Brian Milakovsky, a volunteer with refugee aid organizations in Kiev, Kharkiv and the Donbas. Brian Milakovsky first traveled to Ukraine in 2009 with the Fulbright program, and for the past five years has worked in Russia as a forest ecologist. This year he returned to eastern Ukraine for three months to volunteer with refugee aid organizations and learn more about the humanitarian crisis there. He blogs about this experience at http://milakovsky.livejournal.com/ and is author of “Time for a Lousy Peace in Ukraine” published on the National Interest.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
Yesterday, December 1, was 75 years since the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the first secretary of the Leningrad Party Organization, and Stalin ally. It was on the night of December 1, 1934 that a certain Leonid Nikolaev, a disgruntled party worker, shot Kirov in the secretary’s third floor office. Nikolaev was immediately caught and interrogated under Stalin’s personal supervision. He was executed shortly thereafter.
Rumors have been circling for years as to what Nikolaev’s motives were. Some have suggest that Kirov was having an affair with Nikolaev’s wife. Others have suggested that he had a personal or work beef with Kirov. These questions remain mostly unanswered. Partly it is because they are unanswerable. But also because the majority of historians believe that Nikolaev did not act alone. For them, Stalin was the main culprit and wanted to get rid of Kirov because of his popularity. Since Kirov has been held up as a “moderate” and even “opponent” to Stalin. Nikolaev, therefore, was merely a patsy in a more sinister plot on the part of the vozhd to justify the use of terror against his enemies, real or imagined.
The idea that Stalin had ordered Kirov’s murder was not solely concocted by historians. According to NKVD reports, it was also one of the most widespread rumors at the time. But it wasn’t the only one circulating around. As Matthew Lenoe noted in an article on the historiography of the murder in the Journal of Modern History, rumors ranged from Leningrad NKVD chief F. D. Medved or his number two Mikhail Chudov personally committing or ordering Kirov’s assassination, to German, Finnish, Polish, or Turkish secret agents carrying out the plot, to speculation that a worker angered by the recent cuts in bread rations did Kirov in. Others thought that the killing was part of a larger plot of murder Maxim Gorky, Lazar Kaganovich, and the German Communist leader Ernst Thaelmann. But the idea that Stalin was behind it all swirled and swirled from mouth to ear, into exiled socialist commentary, on to the pages of defectors’ and so-called confidants’ tell-all memoirs, until it reached scholarly dictum through its reproduction ad nauseum by historians.
A minority of historians, most interestingly Oleg Khlevniuk and Alla Kirilina, who are no Stalin apologists and based their research on new archival evidence, have argued that the Stalin as culprit is “almost entirely myth,” according to Lenoe. The debate continues to rage, however, and will probably go on forever. But as Lenoe notes, ” In the end it does not matter for our overall understanding of Soviet history whether [Stalin] plotted Kirov’s assassination or not. There are far more important questions that need answering in the field.”
Indeed. Whether Stalin actually ordered the hit on Kirov doesn’t erase the fact that regime’s response to the assassination was a blind fit of violence that led to the arrests and execution of hundreds, if not thousands, in the weeks following, culminating in the eventual arrest, trial, and execution of Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the so-called “Moscow Center.” The lives of hundreds of thousands of others followed. There is also no doubt that Stalin used the Kirov’s assassination to his political advantage to eliminate his political opponents. We don’t need to pin the Kirov murder on him to recognize that.
Perhaps, the biggest lesson of the Kirov murder was not its use by Stalin from 1936-38 to justify terror. The lesson is in the quick adoption of “On Amending the Present Union-Republic Codes of Criminal Procedure” or the so-called Kirov Law on December 1, 1934, that gave terror legal justification. The law was as follows:
To amend the present Union Republic codes of criminal procedure with regard to investigation and trial of cases of terrorist organizations and terrorist acts against the functionaries of Soviet power:
- Investigation in these cases shall be concluded in not more than ten days.
- The indictment shall be handed to the accused 24 hours before the trial.
- The cases shall be tried without the parties present.
- There shall be no cassational review of the judgments or acceptance of petitions for clemency.
- The sentence of the supreme punishment shall be executed immediately upon rendering judgment.
This law is ominous in its brevity. It is this law that was the first legal step to wage terror. What the law giveth, the law taketh away. So in the end it is not Kirov’s assassination that should be remembered but how such events can provide the justification for extraordinary measures to be legally enacted. It is a reminder that the “state of exception” is always enacted by the sovereign in an attempt to preserve the “public good.”Post Views: 189
By Sean — 9 years ago
Stanislav Markelov had a lot of enemies. In addition to representing the Kungayev family, his other clients included: Khimkinskaya Pravda editor Mikhail Beketov (he’s on the verge of death), Chechen Yana Neserkhoyeva, a Nord-Ost hostage accused of helping terrorists in 2002, Zelimkhan Murdalov, a kidnapped Grozny resident who was tortured to death by an OMON officer, and AntiFa activist Alexei Olesinov. Representing these types of people will make you enemies of Russian nationalists, Chechens, local businessmen, police and security forces, and skinheads. There is also, of course, Colonel Yuri Budanov, whose release last week was opposed by Markelov.
That list of enemies makes for a long list of potential perpetrators. Logic dictates that Budanov is the chief suspect, but the colonel denies any involvement in the murder. “Do you think that after several days of freedom I had a burning desire to do more time?” he told Komsomolskaya pravda in an interview. He called the murder a “provocation.”
Some suspect skinheads did the deed given that Markelov was attacked by five of them in 2004. Apparently he received several SMS threats from skins in the says before his murder. But can we really expect skins to use a silencer? Their methods tend to be a bit cruder.
Then, as always, there is the Chechen angle. As it seems with most murders of high profile personalities in Russia, there is a conspiracy behind the conspiracy, where a Chechen or a deposed oligarch stands at the end of a complex nefarious web. Sometimes these are viewed as one of the same entity. But this time it’s solely Chechens, according to Vladimir Karchevsky, the lawyer for the Markelov family. “Budanov is a smokescreen for the real murderer,” the jurist told Izvestiia. “The real murderer probably timed his crime to coincide with Budanov’s release – in order to deflect suspicions.”
Izvestiia even suggested that Markelov might have known something about Anna Politkovskaya’s murderer. I’m sure that this is only the beginning of what kind of tales will be spun around this one.
While the list of potential killers is long, Markelov’s work also got him a lot of friends as memorials to his memory attest. Hundreds of people gathered at the site where Markelov and Anastatsia Baburova were slain on Monday. Even a Russian Orthodox priest stressed that Markelov and Buburova’s death fell on Epiphany. Hopefully this will translate into a social epiphany on the dangers Russian lawyers and journalists face. Gatherings of AntiFa activists occured in St. Petersburg and Moscow to honor Markelov and Baburova. Barburova’s writings focused on Russian neo-nazis and anti-fascism (Also see her Live Journal blog. OpenDemocracy.net has translated of some of her last blog entries.). Thousands marched in Grozny to remember Markelov’s work on the behalf of the war torn republic Chechnya. Apparently, Markelov even has friends among Razman Kadyrov’s government. Upon hearing of the jurist’s death, the Chechen hetman awarded him with a postumous medal to recognize “his merits to the Chechen Republic.” “Stanislav Markelov was held in special esteem in our republic,” Kadyrov said. “His name was a synonym for justice.”
In the end, the memory of Markelov and Barburova might be all people have. Justice in these cases is rarely forthcoming. Instead we have a kind of perpetual danse macabre between killers and their victims. As an editorial in Novaya gazeta reminds us, “The killers have no fear because they know they will not be punished. But neither are their victims afraid, because when you defend others you cease to fear.”Post Views: 71
By Sean — 12 years ago
I’m quite a fan of Kim Murphy’s reporting on Russia in the Los Angeles Times. She always handles an interesting, and often human side of Russia that I don’t see in many English language publications. Sometimes the stories she tells border on the bizarre. Other times they verge on the chilling. Her recent story published in the May 30 edition of the Times qualifies as both. Yet I think that the astonishment that this article conjures should not serve as yet another platform to further concretize the “abnormality” Russian Other vis-?-vis our “normality”. Rather, I would suggest that Murphy’s article identifies universal methods of designating Others through means of categorization that rely on legal, scientific, cultural and governmental discourses.
In “Speak Out? Are You Crazy?”, Murphy reports that the Soviet practice of condemning the political dissident to mental asylums continues in the cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in periphery of the Federation. Those seeking to pose an electoral challenge to local notables, speak out about corruption, women who want to divorce their powerful husbands, and those who complain about acts of labor, civil, and personal injustice are either condemned by local judges or are forced to sign consent forms to be institutionalized. While this practice is not systematic, “it seems quite clear that such abuses are on the rise, and that this is a trend,” says Iurii Savenko president of the Russian Independent Psychiatric Association.
In one of the many cases Murphy recounts, one Albert Imendayev, a candidate for the legislature in the Volga region was sent to an asylum for nine days. A judge determined that his campaign, which focused on exposing local corruption, was an act of insanity. Similar cases abound.
In another case here in Cheboksary, a four-term opposition deputy in the regional parliament, Igor Molyakov, spent six months in jail on libel charges in 2004. While incarcerated, he was ordered committed for psychiatric hospitalization after a judge agreed with government lawyers that Molyakov’s repeated writings about corruption among local authorities reflected an outlook so “somber” that it might constitute a “mental disorder.”
In St. Petersburg, Ivan Ivannikov, who lectured for 38 years at the State University of Economics and Finance, found himself wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and dragged to the city psychiatric hospital in December 2003 after a protracted dispute with a well-connected contractor over repairs to his apartment. An influential state psychiatrist signed the recommendation for commitment without ever having met Ivannikov, deciding that his multiple legal complaints against the contractor constituted an “obsession” with “revenge.” He was released after 60 days.
In Moscow, Natalya Kuznetsova was fired from her job at the federal audit chamber not long after charging that $140 million had been siphoned out of the federal budget in 2001 and 2002. A subsequent set of quarrels with her supervisors led to her firing, and when she filed suit seeking disability compensation, a state psychologist reported she had a mental disability.
“When they finally fired me on the 25th of January, 2005, they threatened to call a psychiatric ambulance for me,” said Kuznetsova, who successfully fought against commitment. “This is all because of flourishing corruption. These corrupt people are using psychiatric persecution to destroy people.”
In some cases, people who families and friends insist had no overt signs of mental illness have been committed for more than a year, sometimes drugged with sedatives and tied to their beds when they resisted, and prevented from attending the often-perfunctory court hearings that extended their hospitalization.
In many of these cases, patients were talked into signing consent forms. The rate of involuntary hospitalizations is so suspiciously low in at least 51 facilities across Russia that the Helsinki commission concluded that coerced consent through “persuading” and “falsification of signatures” was widespread.
Such practices were part and parcel of the Soviet attempt to squash dissident. Soviet dissidents were often sent to mental asylums for speaking out against the regime. Authorities justified this practice on the grounds that a person who condemned life in “socialist paradise” had to be insane. Within the logic of Soviet socialist ideology dissidence was categorizes as wholly illogical. However skeptical one may be of the Soviet justification, and many at the time went further than skepticism and rightly condemned the practice, the Soviets explanation fell squarely within the context of albeit flawed Soviet logic. It was backed by Soviet law, science, medicine, and culture. Dissidence fell outside of Soviet truth.
Some will say that nothing has changed. The many of the structures of the Soviet system continue to exist in a different context but are still deployed for similar ends. This is Murphy’s contention. Her byline bills the practice as a “throwback to Soviet times.” I don’t disagree with this. However, I think it would be a mistake to simply write off this practice as a “throwback” because it reveals something inherent to our modern condition. No matter how instrumental the condemning of dissidents (and do not let the term “dissident” conjure images of high profile figures like Andrei Sakharov. The majority of those sent to these psychological hells are regular people often without an overarching political agenda), an ideological justification remains. Sending someone to a mental institutional is often justified in terms that make it plausible that the condemned is indeed insane. And it is these terms that are placed in a discourse that employs a vast array of legal and medical institutions, experts, and state power. Having cynicism toward the use discourse therefore should not lead one to reduce the power of that discursive structure to nil. That is to say, just because the powerful silence dissent through corruption does not remove the fact that the silencing occurs within a matrix of legal institutions and structures. The condemnation of someone as insane requires the condemnation to fall within the parameters of what is coded as insane behavior.
This attempt to place the act of speaking out within an institutional and cultural context of madness is evident in case of one Molyakov, an opposition lawmaker who challenged the iron grip former Russian Justice Minister Nikolai Fyodorov has had on the reigns of power in Chuvashia since he became its governor in 1994. Molyakov was charged with slandering Fydorov during an electoral campaign in 2004. Using the levers of power at their disposal, Fydorov’s people have since tried to get Molyakov condemned to a mental institution. What is interesting about this case of power and corruption is what Fydorov’s lawyers argued in their appeal to federal Judge Oleg Zhukov’s overturning of a lower court’s psychiatric referral order.
Murphy reports that Fydorov’s lawyers asserted that Molyakov’s standing as an author and philosophy professor didn’t mean that he wasn’t insane. Quite the contrary, those accomplishments made his insanity more likely:
“The court ought to know that even being a personal genius doesn’t rule out a mental disorder … (Van Gogh, F.M. Dostoevsky, N.V. Gogol, etc.). As has been established by scientists, the risk of a mental disease in gifted people … is seven to eight times higher.”
Such a passage should be so quickly dismissed. Notice what is being referred to here. First there is a correlation of “genius” with “mental disorder” by way of referencing insane, and more importantly, culturally authoritative geniuses like Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. One is a bit surprised Nietzsche wasn’t also included in such a venerated list. Second, the lawyers back up their cultural assertion with science. “Geniuses” are “seven to eight times higher” to be mentally insane. The appeal to experts is to give the cultural claim the weight of empirical and scientifically validated truth to push the subject from the parameters of normal to that of abnormal.
If one thinks that this practice of pushing a subject from a position of normal to the abnormal is particular to Russia, I recommend considering the fact that what is categorized as normal and abnormal is based on a post-Enlightenment discourse whose domain encompasses the entire West. The issue is not whether any of those in Murphy’s article actually and objectively committed a crime. We, who pride ourselves on the fact that we cherish the sanctity of human rights and the inviolability of the sovereign, individual subject should not so quickly revel in how the actions of the Russian Other reinforce our liberal sainthood. Instead the Russian case should rather reflect universal discursive structures that allow for the innocent to be transformed into the guilty through a process of re-categorization. Here I am thinking of the stripping of American citizens of their right to habeus corpus through their re-categorization as “enemy combatants.” A similar border crossing between the realms of “normal” and “abnormal” is also occurring in the American case through similar appeals to culture, legality, social-scientific expertise, and state power.
Make no mistake. I am not equating the Russian and American cases. To do so would be to nullify their particularities. My point is a larger and I think more profound one. It is one inspired by Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the confluence of law, social science, medicine, culture, and state institutions as a means to discipline, condemn, and manage bodies. This process is not one that requires objective acts of criminalty, insanity, or even terrorism but rather the categorization of certain acts through the use of an array of apparatuses that do not exist outside the boundaries of legality as some human rights activists might argue (and however much I may agree with their arguments), but rather exist inside the very structures that supposed guarantee human rights. The act of condemning exists within a matrix of already existing “regimes of truth,” to use Foucault’s words, that allows the possibility of the normal subjects in Murphy’s article to suddenly become abnormal and thus condemned and silenced.Post Views: 40