Putin’s critics fight repression, denounce Kremlin laundering of Soviet crimes

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“Only ‘nonsense’ interests me, only what makes no practical sense,” wrote Daniil Kharms, one of the most original and beloved writers of the Soviet avant-garde. “Only life in its absurd manifestations”.

It has been 79 years since Kharms died in a prison in Leningrad, but this city still tells the kind of weird tales that captured his singular imagination, just as the echoes of Soviet repression are now shaking Russia with increasing force.

Five years ago, artists painted a portrait of Kharms on the building he lived in until Soviet police arrested him in August 1941 for spreading “defamatory and defeatist feelings” about the effort. of war. Six months later he starved to death in a prison psychiatric ward during the first winter of the siege of Leningrad which lasted 872 days.

The residents of the building adore the mural, and it has become something of a landmark in St. Petersburg, which reverted to its pre-revolutionary name in 1991 and still claims to be the capital of culture (and against -culture) of Russia.

But now officials say the portrait must go.

“They insist that this is a formal violation of the rules. It’s forbidden and that’s it, ”said liberal politician Boris Vishnevsky, leader of the campaign to save the mural.

“They say the rules don’t take exceptions or something nice. This also happened in Soviet times – the authorities regarded anything that was not done on their initiative as questionable. . . When this administrative machine begins to roll, it has no reverse gear. He cannot go back, ”he explains.

“The fresco does not contain any political threat. But imagine that it was not a photo of Kharms but of [president] Vladimir Poutine. If the rules are the same for everyone, I would like to see how they handled a request for the destruction of a portrait of Putin. I think they could handle it differently.

A fresco by Soviet writer Daniil Kharms on the building where he lived until 1941 in St. Petersburg.  City officials want the unauthorized portrait to be erased.  Photography: Daniel McLaughlin

A fresco by Soviet writer Daniil Kharms on the building where he lived until 1941 in St. Petersburg. City officials want the unauthorized portrait to be erased. Photography: Daniel McLaughlin

The relentless and relentless bureaucracy is more Kafka than Kharms, as are the recent woes of Vishnevsky.

Look alike

In the September local and parliamentary elections, Vishnevsky faced a pair of peculiar opponents: two men who officially changed their names to Boris Vishnevsky and altered their appearance to look like him, in an alleged attempt to confuse among his supporters, to take some of his votes and help his rival in the ruling party.

“If they had been ordered to change their gender, they would have done it too,” says Vishnevsky, who lost both electoral races but retained his seat on the city council thanks to his place as dean on the list of party of the liberal Yabloko group.

“They got a total of around 1,000 votes in the end, so it had an effect,” he says of his “doubles,” at least one of whom has now reversed the name change.

St Petersburg liberal politician Boris Vishnevsky with a mockup of an official election poster with photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevsky who participated in the last elections.  Photograph: Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images

St Petersburg liberal politician Boris Vishnevsky with a mockup of an official election poster with photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevsky who participated in the last elections. Photograph: Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images

While fighting to overturn the election results and the order to erase Kharms’ portrait, Vishnevsky also joined a larger battle, in Russia and abroad, to save one of the most respected organizations in his country.

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Moscow prosecutors last week sought to shut down Memorial, possibly Russia’s oldest and best-known human rights group.

It was formed from locals across the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, amid the perestroika thaw and glasnost reforms, and focused on finding and commemorating millions of victims of political repression in the country.

Memorial’s continued appeals to Russia not to forget or whitewash Soviet purges, deportations and Gulag prison camps angered authorities as the security services regained enormous power under Putin, the former KGB officer who had ruled the country since 2000.

“Foreign agents”

Russia designated sections of the organization as “foreign agents” as early as 2014, as it began labeling groups that received funds from abroad with a term evoking Soviet-era espionage and connotations. “Enemy of the people”.

Prosecutors said Memorial failed to live up to its obligations under the Foreign Agents Act and that it was also “justifying terrorism and extremism” by recognizing as political prisoners those imprisoned on these charges, which are now widely applied in Russia.

Memorial has closely followed the impact of Putin’s growing crackdown on dissent, which this year saw opposition leader Alexei Navalny jailed upon returning from treatment in Germany following near-fatal poisoning in Siberia last summer.

Boris Vishnevsky's supporters (center, no mask) wear masks to make fun of two rivals who changed their names and appearance to resemble his own ahead of the recent elections.  Photography: courtesy of Boris Vishnevsky

Boris Vishnevsky’s supporters (center, no mask) wear masks to make fun of two rivals who changed their names and appearance to resemble his own ahead of the recent elections. Photography: courtesy of Boris Vishnevsky

Navalny’s anti-corruption group has now been banned as an ‘extremist’, and the foreign agents law has been extended to wipe out prominent activists and journalists who have investigated Putin and his rich and powerful allies .

Many opposition figures and journalists have fled abroad for fear of arrest, and last month Memorial said that Russian prisons now hold at least 420 political prisoners, which Sergei Davidis, a senior member from the organization’s human rights center, called it “completely comparable to Soviet-era figures.”

The threat to Memorial – which has long served as a symbol of Russia’s break with the worst crimes of the Soviet past – sent a wave of anger through the country’s beleaguered and severely weakened civil society.

More than 60 leading Russian academics and the center founded in memory of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, defended Memorial on Monday.

“The destruction of Memorial is an attempt to deprive the nation of its memory, which we should not allow, in order to prevent a repeat of an era of monstrous repression,” the academics wrote in an open letter.

Angry at Memorial’s treatment, writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya announced that she would return a state award given to her by Putin.

“The memory is now being taken away from me, the memory of those condemned and executed, of those who were thrown under a truck or died of hunger, who froze to death in trucks going from camp to camp, tortured. . . Among those who have been beaten recently in the streets, in police vans. . . Among those who are in prison because of false cases. “

Petition

More than 29,000 people have signed an online petition in Russian entitled “Hands off Memorial!” And international rights groups and Western capitals have lent their support to a group that has won awards around the world for its work.

“The decision to liquidate Memorial is another case of using Russia’s so-called Foreign Agent Law to further reduce the space for independent activism and to restrict historical scholarship and critical debate,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

“The Russian authorities must reverse this decision and end the relentless crackdown on civil society and independent media. Memorial is an internationally respected NGO and one of the oldest in Russia. . . The dismantling of Memorial would be an irreplaceable loss for the Russian people and the rest of Europe.

Yet the Russian state only increases the strength and extent of its control after changing the constitution to allow Putin to rule until 2036, when he would be 84 and spend even more time. in the Kremlin as Josef Stalin.

A growing number of websites are blocked and banned here, dozens of Russians have been prosecuted for sharing “subversive” content online, and several have been arrested recently for posting risqué photos near churches, with a couple jailed for 10 months for a photo in which a woman disguised as a police officer simulates a sexual act in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.

Many of Navalny’s allies have fled Russia, but those who remain here face grave danger: Lilia Chanysheva (39) was remanded in custody last week on apparently retroactive charges of extremism, though the branch Navalny’s network in his town of Ufa, in the Urals, was disbanded before the organization was banned.

Lack of criticism

Even with the coronavirus raging in Russia, worsening poverty, rising prices, and relations with the West in tatters, Putin’s criticism is completely absent from state media; at the same time, it is an open secret that celebrities are supposed to support the ruling party or at least avoid political commentary, and face the threat of canceled contracts and darkening if they speak out against the diet.

There is now a feeling, grimly familiar to many Russians, that it is now safer to stay silent, to keep your head down, to allow things to be covered up and forgotten.

Like many liberals, Vishnevsky has some differences with Navalny – whose face was quickly made up by authorities in St. Petersburg in April when he appeared on a large mural titled “The Hero of the New Times.”

“But we see him as a political prisoner who is unfairly imprisoned and should be free,” says Vishnevsky.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we thought we had hit rock bottom when they started labeling journalists and lawyers as foreign agents. But now they want to close Memorial … It’s the destruction of our historical memory. They are the successors of the [Soviet] executioners demanding that the names of the victims – and their executioners – be forgotten, so the memory of these crimes is lost, ”he said.

“Every time we tell ourselves it’s the end, the bottom, they can’t go lower. But then, after a while, we hear knocking below us – and something even worse appears.


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