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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Is Still Not Free

Critics have argued that the poet Alina Vitukhnovskaya has been imprisoned for exercising the right of free speech. The Moscow Times asked the writer and human rights defender Lev Razgon to give his views on the case and on the new Russia, where one of the main achievements seems to be freedom of speech.

There is freedom of speech in Russia but there is no freedom. That is to say, many of the most essential aspects of the past have remained. In particular, those who wield power still have the opportunity to do anything they please. It is common to read in the press accounts of police detaining people. A U.S. citizen, unaccustomed to carrying identification documents, for example, could be stopped on the streets of Moscow. He could be taken to the police department on fully legal grounds, put behind bars with thieves and drunkards, and there he would stay. He would be told that they would check with the embassy to see whether in fact such a person exists. They would call the Interior Ministry, which would then call the Foreign Ministry, which in turn would call the embassy and so on. And he would remain in prison one, two, three days; he would be left to go unshaven, unwashed, and would begin to be a frightful sight. It finally would emerge that the citizen is who he says he is and no one else and within a week, or two, or perhaps a month, he would be let out, reeling from weakness. Everything would be done according to the law.

It all has to do with the people called state security workers who are the same as those during Soviet times. And if they are not the same, then they have been trained by them. And they can do whatever they like. Take, for example, the case of Viktor Orekhov, who served in the KGB under Brezhnev, but warned people in advance that incriminating material was being prepared against them, or that they were about to be arrested. His activities were uncovered and he was sentenced to eight years in Siberia. He served his term but was not left in peace. They planted a broken pistol on him, which is fairly easy to do, arrested him and tried him for illegal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to three years in exile in a strict-regime labor camp. Everyone knew that the incident was for show and that he was guilty of nothing. The public did everything it could, but nothing helped. We let him know that he should write a pardons petition to the Russian president. Orekhov's petition came to the presidential Pardons Commission and we immediately freed him. All this is happening today.

As for Vitukhnovskaya, it is known that the secret service wanted to recruit her and that she refused, perhaps even crudely refused. And they decided to teach this girl a lesson. This is easily done. All it takes is finding 15 grams of narcotics, and she can be put in prison. She had already been held in prison for year without having gone to trial.

After many public outcries, including from the international writers' association, PEN Center, she was released but forced to sign an agreement that she would not leave the city. She was ill but went to trial in the hope that she would be vindicated in the end. But the judge arrested her, and she found herself in prison once again. That is why I say we have freedom of speech, but still don't have the kind of freedom guaranteed by law, moreover by laws that are inviolable, such as in any civil society.

A organization like PEN Club can raise cries, even international ones, by writing in newspapers throughout the world. Such actions can help especially if they spur some kind of meeting in Strasbourg, like a session of the Council of Europe, or if they have unpleasant consequences. It all depends on chance and circumstances. But it does not depend on ironclad, strict laws that should be part of any law-based society. This is because we do not yet have such a society and because all the crimes committed by those in power over the past 70 years have gone unpunished.

Former Politburo members spoke on television during the recent 80th anniversary of the October Revolution. Decorated in star-shaped medals signaling that they are Heroes of Socialist Labor, they came to the studios from their luxurious apartments and told of how wonderful everything used to be. I look at these people. They should sit out the rest of their lives in prison. They are all criminals and responsible for thousands of destroyed lives. Either they were slaveholders, which is to say heads of labor camps, or they gave their sanction for arrests. They are all criminals. But they all now live on special pensions and benefit from Kremlin privileges, such as hospitals and resorts, to name just a few.

In such a situation, is it possible to have reconciliation and accord, as has been suggested in the renaming of the day of the Revolution? I personally consider reconciliation and accord to be just words, without any political significance. Above all, I don't understand who is supposed to reconcile himself to whom. Can people who work and are not paid agree that this is how things should be? In the dining halls of the Central Committee there used to be banners with the amended Marxist slogan: "He who does not work here does not eat."

Who, then, should reconcile himself to whom? Should I reconcile myself to Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the Communists who carry portraits of Stalin and dream of returning to Stalinist times? Never. I shall never reconcile myself to, or forgive, them. Not so long as I live. So the declaration of reconciliation and accord is not worth the paper it was written on.

Lev Razgon, whose "True Stories," a collection of narrative accounts of his 17 years in Stalin's labor camps, recently published in English translation, is a member of the presidential Pardons Commission.