20 years under Putin: a timeline

On July 18th, the Kirov Court predictably sentenced Alexei Navalny to five years in prison. But the next day Navalny was released after the prosecution appealed the court’s decision. According to writer and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, the government gave the oppositionist one last chance to leave the country.


Photo: Valentina Svistunova/European Pressphoto Agency


I do not know if anyone today is writing a totalitarianism dictatorship manual for beginners, but if they are working on a chapter about the suppression of opposition they must write it thoroughly. They have to be sure to highlight the most effective ways of oppressing dissent, learning, for example, from Soviet history. I will not go into depth on totalitarian technology, but I must explain one tool that preserves totalitarian stability. This tool is emigration; it involves considerable mental anguish for the regime, but later it pays a lot better than incarceration.

The most recent occasion to remember this is the Navalny trial. The muddy court case with an obvious accusatory bias ended with the defendants—Alexei Navalny and Peter Ofitserov—receiving  a sentence of five and four years imprisonment respectively. Immediately after the verdict they were taken into custody. But they were held in the prison for a brief period and released the next day. The prosecutor's office filed the appeal’s documents for the arrest’s abolition of the accused, the same office that petitioned their arrest the day before. Some believe that it is congenital schizophrenia of the “sovereign eye;” to others this was a symptom of the lack of coordination between state mechanisms and a “system glitch;” and to others, a manifestation of war between the siloviki (former KGB/FSB agents) clan and the reformers’ clan. All these versions are good and have the right to exist. I have another version—the regime gave Alexei Navalny his last opportunity to travel to the West.

In fact, it is enough to understand that all the issues in Navalny’s case were decided not at the level of individual agencies unable to agree with each other, but instead by one person sitting at the very top of the vertical structure which he built. Then it is easy to come to the conclusion that there is no misunderstanding in the Navalny case and there cannot be. There is no competition between the prosecution and the Investigative Committee; there are no misunderstandings between Judge Blinov and the prosecutor Bogdanov. No one would dare take the initiative in a matter that “President” Putin oversees; and there is no doubt that he is in charge of the case. Navalny is too prominent a political figure to let someone else resolve any problems related to him. And under his “manual control,” Putin decides far less significant problems personally.

In a democratic country this view would be considered stupid, and the author of this “absurdity” would be a supporter of conspiracy theories. And this is understandable. But in an authoritarian state there are very different concepts of law and other governance mechanisms. In our country, the fate of serious political opponents has always been decided at the highest level.

Alexei Navalny disturbs and annoys many people in power. The authorities missed the moment when he could be killed without too much publicity.

Emperor Nicholas I decided the fate of the prominent Russian philosopher Peter Chaadaev. The emperor imposed a resolution on Minister Uvarov’s report, in which it was said that the work of Mr Chaadaev “breathes absurdity of hatred for his fatherland and is filled with false and offensive concepts about the past, the present and the future existence of the state.” The emperor wrote, “After reading the article, I find that the content is a mixture of impudent nonsense, worthy of a madman...” Therefore Peter Chaadaev was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Vladimir Lenin was the initiator of the expulsion of the Russian cultural elite on the “philosophers’ ship” in 1922-1923. At the same time, the regime came up with the happy idea to send its political enemies abroad. Lenin’s associate, Leon Trotsky with his revolutionary simplicity explained the expulsion this way: “We expelled these people because there was no reason to shoot them, but it was impossible to tolerate them.”

Later on, they were not looking for a reason to shoot. Those who Stalin considered threats to his personal power were killed according to lists, which he made personally. However, the “emigrant” loophole was retained even in the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federation of 1922. It was introduced as one of the penalties: “the expulsion from the RSFSR for a period or permanently.” This lasted until the new Criminal Code of 1960.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's expulsion was discussed in 1974 by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU, where Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev had the last word. The decision to exile Andrei Sakharov without a trial was also made at the highest level.

Opposition leaders have always been a subject of worry for a head of state. In this regard, so far, little has changed. Of course, Navalny is not Chaadaev  nor Sakharov, and Putin is not Romanov, and not Stalin nor Brezhnev. The scale of personality and caliber of each of them are not the same, but the ratio remains the same. The chief ruler “takes care” of the principal enemy.

Why did Trotsky choose to not shoot intellectuals and put them on a boat instead? Why did Brezhnev expel Solzhenitsyn and not put him in prison? Because in the early 20's, when the NEP began, the communists were in need of international recognition and were dependent on the outside world. Because in the 1970s the USSR depended on Western public opinion and could not afford not to care about those to whom it sold the energy and who received Russian grain. In both cases, they calculated correctly that the expulsion of the communist regime’s opponents would bring much less trouble for them than harsh repression.

The government would not be satisfied with Navalny’s emigration if he could ever return to Russia. They need him to escape from the court and ask for political asylum. In that case, he will not be able to return to the country with impunity.

Today the situation is similar to some extent. Alexei Navalny disturbs and annoys many people in power. The authorities missed the moment when he could be killed without too much publicity. The authorities anticipate adverse consequences for themselves, which will inevitably overtake them if Navalny finally ends up in jail. Putin certainly weighed on his personal scale what he could lose or acquire in different scenarios.

This explains the arrest and hasty release of Navalny from prison. He is clearly pointing the way that suits the regime most—emigration. Because on one side of the scale there is prison for the oppositionist, a wave of civil protests, as well as disapproval from Western public opinion and even Western politicians; and on the other there is freedom for the oppositionist. This is painful and unbearable for the authorities, but it decreases his value among others in the opposition and causes him to lose his political weight.

It should be understood that the government would not be satisfied with Navalny’s emigration if he could ever return to Russia. They need him to escape from the court and ask for political asylum. In that case, he will not be able to return to the country with impunity; because the verdict would be waiting for him here, and because the law in the West does not allow a political refugee, even for a short time, to go to the country from which he has fled.

Now, the cards are in Alexei Navalny hands. It is his course and he has to make a choice. They showed him prison for a short time. It was hinted he had the possibility to avoid it. Needless to say, his fate depends on this choice. It can either be trouble-free exile, or he can remain in Russia, making every effort to change it for the better.

Putin also remains here; although it would be better if he emigrated. If he were a good student in school and knew history, he would have realized that the removal of political opponents does not solve fundamental problems. This was clearly shown to him on July 18 when thousands of demonstrators, went onto the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities to protest against the Navalny verdict. They will not emigrate, they will stay here and they will be chanting “Freedom,” no matter how much Vladimir Putin hates to hear that. They will always remain his headache, even if all prominent opposition figures ask for political asylum in the West.

How can this simple idea be conveyed to him? Maybe someone will indeed write a totalitarian dictators’ manual for beginners?