Moscow Show Trials: Stalinism Or A Prelude To Civil War?
This week’s high-profile court cases, from the 25-year sentence of opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza to the prosecution of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovic, look like a shift to totalitarianism. But they may also be a sign of a nation set to implode.
It’s been a busy week at the Moscow City Court — and across town at the State Duma.
A federal judge Monday sentenced Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza to a stunning 25 years for treason. The following day, in the same courtroom, another judge rejected an appeal by The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested last month on espionage charges, and now faces up to 20 years in prison.
Also on Tuesday, Russia’s national legislature, the State Duma, passed an amendment that makes treason in Russia punishable by life in prison.
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Kremlin watchers have drawn the obvious connections between these judicial and legislative decisions — and aptly called them, “Stalinist,” as if there was any doubt left, Putin has clearly passed from authoritarianism to totalitarianism.
Yet the decisions this week may actually reveal a very different reality rumbling under the surface in Russian. Not only is the current Kremlin strongman no match for Joseph, “Man of Steel,” with Stalin ruling unchallenged until his death of natural causes in 1953. But the dynamic now driving Putin is ultimately something very different than a totalitarian regime growing stronger: it increasingly resembles a nation bracing for civil war.
It’s worth going back a few months, when independent experts said that Putin was focused on maintaining popular support before 2024 elections, and would do everything to avoid high-profile court cases and a national mobilization to draft men into the military ranks. However, the situation at the front and the lack of clear support from China has forced the Kremlin to put aside such calculations, and bet everything on victory.
The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested last month on espionage charges, is now facing up to 20 years in prison.
Common enemy in Ukraine
Vladimir Pastukhov, a political scientist and a freelance senior fellow at University College London, spoke on Monday with Novaya Gazeta Europe about the uptick in repression as part of the isolation of Russian society now spilling out through the war in Ukraine.
The hatred the West, the war on would-be Nazism, the victory over Ukraine, he argues, are all false constructs fulfill one important role: to unite Russian society. When the war in Ukraine is over, all the problems that have accumulated for decades will erupt with violence and mass discontent within the country itself — and the only way out will be a civil war.
A quick victory could quiet the anger.
"Ending the war will be even scarier than starting it," Pastukhov believes. "All these severed heads, severed genitals, sledgehammered heads, (Pastukhov talks about videos of executions of Ukrainian prisoners of war), we only see a small fraction of what's going on there. And it will all come out; people instinctively understand this and want to subconsciously break (Ukraine) somehow, not out of patriotic feelings but out of fear of retribution. The entire nation has blood on its hands."
According to Pastukhov, the events at the front and inside Russia are interconnected. If there is no war victory, any dissent must be forcibly removed and shut down. If victory over Ukraine had been quick and easy (as Putin had been made to believe) few would have condemned the Kremlin's actions and aggression against a sovereign state.
External aggression was supposed to release the steam of tension that has been building up in Russian society — a quick victory could quiet the anger of the growing class and ethnic inequalities across the vast nation. This is indeed what happened with the annexation of Crimea, after which Putin's rating soared.
Kremlin watchers have referred to judicial and legislative decisions in Moscow as “Stalinist,”. Putin has clearly passed from authoritarianism to totalitarianism.
The real Russia
The images we most often see of life in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where living conditions are more or less similar to those in Europe, hide a pressing reality. Outside these two cities is a vast country of many millions living often in squalor, without adequate education, medical care, sometimes even without electricity or gas, and certainly without a chance of a better life. It is a system as corrupt as it is poor. Even before the war, the famous Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov made a series of stunning videos about the “real” Russia, having traveled to far-flung regions of the country to show the brutal reality of life there.
Now this civil war is going on outside.
On top of the economic conflict, there are major unresolved clashes of religion and morality, which the state having launched a hunt for any dissent or threats to so-called "traditional values." This includes crackdowns on LGBTQ people, human rights and environmental organizations, independent media, and any civil unions in defense of the rights and freedoms of Russians.
"There is already a civil war going on in every sense," says Pastukhov. "This is the exhaust of hatred for one another, of the unsettledness of Russian life. Now this civil war is going on outside, and it is not yet visible because there is a place to stratify hatred."
Finding an external enemy or starting a war with a neighbor is, of course, not a novel way of trying to deal with domestic problems. Plenty of rulers before Putin have applied this recipe. And it often ends the same way: war finds its way back to the one who started it in the form of funerals, wounded veterans, criminals, guilt, economic problems, and the associated discontent within society.