It’s ‘Traitors,’ ‘Agents,’ and ‘Saboteurs’ All Over Again

Arkadiy Belinkov, the remarkable writer and a prisoner of Stalin’s camps, said it just right:

“If an era…drags people into its atrocities; stifles freedom for various reasons and preaches terror under various names; tramples over the press; destroys the opposition; runs roughshod over its very own laws; tortures anyone who starts to understand something, anyone who doesn’t understand anything, and anyone who will never understand anything; forces everyone to think the same way; accustoms everyone to think one thing and say another; wipes out its rivals so they pose no threat and its loyal fools so that others think: if they do this to their own, then what will they do to us?… If hypocrisy, duplicity, corruption and depravity flourish, and human life floats along in lofty, disparaging, combative, duplicitous, boastful, high-flown, sentimental, and saccharine words that no one believes, then there can be no doubt which people the era will select, and we can make clear judgements on the basis of its deeds and representatives about the political, social, and economic system that it believes to be ideal.”

This description of the era is very recognizable: Belinkov wrote this is the mid-20th century, but his words unfortunately still ring true today. Every day, at least half of the news items in those media outlets that have not yet been crushed to a pulp are about arrests, searches, new charges, deprivation of the rights of yet another “foreign agent,” entry bans (the human rights defender Valentina Chupik), exit bans (the journalist Roman Dobrohotov)…. The threatening words “treason,” “sabotage,” and the more modern, although similar in meaning, “extremism” are starting to crop up more frequently again. For example, the absurd charge of organizing sabotage was filed against Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy chair of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people. Dzhelyal stated in court that: “I believe these charges are fabricated. I am being persecuted for my journalistic and public political activities.”

No one who knows Dzhelyal or has even once heard his measured, rational, and dignified speeches will ever believe that he is guilty. He has understood for years that he faced a high danger of persecution in Crimea, and he never took any risks, aside from the risk of speaking the truth and protecting the rights of his people. A statement by Amnesty International stresses that: “The only purpose of this criminal prosecution of Dzhelyal is to force him to be silent and stop his independent civic activities in Crimea.”

As far as charges of extremism are concerned, they appear to include everything all at once: treason and sabotage, revolt and preparing an uprising – at least judging by the charges against Aleksei Navalny and his comrades, who the Investigative Committee believes acted “to carry out extremist activities aimed at changing the foundations of the constitutional system in the Russian Federation and subverting public security and the sovereign integrity of the Russian Federation.” The Investigative Committee lists “crimes of extremism, which include: founding and managing a nonprofit organization performing the functions of a foreign agent and calling on citizens to commit illegal acts – to participate in unauthorized meetings” and to finance their activities “by transferring money or cryptocurrency.” How can it be that founding and managing a nonprofit “foreign agent” is both extremism and a crime against the state at the same time? And how can it be that those dozens of people, along with “unregistered movements and public associations,” who have found themselves in the Justice Ministry’s registers against their own volition, must now create legal entities performing the functions of a foreign agent to file their reports in accordance with the corresponding law. Why is the Justice Ministry pushing them into committing a crime?

The terrible thing about this situation is that the recent doubts – declare oneself a “foreign agent,” resist this label? – are no longer relevant. Anyone who remains in the country is being forced to admit – although it’s possible they understand that this won’t protect them – that at the next stage of repressions, creating these very same “NGOs performing the function” will amount to a serious element of a crime. And those who have no desire whatsoever to label themselves with a function will be forced to flee, so that they can later be tormented from afar, like Dobrohotov as he watched his elderly father being led off for interrogation.

Those media outlets that still provide a variety of interesting and relevant information will also have to acknowledge the necessity of compromise: Intervening on behalf of Aleksei Venediktov (Ekho Moskvy), another great editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov (Novaya gazeta), wrote exactly this: “Your activities to stamp out Venediktov will result in the following: Soon there will be nothing for you to listen to, and you will only be reading to each other on your tapes.” Seemingly less vulnerable than editors in Russia, émigré Pavel Durov openly admits that the question of what his social network blocks is based on censorship (Telegram shut down Smart Voting channels on election days at the request of the Russian authorities) rather than ethics. He explained his refusal to take measures against a toxically xenophobic channel that posed serious danger in this way: “There is currently no risk of Telegram being blocked because of this, which is a major difference between this situation and the situation with the Smart Voting bot.”

Over 150,000 people and dozens of organizations have signed of petition demanding (of whom?) the full repeal of the law on “foreign agents.” The text of the petition is very correct and we have no argument with it: It states that it is impossible to improve illegal norms and that they must be repealed.

People suffering from the state’s “foreign agent” campaign have made other interesting demands. The director of the autonomous nonprofit organization Yakutia Our Opinion, who has been designated a “media outlet foreign agent natural person” even though he hasn’t received any foreign funds except for money from the UN (to attend a conference), proposed the following: “In order to implement the logically correct initiative concerning the inexpediency of the presence, in Russia, of an international organization whose activities Russia believes are hostile in relation to itself (why would anyone – a state or a person – exist alongside someone who wishes them ill and has hostile intentions?), and in light of its refusal to remove me from the register of foreign agents, I, Stepan Petrov, hereby demand Russia’s withdrawal from the UN.”

Stephania Kulaeva, expert, Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial
First published on Radio Liberty’s blog

Photo from Nariman Dzhelyal fb page