Foreign Footprints

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Foreign footprints are being sought in the Moscow protests. On August 19, the Council of the State Duma adopted a decision to create a commission to investigate foreign interference in Russia’s internal affairs. Apparently, this committee will cooperate, and not compete, with the Temporary Commission of the Federation Council to Protect Russian Sovereignty and Combat Foreign Interference, founded in June 2017, whose opening session has already been compared to the memorable appearance of the State Committee on the State of Emergency. The “hand of the West” has even been seen in this summer’s events in Penza Oblast, when hundreds of local residents took part in a mass brawl, but only members of the Roma population were detained. One hundred seventy-four Roma were arrested at the scene and 28 remain in custody.

The people who attacked Roma homes were not charged with any crimes; even though pogroms and calls for pogroms can be classified as “mass unrest,” here the authorities see these actions not as people walking along streets of the capital but only as people trying to burn down their neighbor’s homes. In August, the danger of a pogrom hung over one small Roma community (actually a large Roma family) in the Kuznetsk Basin. An everyday conflict resulted in the mobilization of local residents, a brawl, and, again, intentions to burn down, massacre, and drive out. The reaction of the authorities was, admittedly, quick and cautious: police officers undertook to protect Roma homes. These homes are still being guarded, but what will happen next?

And this is not the first time this has happened in Siberia. Just over one year ago, a real pogrom was launched against a local tabor, a peaceful settlement of Kalderash Roma. Their homes were set on fire, their property was dragged into the street and thrown out, and their windows and doors were smashed. The defenders of order did not interpret this as a pogrom or mass unrest; they did not even investigate the arson case, which attorneys for tabor residents pressed to have opened. But the administration did require the Roma to demolish their homes, apparently following the reasoning that no homes mean no problems.

I wonder, though, about which “enemy state” would see an advantage to inciting conflicts with the Roma, a people that has never had a state. Suspicions along the lines of “foreign, suspect, planted” unfortunately do not require logical explanations or proof. The tradition of searching for “foreign footprints,” especially funny in our time of the internet, goes way back in Russian history. Let’s recall a few of its pages.

…The question of who put the Decembrists up to their protest arose right away during the investigation. Their responses were disappointing: it turned out that their views were shaped by the literary works of Radishchev, Bestuzhev, Ryleyev, the “freedom-loving” lyrics of Pushkin, and, most frequently, the play “Woe from Wit.” As a result, Alexander Griboyedov was drawn into the investigation, arrested in Tiflis, transported to Saint Petersburg, and placed in the military prison of the Main Headquarters, from whence he was summoned for interrogations and confrontations. Since there was no direct evidence against Griboyedov and he was able to keep it together, the authorities had no choice but to release him.

But the idea that a protest could not ripen independently on Russian soil did not leave Nicholas I. After the investigation was completed, sentences were rendered and confirmed, convicts “outside of their category” were executed, and the rest of the convicts had their punishments enforced by category, the search for foreign interference was renewed. And this was even though a secret annex to the Report of the Investigative Committee (this annex was intended for the tsar alone and was only published in 1875) clearly proved that there were no grounds for suspicion of the Stockholm court (of attempts to join Finland to Sweden) or England (of attempts to separate Poland from Russia). Suspicions of Austria (the Decembrist prince Trubetskoy was related to a former ambassador of this country) and Spain were deemed “based on rumors.”

With the closing of the Investigative Committee in the case of the Decembrists in 1826, protection of public order was transferred to Alexander Benckendorff, head of the Third Section. Thaddeus Bulgarin, who in today’s reality could be called a member of the media and a secret informant, took a lively part in the activities of this section. In regard to a foreign footprint in the Decembrist uprising and in the mentality of educated society in general, he wrote an expansive note beginning: “You asked me: do foreign states influence the political mindset in Russia? Your question strikes a chord with me, since this has been my idée fixe over the past decade.” Bulgarin went on to describe stark changes in Petersburg society (in 1819 as compared to pre-war 1809): “I was surprised to see that in Petersburg everyone is occupied with politics, that they speak boldly about constitutions, the form of government specific to Russia, members of the tsar’s family, and so forth… How has it happened that young people who never previously thought about politics have suddenly become demagogues? I saw clearly that the Russian army’s visit to France and the proclamations of states allied against France filled with promises to return freedom to the people and give them a constitution brought about this revolution in their minds. But since Russia has no fuel to feed this fire, I have determined that there must be a foyer here where this flame is nurtured and finds its expression.” Bulgarin sought this foyer, this source of dangerous ideas, in famous Petersburg homes frequented by foreigners.

In his report, Bulgarin devoted the greatest attention to the “Austrian footprint” and the Decembrist Alexander Kornilovich’s participation in conversations and discussions with Austrian diplomats. Kornilovich, who did not take an active role in the events of December 14 and who gave the investigation honest testimony, was sentenced under Category IV to 12 years of hard labor; his sentence was reduced in August 1826. But Bulgarin’s report and the unassuaged suspicions of Nicholas I meant that, after less than a year a Nerchinsk Mine, Kornilovich found himself in solitary confinement in Alekseyevsky Ravelin of Peter and Paul Fortress. Kornilovich’s written responses satisfied Benckendorff and Nicholas, suspicions of espionage and disclosing state secrets were dispelled, and the charges of participating in “Austrian intrigue” were dropped. It was reliably established that Kornilovich cited what we would now call “open sources” in his responses to inquiries from Austrian diplomats about different parts of Russia.

Incidentally, Kornilovich was not returned to Siberia; instead, another use was found for this distinguished man. As Pavel Shchegolev, the famous scholar of the Decembrists wrote, Kornilovich “was a knowledgeable person and very well informed about many aspects of Russian life, so Nicholas I found it useful to keep him at hand in the fortress and consult him on various matters of importance to the state. In this way, the will of the supreme leader determined that Kornilovich had to sit alone in the fortress and issue sound advice from there. This state of affairs was so deeply unique that it is difficult to find corresponding examples.” Shchegolev (1877–1931), who himself spent considerable time in solitary and non-solitary confinement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and left fascinating notes about this, was not familiar with the term sharashka.

Even though the results of the “foreign footprint” investigation were negative, it appears that Nicholas feared their publication. Kornilovich was only let out of the fortress in 1832 under a general amnesty (the tsar’s fourth son was born). Sent to the Caucasus as a soldier, he fell ill with a fever during a march to Dagestan and died. Of all the Decembrists, Mikhail Lunin spoke most unequivocally about the sources of beliefs resulting in the Decembrist uprising. During interrogations, he held firm and “did not recall” names or facts: “A free way of thinking started forming in me from the time I first started thinking and was stimulated by common sense.”

Olga Abramenko – expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda