What kind of guarantees the world should provide for Russia?
One year into the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the establishment of a tribunal for war crimes committed by Russians seems to be agreed; only the modalities remain to be settled. Crimes were documented, testimonies collected, and many of the perpetrators identified. Still, the responsibility for the crimes committed cannot befall only on individuals sent to the war. Russia and its regime are the main culprits and should be judged as so.
The magnitude of crimes and breaches of national and international norms and laws makes us look for the more profound causes of the problem. How is it possible that a state that for the past eight decades commemorated the victory over the Third Reich and the German Nazism has the world calling for it to be put on the “new Nuremberg trial”? What motivatesRussian politicians and propagandists to call for even more crimes and cruelty?
And what lies behind the Russian society’s silence? Protests have been weak and with no impact. While many Russians emigrated, only few of those living abroad publicly oppose the war and evildoings of the Russian state and its leadership.
A look into the Russian or Soviet past explains why political elites in Russia live with a sense of impunity and the society’s indifference and hopelessness. These reasons go far beyond the propaganda or control of the media space by the state.
As a state, the Soviet Union that Russia claims to be the successor of, has committed an unimaginable number of crimes against its own citizens. Mass persecutions, extermination of national groups, ethnic cleansings, forcible deportations, organised artificial famines, confiscations of property, imprisonments and killings of enemies of regime – the list is long, the victims counted in millions. And yet, almost no one was brought before justice for all these crimes.
Similarly, there were no trials for crimes against citizens of other nations that the Soviet Union, and its successor Russia, dominated or invaded. Citizens from Baltic States, Central Europe, Caucasus or Central Asia – they all suffered under Russia’s occupation and witnessed extrajudicial executions, looting of property, rapes and deportations. But no justice was done and shown to be done.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated that at the time of writing The Gulag Archipelago only about ten men were sentenced in Russia for persecution of Russia’s own citizens during the twenty years after WWII. He compared that figure with approximately eighty-six thousand Nazi criminals sentenced in Germany over the same period. Applying the same measure, and based on a comparative size of the population, the number of condemnations in Russia should have reached a quarter of a million.
For generations, Russia’s ruling elites lived convinced of their total immunity from justice. With one exception – very severe punishments for treason of the elite or desertion. As under mafia rules, defectors or those who knew too much about the internal workings of the
system suddenly disappeared, were executed after closed-door proceedings or committed unexpected suicide. Exile did not protect from retribution, and hands of the regime did not respect borders. States on which territory such executions happened usually preferred to turn a blind eye to avoid harming relations with Moscow.
Jan Tombiński, EU Ambassador to Ukraine 2012-2016
The Russian people have never seen the governing regime accounting for its sins and a proper tribunal to judge crimes and transgressions against the population. When in February 1956 Khruschev denounced the ruthlessness of Stalin and his govern, only cosmetic measures followed. The text of Khruschev’s report was kept secret for decades. The suffering of the people was of no importance, the coherence and solidarity within the regime prevailed. The principle that people are there to suffer conveyed additionally a message to the outside world: “Beat your own [people] so that strangers are afraid” as the Russian saying goes.
“When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations”1 – stated Solzhenitsyn. His conclusion was: “But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly: “"Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer."”
However true the words of the Nobel Prize winner sound, the critical approach to the past and efforts to face the uncomfortable truth ended with the ascendence to power of Vladimir Putin and with him a cohort of KGB trained and mentally shaped aids and followers. The glorification of Stalin, a militarisation of the society, and a distorted historic narrative to justify imperial ambitions replaced a sincere account of the past.
“Who controls the past controls the future” Orwell rightly wrote in 1984. The closing of the Memorial together with affiliated human rights organizations in 2021 confirmed how uncomfortable current Russian authorities are with evidencing and disclosing painful facts from the past. If the past wrongdoings remain hidden and silenced, nothing stands in the way of applying the same methods in the future.
New Gulags, called Penal colonies, emerged. Suppression of human rights, bans of many non-governmental organisation and free media, persecutions and false trails are the new normal. Yet, it is the only normality that Russians have known and been used to for generations.
To follow Solzhenitsyn: “Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity. It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!”.
The only and most important guarantee the free world must provide for Russia and its regime is the certainty of holding those responsible accountable for committed crimes. The general sense of justice and care for the entire world, including the future Russia, demands it.
EU Ambassador to Ukraine 2012-2016
1 All quotations after: A. Solzhenitsyn; The Gulag Archipelago; translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney, Harper&Row Publishers