20 years under Putin: a timeline

Talk of lustrations has recently started up again in Russia. The discussion was provoked by the recent accusations against RPR-PARNAS activist Lev Dmitriyev of insulting a judge. Many people see lustrations as a hopeful pathway toward a democratic future for Russia. However, according to writer Alexander Podrabinek, for lustrations to succeed, the cleansing of totalitarian ideology should first take place in people’s minds.


Lustration is an effective instrument for preventing a totalitarian system from taking revenge on its opponents. Unfortunately, an opportunity to carry out lustrations in Russia was missed in the early 1990s.


On January 26, while examining an administrative case on procedural violations related to holding public events, Primorsk District Court Judge Alla Yermakova reported RPR-PARNAS activist Lev Dmitriyev for insulting her. She believes herself to be a victim in this case.

The context of the administrative case is as follows. A month earlier, an anti-Putin banner was hung on a bridge in St. Petersburg. Dmitriyev and civil activist Andrei Yermachenkov were accused of being responsible. Dmitriyev did not admit guilt. There was no evidence, and Judge Yermakova added to the case file pictures by unknown photographers and screenshots of webpages containing a description of the incident. Any normal court would consider such evidence inadmissible. However, there are hardly any such courts left in Russia. Judge Yermakova fined Dmitriyev 10,000 rubles regardless of the fact that his guilt could not be proven.

After hearing the judge’s decision, Dmitriyev said: “You are the first judge in Russia to pass a ruling imposing a fine based on pictures. When the regime changes, you will be headed for lustration. You will work as a street cleaner. Your name will become a household word, as happened to the Basmanny District Court.”

In response, Judge Yermakova reported the defendant, accusing him of insulting her in her official capacity. A preliminary examination of the report is currently underway. Linguistic experts will have to determine if Dmitriyev’s speech contained an insult directed at the judge. It will probably be established that it did.

The judge feels offended. She can hardly fear facing lustration today, but the very thought that one day she will be held responsible for her crimes against justice infuriates her. Other civil servants such as officials, policemen, prosecutors, and secret service operatives have reacted in the same way to the threat of lustrations. They feel comfortable in their offices and do not want to give up their position.

Lustration, or the purging from the government of officials affiliated with the Communist Party, is one of the most effective instruments for preventing a totalitarian system from taking revenge on its opponents. Unfortunately, an opportunity to carry out lustrations was missed in the early 1990s. When another such opportunity might present itself is uncertain.

Public support is needed to undertake full-fledged lustrations. It is important to understand that the aim of society in closing the road to power to those people who previously worked for criminal state organizations is not revenge, but protection of its democratic future.

What was happening in the Soviet Union right before it collapsed? The period after the 1991 revolution and the fall of Communism was the right time for de-Communisation—that is, for parting with the obsolete institutions of the Communist regime. This was the best time to begin lustrations in order to prevent the restoration of the Soviet regime.

Russian society proved to be too passive to actively oppose a creeping restoration of totalitarianism. Democrats agreed at the time that they should not stoop to a witch-hunt. Now, however, it is the “witches” who are hunting down the democrats!

If not for President Boris Yeltsin and his close circle, Russia could have leaped into the future. But these individuals were afraid—and not without reason—that lustrations would affect them personally and thus opposed them. As a top official of the Communist Party, Yeltsin was personally responsible for political repressions that took place in the Sverdlovsk region when he was First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee. Economist Valerian Morozov, one of the dissidents who were put behind bars at the time, for example, died in prison. As for the country’s future, neither Yeltsin nor his circle really cared about that.

What was the public mood at the time? In the early ’90s, hundreds of thousands of people participated in rallies in Moscow demanding the abolition of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution stipulating that the role of the Communist Party was to lead and guide Soviet society. Later, Russia lived through a coup organized by the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) that attempted to restore the Soviet regime in the country. Anti-Communist attitudes were strong at the time, and consequently, lustrations could have been successful.

However, in order to implement any reforms, one needs political forces that can carry them out. There were no such forces in Russia at the time. With a few exceptions, all pro-democracy politicians looked up to Yeltsin and his allies from the former Communist and Soviet nomenklatura. This is why lustrations were destined to fail in Russia.

The situation was completely different in those countries that chose the path of democracy and decided to carry out lustrations. After the 1989 velvet revolutions, dissidents became the main proponents of lustrations in Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, after the collapse of the Communist regime, former dissidents came to power, which undoubtedly contributed to the success of lustrations. In other Central and Eastern European countries, dissidents used their public platform to convince their fellow citizens of the necessity of lustrations. In Russia, however, some dissidents lost enthusiasm at the beginning of perestroika, and most of them saw Yeltsin as the best leader of democratic change.

After the 1991 coup was put down, encouraged by the anti-Communist public mood, Yeltsin ventured to take two modest steps that only vaguely resembled lustrations. He issued a decree banning the Communist Party and approved a law making restitution to the victims of political repressions. Under this latter law, secret service operatives and police and security officials responsible for political repressions could be held criminally liable.

Anti-Communist ardor did not last, though. The Communist Party was soon restored, and not even one Chekist, judge, or prosecutor was put on trial for crimes committed under the Communist regime. In December 1992, State Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova introduced a bill to the Supreme Soviet entitled, “On Barring Those Responsible for Executing the Policies of the Totalitarian Regime from Certain Professions.” This bill, however, was never even considered.

The new government, consisting of former state socialist apparatchiks, fought for its own survival and won. Russian society proved to be too passive to actively oppose a creeping restoration of totalitarianism. Democrats agreed at the time that they should not stoop to a witch-hunt. Now, however, it is the “witches” who are hunting down the democrats!

Talk of lustrations has recently begun again in Russia. Some people see lustrations as a threat to their position, others as a hope for a democratic future. The trouble, however, is that before carrying out lustrations on the state level, it is necessary to cleanse people’s minds of totalitarian ideology and Chekist influence. After all, even the democratic opposition and liberal media outlets continue to view former KGB officials as people of influence.

Thus, the future of lustrations in Russia looks rather ambiguous.