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Gulag Stability

Vladimir Putin, summarizing the results of his eight years as the leader of Russia,
called "stability" his greatest achievement. But this is the stability in appearance only,
supported merely by enormous oil revenues and massive propaganda from the
government-controlled mass media. Behind the facade lies an unprecedented growth
in corruption, horrifying poverty for most of the population, and an all-powerful
bureaucracy and domestic intelligence apparatus.

Putin’s stability is the stability of the Gulag, where the wardens ensure all the
prisoners have their allotted food ration, reward the most obedient, and preventively
punish any potential troublemakers. The difference from the Soviet Gulag is that most
Russians have never seen anything different, so they do not even notice that they are
confined.

My most recent encounter with this system occurred in December 2007, when officers
of the FSB (the Federal Security Service, a successor organization to the KGB) decided
to forcibly place me in the army. My activities as a Coordinator of the youth
movement Oborona ("Defense"), which advocates non-violent resistance to oppressive
acts by the authorities in Russia, had caused me problems in the past as well. In my
23 years I have been arrested dozens times, twice served short terms in prison, and
been fired from my job at the request of the FSB. But they could never get rid of me
completely, because they could find no basis for putting me in prison long-term.

So the intelligence services took a different tack. On December 20, I was once again
arrested and this time sent illegally to the army to serve as an enlisted soldier, despite
my student status and health problems. I was escorted by FSB officers to a military
unit located in the forest 250 kilometers (150 miles) from Moscow, where I was
expected to serve for one year.

My trip into the army took only a few hours, while the return trip required two and a
half months. I was finally freed on March 4, two days after what the authorities
“presidential elections”. The military authorities acknowledged that I had been
inducted into the army illegally, but gave no apology.

In fact, I am one of the many political activists who face repression. Russian human
rights activists like Lev Ponomarev estimate the number of political prisoners in the
country at more than 70. However, even prison is not the worst fate for a Russian
dissenter. In December 2007 a member of the Other Russia coalition, Yuri
Chervochkin, was beaten to death, supposedly, by the employees of a special police
unit.

Over the past year or two the scale of repressions in Russia has reached a level similar
to the worst years of the Cold War. The clampdown by the regime and mistakes of the
previous opposition leaders has brought us to the point that traditional political parties
have lost any kind of influence in Russia. Old illusions about how pro-democracy
advocates might achieve power through normal elections were smashed in last
December's parliamentary elections. Old parties are unlikely to return.
Dmitriy Medvedev, Putin’s old friend and now the president-elect, is himself a part of
the current system and has no real reason to liberalize it. Hopes that he will do so are
misplaced. He well understands that any such attempt will only lead to a loss of
control over the situation, which would present a fatal risk to the corrupt heights of
power in Russia.

Today the only real possibility for changing the political regime in Russia is through
grass-roots pressure. Nonviolent resistance on the model of Mahatma Gandhi and
Martin Luther King is the last option available in the arsenal of pro-democracy
advocates in Russia. This has already become clear to some of the most open-minded
politicians like those in the Other Russia coalition.

But in order to be successful we must first analyze our mistakes, learn to work
together more effectively, and rouse society from its apathetic state. For this we need
groups like Oborona, a union of sincere young people striving not for power, but for
change in their country. The mission for those planning an uprising in the modern
Russian Gulag is to not become the next wardens.