Staunton, November 28 – Moscow’s increasing application of the term “foreign agent” to its opponents smacks of the Soviet-era phrase “enemy of the people,” Maksim Trudolyubov says. But while it is superficially similar and designed to exclude opponents from political life, it is fundamentally different because the Russian state does not claim to have absolute truth.
The Bolsheviks, the Meduza commentator says, believed they were in possession of exactly that; and consequently, for them to label someone an enemy of the people was to charge that person not just with heretical error but also to declare war on that individual (meduza.io/feature/2020/11/28/chem-putinskie-inostrannye-agenty-pohozhi-na-stalinskih-vragov-naroda-a-chem-net).
That led to denunciations, show trials, mass shootings and the GULAG, but today “we live in another time and in another political reality. The Soviet Communist Party, having driven out and destroyed the former elite, occupied as a result its own social niche. In today’s Russia, the elite in essence occupied the niche of the party” with its own unwritten rules.
But there was and is one big difference: the new elite “did not bring to society any great doctrine,” setting it at odds with its Soviet predecessor which claimed to “know the course of history and to understand what should be done with the country,” Trudolyubov continue. And so in dealing with its opponents, it only wants to transform them into the outsider or other.
“The label ‘foreign agent,’ which was introduced in law in 2012, is suitable for this goal: it allows the regime to avoid a conversation on the basis of equality and partially undermines the social support of its opponents given that people are nervous about having any dealings with ‘agents.’”
But the commentator asks, “is this technology as in Soviet times or in other totalitarian regimes capable of transforming an argument into a war?” The answer is that it won’t be able to because of features of Russian law “which simultaneously make the actions of the powers easier and reduce trust in these actions.”
The powers that be keep expanding the number of actions that can lead them to classify someone as “a foreign agent,” but they do so mostly for their own careerist interests. After all, they will gain promotion if their statistics on finding such “agents” go up and what could be simpler than adding to that possibility?
“The laws on ‘foreign agents’ are no better and no worse than a multitude of other weakened norms which hang over the Russian citizen as a potential danger,” the commentator says. This can lead to real misfortunes for individuals, of course; “but it is not so horrific as was the political machine that generated enemies of the people” in Soviet times.
And that means this: “laws about foreign agents will not be able to finally transform public discussions into a war” as the designation “enemy of the people did.” The new laws don’t induce fear and they haven’t caused Russians to conclude that foreign actors are to blame for their problems.
Some propagandists may say that, Trudolyubov acknowledges; but when people go into the streets to protest, they are holding the powers that be responsible for the problems not blaming them on some foreign forces or their “agents” inside Russia itself.