Russia’s dark path towards the death penalty

15 April 2022

6:00 PM

15 April 2022

6:00 PM

In Russia these days, the reintroduction of the death penalty has a grim inevitability about it. There has been a moratorium on capital punishment since 1996, but there are increasing calls for its revival.

In December last year, the Head of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin wrote that the original moratorium had been a surrender to values ‘alien to the Russian national sense of justice’. The feeble Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s erstwhile presidential seat-warmer, has reinvented himself as a hardline proponent of the ‘Supreme Penalty’. In a recent interview he claimed that, given Russia had left the Council of Europe, there were no obstacles stopping its reintroduction. The deputy head of the Duma’s legal committee Yury Sinelschikov went further, arguing that Russia could sentence people to death right now if it wished: all that was needed was the ‘political will’ to do it.

Why, one might ask, this sudden enthusiasm for the death penalty in Russia? To an observer things might appear to be settling down in the country. If the first weeks were full of outrage and protest, later weeks, following the arrest of 15,000 people, have been the opposite. People have frantically deleted their social media posts so as not to be prosecuted under the new laws and, rather than going out on the streets, have stayed indoors. Paranoia and conformity now prevail.

There are exceptions. The ex-mayor of Yekaterinburg Yevgeny Royzman said publicly that this war is the most senseless and villainous in Russian history. He has accordingly been fined three times and, if he repeats his comments, will face prosecution and a prison sentence. A schoolteacher from Penza criticised the war to her pupils but now, recorded and denounced by one of them, faces up to ten years in jail.

It’s denunciations like this – as well as the renewed enthusiasm for executing people – that call to mind the Stalin-era. The Stalinisation – or at least a Sovietisation – of Russian society does seem to be gathering speed. This is nothing particularly new – its first steps came with the reinstatement of the Soviet national anthem in 2000, through to the reference to Stalin in school textbooks as an ‘effective manager’. It has been seen in the state killing of former FSB-officer Litvinenko in 2006, and the poisoning last year of opposition leader Alexei Navalny – making it clear no opposition within the country would be tolerated.

None of these things have dented Putin’s popularity at home. Here in Russia – unlike the West – the power of authority is perceived as a sacred entity, and the application of violence an inseparable part of that authority. Indeed, the more violence is applied, the more potent the power-bearer becomes in the eyes of the people. It is no accident that the cruellest and most bloodthirsty despots – Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin – are widely considered the country’s greatest rulers. Those in power are perceived as sacrosanct, indivisible from the country itself.

So what are the necessary grounds for a reintroduction of Stalinism in Russia? First of all, the nation must be ‘united’ – mobilised against external and internal enemies. Putin, like Stalin, appeals to the chauvinistic notions of a Great Russia, with the natural right to decide the fates of smaller ‘under-nations’ around it. Any wishes these countries may have for sovereignty are an irrelevance: this is not the language Putin or his predecessor speak. Seizing such nations under the guise of ‘liberating them from Fascism’ is another key ingredient. Russia’s sense of its own moral righteousness must be maintained at all costs.

But the mobilisation against internal enemies is no less worrying. One may reasonably expect, given the last month, that the war will end for Russia in some kind of ignominious defeat. Who will be held responsible? Putin himself? Not at all: once the active phase of the war is over, the eyes of the State will surely turn on its people.

Putin has himself spoken of Russia ‘cleansing’ itself of ‘traitors’, and with resources freed up, an internal witch-hunt is bound to get underway. In many ways it is happening already – hence the report on Monday that 150 FSB officers had been purged by Putin from the service, or the news the following day that twice-poisoned opposition spokesman Vladimir Kara-Murza had been arrested in Moscow.

In future, such things can only intensify. The intelligentsia – those who failed to flee – will be labelled ‘internal enemies’ and be squarely blamed for whatever failures in Ukraine Putin cannot hide. That teacher in Penza, denounced by a pupil, is but a harbinger of things to come. As ex-mayor Royzman put it after his fine was imposed: ‘Today someone is sentenced for expressing their opinion. Next it will be for an unhappy facial expression. Then for insufficiently expressed delight.’

It’s not hard to see why denunciation was so popular in Stalin’s Russia – and may become so again. Apart from people’s desire to save themselves by being more dutiful, active and vigilant, there were other motives at play. Envy, malice, intolerance of views not coinciding with one’s own were in the mix too. So was ambition: in a country without other routes to quick advancement, denunciations provides a perverted ‘social lift’.

This is why the mooted reintroduction of the death penalty is so worrying. Alongside crimes like murder and child abuse, it is sure to be used against those accused of treason or ‘terrorism’, hugely elastic terms that can be applied at will to any dissenting voice.

Sinelschikov said that three to four executions a year would be sufficient ‘for society to get rid of those who cannot remain part of this society’. But in a 2020 poll 69 per cent of Russians – presumably imagining themselves as prosecutors rather than defendants – declared themselves in favour of the death penalty ‘for some types of crime’. As the invasion grinds dismally to its close, some new hot topic will be required to maintain the temperature, pre-emptively crushing all protest about price-increases or shortage of goods. In this, as in other things, Russia is likely to look to China, where the annual execution rate runs incomparably higher.

Perhaps the state has for so long crushed any grassroot initiatives – without the impetus of Stalin’s ideology – that it will be hard to mobilize people for a Great Purge. Should the death penalty be reintroduced, the number of those executed and the extent of the repression will depend on whether the Russians are genuinely enthusiastic about it or sabotage it quietly at all levels.

Those Russians who long for a strong state – a majority, regretfully – feel that it is only strong in so far as others fear it and critical voices are silenced at all costs. This of course brings problems as, with the passage of time, all feedback from the lower levels is blocked out. The state, imposing its will on the people, simultaneously blinkers itself from their dissatisfactions. These can fester and multiply until, as in 1917, it’s too late to hold back the floodtide. Russia’s only hope is that those who believe in a strong state also recognise that flexibility and mercy are necessary for it to survive.

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