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The Show Trial State

Why Russia's ludicrous attempt to silence Alexey Navalny is a throwback to the bad old times of Stalin and Khrushchev.

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — "Russia is like a tub full of dough. You push your hand all the way to the bottom, pull it out, and right before your eyes, the hole disappears, and again, it is a tub full of dough," Nikita Khrushchev once said, assessing the country he ruled.

The former premier — my great grandfather — who 60 years ago denounced Joseph Stalin and his pervasive security apparatus, must be turning in his grave. Russia’s legal institutions are still run along the lines of Stalin’s "show trials."

Following the politically motivated prosecutions of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and feminist punk rock agitators Pussy Riot, the latest of these affairs is the ongoing sham trial of anti-corruption lawyer, opposition activist, and blogger Alexey Navalny. A few years ago, Navalny began speaking out against Russia’s ruling party of "crooks and thieves" — President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. A charismatic leader, Navalny headlined protests against rigged parliamentary elections in 2011 and Putin’s presidential victory in 2012. Once an advisor to the governor of the Kirov Region with alleged access to state property, in April Navalny was charged with defrauding state-run Kirovles timber company of 16 million rubles ($530,000) and now faces up to ten years in prison. Last year, the investigators deemed the charges bogus, but recently reinstated them, perhaps because of Putin becoming increasingly fearful of Navalny’s growing political clout. His popularity now stands at almost 40 percent and last month Navalny announced he would run for president in at attempt to unseat Putin. No doubt the current president is not pleased. And it seems he’s resorted to the old handbook: after all, accusing anti-corruption activists of corruption has long been a favorite Kremlin tactic.

The trial has been on and off for the past month, but the last few days of the procedure have been an embarrassment for the prosecution — featuring a damning testimony from its own witness, a Kirov region official, who said that Navalny could not have stolen lumber from Kirovles as he didn’t have the power to do so. The court in turn declined Navalny’s request to declare last week’s warrantless search of his Kirov office illegal. Another witness, the company’s former deputy director, said Navalny was guilty of advising on the unfair contracts, but once again (in testimony humiliating to the state) admitted that Kirovles voluntarily agreed to his proposals. As the audience began to chuckle, the ex-director angrily replied, "Are you in the circus?" Most in the room indeed felt they were, as several other witnesses had already testified they could not remember dealings with Navalny at all. In any law-abiding state, one such statement should have been enough to drop charges.

This is just déjà vu all over again for Russians, who remember the show trials of the 1930s — ponderous affairs with pre-fabricated guilty verdicts that ended in thousands being sentenced to death or the gulag. Perversely, the trials were held to demonstrate the USSR’s "fairness" towards the accused, who, terrified for their lives and their reputations, assisted in their own prosecution, readily admitting to non-existent crimes. 

Purge-era charges ranged from attempting to assassinate Soviet leaders to spying for the West. These accusations decimated the Soviet military leadership, dealing a devastating blow before World War II. They swallowed among others Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the "old Bolsheviks," who used to share power with Stalin after Vladimir Lenin’s death, as well as Nikolai Bukharin, an erudite editor of Pravda, once known as the "Heir of Lenin."

Bukharin had dared to challenge Stalin’s supreme leadership by questioning the government’s lack of transparency, a crime that prompted a devious response. In one well-known story from 1937, the Great Dictator saw the Heir of Lenin standing in the Kremlin alone. "Why are you by yourself, Bukharchik?" the leader gently asked, "Come closer, you are one of us." Bukharin enthusiastically obliged but Stalin was just toying with him — a week later Bukharin was arrested, interrogated for months, and, after confessing to threatening Stalin’s life was executed for attempting to bring capitalism to Russia.

Khrushchev, at Stalin’s side, was himself an enthusiastic participant in show trials, including Bukharin’s. After assuming power in 1953, the premier tried to atone for his own despotic past by releasing or posthumously rehabilitating many Gulag prisoners. Just in 1954-56 the number of "politicals" in Soviet prisons dropped from at least half a million to a 100,000, but the old Bolsheviks’ deaths — Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and others — remained hushed.

Ousted from the Kremlin in 1964, Khrushchev regretted his dithering and, according to my mother, once said at home: "I should have rehabilitated them. There was no guilt! But I didn’t want to embarrass communist leaders from abroad. They were on their knees begging me to be silent."

My grandfather pondered these questions as the show trials began to make their return under his successor, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1965, writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel were arrested, and after a vociferous trial got sentenced to a Gulag hard labor camp for publishing abroad their anti-Soviet works under pseudonyms Abram Tertz and Nikolai Arzhak.

Fast-forward another half-a-century — through Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost when Bukharin and everyone else were finally rehabilitated, through the chaotic post-communist period when Gulags were firmly thought to be the thing of the past — and we find ourselves again staring at, or rather, living in, Khrushchev’s "tub full of dough."

Following Stalin’s example in perverse "justice," Putin has recently weighed in on the Navalny case: "People get sentenced not for their political views or actions, but for abusing law…. And this and other cases should be treated extremely objective."

But while Stalin’s show trials bred fear in the observers and atonement from the accused, the current leader’s "objectivity" fools only a few. As many as 52 percent "do not believe the trial to be objective."

A new public opinion poll shows that over half of the country considers Putin’s party hopelessly corrupt. And altogether it’s rich irony that Putin, who during his dozen years in power has reportedly amassed a $70 billion fortune, is judging Navalny and before him, Khodorkovsky (once Russia’s richest man), for abusing the law. In 2010, Putin said about the former Yukos chief, "A thief should stay in jail." But it was not thievery that brought Khodorkovsky’s demise; it was his generous contributions to opposition parties. Since 2003, he has endured numerous public trials and is now exiled to a gulag in northern Russia until 2016. Recently his sentence was reduced due to changes in the economic crimes law, but many are skeptical that he will actually be released.

Similarly, in 2012, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in the Sov
iet-era camps.

Indeed, in Russia, history repeats itself — in a twist on Karl Marx’s dictum — as tragedy and farce all at once. Cases are decided on the whim of the authorities, because with us power is subject to inertia with an apathetic public traditionally surrendering to the country’s paradox of tyranny: a weak state functions as strong by depriving citizens of basic liberties. In the absence of the rule of law, Russians perceive themselves as subordinate to the state rather than as citizens acting out lives in an independent civil society. This de facto surrender creates a fertile environment for despotism, squashing most political initiatives.

And yet we evolve, slowly. Russians went to the streets after the 2011 rigged parliamentary elections; they opposed the 2012 presidential elections, which "unfairly" and "unfreely," as stated by the protest slogans, brought Putin back for his third term as head of state. Now only 26 percent of the country says they would support Putin in his fourth 2018 presidential term. And the new show trials revealing an occurring shift. Neither Navalny, nor Khodorkovsky has admitted any guilt. Instead, they continue to speak out from prison cells and courtrooms.

Are we almost free from the stagnant "dough"? Khrushchev repeatedly stated at home and wrote in his memoirs that his own experience with despotism — only after Stalin’s death did he repent; and he denounced the man, not his system — taught him that focusing on the leader rather than functioning institutions was only half the victory.

Stolen elections don’t start with manipulated ballots or banned alternative candidates. They begin when people allow the legal system to go awry. And Russia kept silent for almost a decade while Khodorkovsky was repeatedly denied justice. The truth is that we have the legal system we deserve. The question today is not whether Navalny gets acquitted by the courts; it is how angry we’ll get when he isn’t.

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