What we are witnessing is the date of “May 6” making history. The trial of the “May 6 prisoners”, and the “Navalny Case” mark another historical turn of events. To understand the meaning of this, let’s try to look ahead from the past.
I remember all too well how the “sources in the presidential administration” would stress in a confidential tone that the “Khodorkovsky Case” was an exception: that Khodorkovsky broke some unofficial, unwritten contract, and now that we have removed that thorn, we’ll start a new life of total harmony, where the state will mind its own business and will not bother those who mind their own business.
What the PR people from the administration meant was that Putin made it a point to lock up that particular man, Khodorkovsky, who would be convicted even though there was not enough evidence against him. But that would not apply to others, would not affect the systemic relationship between the state and the business community.
Everything turned out exactly the other way round. What the PR people meant was that if Khodorkovsky is in jail, that doesn’t mean that other businessmen will not join him there. The real outcome looked something like this: “If even Khodorkovsky is in jail, do you really think we can’t lock you up?” This was the message.
The Khodorkovsky case started a whole new era of redistribution on behalf of the government. The specific result of that process was not imprisonment of a particular “oligarch”. It was the message that “nobody is better than Khodorkovsky”: asserting the principle that any businessman is a potential client of the penitentiary system, and to lock him up, you need nothing more than the will of the people wearing stolen shoulder straps and acting on behalf of the state.
It is precisely on this principle that proof is optional and guilt is implied that the Khodorkovsky case is based upon. That principle became common practice by the law enforcement. The Khodorkovsky case symbolizes a definitive victory of the state over business. Business became a pasture, a feeding area for the state and its officials, their fief.
In this context, the historical meaning of the “May 6 Case” and the “Navalny Case” appears clear. While Khodorkovsky’s trial was intended to send the message that any businessman could end up in jail, the message of the other two cases is that not just any businessman, but any citizen could end up behind bars: “If Navalny is in jail, do you really think we can’t put you in there?”
The so called “trials” of May 6 and Navalny are essentially a new, systemic attack on the very essence of justice. They represent the assertion of a new standard – no proof is necessary in order to put a person behind bars based on implied guilt.
In this sense this justice is not fundamentally different from that of the Stalinist era; the only difference is the severity of punishment and some general softening of methods. An elegant legal notion of “prejudice” that the new “justice system” has fallen in love with should not mask the Yezhov-Vyshinsky substance of the mechanism behind it: a simple confession, unsubstantiated by any proof, is later used to prove the guilt of third parties.
The trials of “enemies of the people” were based on the assumption of conspiracy against the Soviet system. The rest was left to the investigator’s imagination: how to interpret certain acts and words of the accused in order to construe them as evidence of conspiracy.
Most of the charges brought under the “May 6 Case” are based on the same principle. If the public unrest did take place, any action by anyone who was there at that time can be used as evidence against that person, and accordingly, he can be charged with participating in public unrest. That action does not have to actually threaten public order, if it is already considered part of the “big crime” against public order.
As with the Khodorkovsky case, the most important consequence of such trials is not to punish particular individuals, but to assert a new understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state. The purpose is for the public to get used to absurd charges made without evidence as the new norm. As with the Khodorkovsky case, these trials will set a precedent that will be reproduced over and over again.
Another ultimate purpose of these trials is for the public to become accustomed to the inevitability of injustice. This sense of inevitability makes society unable to resist that injustice. That is one of the most important social and psychological mechanisms of terror.
Of course, it’s not 1937, and those who set such mechanisms in motion don’t try to terrorize the entire society. What they are trying to protect is not some kind of ideology; they’re not trying to dominate the whole world. They are protecting corruption: i.e. their right and ability to do whatever they want with huge resources, and to distribute these resources to their supporters. The problem is that in today’s Russia, corruption has reached such epic proportions that it may lead to the devaluation and total collapse of all the foundations of public and private law.
And what does that devaluation and collapse mean? It means that the rule of law will be replaced with the rule of force.
The result will not be a well-functioning, centralized GULAG system. It won’t even be what the people who set this process in motion had in mind. What you will get is a rapid growth of decentralized violence which asserts itself as the new law. You will get something that you might have seen in movies about life in some African countries, or heard in stories about life in certain parts of the Northern Caucuses.