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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Annals of Russian Barbarity

Paul Goble reports:

The growing number of attacks in the Russian Federation against members of minority groups as well as against those who seek to defend them and the increasing willingness of many Russians to accept such actions as normal represent threaten the chances for the emergence of freedom and democracy there, according to a Moscow commentator.In an essay posted online recently, Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin writes that the willingness of Russians and to laugh off these events or to ignore them altogether not only creates a climate in which more such attacks are likely but also promotes the “dehumanization” of the population that helped produce the horrors of Stalinism and fascism.

When individuals and groups look or are encouraged to look “at the suffering and destruction of others with indifference,” he writes, then such people can be easily transformed into “bio-robots” acceptant of and consequently ultimately capable of almost any crimes as the world of the camps showed. Indeed, he suggests, the tendency to laugh off such events may be even more harmful than the events themselves, contributing to the destruction of “the world of human interrelationships,” the conversion of people into beasts, and the launch of “a senseless and pitiless war of all against all.” The occasion for Petrunin’s bitter reflections was an event that occurred earlier this week. Members of a pro-Kremlin youth group pelted two of Russia’s most distinguished human rights activists, Lev Ponomaryev and Ludmila Alekseyeva, with eggs, when the latter were speaking out against the actions of Kopeik prison camp jailers which resulted in the death of four inmates.

“The 18 provocateurs broke into the hall during the middle of the press conference, silently threw eggs [at the two activits] .. and then ran away, “without identifying themselves or making the kind of statement which would have identified them more specifically and allowed society to know who these miscreants were. The reaction of many people to this was not widespread horror at this attack against Ponomaryev and Alekseyeva, the 82-year-old doyenne of Russian human rights activism, but rather a willingness to ignore it altogether – few Russian or Western media outlets covered it -- or the kind of “hee-hee” snickering that has greeted many other outrages, Sobkorr.ru reported. But the attack against the two human rights activists like the throwing of sex toys onto the stage where opposition figures are appearing is far from the only disturbing development in Russia that is receiving this kind of treatment, Petrunin points out.

There are regular clashes between members of different ethnic groups. There are attacks on migrants and others by skinheads. And there are car burnings almost every night. These things are “no longer some kind of a warning,” the Sobkorr.ru commentator says. “This is the world in which we live, and it is terrifying to imagine how [this all] will end.” That is all the more so because for Russians as for many others there are some frightening precedents. “Since 1914,” he writes, “millins of people looked on the death and suffering of those around them. And then [the terrible revolutions of] 1917 came and the still more terrible years of 1918, 1919, 1920 …”

For some groups in the population of the Russian Federation, the impact of such actions is compounded by the attitudes of Russian officials. Recently, Moscow prosecutors announced that they would not open a criminal case regarding the beating of Yulduz Khaknazarova, an Uzbek student in Moscow. Although she was beaten by skinheads to within an inch of her life on May 11th and has been undergoing medical treatment since then, Russian officials have treated Khaknazarova as if she were the problem rather than the victim of the actions of others. Indeed, one militiaman reportedly asked her why she had thrown herself on the tracks of Moscow metro.

Such violence and the unwillingness of Russian officials to take action is reflected in the following statistic: During the first five months of this year, there were no fewer than 144 xenophobic attacks against minorities, attacks that have resulted in 76 deaths and at least 163 wounded. In very few of these cases have the militia or other force structures arrested anyone and in even fewer have prosecutors brought perpetrators to trial, a pattern that makes many of the more violent groups feel themselves invulnerable and thus leads many of the members of these groups to assume that the Russian population and the Russian authorities are in fact on their side.
And many of these xenophobic groups view the popular reaction to the liberation of an officer who sought to kill Anatoliy Chubais and continuing demands that no Russian soldier be punished for crimes in Chechnya as additional evidence that their views enjoy increasingly widespread support.

Many years ago, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the great Russian memoirist and herself a victim of Stalin’s crimes, wrote that “happy is that country where the despicable will at least be despised.” Following her lead, all those who care about human rights must agree that Russia today is not a happy one, however much oil money it may now have.

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