We here at Chtodelat News are pleased to announce the launch of an important new online resource for social activists in Russia and those of you who read Russian and are interested in keeping abreast of how the fight for civil, labor, environmental, housing and human rights is going in the world’s largest country. Dvizhenie—“(The) Movement”—is the brainchild of three friends and allies: Artem Marchenkov, Vlad Tupikin, and Alexander Bikbov. In recognition of their timely hard work, we are pleased to publish a translation of an essay by Alexander Bikbov that was just posted on Dvizhenie. Bikbov reflects on the recent series of attacks on labor and social activists in Russia and asks the question that should be on everyone’s mind: who stands to gain from these cowardly crimes?
Alexander Bikbov, sociologist
The events of the last several days—a series of attacks on [Russian] activists—are acutely alarming. It is not political hierarchs who have been attacked or rival businessmen or professional militants from one or another side of the barricades. No, these attacks have been directed against people who have expressed their sense of fairness and justice publicly: in print and at demonstrations, by defending their own rights and the rights of others, by taking honest, consistent stances at their workplaces. The perpetrators are unidentifiable; their masters are anonymous. These are blows from the dark.
Here is the list of these attacks:
- repeated attacks on Alexei Etmanov, chair of the trade union committee at the Ford-Vsevolozhsk plant;
- repeated attacks on Carine Clément, sociologist and director of the Institute for Collective Action;
- the attack on Oleg Demin, the military prosecutor of the Vladivostok Garrison, who has actively fought against abuses by officers in the Pacific Fleet;
- the attack on Mikhail Beketov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda;
- the attack on Sergei Fedotov, the leader of the movement of disenfranchised small landowners in the Moscow Region;
- the arson of a car owned by Alexander Nazarov, chair of Assistance to Social Politics, a civic organization in the Volgograd Region.
On the streets of Russia’s cities similar blows are struck against people with the “wrong” skin color, eye shape, and speech patterns. Although the perpetrators of these crimes cannot always be identified personally, we know the type. We know their motivations, and in recent times investigations of these crimes take these motives into account. We owe a correct understanding of hate crimes in large part to those who draw our attention to real problems rather than to imaginary “external threats”—that is, to those people who have now become the targets of assaults themselves. What has been happening over the past several days and evenings in Moscow and other cities is particularly alarming. Violence has become a response not to an individual’s outward appearance; there is not the tiniest bit of aggressive rage or unhappy circumstance in these acts. The occasion for the attacks is crystal clear and precise: a pursuit of justice that hinders someone’s appetite for power or money; the freedom of speech that these activists defend. These are not ethnic hate crimes or even crimes directed against a particular set of beliefs. These are crimes against justice. The time and place of these attacks were planned in advance, the actions of the perpetrators were coordinated, and unsuccessful attacks were repeated. There has been no reaction to these crimes on the part of the authorities.
It is no secret that the state’s simple, time-tested recipe for “working on the opposition” is to recode the civic and political initiatives of activists as abnormal and criminal. It is more convenient to affirm that citizens “open their yaps” not because they want to improve something, but because they are mentally deranged, their actions are criminal or someone paid them off. It is more convenient to squelch their initiatives, and Russian history is rich with examples of this practice. Michel Foucault, author of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, remarked that the Soviet state’s only countermeasure against dissidence was to condemn it as madness or a criminal act. Foucault’s generalization is a slightly exaggeration, but only a slight one. In the late Soviet period, several dissidents were charged with “political” crimes. It is true, however, that the majority were treated as ordinary criminals or wound up in the psychiatric meat grinder insofar as even the act of doubting Soviet power was qualified as madness. The most important difference between the current political conjuncture and Soviet times is that, nowadays, official criminalization and psychiatrization encompass only the most radical members of the opposition. Civic dissidence is not officially punishable as a thought crime.
This, however, does not spare activists from those same suspicions of criminality and mental illness—suspicions that are unofficially common within official ranks. A good portion of state security and police officers view demonstrators, members of civic organizations, people who attend activist concerts, political oppositionists, and subculture aficionados not as political extremists but as petty criminals—hooligans, embezzlers, and junkies. I have not made up these examples: they are the real opinions of certain public servants, including the rank-and-file policemen who stand watch at public events. Hence the administrative aggression and arbitrary police treatment directed toward everything that is “strange” and dissimilar. This reaction is unsanctioned, but for all that its consequences are no less harsh and painful. This is a semi-official morality armed with a truncheon.
The series of assaults against activists have followed a different logic. These recent events are not the result of someone’s abuse of office or an attempt to criminalize activists in order to “tame” them. Here, on the contrary, the criminal motive has been turned totally upside down. When it is unfeasible to persecute civic initiatives via the courts, when it is impossible to turn an active, thinking individual into a criminal, the final argument comes into play: an “unknown perpetrator” attacks a well-known civic activist. This blow from the dark seemingly leads us away from official institutions, the abuse of power, and the semi-official fear of all unofficial “others.” This blow is struck so as to look like a random incident whose traces lead nowhere. But the paradox of crimes against justice has to do with the fact that the first things that come to mind are precisely the institutes of power (radiant in their lack of complicity), the management of major corporations, and the secret chancellery of the “security forces.”
During the past year, several members of small independent trade unions have been assaulted all over Russia. This, however, is the first time that aggression against civic activists has been so obviously coordinated. An apparently random series of crimes against justice has occurred on the threshold of a new phase in the economic crisis—when the economic struggle between the major players is heating up, when workers are being laid off and markets are shrinking, when massive grassroots activism has become a little more likely. Justice becomes a dangerous circumstance in an economic struggle with high stakes and the ever more real possibility of bankruptcy. Who is in such a hurry to make short work of justice? The criminal investigators are supposed to answer this question. But can we count on them after all other such cases—from the murder of Dmitry Kholodov to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya—have ended in nothing? In the absence of the justice system’s official truth it is the official justice system itself that comes under suspicion.
In a particular crime there are almost always elements that reveal the motives behind the crime. When a series of such crimes takes place, the number of these elements is significantly greater. As of now, one of the perpetrators of the last attack on Alexei Etmanov has been detained by the union leader’s colleagues and police officers. If the Russian justice system is unable to tell us who ordered the attacks or confines itself to affirming the random nature of these events, then it will tacitly recognize guilt. Whose guilt? Not only its own guilt—the guilt of weakness and administrative dependence, such a customary albeit not always hopeless form of guilt.
Here, the answer will be the same as the answer to a question as old as the struggle of justice against injustice: who stands to gain? Who stands to gain should these activists cease to “open their yaps”? Who stands to gain if the rights of workers at the Ford plant are not honored, people who purchase land and houses in the Moscow Region keep getting ripped off, the Khimki Forest is cut down, the officers of the Pacific Fleet go unpunished, and the information blockade against grassroots initiatives continues? Who stands to gain should the economic crisis, which will soon hit everyone like a ton of bricks, reduce the quality of life “quietly,” “without unnecessary excesses”? The management of certain companies (Ford, Vinci, and others touched by these crimes) and the governments of Moscow, Moscow Region, and the Russian Federation now have a greater stake than anyone else in getting clear, publicly declared answers to these questions. That is why any false or ambivalent answer about this series of attacks will point towards them.