Recent developments in Russia have evoked memories of a famous line by Vladimir Lenin: "The courts should not do away with terror … but should give it foundation and legality, clearly, honestly and without embellishments." In just the six months since he reseated himself as president, Vladimir Putin has been busy creating a legislative framework that might make Lenin proud.
Under the Soviet legal system, the court was an arm of the government, a system designed to protect the state from an individual, rather than to protect an individual from the state. Treason was defined in the Soviet Criminal Code as being part of a public group that acted "under the influence" of the bourgeoisie. This all sounds eerily similar to trends resurfacing in today's Russia, except that Putin has been less candid about what his framework could enable, beyond describing a need for "stability." More likely he wants to instill fear, albeit without the terror of the past. He wants a more civilized, acceptable reinterpretation of the Soviet period, although that is hardly consolation for Russia's beleaguered civil society and opposition.
Russians are afraid — and for good reason. Almost any conversation between Russian citizens and representatives of foreign organizations on human rights issues could now be construed by the courts as treasonous, with jail sentences of up to 20 years. The definition of espionage in the treason law, which went into effect on Wednesday, includes "furnishing financial, material, technical, consultative or other help to a foreign state, or international or foreign organization." This absurdly broad definition is already being applied in scary ways. Ivan Moseyev was charged earlier this week with treason by Moscow for allegedly destabilizing the frozen Arkhangelsk region through his studies of an ancient people who had ties to Norway.