Alexei Navalny

Russia’s Tradition of Repression

Sumanta Banerjee

Alexei Navalny has joined the long list of Russian martyrs and dissidents who dared to oppose the ruling powers in the past, whether the Tzars, or Stalin, or Putin today. Sorry to say, all through their history, Russians had suffered from dictatorial regimes (whether Right-wing or Left-wing), barring a few interludes like the years immediately following the 1917 Revolution when they enjoyed freedom of expression and right to dissent under Lenin’s Bolshevik government till it was taken over by Stalin, and still later under Khrushchev and Gorbachev when they could engage in open debates to some extent. Putin has reversed that trend of liberalization by reviving the spirit of Tzarist aggression abroad in his foreign policy (as evident from his invasion of Ukraine in the name of protecting the Russian nation), and restoring the Stalinist order of persecution of political dissidents in his domestic policy (as evident from the treatment of Alexei Navalny).

Let us look at the continuity of the tradition of state repression against writers and dissenters in Russia. The novelist Dostoyevsky who was a member of a socialist group was arrested by the Tzarist regime 1849, condemned to death (to be countermanded at the last minute) and sentenced instead to hard labour in prison. The same pattern was followed by Stalin after he came to power, when he persecuted veteran Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Kamenev through the infamous Moscow trials of 1936-38. Some twenty years later, his successor Khrushchev at the 20th party congress of the CPSU came out with the shocking revelation that Stalin got rid of his opponents inside the party by arresting or killing them during 1937-38. Poets were not spared, as evident from the fate of the poet Anna Akhmatova who in 1946 was persecuted by Zhdanov, the cultural commissar of Stalin.

During Khrushchev’s rule, there was a brief reprieve for independent minded writers who were allowed to express their thoughts. One of them was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in 1963 came out with his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich–a graphic account of life in prison camps during the Stalinist regime. But after Khrushchev’s removal from power, Solzhenitsyn was stripped of citizenship in 1974, and forced to emigrate to Germany.

From Siberia to Gulag to Arctic Penal Colony
The Russian penal system indicates a continuity of a pattern (irrespective of the political hues of its rulers) which is marked by the exile of convicts to distant places instead of keeping them in prisons in their own neighbourhood. In the 19th century, Siberia situated in an area of extreme natural calamities, was designed by the then Tzarist regime as a vast penal colony. Both common criminals and political opponents were exiled there, who suffered from the cold as well as the oppression by the jailers. Stalin followed that system by creating the notorious Gulag–labour camps set up in far-away places where his political opponents were sent to be imprisoned. Accounts of their sufferings came out after the end of the Stalin regime.

Today, Putin is carrying on the same tradition by creating the Arctic Penal Colony–where Alexei Navalny died under suspicious circumstances. Nicknamed as Polar Wolf, this colony is located in a region where the winter temperature can go down to –20°C.

The above narrative delineating the history of Russia makes it an eminent candidate for the designation ‘rogue state’. But this is not meant to stereotype the country as a villain. In the past its people have risen up protesting against oppressive rulers and replaced them with leaders of their own choice. We hope that they will put an end to Putin’s rule and stop his destructive war in Ukraine and his domestic acts of stifling dissent by killing opponents like Navalny.

But it is going to be a long haul for the Russians to dethrone Putin. He is in alliance with another ‘rogue state’–China. Equally belligerent and aggressive like Putin, China’s president Xi is embroiled in conflicts with neighbouring states in order to further his nationalist interests. Both Putin and Xi are harking back to their respective past chauvinist traditions–Putin claiming Ukraine as his territory, and Xi claiming the disputed areas bordering India as his territory. Both Putin and Xi share another habit–suppression of political dissent in their domestic spheres. It is no wonder therefore that both have struck up alliances with authoritarian religious fundamentalist regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Sino-Russian-Saudi Arabia-Iran alliance may emerge as an alternative power to challenge the other ‘rogue state’–the US which is ruling over its satellites in West Asia. But is this Russian led alliance a choice that people should opt for ? Given the past history of betrayal and opportunism of the Russian rulers–whether Bolsheviks or their successors–can people trust them?

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Vol 56, No. 37, Mar 10 - 16, 2024