Strategy of the Absurd

A lot of recent information about Russia can be disconcerting for a reasonable reader. It is absurd. It is incomprehensible. The behavior of the authorities towards the society is so harsh and unmotivated that one is reminded of Vaclav Havel’s words about Absurdistan. But the idea of triumphant absurdity only characterizes the phenomenon, it does not explain it.

Why do the Russian authorities persecute the Jehovah’s Witnesses church so systematically and brutally? There are only 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses out of 145 million people in Russia; they are quite calm and peaceful people, who refuse to drink alcohol, smoke and take drugs, do not swear, condemn all forms of violence and are apolitical on principle. Jehovah’s Witness groups meet regularly and discuss the Bible. The authoritarian government should consider them model citizens, but for four years they have been tried and sentenced to 6-8 years in prison.

In Yakutia, returning to the worst Soviet traditions, shaman Aleksander Gabyshev was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital. Shamanism is one of the oldest religions in the world; its organizations are officially registered by the Russian Ministry of Justice (more than two dozen communities throughout the country). Why are its followers persecuted? Two years ago, Gabyshev announced that he would walk from Yakutia to Moscow to come to the Kremlin and chase away the evil spirits of President Putin. He tried several times to carry out his plan, but each time he was opposed by the police. Today he is undergoing an atrocious “treatment” with neuroleptics in a psychiatric hospital in Novosibirsk. Is the Kremlin really afraid of the shaman?

This fall, police and investigators have been doggedly searching for bloggers who were photographed half-naked against the backdrop of State shrines — churches, cathedrals and the Kremlin. They published these photos on their personal pages on social networks. The participants of these photo sessions are being prosecuted for offending the feelings of believers. The State acts on behalf of believers. One of these girls was sentenced to 10 months in prison, while the others are awaiting sentencing. Is the naked body of women such a threat to the security of the State?

The Rosgvardiya (a branch of the armed forces whose main task is to suppress riots) and the Chechen police recently arrested three Chechen women in Grozny on charges of witchcraft. A report on this case was broadcast on Chechen state television. The report stated in all seriousness that one of the arrested witches was possessed by jinns. The law enforcement agencies interrogated the three women “as a preventive measure”.

Not every absurd incident has to do with religion or mysticism. In early November, the Investigative Committee announced that it was looking for girls who had been filmed kissing near the Eternal Flame in front of a monument to World War II victims in Moscow. Investigators saw “elements of same-sex sex” in the video. The girls have now been found and one has issued a public apology. They face up to five years in prison under the “desecration of symbols of military glory” law of the penal code.

Popular rapper Morgenstern said in an interview that he did not understand why millions of rubles were spent on the annual celebrations of Victory Day, when the Second World War ended more than 70 years ago. In this regard, the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, said that the Committee will study this case in the context of the law prohibiting the rehabilitation of Nazism. The penalty under this article of the Criminal Code can also be up to five years in prison.

Some recent information is totally disconcerting. A court in Saratov decided to block websites containing instructions on making hatchets for tourists and stone axes for domestic use. “The free availability on the said website of certain methods of making weapons violates the rights of an indefinite number of consumers of information services and endangers the legitimate interests of the Russian Federation”, the court said in its ruling.

Information of this type, strange and difficult to explain in the 21st century, is surprisingly numerous. In an attempt to explain the pettiness and obvious absurdity of the reasons for the repression, intellectual critics throw up their hands and recall Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Eugene Ionesco. But what looks like absurdity is in fact a state strategy. Or rather, it is part of the state strategy.

By unjustified and shocking repressions, the authorities demonstrate not only their power, but also their arrogant disregard for the law. The government lets the public know that it can easily manipulate the law to serve its political interests. In addition, the government enacts laws that contradict general principles of law and constitutional norms. For example, over the past nine years, a number of laws have been passed that limit freedom of expression, freedom of demonstration, freedom of legal political activity, violate electoral rights and the principle of alternation of power. These laws were in such contradiction with the Constitution that last year, in a fake referendum, the Constitution itself was amended. It reminds of the famous Russian joke: “If alcohol interferes with your work, leave your job!”

The ostentatious brutality practiced by the authorities is aimed at intimidating people, sowing fear in society and preventing any initiative, especially political. But senseless brutality is only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the creation of a perfectly functioning regime of state terror. Thus, the Russian government today pursues two closely related goals: to create a regime of total control over society and to plunge society into a state of terror over the possible consequences of the slightest deviation from the political and moral norms established by the government.

This is why virtually all social initiatives, whether they be religious practices, unconventional sexual behavior, charitable programs or environmental activities, are persecuted in Russia today. Only those who are in full agreement with the authorities and accept their meticulous control are allowed to survive. All this clearly indicates the aim of the present Russian authorities: to revive totalitarianism.

It is no longer enough for the totalitarian regime to protect itself from political competition by suppressing the opposition. The authorities seek to control all spheres of public life — economy, culture, education, science, sex, sports, religion. They want to control all those who agree and destroy all those who do not. This is the maximum program.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are being persecuted today in accordance with this program. They are harmless to political power, but it is impossible to bring them under total control. Not even Hitler and Stalin succeeded. Under Communism and National Socialism, the Witnesses were severely repressed, but never broken.

It is under this program that the LGBT community is persecuted in Russia. The authorities realize that they cannot enter the bed of everyone and regulate the sexual life there. Instead, they pass laws restricting the rights of LGBT people. In many cases, the authorities encourage lawless violence, arbitrary persecution and even extrajudicial killings of those they classify as representatives of a “non-traditional sexual orientation”.

Thus, the absurd has its explanation: it is indispensable for the authorities, even if it damages their image. The absurd is a tax on dictatorship, the unavoidable cost of achieving a political goal. It is likely that the government is constantly evaluating what is more profitable for them: to look like aggressive morons in the eyes of the world, or to continue terrorizing society at every opportunity? Lately, their choice seems to have been decided. They are ready to ignore their image in order to consolidate their power and their undivided domination of the country.

Alexander Podrabinek is a Russian independent journalist and former Soviet political prisoner. Involved in the democratic movement in the USSR since the early 1970s, he particularly investigated the use of psychiatry for political purposes. Tried twice for "defamation" for his books and articles published in the West or circulated in samizdat, he spent five and a half years in prison, in labor camps, and in exile. His most well-known book is "Punitive Medicine," available in Russian and English. He is a columnist and journalist for several media outlets, including Novaya Gazeta, RFI, Radio Liberty, and others.

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