“Remember when they convicted X?”
“No, I was already doing time in Magadan.”
“Wasn’t Y there at the same time? We met at a pretrial before they sent me to Yakutia.”
“Almost – we missed each other by a few weeks, but he was in a cell with Z…”
Fill in the names, and you get a typical exchange between the participants of the conference organized by the Eastern Bureau of Fighting Solidarnost in Warsaw. Solidarnost was active in the 80’s and was the major force in bringing down Polish Communist regime. The conference attendees were former dissidents from post-Soviet states, well known for defying communist regimes in their home countries. Most served time in jails, prison camps, or psychiatric hospitals for doing that.
The goal of the conference was to discuss the state of affairs in countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, where, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, communist regimes were replaced with post-modern dictatorships, or “managed democracies,” as Vladimir Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov has cunningly put it.
However, few speakers passed even a brief mention of their own countries, focusing instead on Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.
Akhyad Idigov, a former member of the Chechen parliament, insisted that imperialism is a defining trait of the Russian character and that Russia’s existence as a state hinges upon catering to it. Zianon Pazniak, one of the founders of the Belorussian Popular Front, made a stunning claim that not a single Russian has apologized for Putin’s war in Ukraine. Coincidentally, when asked whether he has apologized for Lukashenko’s rule, Pazniak indignantly retorted that he doesn’t have to. Both speakers claimed that Russians are incapable of living in a democracy. Ironically, Vladimir Putin shares this view.
Russia occupied most of these countries at the time of the Soviet Union and continued to infringe on their sovereignties today, so such focus in understandable. However, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on Russia’s meddling with other countries while ignoring the source of the problem – authoritarian nature of the current regime. Glazing over Russia’s internal affairs in a conversation about imperialism reveals a staggering misunderstanding of cause and effect.
There is no direct dependency between imperialism and authoritarianism: Britain was democracy to the greatest extent of its Empire, while North Korea, the world’s most brutal dictatorship today, does not exhibit any desire for imperialism. In today’s Russia, authoritarianism is the cause of imperialism, not the other way around. For Putin, attacks on other states are a pragmatic tool for accumulating power, not the result of Russian cultural heritage or ideology. Ever since his first nomination, Putin has used propaganda-fueled “short victorious wars” to entrench popular support. Wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and, recently Syria all served a single purpose – to become a rally cry that keeps Putin in power.
Many of the conference speakers, including Idigov and Pazniak, have lived in Europe for the past decade. As a result, they seem to have forgotten how easily “popular opinion” can be controlled, distorted, and fabricated with information blockades and political repression.
Both as the Soviet Union and in its current incarnation, Russia has been acting as an aggressor towards its neighbors. The speakers’ hatred and outrage towards the Russian government is well deserved. Yet when they make declarations like “We will never be brothers,” or claim that every Russian endorse Putin’s actions, they forget about the thousands of Russians who actively oppose the regime and pay a price for that opposition. They forget about the power of propaganda and repression. They forget the meaninglessness of polls in a society where people cannot easily access information and are afraid to speak their minds. Most importantly, they forget the very values of solidarity and mutual support that the Solidarnost movement was founded upon. Russians are hostage to Putin’s regime just as Kazakhstanis are to Nazarbayev’s or Belorussians are to Lukashenko’s.
By the end of the conference, participants had condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia and demanded the removal of Russian military forces from these countries; they also called for the de-occupation of Chechnya and Crimea. Not a single article of the resolution addressed, or even mentioned human rights abuses inside Belarus, Uzbekistan, or Azerbaijan. None expressed support to democratically minded people in Russia, risking life and limb to oppose Putin’s regime.
Compared to the Soviet era, life has improved in most post-communist countries. Some former Soviet Union republics have moved forward to build functional democracies and dissociate themselves from Russia, the communist Patient Zero. As the memory of Soviet repression fades, former democracy advocates drift apart, abandoning some of their former allies still living under dictatorships. Tyrants survive by supporting each other—it’s crucial that democrats do too.