Return of the Russian Gulag

Published in The Jerusalem Post on February 28, 1999

Remember a time when in the USSR you could be charged falsely with espionage and treason based on ‘secret’ security decrees never published, held for years without trial or access to counsel, and the courts were powerless to overrule the omnipresent intelligence agencies?


Remember a time when “anti-Zionism” was official Soviet policy, a thinly-disguised cloak for anti-Semitism; a time when Jews were the scapegoats for all ills of society and lived in fear?


Well, the bad old days in Russia, with Soviet-style Gulag justice, distressingly appear to be coming back. Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, the strong-man who today controls Russia, is presiding over the galloping collapse of democratic institutions and norms in Russia, including rampant political anti-Semitism and the disintegration of any semblance of a working justice system.


Just before I get to the Jews in Russia, obviously the first to suffer from this meltdown, consider the case of Aleksander Nikitin, prisoner of conscience Number One, caught in today’s Kafkaesque Russian web of injustice.


Nikitin’s celebrated case demonstrates everything that is going wrong with Russia. The former navy captain was arrested in 1996 by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the former KGB, and charged with treason and espionage for the research he conducted on dangerous nuclear waste in Russian nuclear submarines, published by the Norwegian Bellona Foundation. Nikitin affirms his innocence, noting that all information used in his reporting was taken from open sources.


It took almost three years before Nikitin was allowed to see the charges against him and was put on trial, last fall. In the interim, Russian prosecutors amended the flimsy charges seven times to counter Western criticism. Two weeks ago, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the charges are still so vague that they deprive Nikitin of the legal right to defend himself.


And still, the Court sent the case back for “further investigation”, unlimited by time, and upheld Nikitin’s continued arrest indefinitely. Sounds to me like Soviet-style persecution of a dissident activist, don’t you agree?


International human rights advocate Prof. Irwin Cotler of Montreal, who was counsel for Anatoly Sharansky and Nelson Mandela all those terrible years, is now representing Nikitin. “With the return of KGB and nationalist forces as powers within Russian politics, the Constitution has been turned into a prosecutor’s club, with the judiciary as its accomplice”, says Cotler. “Sakharov and Sharansky know how Gulag justice works: give us the man and we will find the crime and evidence for the crime.”


Outside the FSB cells and corrupt courtrooms, the chill winds of high-level political and governmental anti-Semitism are blowing with alarming strength. And Primakov stays silent.


Prominent Communist parliamentarian Albert Makashov leads the way in inveighing against the Jews as the source of Russia’s economic malaise. He speaks of Jewish bloodsuckers and wants to bring back a ‘pale of settlement’ for Jews in Russia. Just three days ago, he talked about setting-up the “Organization for the Destruction of Zhids”.


Victor Ilyukhin, the Communist chairman of the Duma’s Armed Forces and Security Committee, argues that Jews are committing “genocide against the Russian people”, and there are “too many of them around President Yeltsin”.


The fact that *are* many Jews among the leading Russian business tycoons and free-market reformers, and the fact that prominent Jews own Russia’s two biggest television channels — only stokes this dangerous jabber.


Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov, leader of the official opposition in the Duma, refuses to repudiate any of these remarks, adding that “ethnic Jews in business and media are waging a destructive campaign against our fatherland and its morality, language, culture and beliefs, turning the nation into dopes day and night”. Zionism, says Zyuganov, is “among the most aggressive and imperialist circles striving for world domination”.


This is the man who could be the next President of Russia.


The malevolent winds blowing in Moscow have made it open-season on Jews, with anti-Semitic attacks occurring regularly from Novosibirsk to Borovichi. There are at least 14 openly anti-Semitic parties in Russian national politics, and hundreds of like-minded publications.


What is to be done? I say: time to roll out the mothballed manuals developed for the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, and get the protest movement on the road! Fly this issue in Russia’s face at every corner. Wherever Prime Minister Primakov goes – he should be met by a human rights demonstration.


Whenever a Russian Minister is about to meet his Western counterpart, on any issue, anywhere — delegations of concerned citizens should be there too. Western politicians should be briefed on the issues and asked to confront the Russians with the harsh facts and to demand answers.


At the United Nations Human Rights Commission annual meetings, to open next week in Geneva, a special report on Russian anti-Semitism and human rights violations should be ordered. That’ll get Moscow’s attention.


In short, there’s no choice but to embarrass and harass Russian leaders into responsible action against the extremists in their midst. Russia is too powerful and too important — and for Jews, too many lives are at stake — to stand by quietly as Russia once again slides into despotism.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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