Scratch a Russian liberal…and open Pandora’s lustration box.

An example of the academic transitional justice literature

Seems like it’s easy to get sidetracked by the goings on of the ‘good Russians’ in exile, and I promise to move on to more worthwhile causes soon, but because the discussion in Riga this week touched on lustration* I think it is interesting. Why? Because real ‘lustration’ is happening now in liberated territories of Ukraine (jail sentence in Lyman for v. low level bureaucrat). The questions of decommunization, collective guilt, and EU-accession (for Ukraine) and so on, are all connected to this topic.

The story in question is this one published in Russian by Meduza on 27th March 2023.

It’s quite scathing in its own right. Here are some snippets that relate to what I have to say. (I edited them down a little, but they are in the order of the original article)

One of the panelists, culturologist Andrey Arkhangelsky, argues that “Putin’s man is a Soviet man without ideological superstructures.” He undertakes to characterize the “ideomania” of contemporary Russia. “Communal hatred for a neighbor. Piss in her soup, relatively speaking, ”says Arkhangelsky. 

His thought is picked up by Yan Levchenko (also a culturologist). Waving his hand he proclaims: “War is the realized simplicity of a man who wants to pee in his neighbor’s soup.”

Moderator Morozov admits that he has about the same vision of the problem, and adds: “It is largely an understanding that this Z-ideology is not produced, but it really is in some sense of the word … is “folk””. 

If a mosquito bites us, it does not mean that it has an ideology. In the first case, this is the instinct of self-preservation, in the other case, the mosquito just wants to eat,” sociologist Igor Yakovenko addresses other participants from the stage.

This is another form of processing the masses, the population. <…> But, as Yan [Levchenko] rightly said, it merges with the layers of the communal kitchen, the layers of hatred for the neighbor, irrational hatred,” sums up the sociologist. In his opinion, people who should appear before the tribunal after the end of the war are divided into two categories: “werewolves” and “zombies”. 

The question that started the discussion – what can be done right now to stop the war – is left unanswered by almost all experts. 

“I personally support lustration as wide, fast and harsh as possible,” says former political prisoner Daniil Konstantinov . He admits that he is “close to the style” of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The activist believes that a revolution may take place in Russia in the future, after which the country is unlikely to have courts capable of punishing the current accomplices of the war, and suggests creating “special bodies” just in case.

— Daniel, learn the theory of human rights! – Elena Lukyanova, a lawyer and teacher at the Free University , reacts emotionally to this . When emotions subside, Konstantinov recounts his meeting with Vano Merabishvili, the former head of the Georgian Interior Ministry: He says that when we fired a huge number of police officers, we faced claims from our Western partners, who, like Elena, say: “How is it? There are human rights, labor legislation, social obligations. How can you hire and fire people like that?” And then Vano leans over to me and says: “How can they not understand? Well, what kind of people are these? These are the cops!”

It is no less necessary, Gudkov believes, to create a “big media”: “To reach the deep people, otherwise we are working for each other. We convince each other of the need for beauty, democracy and freedom. And the deep people don’t know about it!” 

“Maybe we should really create some kind of coordination meeting to develop a plan for taking power in the most reasonable and safe way? Gennady Gudkov finally offers. And he repeats: “We must give the plan to the people.”

Ilya Azar, who missed this speech, remarks dryly: “This is not a plan.” 

My initial harsh response is that this talk reveals people who not only know nothing of their own country (beyond their info-bubbles and massively simplistic models of human behaviour), but even worse, do not wish to know anything. The topic of lustration comes up with the ominous option: ‘special authorities’ «специальные органы». instead of courts.

Only Lukyanova and a v. few others come out of this with, not only any dignity, but with even faint stirrings of empathy, interest in understanding processes, or critical thinking. And these, recall, are the great and good liberal minds of the whole post-Soviet generation(s).

Gudkov snr. is at least more or less honest – he repeats what I said *a year ago*: media in exile needs to work out how to speak to actual Russians, and not to itself. But again, this idea is a unidirectional fantasy: Russians for him are a receptacle, not capably of becoming political subjects.

And as for the others, characterizing their countrymen and women as zombies, werewolves and ‘Soviet’ people who like to piss in the soup of their neighbours is really going to win them supporters at home. Arkhangelskii should be ashamed of himself.

Fundamentally, these people are just as bad as Putin [ok, maybe not as bad, lol] because they don’t recognize that essentially their own mindset hardly differs: change only from above, imposed by coercion, viewing people as incapable of political subjectivity, extreme generalization and sweeping measures, the people are mere clay at best…

Of course, my own (I’ll admit, intentionally provocative) response on Twitter provoked pushback from people thinking that I believed existing Russian courts were capable of dispensing justice post-bellum.

The foundation of democratic justice is to be judged by one’s peers. I’m merely pointing out that the main ideas of the ‘opposition’ amount to pretending that transitional justice can be achieved without courts in a make-believe space where they, the good Russians, have complete dictatorial power. This is symptomatic of their fundamental unseriousness and a trap for oppositionists because the implication is they support a Japan 1945 scenario. And this cuts to to the heart of competing ideas about lustration, which are always part and parcel of realistic and achievable ‘transitional justice’ (a big academic and practitioner topic of research). Ekaterina Schulmann is absolutely correct on this: lustration involves compromises. That’s right folks, a first for this blog: me and Schulmann agree on something.

And this is all the more ironic because of the liberal credentials of these ‘good Russians’…. who are nonetheless the first to jettison their principles, including a commitment to ‘due process’. As I also pointed out recently, even the Venice Commission in Ukraine continues to struggle to ensure due process and equality before the law in the decommunization and post-conflict lustration laws going through parliament there. (And part of the conditionalities of EU-accession).

One could do a network sociology of the people in that benighted room in Riga and you would get numerous people who earned good money FOR YEARS from the Presidential Administration and V. Surkov via PR man Gleb Pavlovsky or elsewhere. And they get to decide that *now* they’re the ‘good Russians’? Because the system at whose table they ate well at for years, eventually ate them?

*I’m using the term lustration in this post very loosely and I’m aware I am conflating it with decommunization laws, and prosecution of war-time collaborators. The Russian ‘liustratsiia’ is used by Russian observers generally as a process of identifying, punishing, and barring from public life in the future those guilty of particular crimes during the current period.

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