Staunton, April 28 – There are two fundamental differences between repressions in the last decades of Soviet power and those now, Boris Zolotukhin says. In Soviet times, the powers were confronted by only a handful of people; now, they are openly opposed by hundreds of thousands. And in Soviet times, repression was driven by ideology; now, it is often used for personal vengeance.
Zolotukhin rose to prominence for defending Soviet dissidents in court when he could and behind the scenes when he had to, something he was forced to do after the Soviet authorities expelled him from the official legal profession for speaking on behalf of the those who protested the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/04/28/potrebnost-poseiat-strakh-a-zakon-orudie-lichnoi-mesti).
In his view, the senior defense attorney says, “the basic distinction of that time from now is that the current instruments of persecution of protesters hare arisen as a result of the scope of the protest movement in Russia and the tasks of the powers that be in their struggle with it.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the dissidents were “a small group.” As a result, the authorities did not have to worry about repressing large numbers of people. “Today, the number of demonstrators can reach hundreds of thousands, and there is a great need to sow fear among the population.”
The Russian authorities now are seeking to achieve this by the only possible way, “massive repressions, including the conviction of the innocent.” The range of punitive measures today is thus far “wider” than was the case at the end of Soviet times, Zolotukhin continues.
“In the USSR until 1966, the main weapon for persecution those who thought differently was primarily Article 70 of the RSFSR Criminal Code which banned ‘anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation.’” Charging dissidents with this required that prosecutors show they were trying to undermine or weaken Soviet power.
But the dissidents of that time made clear that this was not their goal. “They only insisted on the observation of laws, the Soviet constitution and human rights. Their slogan was brilliantly simple: ‘Observe your own Constitution.’” They thus got support not only from Western human rights activists and governments but also from communist parties in the West.
The protests of those parties played a role in forcing the Soviet powers that be to adopt a new paragraph of the criminal code, Article 190-1 in 1966 which called for punishing “the dissemination of intentionally false and slanderous information shaming Soviet statehood and the social order.”
As a result, Soviet prosecutors could charge and convict dissidents without having to show that they were undermining and weakening Soviet power, Zolotukhin says. “At the same time, repressive measures were softened by the use of exile,” an option not readily available to the Kremlin now given the numbers of people taking part in protests.
The defense attorney says that another “distinctive feature” of Russian repression now is “the use of criminal repressions against personal opponents,” something that further degrades the law and the courts by reducing investigations and trials “into instruments of personal revenge,” a trend that only contributes to the further growth of protest.