Gone are the blessed vegetarian times when the powers-that-be were content with labelling their foes “enemies of the people” — or foreign agents — and driving them out of Russia by limiting their rights and depriving them of their means of subsistence. Where are those days of humanism and rule of law when you could get away with a fine or a mere 15 days in jail for saying the wrong thing? Turns out those were the good days.
Now, things are different. 25 years behind bars for Vladimir Kara-Murza, terrorism charges against Alexei Navalny (who is already spending most of his time in a punishment cell), lifelong sentences for high treason that might consist of small talk with a foreigner. People are being arrested every day for high treason. Even those who were previously untouchable are now legitimate targets — a veteran of the Afghan campaign and both Chechen wars has received a prison sentence for “discrediting the army”. Is the supply of traitors running out? It’s no wonder, given the authorities’ zeal.
The brutality does not surprise us anymore. After all, we are no longer surprised by the daily killing of Ukrainians — another 23 were killed just last Friday — and some of us have hauntingly grown used to it. The point of the indiscriminate shelling is clear — Russian army command hopes that Ukrainians will grow tired of death looming at every corner, ready to take anyone in any city at any moment; grow tired of losing loved ones, of the increasing number of people maimed and houses destroyed. This weariness, Kremlin strategists believe, should convert into a public call to Zelensky to let go of the Crimea and Donbas and stop the war on any terms. This is what Hitler hoped for when ordering attacks on British cities.
So the bombings are of course criminal and inhumane, but reasonable from the authorities’ point of view. They are horrifying, but no longer surprising. But what’s the point of this orgy of political repression?
There are no rational explanations for it. One can explain targeted terror against particularly hated enemies — this person is a nuisance, a show-off, or a rabble-rouser, so kill him! That will solve the problem and teach others a lesson. And it is these particular people whom the Kremlin hates — those who personally insult and offend its dwellers. For example, how can Kara-Murza be forgiven for his work on personal sanctions — every time you recall you cannot fly to your French castle, you recall whose fault it is. Besides, killing enemies of the state is a national tradition. And if the murder doesn’t work out and instead sparks an international scandal — well, what are you going to do, it isn’t easy finding officers that know what they’re doing. The evolution of Russia’s secret services has selected against competence. For generations, they only fought unarmed people and received medals for shooting and imprisoning innocents. But give them time and they will learn.
Putting opponents in jail and generally clamping down on the opposition is also an understandable move. They lack both the habit and the intelligence to win a fair fight against the opposition. It is not that the people in power are all fools while everybody in the opposition is smart. There are smart people in power and there are more than enough fools in opposition. But the most notable members of the opposition — both on the national and regional levels — are obviously not just smarter than agents of the state. They are better public speakers; they react faster and have a better understanding of both the state of affairs and of the people than those who are governing over them. That is why a scandal breaks out as soon as you loosen the leash, allowing a real opponent to take part in elections — you have to commit so much electoral fraud that you end up being the national laughing stock. Putting opponents in jail is the safer option.
It’s not just about elections — they can be cancelled (and I think this will happen soon — there’s no time for silly games when the country is under NATO attack) or stretched across several days with tree stumps instead of voting booths. We already have the experience, having gladly gobbled up the 2020 amendments to the Constitution. The main problem for the regime is that everything is falling apart and all its efforts are failing. Russia is suffering an obvious defeat in Ukraine (the capture of Bakhmut is taking longer than that of Berlin in 1945) — no matter how many times you repeat that everything is going as planned, the people no longer believe you.
Many people still think that we were the ones attacked, but they are also increasingly realising that the Tsar sucks at defending his country.
But the war is not the only failure. Injustice, corruption, and poor medical care are only a few issues on a very long list. The result is a monstrous (albeit somewhat traditional for our country) alienation of people from the state and no vision of the future. There is no future, but the past is returning — youth organisations like the Young Pioneers, for instance. The regime needs young Putin fans to cheerily sing songs about the great leader’s childhood. Though I am getting somewhat ahead of myself — something like that will probably only be introduced in a few months.
How, given this backdrop, can you allow your opponents to open their mouths? You cannot. The Russian people are very ignorant of their regime’s greatness. You won’t notice it in the polls and during elections, but oh the things you’ll hear if you only talk to them! Therefore, anyone who dares say the wrong thing must be jailed. And since there are thousands of promotion-greedy law enforcement officers around, their nets occasionally catch people who were perhaps not intended as targets — those who said a few risqué words in a private conversation overheard by a zealous patriot or were caught looking at the wrong type of content on their phone.This regime has no other way but to intensify repression — perhaps they would like to do it without throwing people in prison, but they cannot.
However, life sentences and other such measures do not fit into this logic. You can put whomever you want in jail anyway for as long as you want. You torture whoever you want. You randomly declare people undesirable and imprison them on that basis. Not to mention little things like getting people fired from their jobs. All these things are already in your hands. So why are you doing this?
Do you want to scare them? You have long since intimidated those who were capable of being intimidated, and the rest probably never will be. They have got used to you. And they certainly will not be scared of these insanely long sentences. Everyone understands that if you sentence Navalny to another 30 years in prison he will serve exactly as much as he would have after his first sentence — that is, as long as Putin stays in power (you can kill him, of course, but that will not depend on the sentence you hand down. I dread even contemplating this, so I hope you won’t succeed). The jail time of all the other political prisoners also depends not on their sentence, but on how long the leader will live.
But Putin, even if for purely biological reasons, does not have long to rule, and the next president, whatever scoundrel he might be, will start — as it is usually done — with mercy and set prisoners free. For a while, at least.
So is this just out of spite? I don’t think so. When you — Vladimir Putin and your best buddies (I hope you all go to trial together) — sentence opponents to 25 years behind bars and threaten people with life imprisonment, argue that a war without purpose or meaning is the only natural and possible state of the country, introduce laws that will force coming generations to march in formation — when doing all this you are indulging in self-psychotherapy. You tell yourselves — we are powerful and, most importantly, eternal. You tell yourself — we think in terms of centuries, we have eternity to spare. And the sentences we dole out are proportionate to our greatness.
But you are not eternal and you are not great. Everything will end in disgrace and nothingness, your laws will be abolished, and your prisoners will go free. Everybody understands this except you.
You can do a lot more harm in addition to the harm that you have already caused both to our country and to other countries. Of course, we cannot know how long the agony of your system will last. But the impracticality of your cruelty shows that each and every one of you, deep down, understands that you are doomed. May God give strength to those who oppose you today. As for you — even if you do not end up in jail, you will be damned.
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