On Tuesday, March 22nd, a Russian court sentenced 34-year-old Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda (Nadiya) Savchenko to twenty-two years in prison, after she had languished in a Russian jail for twenty-one months. Some media have likened the proceedings to a ‘show trial’ reminiscent of the Stalin era of the USSR. Indeed, the day before the official verdict was issued, Russian state news agencies reported the court’s decision (see here, here and here), highlighting the differences between Russian and Western conceptions of legal due process.
Lt. Savchenko disappeared in June 2014, when Russian-backed separatist rebels took her prisoner. She then reappeared briefly in a video posted on the internet, in which she was shown in a jail cell handcuffed to a metal pipe and undergoing interrogation by unidentified men who did not appear onscreen. Savchenko was next reported to be in Voronezh in southern Russia before finally being moved to the city of Donetsk in Russia’s Rostov region (not to be confused with Donetsk in Ukraine). The Russian state charged her with war crimes, alleging she had acted as a ‘spotter’ for Ukrainian forces shelling a rebel checkpoint, and that two Russian journalists (neither of them accredited in Ukraine) had been killed as a result of information she provided. This, said the prosecution, was murder, because Savchenko had supposedly known the journalists were in harm’s way.
Quite apart from the fact that armed combatants are not exempt from attack simply by virtue of the presence of journalists ‘embedded’ with them (were it otherwise, the term ‘human shield’ would have little meaning), the defense—pointing to mobile phone records—provided credible evidence that Savchenko was already in custody by the time the checkpoint in question was shelled. Yet even without consideration of the merit of the Russian prosecution’s accusations, another potential flaw in the case has been glaring from the start. As noted by the Russia Behind the Headlines website (which is not hostile to the Russian government), ‘it is not entirely clear how [Savchenko] ended up on Russian territory, since Russia is officially not a party to the war in Ukraine.’ Russian lawyers explained to RBTH that, ‘Russian law allows foreign citizens who have committed crimes outside the borders of the Russian Federation to be subject to legal responsibility, if the crime was committed against the interests of Russia or a Russian citizen.’ Yet this does little to resolve the question of how Savchenko ended up in custody on Russian territory. The Russian state prosecution attempted to resolve the discrepancy by charging that Savchenko had crossed into Russia illegally of her own accord from the Luhansk region (which borders Russia), and was thus arrested on Russian territory. If this were true, the justification for Savchenko’s detention in Russia would appear stronger. But to believe this, one would have to accept that a serving, uniformed member of the Ukrainian armed forces had decided to flee east, to Russia and likely arrest, instead of west, toward safety and the protection of her compatriots. As it was, Savchenko’s arrest looked more like an abduction or—perhaps more accurately—a ‘rendition,’ since Savchenko was both subjected to ‘heightened interrogation techniques’ and sent to a Russian state psychiatric institution for ‘examination,’ as in Soviet days.
In short, the case for the prosecution against Nadiya Savchenko appeared very contrived from the beginning. The ensuing trial dragged on interminably, during which time the prisoner appeared either full-figured and skeletal, depending on her dietary regimen at the time. Savchenko has announced a hunger strike several times during her detention and appears to have made good on the threat to stop eating at least twice.
Savchenko’s plight is now a symbolic rallying point for Ukrainians, and a personification of their national struggle with Russia. In October 2014, the Batkivshchyna (‘Fatherland’) party of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (herself a prisoner of the previous, pro-Russian Ukrainian regime on a highly flawed conviction) ran Savchenko at the top of its list of electoral candidates in parliamentary elections, and Savchenko is thus formally a member of Ukraine’s parliament now. But Savchenko was already well known in Ukraine prior to her capture, and in fact was a kind of ‘celebrity soldier’ for having been the only woman to serve with the Ukrainian peacekeeping force in Iraq, and also for having appeared in a short TV documentary profiling her career. In other words, far from becoming famous as a result of her imprisonment by the Russian regime, Nadiya Savchenko was likely ‘renditioned’ to Russia and prosecuted precisely because she was already famous in her home country. The Russian motive was thus not the prosecution of a war criminal. It was, rather, the national—and international—humiliation of Ukraine, because the Russian regime regarded her as a ‘trophy hostage.’
As reported very recently, Yulia Tymoshenko claims to have information that the Russians will release Savchenko imminently, perhaps in exchange for soldiers of the Russian Federation captured in Ukraine during the course of the war. If true, it would mark a signal change in the stance of the Putin regime, which has thus far steadfastly refused to consider releasing its Ukrainian servicewoman-star. Whatever happens to Nadiya Savchenko, it is worth considering the psychology behind her trial and imprisonment by the Russian state. The Soviet tradition of inflicting suffering and humiliation on vulnerable political opponents is still alive in Russia, and this case harks back to the rule of a tyrant enjoying increasingly favorable treatment in Russian official and popular culture today: Joseph Stalin. Here, in a piece from February 2015, two authors writing in the Russian-language press (one in the banned-in-Russia publication Grani, the other on his personal blog) examine the enduring legacy of cruelty and bullying of the defenseless in Russia, and draw a line of continuity from the tyrant Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to today’s Russian head of state, Vladimir Putin.
10 February 2015 ~ НАША ИСТОРИЯ
The tragic stories of two women who fell under the Moloch of the Kremlin best exemplify the spirit of Russia, its real “shackles” and the continuity of its sadistic relationship to Humanity. Ilya Milshtein and Boris Akunin have written on what Stalin and Putin have in common.
In Grani (‘Faces’), a publication banned in Russia, Ilya Milshtein looks at why Putin is holding Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko hostage in Russia.
There is no vacation in war
The mysterious visit to Moscow of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande could have been done another way—no less vague on geopolitical issues, but with a note of optimism. This note would have been loud and full-bodied if the foreign guests had taken Nadezhda Savchenko with them—to Munich, for example, with its beautiful clinic, where the Ukrainian aviatrix could have recuperated after a long, exhausting hunger strike.
And they certainly raised this issue—both Merkel and Hollande. They appealed to the humanity of the host side. They pointed out the legally questionable charges—what’s called an ‘artificial case’ in diplomatic-speak. We remind you that we’re talking about life and death. It seemed there might be a chance—contrary to everything Putin had said earlier about the case.
The court will handle it? Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] knows the price of his judges and—if necessary—of intervening in their work, for which even President Medvedev once gave him a scolding. The severity of the so-called accusations? Well, we remember that Khodorkovsky had “blood on his hands,” and that a third case was being prepared, when suddenly—before the Olympics—Putin released him. In general, the actions of the President from time to time have manifested a certain trait that could be described as pragmatic mercy.
Or even the desire to surprise—to act contrary to his established reputation, and in a steadfast way. And when the remnants of our civil society, stunned by the arrest of Svetlana Davydova, collect signatures in defense of the accused spy and mother of many children, he is able to suddenly soften his heart. As if for no apparent reason.
However, he doesn’t want to let Nadezhda Savchenko go, even though pragmatic considerations—not to mention sudden impulses of the heart—should suggest otherwise. A young woman known to be innocent, courageous, a living symbol of resistance and courage—is a uniformed disgrace for Putin and Putin’s Russia. In particular, from the propaganda point of view, this is what the Kremlin is so sensitive about. And if it’s pointless to plead for humanity in this case, it doesn’t follow that you should forget about PR. But they do forget.
Maybe there’s something personal here. He also said once, on another occasion, that “a real man should always try, but a real woman should resist.” Resist, but eventually yield to the rapist—so this historic phrase was read. But Savchenko is not inferior, and this probably infuriates the national leader, who has never had to break, humiliate or force a confession out of this kind of person before.
Bummer. This is an unpleasant event in the life of this man.
But still, maybe there is a more peculiar calculation at work. Nadezhda Savchenko is his hostage, and while she languishes in a pre-trial detention cell, he is trying to solve several problems at once. For example, if there is ever any talk about her fate, Vladimir Vladimirovich can easily turn the conversation to the topic of sanctions. Say, when you cancel them and generally acknowledge Crimea as an integral part of Russia, then we can talk about Savchenko.
The price of her freedom could become the Donbas as a territory of Novorossia, the ruble exchange rate, oil prices, and the rejection of American arms deliveries to Ukraine. All this seems like madness, but in our times, disturbed ideas are like a norm of political life that it’s high time we abolished, or else we will never understand what’s going on. For only the worst predictions come true, and the most unbelievable stories take on reality, flesh and blood.
However, the main goal of the Russian president is to maintain utmost tension in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and the West, and if the fate of Nadezhda Savchenko causes pain for millions of Ukrainians and deep concern among Western leaders and deputies of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the game—in his opinion—is worth a candle. And if you need any more proof that Putin never intended to make peace with anyone and, signing various agreements, had no intention of fulfilling them, it is sufficient to remember the captive pilot.
Here, his character is fully reflected in the whole breadth of its sadistic inclinations, and only in this way is Putin genuine. To the contrary, his endless mantra about the tragic fate of civilians in the Donbas and about Russia—which is not involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine—is empty, hot air. These words are calculated to mock unsuspecting Russian observers and Western partners with particular gusto.
On January 29th, another criminal case was brought against Nadezhda Savchenko, accusing her of illegally crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border (with a hood over her head).
Yesterday, dismissal of the first case—for “complicity to murder”—was denied. And this piece of news is much more important than all others associated with the negotiations in Moscow, the performances in Munich, the prospects for the peace process and the promised meeting in Minsk, where Savchenko certainly will be remembered again without much hope of hearing human words in response. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember and remind people of her, literally every day. As with any hostage in the hands of terrorist groups. This is very important—for her and for us.
In his Livejournal blog, Boris Akunin has published a horrific story characterizing the Stalin regime’s cruelty and absence of principles.
In our town, on the outskirts…
I don’t really understand why this tale is not by far the most terrible crime of Stalinism, as it is to me. There is something completely unbearable in it.
And it’s not that I’ve developed any sympathy for the Communists of the 1930s. If we compare them with the Nazis, of course the latter were worse. But that doesn’t mean the former were better.
On August 23rd, 1939, the German fascists and Soviet communists decided (and rightly so) that they had more in common with each other than with the Western democracies. The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the beginning of World War II, and the nightmare began. In comparison with that, the incident at Brest-Litovsk on May 2nd, 1940, should seem a trifle. But apparently it isn’t.
As you know, Stalin was terribly pleased with himself. He had outsmarted everyone. He would get a piece of the Baltic states, a piece of Poland, Romania and Finland (Finland would be a tough nut, and as yet he had no idea); bleed the Europeans among themselves, and again—as in 1914-1918—they would exhaust themselves with interminable war, and he would be the rejoicing third party.
Oh, my head!
How happy he was that everything was going so well in front of his new friend Hitler. He, it must be said, also rejoiced (and had more substantial grounds to do so). The Führer had even generously offered to release the Soviet Communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Stalin refused politely: “What do you mean? What are you talking about? Is it worth bothering with this little nuisance at a moment when we’re all so happy?” (Then he just refused to save Richard Sorge).
As an additional courtesy, Stalin proposed handing over to Berlin political refugees from Germany and Austria (his fellow communists), who were lucky even to have escaped and not to have wound up in Nazi concentration camps.
True, in 1937-38 most of them (during that time they didn’t discriminate among foreigners) ended up in the Gulag instead, and even in front of the firing squad. But they rounded up five hundred Communists anyway, and Hitler gratefully accepted the gift of goodwill.
The story is generally well known, and it is not news to me. Just the other day I stumbled upon an interview with a very old lady on a European TV channel and listened to how it all happened. Well, some details stabbed me in the heart.
The lady’s name (that is, what she was called back then, as she died long ago, and the interview was old) was Barbara Neumann. She was the widow of one of the leaders of the German Communist Party who was executed by Stalin. Of course, she was incarcerated somewhere as the wife of an enemy of the people. It was the full routine: hunger, beatings, humiliation. And suddenly she was urgently taken away from the Karaganda labor camp—not for interrogation, but to a sanatorium. A lot of old friends were there, all Communists. The conditions were paradise—medical treatment, proper meals. Most of all, Barbara—who was unaccustomed to human treatment—was touched by the care of the doctors and staff. It was just like having contact with one’s own relatives.
In general, they fattened her up, treated her and dressed her nicely—the women were given fur coats. They put them on a train and carried them west. Rumor has it that they went first to Lithuania or Latvia, and from there—to all four corners.
But no. The train arrived in Brest-Litovsk. And on the other side of the bridge, people in SS uniforms were waiting…
These accompanied them…
… and these greeted them…
Almost none of those who were on that train came out of the concentration camps alive. Barbara was one of the very few lucky ones.
Barbara was this sort of person then:
What’s the most disgusting thing of all here? Why, the ‘resort,’ of course. And after all, it’s unnecessary to explain this strange and seemingly unnecessary break between one concentration camp and another, as one might have to do with a foreign audience. And all so as “not to offend the state”! In order not to lose face in front of foreigners—yes, even foreigners from such a respectable organization as the Gestapo. The Soviets had their own pride. In our country, even the convicts—thank the Lord—are well-fed and well-dressed. Because our cup runneth over.
I listened to the story of the old lady, and from some kind of Young Pioneer camp past, the idiotic song of the “orphan” genre swam out of me:
In our town, on the outskirts
They found a baby in the garbage.
They washed its hands and washed its feet,
And again they put it in the trash.
And here is something by way of farewell to you. Enjoy:
Survey: More than 50% of Russians support Stalin
The BBC reports that, according to a new poll by the “Levada-Center,” more than half of Russians believe that Joseph Stalin played a positive role in the country. Stalin’s popularity rating (52%) in 2015 is higher than in all the years it has been measured.
The survey, entitled, “The role of personalities in the history of Russia,” was held at the end of November 2014. It was attended by 1,600 people in 134 settlements of 46 regions of the country, reports the sociological service website.
Respondents were asked to evaluate the roles of Nicholas II, Rasputin, Lenin, Trotsky and the “Whites” in the Civil War.
Mikhail Gorbachev is mentioned on the list of issues related to the “Brezhnev era” and “the collapse of the USSR.”
Survey participants were not asked to evaluate the roles of other personalities, including Nikita Khrushchev, Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Putin.
Stalin: popularity rating stable
Assessments of the role of Joseph Stalin, “Great Leader of the People” and Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, from December 2006 to December 2014 had fluctuated slightly.
According to a fresh survey, 52% of Russians believe that Joseph Stalin played a positive role in the life of the country.
Those who expressed the best opinions of Stalin were citizens over 55 years old—who gave answers such as “definitely positive” and “rather positive,” yielding 26% and 43%, respectively.
Most of his admirers were in the countryside, the residents of which gave “unconditionally positive” (21%) and “rather positive” (43%) evaluations of Stalin.
Stalin was least liked among young people aged 18 to 24 years. 14% of respondents evaluated his role as “definitely negative.” Muscovites gave the lowest rating, with 22% of the capital of Russia describing Stalin’s role as “definitely negative.”
Sociologists said earlier that Russian society still exhibited no consensus about the role of Stalin in the country’s history.
Some human rights activists, in turn, noted that an implicit rehabilitation of the “Great Leader” had begun in Russia with the arrival of President Vladimir Putin.
In February 2013, experts at the Carnegie Endowment published a report—on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the death of the leader—also noting the growing popularity of Stalin.
According to experts, if in 1989 Stalin’s popularity rating as a statesmen who had the greatest influence on the history of the Fatherland was only 12%, then in 2012 he was already in first place with 42%.
The experts of the foundation also associated this tendency with Vladimir Putin’s tenure in power.