Our Thaw: a fair court decision as evidence of a catastrophe
The cautionary tale of an “extremist” comment
April 11, 2021
Let’s start with the good news: “The Kalinin District Court of St. Petersburg refused to grant investigators their request to place under house arrest a local resident accused of exonerating terrorism. This was reported on Friday by the joint press service of the city’s courts. The court imposed a preventive measure against the defendant, Alexander Ovchinnikov, by forbidding him from doing certain things until June 6. In particular, Ovchinnikov is not allowed to leave his apartment between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, to be in places where mass public events are held and to use the internet.”
We should make it clear that we are talking about a terrible state criminal: “The 48-year-old Ovchinnikov was detained on April 7. Law enforcement agencies believe that in August 2020 he posted ‘comments justifying terrorism’ on the RT News in Russian community page on VKontakte.”
First, let us note the uncharacteristic humanity exhibited by the investigators in the case. They could have tried to get Ovchinnikov remanded in custody for such actions, but no, they reined themselves in and only sought house arrest for the perp. Second, this really is good news. The court refused to put Citizen Ovchinnikov under house arrest, deigning instead only to slightly complicate his life. Staying at home at night is much better than staying at home all the time. And sitting around with no internet is incomparably better than sitting in jail.
The court did not make a cannibalistic ruling at all – another reason to rejoice!
When hearing such news, it is customary to joke, “It’s the Thaw all over again.” And also to say (just as jocularly), “Another victory for civil society!” But in this particular case, the second joke is not particularly appropriate. Civil society was not interested in Ovchinnikov’s plight, and no one made any effort to fight for his freedom.
This does not mean that the criminal will escape punishment: the investigators are working, and the court is waiting. There is a good possibility that for his terrible acts (“committed using the media or electronic or information and telecommunications networks, including the internet”), Ovchinnikov could face a heavy fine measuring in the millions of rubles (it’s the going thing nowadays: the big bosses would do not agree to less — times are difficult, the state coffers are empty, people are the new petroleum) or even a stint in prison.
The price of meekness
To be honest, I don’t know what kind of comment Citizen Ovchinnikov left on “RT’s official page.” It is quite possible that it was something stupid. And this is a telling aspect of the story: as part of my job, I have to keep track of trending news via feeds from the wire services. A few years ago, Ovchinnikov would have been a star. All the sane outlets would have written indignantly that a person was being tried for a social media comment. The insane outlets would have written something like, “A dangerous accomplice of terrorists was neutralized by valiant law enforcement officers in the president’s hometown.” We would know, perhaps, not only what exactly Alexander Ovchinnikov did to upset Margarita Simonyan’s underlings, but also all the details of his biography.
Nowadays, however, Ovchinnikov’s case is routine. There are dozens of such cases underway, and you can’t keep track of all of them. A story like this would only arouse interest if a more or less well-known person was under attack. Or the context would matter. We shouldn’t forget that among the criminal cases opened in the wake of January’s pro-Navalny protests, there are two that directly involve social network posts – the so-called Sanitary Case* and the “Involving Minors in Unauthorized Protests” Case. People will be put on trial, and they will be sentenced to prison, fines or probation.
The lack of public interest is understandable and even, perhaps, excusable. But it says a lot about how the Russian state and Russian society have mutated. Everyone regards cases like Ovchinnikov’s as commonplace. Meanwhile, the powers that be have usurped the right to punish people for their words, including words that are obviously insignificant. (Terrorism, of course, is a disgusting thing, but it is unlikely that a comment, even on the page of a propaganda TV channel, will somehow contribute particularly strongly to the success of world terrorism, and I assure you that those who are eager to jail people for social media comments also get this.) The authorities have come up with a lot of different reasons to punish people for their words. Thousands of specialists are busy searching for the wrong words, lives are broken, and careers are made.
But for us civilians it has also become commonplace. We have got used to it, recognized the right of the authorities to do as they like, and stopped being particularly indignant.
When the state is focused on lawlessness, norms are shaped not by deliberately repressive laws, but by our willingness to put up with how they are applied.
Norms and savagery
Fining or jailing people for the comments they make on social networks is savage, after all. Savage but normal. In a short while we’ll be telling ourselves that it’s always been like this. For the time being, however, searching the homes of opposition activists’ parents who have nothing to do with their children’s activism, interrogating journalists and political activists in the middle of the night, and torturing detainees after peaceful protests do not seem to be the norm. But it’s a matter of time — that is, a matter of habit. None of these things have sparked outsized outrage, so they too will become the norm.
But I have a sense that harsh crackdowns on peaceful protests have almost become the norm. What is surprising is when the security forces behave like human beings, as was the case during the Khabarovsk protests, for example. You mean the police didn’t break up the demo? What do you mean, they didn’t beat you? Was something the matter?
I remember how I was struck by a news item reported by state-controlled wire services after the first rally in support of Sergei Furgal: a little girl was lost in the crowd, and the National Guard helped her find her parents. The cops did their jobs, for a change, and that was amazing. The normal performance of their duties by the security forces looked like something completely crazy. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, we are now surprised when a court makes an utterly meaningless ruling that is not at all cannibalistic. It’s the Thaw all over again!
The norm looks wild, and wildness is the norm. So, perhaps, it is possible to describe where the Putinist state has arrived in its political devolution over the past few years. This is its supreme accomplishment.
If we follow the dictionary definitions, we should conclude there has been no state in Russia for some time. This is a different, new growth, and it is most likely malignant.
But this only works in one case – if society capitulates. A creepy monster like ours can only flourish in the ruins of society.
P.S. A trenchant critic might object: as if “they” do not have such a thing — putting people on trial for their words, and persecute for comments. Yes, it happens, of course, it happens. The most democratic of the democratic countries are not averse to biting off a little piece of their people’s freedoms, while grassroots activists, militants guided by the loftiest ideals, are happy to trample on other people’s freedom, and new centers of power, like the social networks, do not want to lag behind.
Recently, Facebook blocked a page run by a group of Moscow amateur historians who posted a text about the capital’s Khokhlovka district for a month for “hate speech.” Try to guess why. [Because “Khokhlovka” sounds similar to “khokhly,” a derogatory term for Ukrainians — TRR.]
Yes, in some sense, the Motherland, having made it a matter of policy to distance itself from the wider world, is following a global trend, however strange that may sound. Well, so much the worse for “them.” And for us. It is thus all the more important to remember how valuable freedom is.
* “The Sanitary Case is a series of criminal cases initiated for alleged violations sanitary and epidemiological norms during the January 23, 2021, protests in Moscow. It has been recognized by human rights defenders as part of the ongoing political crackdown in the Russian Federation. The defendants in the case are FBK (Anti-Corruption Foundation) employees Lyubov Sobol, Oleg Stepanov and Kira Yarmysh, municipal deputies Lyudmila Stein, Konstantin Yankauskas and Dmitry Baranovsky, Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, Alexei Navalny’s brother Oleg, head of the trade union Alliance of Doctors Anastasia Vasilyeva, and former FBK employee Nikolai Lyaskin.”
Image courtesy of Radikal.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader