Penza: A New Reichstag Fire?

Penza Remembers the Burning of the Reichstag
Dmitry Volchek

Penza civil rights advocates and politicians are disturbed by how an arson at the local office of the United Russia party is being investigated: nearly two hundred members of opposition organizations have been subjected to pressure tactics by the FSB and police.

The building where the United Russian party office is located was torched during the night of November 8. Persons unknown broke a window and tossed in a plastic bottle filled with a flammable liquid and a canister of cooking gas. The windows in several rooms were blown out, and walls and office equipment were damaged. According to Alexei Bulin, secretary of the regional committee of the CPRF, a “witch hunt” has been unleashed in the region. Civil rights advocate Yuri Boblikov told Radio Svoboda how law enforcement officials are searching for the arsonists in Penza.

– After the incident happened, the first person to be detained was the leader of the local Left Front branch, who that day was supposed to be running a previously announced demonstration against worsening social conditions. An hour before the demonstration was to begin, two FSB officers came to his house and led him straight away to the local FSB directorate. Then they detained another colleague of his in the organization, someone that the FSB apparently decided to frighten a bit. [According to this man], one Chekist said to the other, “Well, should we give him an injection?” The other [Chekist] nodded and said, “Let’s do it.” They put on [rubber] gloves, took out a syringe and an ampule, filled the syringe with the liquid in the ampule, and laid it on the desk next to them. Then they said [to the detainee], “Tell us the truth.” Later, I called the FSB and they confirmed that they had talked to Left Front leader Sergei Padalkin, but they denied that there had been anyone else. Moreover, they claimed that their conversation with Padalkin allegedly was about maintaining order at the [planned] demonstration. Everyone knows, however, that such issues are the brief of the police, not the FSB. Padalkin was then released and arrived late for the demonstration. He was again approached by law enforcement officials and hauled away — this time to the Center for Extremism Prevention [Center “E”]. There he was forced to answer questions about what he knew about the arson, whether he knew who did it, where he was during that night. Padalkin was again released, but later that same day he was taken to the criminal investigations department, where he had another conversation about the same topics. This time he was accompanied by one of our lawyers, Dmitry Belyaev.

– Aside from Sergei Padalkin, who else was interrogated?

– When he was at Center “E” he ran into members of the Communist Youth League, the city and regional committee secretaries, who for all practical purposes had been nabbed right at the central office of the Communist Party’s regional organization. The following day their offices [or flats?] were searched; the city committee secretary was searched twice. Members of the Yabloko Party youth organization were searched seven times. [The police] confiscated everything they could get their hands on, but especially hard disks and Yabloko literature. All in all, around two hundred people were brought in for questioning and to make statements or subjected to searches.

– Do you believe the fire was an excuse to clamp down on the opposition of whatever stripe, to shake down everyone involved in politics?

– Yes, a “purge” of all dissenters, opposition activists, and merely active citizens is under way. Events are unfolding according to a scheme reminiscent of the burning of the Reichstag in 1933.

– There had already been an attempt to torch the United Russia office in June.

– Yes, but it was unsuccessful. Then, a mythical organization calling itself New World had allegedly claimed responsibility. We were also asked then what we knew about them. We said we knew absolutely nothing, that we had no information about this organization. It is entirely possible that Penza is just being used as a test site to develop techniques for political purges. Our guess is that [the authorities] want to use our city to try out methods for flushing out and suppressing oppositionists and just-plain socially active citizens and forces. Once they have tried them out here, they can then be applied throughout Russia.

– You’re not sure that opponents of the United Russia party are behind the arson?

– In our opinion, these incidents are beneficial to the ruling party itself: it enables them to extinguish the activities of all other organizations and movements. Opposition forces have nothing to gain from such excesses. We believe that this is all a provocation.

– But Viktor Dolotov, the secretary of the political council of United Russia’s Penza branch, said that this was a carefully planned political crime against the party of power.

– If that is what he claims, does that mean he knows who organized all this? Then he should be the first one they interrogate!

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Filed under political repression, Russian society

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