Foreign Policy Blogs

Crime and Non-Punishment

Forget democracy – Russia has dispensed with boring, empty bourgeois rituals like voting and peaceful protests in favour of some freedoms that really matter. Like the right to set fire to a police car, film yourself doing it, confess, and get away with it. That’s exactly what the radical anarchist art group “Voina” has done.

At a time when bastion of freedom USA is arresting and jailing schoolchildren as young as 9 for shouting in class, authoritarian Russia has found Voina not guilty of setting fire to a police detention van on New Year’s Eve in protest at the recent blanket detentions of peaceful political activists. This despite Voina taking responsibility for and documenting the act with step by step photos on its zany blog.

It’s a situation that Daniil Kharms would have relished: In Russia, you are more likely to be punished for not committing a crime than for committing one.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Voina are making an important and provocative contribution to Russia’s current debate about freedom and the legitimacy of the Putin government. However, it is also true that their radical actions would certainly be deemed criminal even in the Western democracies, which are becoming increasingly obsessed with ‘law and order’. By contrast, it is the totally peaceful and mundane actions – marching, assembling, running for office – that Russia’s rulers find most threatening and criminal.

Think about it: hundreds of protestors have been arrested since the outbreaks of protests late last year, most on the flimsiest charges. And they’re mostly calm, middle class people, not even calling for revolution!

Over the past several years, people peacefully rallying on the 31st of each month to draw attention to the Kremlin ignoring Article 31 – the right to free assembly – have been denied permission to march and then routinely rounded up for ‘illegal demonstrations’.

Journalists are intimidated, threatened and punished for peacefully writing articles.

Civic leader Alexei Navalny is being sued for patent non-crimes (and smeared with doctored photographs).

Even oligarch-cum-dissident Khodorkovsky was chosen to be convicted of a series of bizarre, imaginary crimes, rather than the many that he likely actually committed over the course of accumulating his opaque fortune.

What is going on here?

If, to paraphrase Kurosawa, in a criminal society, only the criminals are truly innocent, then only the innocent are truly criminals!

 
  • Pat

    Is this really new to Russia? Stylish, smart, and enjoyable article! Thanks.

Author

Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs

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