20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles dedicated to Russia’s political prisoners.* Prominent writer, dissident, and former political prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky spoke with IMR Advisor Olga Khvostunova on the differences between the political prisoners of Soviet times and those of today’s Russia, and shared his insights on the methods of struggling against political repressions.



Olga Khvostunova: What is the key difference between the Soviet political prisoners and the current ones?

Vladimir Bukovsky: First of all, it’s important to understand that we are talking about two different countries. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian country. You can call the current Russian regime anything—corrupt, authoritarian—but it’s definitely not totalitarian. Today, there is much more freedom in Russia than there used to be in Soviet times. Today, it’s impossible to ban free migration in and out of Russia or to shut down communication with [others] abroad. Russia doesn’t have a Communist ideology, which used to be the main philosophy behind the repression. And there is an institution of private property, even though its independence from the state is debatable. In Soviet times, free entrepreneurship was an imprisonable offense. And this is a substantial difference. It means that today, people have certain funds that they can spend on resistance to the regime. It means that if you are fired for political reasons, you will still be able to find a new position in a private business enterprise. There is actually too much freedom in Russia today.

O.K.: If there is so much freedom, where do political prisoners come from?

V.B.: There is too much freedom compared to the Soviet Union. The current regime itself is not free. But the public attitude towards political prisoners is quite different now. In Soviet times, when any of us [dissidents] was imprisoned, we could not hope for open public support or protests against the authorities’ actions. There was no point in expecting any legal help, because the role of the lawyers came to naught. All we could hope for was international support.

O.K.: It’s a paradox, isn’t it? The country is relatively free, but political prisoners are still there.

V.B.: The problem is that the current regime is attempting to resurrect the Soviet regime, which has not been completely dismantled. In 1991–92, we warned that the Soviet regime had to be publicly condemned; decommunization of the country, similar to the denazification of Germany [after World War II], was in order. But it was not done; therefore, after a while, the Soviet regime started to come back to life. What we observe today reminds me of the Bourbon Restoration in France after the fall of Napoleon. But the attempt to restore the Soviet regime has not been very successful—it’s impossible to close [off] the country today. Still, things like censorship and political prisoners have returned. One of the Soviet regime’s core characteristics—Chekism [the prevalence of the KGB, or secret service]—has also returned and dominates in the country’s government.

O.K.: What steps would have been necessary to prevent the restoration?

V.B.: First of all, the regime needed to be put on trial and judged, preferably, by the statutes of the Nuremberg Trials. I’m not talking about condemning concrete people, for one simple reason: the creators of the Soviet regime had passed away a long time ago. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were their grandchildren and Communist party bureaucrats [who played a nominal role]; therefore there was no reason to put them on trial. I’m talking about condemning the regime: it was necessary to disclose and publicize all of its crimes so that in the future, no Soviet myths and legends would reemerge. Lustration trials were necessary, too—they would ban the regime’s functionaries from occupying public offices for, say, five to ten years. These measures would have been sufficient.

“In terms of methods, the struggle for political prisoners today is hardly different from the struggle in Soviet times. The same formula works: the more public pressure and protests there are, the more likely they will be released.”

O.K.: Speaking of today’s political prisoners, what can be done for their release? What would you recommend based on your personal experience?

V.B.: In terms of methods, the struggle for political prisoners today is hardly different from the struggle in Soviet times. The same formula works: the more public pressure and protests there are, the more likely they will be released. This was proven in the cases of Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot, and even the Bolotnaya Square prisoners. Additional pressure on the authorities is created through the public support coming from the West. This factor worked even in our times, even though the Soviet system depended on the West much less. The level of such public support was important: if the case became a cause célèbre, as happened in my case and in the cases of Natan Sharansky and others, such political prisoners would be released. But the Soviets would only release those political prisoners who were well known in the West. If you didn’t have Western support, you would remain in prison. [The 1987] Gorbachev’s amnesty followed this scenario.

O.K.: Why did Western support work in Soviet times? As you said, the Soviet Union was not integrated into the international community, and the West could not have exercised its power the way it can today.

V.B.: Western support worked only if the public pressure in Western countries reached a level high enough that the situation could no longer be ignored by Western leaders. The thing is, Soviet communists intended to propagate their ideology internationally through their allies in the West—socialists and social democrats. These allies belonged to certain parties, and they needed to run for public office to be elected. But if the actions of the Soviet Union caused public protests in their home countries, they could not show support for their Soviet counterparts—otherwise, they would risk losing the popular vote. Thus, the Soviet Union had to respond to these protests and blow off steam in a different way.

O.K.: Will the public protests in the West or criticisms of Western leaders towards Russia be more effective today?

V.B.: It is easier to influence Russia today than it was in Soviet times because the current regime is integrated into the global economy and financial system. For example, the Unites States passed the Magnitsky Act [which prohibits corrupt officials from entering the U.S. and freezes their dollar bank accounts], and Russian authorities have immediately felt its effect. Such a law would have been impossible in our time. In the Soviet system, petty officials didn’t matter, and it was impossible to ban Soviet leaders like Brezhnev, Andropov, or Gromyko from entering the United States—this would have led to a severance of diplomatic relations. People in Russia need to protest and to demand the release of political prisoners, but they also have to try to bring in the support of the Western public.

O.K.: There were many protests in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, not to mention a very vocal international campaign in support of Pussy Riot, but they were only released at the end of their terms. Are these good results?

V.B.: In Soviet times, the situation was the same: the authorities tried to release political prisoners as close to the end of their terms in prison as possible. They wanted the punishment to sink in, register in the prisoners’ minds, and thus have a desirable effect on their future behavior. Besides, the results depend on the level of public pressure. In the case of Khodorkovsky, the West was very reluctant to react, especially in the beginning [during the first trial]. No one wanted to get into the details of the case. But the protest level has increased in recent years. The Sochi Olympics have played a decisive role, because of the boycott threat and in light of the fact that a number of world leaders refused to come to the games. This threat, should it have been realized, would have created risks for the Russian authorities. They were hoping to improve their image through the Olympics, and everything that the Russian government had invested into this effort was at risk of being turned into a loss. I think that it is important to find and use such opportunities to advance the campaigns in support of political prisoners.

“Don’t believe in any “secret diplomacy”—it’s a smoke screen that hides the fact that Western leaders might be doing nothing.”

O.K.: Do you think that personal talks between, say, Vladimir Putin and Western leaders can play a role? Is the so-called “secret diplomacy” effective?

V.B.: I think that during closed meetings with Putin, some Western leaders raise the question of political prisoners, but they do it formally and quite subtly. Such conversations have little effect. As for “secret diplomacy,” I’ve recently studied some documents of the Soviet period, and this diplomacy is laughable. Western diplomats of that time apologized for raising the issue of political prisoners in their talks with the Soviet leaders. “We are sorry,” they would say, “we wouldn’t even ask such a question, but our public demands it from us, so we will ask it, but you don’t have to respond to it.” I found transcripts of such conversations in the files I looked up. So don’t believe in any “secret diplomacy”—it’s a smoke screen that hides the fact that Western leaders might be doing nothing.

O.K.: Today, there are about forty political prisoners in Russia. The names of Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, the Pussy Riot girls, and some defendants in Bolotnaya case, are relatively well known. But no one in Russia, let alone the West, knows the rest of the names on this list. How should one fight for their release?

V.B.: There has to be an active public campaign.

O.K.: But who should run such a campaign?

V.B.: There are human rights organizations for that. They need to set up working groups for each political prisoner. That’s what we did in our time: we would create working groups in various countries and try to draw maximum public attention to each case. The same thing should be done inside Russia. The more publicity the campaign gets, the more effective it becomes.

O.K.: There are lots of people inside Russia who sympathize with political prisoners, but they don’t participate in any public protests, out of fear of being arrested themselves. What can be done about that?

V.B.: You know, in the Soviet Union the situation was tougher. When we organized protests, we knew that we would be arrested. For example, in 1967 we organized a protest on Pushkin Square [in Moscow] in support of our arrested friends, even though we knew we would all go to jail. But this action had a chain effect: the more people were put in jail, the more people would join the protest campaign. Later, the authorities realized that imprisonment was ineffective and they invented new methods of repressing dissidents. During Yuri Andropov’s rule, they started to expel people out of the country. The same thing is happening today. It is very likely that if the protest level in Russia grows, the authorities’ repressions will come down to this method.

O.K.: In your opinion, will the regime slide into a harder line? Should one expect new political prisoners?

V.B.: Of course there will be more political prisoners. This regime is repressive. It has already developed its main methods of silencing dissent, and we should expect that these methods will be employed soon. It is time to create active public groups around the world to fight political repression in Russia.


* The list of political prisoners designated by Memorial Human Rights Center on the basis of international human rights criteria has been published on the IMR website.