Stalin were “not vicims of political repressions (which didn’t exist because they are no orders) but simply people who suffered at the hands of specific evil individuals just like those who die in the course of a drunken fight or when attacked on the streets.”
Not surprisingly, many were furious at this explanation, especially if they lost family and friends at the hands of such people. One of them was Igor Stepanov, a procuracy colonel who retired because of his desire “not to take part in the systematic violation of the Constitution and the law.”
Stepanov lost numerous ancestors to the killings in the 1930s – many of his forefathers were priests – but that as not the only or the main thing that drove him to use the tools of the justice system he fully understood and seek justice in the form of a ruling that what happened 80 years ago was not the responsibility of low-level police but rather of the system as such.
To do that, he brought suit in May 2018 against Bortnikov and Rossiskaya gazeta demanding that they retract their assertion about excesses as the explanation and admit that the state itself was responsible. The court refused to call Bortnikov and ruled in December 2018 that in this case, Bortnikov was expressing only his personal opinion and thus there was no case.
Stepanov wasn’t to be stopped. He renewed his suit not long after that on the basis that he had new evidence, in this case, a document with the signatures of Stalin, Molotov, and other comrades” in which they gave direct orders to kill people which is exactly what their executors did, not on their own but because they were following orders.
Then, the lawyer in Stepanov asked that the court subject the documents to expert analysis and offered to pay for it himself. The judge withdrew, considered and said that such a step wouldn’t be necessary, but ruled that the document did not constitute new evidence in the case Stepanov had brought.
“And so,” Gozman says, “a written order for mass murders issued by the top people of the state” was in effect “analyzed in a court of the Russian Federation. “Of course,” he continues, this isn’t the first time a judge in Russia has ruled black is white,” so this outcome isn’t a big surprise and the “excesses” argument thus remains in place.
But “everything is changing: the square was saved, a young man was released, and ratings are falling.” And that opens up new possibilities. Clearly, Stepanov is planning to exploit them, all the way to Strasbourg if need be. What he is doing, Gozman says, is preparing a Nuremberg for Russia!
“The legal, oral and other consequences of a recognition by a Russian court of the existence in Russia of a criminal state will be truly historic,” the commentator continues. The powers that be recognize this: they even had one of their minions in court to keep track of things and have the documents needed if the ruling had gone otherwise.
“I swear this is true,” the Moscow commentator says. “I saw it myself.”