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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Fascism' Gets Its Hearing In Court

Call them hardliners, chauvinists, reactionaries, retrogrades or diehard communists -- but do not call them fascists.


That seems to be the message the Russian conservatives have been delivering to their political opponents in several recent public scandals. Fascism, for the first time since the end of World War II, is again all over the front pages of Russian newspapers.


"Fascism" is the word that got Information Minister Boris Mironov fired earlier this month, made a Moscow judge send an unprecedented court summons to President Boris Yeltsin and brought nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky his latest public relations victory.


Indeed, words sometimes seem to pack as much punch as bullets.


"There is no exact legal definition of what fascism is," said renowned lawyer Genry Reznik, who defended reformist leader Yegor Gaidar against a libel suit by Zhirinovsky. Gaidar had called the Liberal Democratic Party leader a fascist in a newspaper article -- and lost the case this week.


A Moscow court ruled that Zhirinovsky is no fascist because the prosecutor in the case argued that the word pertains only to a certain historical period, that of Benito Mussolini's black shirts and Adolf Hitler's Nazis.


"I think the word 'fascist' has two meanings in Russia now," Reznik said. "One is a label, a curse-word, an insult, because for historical reasons a fascist is for us a synonym of a sadist and a torturer.


"But there is a second meaning, used to describe the views of a political figure. In that sense it's not an insult, merely a scientific term."


Russians are keenly aware of the Nazi occupation of a large part of this country in the 1940s, during which nearly every family lost a member. Indeed, conservative politician Iona Andronov's first reaction to being called a fascist in the English-language editions of Yeltsin's latest memoir was emotional.


He recalled his family's ordeal during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1942 to 1944. He spoke of his stepfather and grandmother, then everyone in the apartment, then everyone in the building starving to death.


"Who is he to call me a fascist?" Andronov exclaimed, his voice trembling.


But as a Moscow court accepted his libel suit against the president, and even sent Yeltsin a summons to appear at a hearing on Sept. 26, a first in Russian legal history, Andronov's arguments grew cooler and more logical, as he defined his own political position."I have always despised chauvinism and discrimination of people according to their nationality," Andronov said.


Andronov is offended by the fact that his case is often paired with Zhirinovsky's in newspaper stories, though both politicians are protesting against the same description of them -- "fascist" -- which they find insulting.


"In Zhirinovsky's case, they had to determine whether or not he was indeed a fascist," Andronov said. "In my case, there was never any doubt that I'm not."


The Grand Soviet Encyclopedia, the Russian answer to the Encyclopedia Britannica, gives this definition of fascism in an extensive article: "At the center of fascist ideology lie expansionism, racial inequality, the unquestioned power of leaders and the omnipotence of the state."


But Zhirinovsky, who has at one time or another expounded all of these principles, still finds the appellation of "fascist" offensive -- and gains legal redress. Should Russian political scientists and sociologists abandon the term altogether for fear of being sued every time they use it?


"That would be insane," Reznik replies. "How then would we talk to Western scientists?"


Besides, Reznik said that many political terms acquire insulting meanings as social realities change and different political forces come to power.


"How about 'communist' or 'democrat,' for example?" the lawyer asked. "Some managers would consider the word 'liberal' as an insult to their reputation as leaders and sue."


However, Reznik, who is appealing Zhirinovsky's victory in the Moscow City Court, said he could not recall any cases where politicians sued for being called things other than "fascist."


But the very idea of politicians suing each other for name-calling is hard for many Westerners to grasp.


The translator of Yeltsin's memoirs, who said in a letter to The Moscow Times on Friday that the description of Andronov as a fascist in the book was not a translation mistake, despite the fact that the Russian edition of the memoir only called him "militant," said she did not care whether Yeltsin or Andronov wins the suit.


"In the States such a case would never have been accepted by a court," the translator, Catherine Fitzpatrick, said by telephone from New York on Friday. "Yeltsin would have the freedom of speech to call Andronov a fascist, because Andronov is a public figure."