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Putin Must Also Face The Gulag Question

Even while embroiled in the biggest foreign policy standoff of his reign, the Russian leader has been forced to acknowledge accusations of torture after leaked videos of violent abuse in prisons. Yet proposed new legislation to stem torture risks challenging a regime built on corruption and state-sponsored repression.

Putin Must Also Face The Gulag Question

An anti-torture protest last year outside the FSB security services headquarters

Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via ZUMA
Cameron Manley


MOSCOW — The head of a bruised and battered prisoner hangs on his bare chest. A guard clad in camo-green lifts his knee into the half-living, half-dead face, as blood mixed with saliva and mucus drips onto the concrete floor. The prisoner’s hands are then chained, his bare legs thrust high into the air, and his horrifying screams announce the entrance of the long red pole that shall be used in unspeakable ways.

Such torture scenes must be from Russia’s Tsarist past. Or perhaps, the description comes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 landmark book, The Gulag Archipelago, that first revealed details of the evil of Soviet forced labor camps?

Sadly, the scene is far more recent and available for all to see, taken from one of hundreds of videos uploaded to the anti-corruption, opposition Russian website Gulagu.net. Since 2018, the site has become the real-time version of Solzhenitsyn’s own non-fiction epic. Was this what President Vladimir Putin had in mind when he announced his 2018 parliamentary campaign slogan, ‘Strong President, Strong Russia’?

On the surface

Fast forward to last week and the situation, on the surface at least, appears to be changing. Russian news outletKommersant reported that lawmakers in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Federal Assembly, have introduced a new bill that seeks to define by law the very concept of “torture,” as well as increase the penalty accorded to abusive officials from four to 12 years. The presidential administration proposes that by the second reading, the law should provide punishment for torture both government officials as well as cellmates who torture victims at the behest of officials.

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. —Solzhenitsyn

Discussions last week in the State Duma were intense, and might surprise anyone who thinks of Russia as a one-dimensional regime that works at the behest of its strongman leader. Dmitry Vyatkin from the ruling United Russia party reminded the assembly of the mass cases of torture recently discovered “in the system of the Federal Penitentiary Service.”

Andrei Babushkin, head of the Committee for Civil Rights, cautioned that the amendment do not cover cases of “pain or suffering as a result of lawful sanctions,” and stressed that the list of grounds for using force and means of restraint should be clarified. As a result, it was thus proposed that the legislation adhere to the wording used by the UN Convention against Torture, brought into effect in 1987.

File:The fence at the old GULag in Perm-36.JPG - Wikimedia Commonscommons.wikimedia.org

Past is still present

Torture is, of course, not a new concept in Russia. Yet even though the episodes of the 20th century are public record, dating back to the famous denunciation of Stalin by his Soviet successor, Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, the Russian state has refused to fully acknowledge the past. The effects and even existence of the torturous gulag prison camps were largely underplayed by Russia, and received little international attention until The Gulag Archipelago. Stalin, meanwhile, is still given hero’s treatment with a tombstone near the Kremlin.

Failing to condemn the sins of the past means they become unconsciously condoned in the present. In Russia, we are witnessing the longterm consequences of an unconfronted past. Vladimir Putin has integrated his own oppressive tactics within the political system. So even though the country is no longer inspired by a murderous Marxist ideology, corruption and violence are still used to enforce the power of the powerful and keep the downtrodden down.

Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes. —Solzhenitsyn

Take, for example, Putin’s vociferous nemesis, opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In March of last year, his team posted on his YouTube channel a video entitled: “Where is Navalny? A hellish incarceration for Putin’s arch-enemy.” Despite the hush-hush atmosphere regarding Navalny’s imprisonment, the rumor explored here suggests that Navalny has been taken to the Vladimir region, where he would serve his sentence in the town of Pokrov. The prison is described by his team and former convicts in a not-too-dissimilar vein to prisons in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

Empty words?

At his traditional end-of-year press conference, Vladimir Putin acknowledged that torture was becoming more common in Russia, but that “as far as torture and cruel treatment of convicts in penitentiaries are concerned, they are not only Russia’s problem, but also the world’s.”

Of course, such international finger-pointing and blame-shifting is part of Putin’s leadership style, which we see on display currently in what may be his most bitter foreign confrontation at the border with Ukraine. Where does this leave the new focus on confronting torture? Does it not place the blame on individual officials rather than grasping the heart of the issue: a corrupt state?

Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. —Solzhenitsyn

There is also a simple fact that goes beyond Putin himself: no single law can rid a society of its evils in one fell swoop. Words alone cannot catch and punish criminals. The dismissal of civil servants sends the message that torture is not sanctioned, and so does the law. Saying it out loud is the first step: that sadists and torturers will be punished appropriately.

Yet whether it goes further remains to be seen. Power in Russia today is still based on a system of repression, and we may wind up witnessing show trials against alleged torturers even as the abuse continues in the places we’ll never see.

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