The noose is tightening around Russia’s increasingly shrinking civic space. On Monday, activist Ildar Dadin was sentenced to three years in prison by a Moscow court for taking part in multiple, unsanctioned protests. He is the first victim of a repressive 2014 law that criminalizes the act of violating public assembly rules more than twice within a 180-day period.
As Amnesty International notes, a single violation of the so-called ‘anti-Maidan law’ is now punishable by a fine or up to 15 days in jail. Three strikes and a five-year prison sentence might be on the table. In Dadin’s case, the prosecutor had asked for two years, a sentence which the judge (or whoever ultimately handed down the verdict), found too lenient.
Ironically, at the time of the bill’s signing, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the authorities would not fight “radicalism” in the country by “tightening the screws.” And yet, Dadin certainly appears to have been put in a vice.
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International, said Dadin’s “shocking sentence” shows that Russian authorities are using the law to “fast-track peaceful protesters to prison.”
This “shortcut for imprisoning activists,” he argues, has made it more dangerous to be a peaceful activist in Russia “than at any time in recent years.”
Cowing the opposition
There is little doubt Dadin was meant to serve as an object lesson to the dwindling numbers still willing to object. Putin’s brand of soft authoritarianism has increasingly relied on excessive punishment of the few in order to keep the majority in line.
But in truth, Dadin’s sentence was tailor-made for a far more discerning audience.
Following the beatdown on Bolotnaya Square, Moscow has all but stamped out the last embers of the so-called Snow Revolution that brought Putin to tears, and then roused him to action. Dadin was just one last piece of incandescence doused for good measure. It is unlikely a coincidence that on the day of Dadin’s sentencing, Russian prosecutors launched an investigation into already-beleaguered opposition television channel Dozhd for alleged “extremism.”
Just like the rest of the languishing opposition, cutting Dozhd off from 80 percent of its viewership and evicting them from their studio wasn’t enough. It is the Machiavellian logic of a mafia state: Destroy your enemies so that vengeance need not be feared.
In the absence of genuine political pluralism, those at odds with modern Russia’s current path have been reduced to documenting cases of corruption and the hollowing out of Russian democracy.
Not that Putin should care about that demographic. By hook and by crook, the masses are with him. Most would be inclined to view Dadin as a traitor, an enemy of the state, that is, if they were even aware he existed. But few know about him, nor do they care to. Putin’s approval rating continues to hover just below 90 percent. Only 45 percent of Russians even support the democratic transfer of power these days. Parliament has been reduced to a vaudevillian show. The real decisions are made elsewhere.
In such a climate, whatever Dadin had to say, few wanted to hear it.
That did not stop him from taking a shot at the “gangster officials who pass anti-constitutional…criminal laws” intended to lock people like him up. In his closing statement, Dadin declared he was “born a free person.” Then his freedom was taken away.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the post-Soviet era is that many Russians have come to scorn the normative obligations a truly free life entails. But disengagement is not without its consequences. Those who will not be the custodians of their own societies are left to wait for the roof to collapse from above. And then, the question one again becomes: Who is to blame? History shows people rarely find the right answer to that question. And so the cycle repeats.
Partners in crime
Authoritarian regimes are predicated on destroying what is good in people. One cannot merely be repressive. You must corrupt the masses through self-interest and cynicism; crush those who refuse to be bought off. Ruling cliques don’t just destroy schools, hospitals and roads by raiding public coffers and sending the money abroad. They destroy the fabric of their nations by teaching everyone this is how the game is played.
In the modern Russian novel, Raskolnikov would be asked to plunge the hatchet into Sonia’s skull, and in line with the logic of the regime, would be right to do so. The power vertical is built on the graves of murdered rivals and ill-gotten gains. What sin is there to confess, apart from being too foolish to run off with the bulk of Alyona Ivanovna’s wealth? No, the real crime is to call things by their proper names, and then write those names on signs. We are all guilty, no one needs reminding, or so we’ve been told. Keep your head down, fear your neighbor, and carry on.
That Ildar Dadin was sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in unsanctioned protests is a testament to the absurdity that is rife in criminal states.
In another life, every infringement of Dadin’s rights throughout the course of his show trial would dwarf the crime he has been accused of committing —speaking out.
But Russia has become a country that, in the words of Dalhuisen, “‘legalized’ its own human rights violations.”
But then, how can the innocent not be guilty in a land run by crooks and thieves?
Theater of the absurd
Dadin is yet another example of why those who represented the best of Russia often found themselves in prison, exile and/or an early grave. Despotism has always sought to extinguish those raging against the dying of the light, either through moral courage or artistic expression. One of Russia’s greatest gifts to the world was creating minds sharp enough to dance upon the chopping block while avoiding the ever-swinging sword. We praise the immortals and the gifts they’e given us, while forgetting the private suffering through which they found their voices.
As Frank Galassi once wrote of Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal work, ‘The Master and Margarita’, beneath the surface of a world that appears circus-like and farce-like, there exists “the essence of human anguish enveloped in a totally metaphysical absurdity.”
The mass hallucination that started with the seizure of Crimea itself beats with the essence of human anguish at its unreality core. The more the authorities need to create the illusion of greatness, the more normal people will suffer for the sake of a lie. Dadin is just the latest victim of that lie.
But Dadin himself faced down this absurdity, refusing to cower to the “werewolves in epaulets” or prostrate himself before a rubber-stamp judge who, he argues, should have been thrown in prison for “issuing a blatantly unjust verdict.”
It’s a wonderful sentiment. Too bad no one was listening.