There is an old observation that in a democracy, anything that isn’t prohibited is permitted; in an authoritarian system, anything that isn’t permitted is prohibited; and in a totalitarian one, anything that is permitted is compulsory and any failure to go along can result in arrest or worse.
Judging from recent developments, Russia is rapidly moving from an authoritarian to a totalitarian system; and as a result, two analysts say, ever more Russians are at risk of running afoul of the authorities and subject to repression, a danger signal indicating where Vladimir Putin is taking their country.
In a comment for RFE/RL, Kseniya Kirillova says that “it is becoming ever easier in today’s Russia to end up behind bars only because one thinks differently;” and she offers a typology of the reasons ever more Russians are being arrested for their views than at any time since the end of the USSR.
She says that the number of victims is growing so fast that even the restoration of the Soviet-era “Chronicle of Current Events” is not capable of keeping up with what is going on. Despite that, “the defenders of the regime continue to assert that there are no repressions in Russia,” either denying that any exist at all or insisting that they aren’t “massive.”
Kirillova offers four categories of such repression based on the reasons behind such official actions, although she is quick to point out that her list is provisional and undoubtedly incomplete.
- First of all, she says, are repressive actions that the authorities take against anyone who questions their status or authority, actions that constitute a kind of revenge and are intended to dissuade people from repeating such activities. So far, however, like the proverbial fighting an oil fire with water, repression has only spread the problem as far as the authorities are concerned.
- Second are official repressive actions against those who are viewed as having “gone over to the other side,” either by supporting Ukraine or complaining about the violation of rights in Russia itself or continuing to maintain contacts with foreigners even when the authorities signal that they must break such ties off.
- Third are repressive actions against those who accept foreign grants, engage in protests or other forms of anti-government political activity, or call attention to corruption or other problems in the ruling circles.
- And fourth are those who don’t openly cooperate with foreign organizations but whose work against official malfeasance is especially effective.
Kirillova says that this “system of struggle with those who think differently is far from as consistent and all embracing as it was in Soviet times; therefore, in each of these categories are many exceptions. However,” she writes, “the vector of what is happening shows that the persecution of those who think differently is getting worse with each month.”
And as a result, those who fall into one or another of these categories are in danger “if they continue to live in Russia.”
Moscow commentator Yevgeny Ikhlov even more directly addresses the ways in which what is happening now recalls the totalitarian past. In an article on the “Vestnik Civitas” portal, he says “one of the main signs of a totalitarian state” has to do with whether it respects the difference between the political and the private.
Totalitarianism obliterates the distinction and makes everything into a political issue and thus a subject to evaluation and punishment by the authorities. And that is exactly what the Russian justice ministry is doing with its plans to revise the laws governing non-governmental organizations. It makes any organization potentially political regardless of what its members actually do.
Thus, Ikhlov says, “the law returns us to the principle of totalitarian statehood, according to which policy is the prerogative of any official, but any influence on his decisions is in effect political activity.” To the extent that happens, the brand “‘foreign agent’” will soon “be replaced by the brand ‘politics.’”