A List of Violators of Intellectual Freedom?

4 November 2012

By Andrei Kovalev

All branches of the Russian government – and that includes the Russian Orthodox Church, which, entirely unconstitutionally, has become one of them – are fomenting a deep moral and ethical crisis in this country. The symbols of this crisis are the trial of the punk group Pussy Riot and persecution of protesters who took part in the meetings on Bolotnaya Square on 6th May 2012. I use the word 'symbols' advisedly since these recent events have only served to illuminate much deeper processes that started long ago in Russia. 

At first glance, it seems that the “Bolotnaya affair” and the trial of Pussy Riot are unconnected. But they are in fact just links in the one chain of a renewal of what the Russian philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev described as a dictatorship of world outlook. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church has been only too pleased to take on many of the functions of the ideological division of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, enjoying all the powerful support of the state’s punitive organs.

For a long time now, the Russian government and the Moscow Patriarchate have slowly but surely been moving towards the ineradicable shame of the prosecution of Pussy Riot. The landmarks on this long road were the exposure of the church leadership's involvement in the KGB in the USSR, the rampant self-enrichment and absence of spiritual values of some servants of the church, and the active involvement of the church in the political, public and day-to-day life of what is supposed to be a secular state. Added to this is the lack of tolerance of other religions, and who could forget the foolish and ignorant proclamation of Orthodoxy as the backbone of Russia. In effect, the Russian government and the Orthodox Church have merged, in direct contravention of international law and current Russian legislation.

In the irresponsible hands of political manipulators, any religion constitutes a serious danger. Examples are too numerous to mention.

A judicial system that is not based on the law but on the canons of one chosen religion cannot be considered a legitimate enforcer of justice in a multi-faith state.

The leaders of the government and church in Russia have been using state structures to coerce citizens into religion and to incite hatred on religious, ethnic and any other grounds for many years now – all of which is a crime.

In best Soviet style, the “Bolotnaya affair” has a Bolshevik directness to it: hounding and detention of dissidents, the abduction of Leonid Razvozzhaev on Ukrainian territory and, what appears to be, his forced confession. The authorities are sending a clear signal to the opposition: we can get you anywhere. Just as Alexander Litvinenko was tracked down in London and poisoned with polonium-210.

Particularly pertinent are the words of the great Soviet human rights defender Andrei Sakharov, who considered intellectual freedom “the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture.[1]" He defined a threat to intellectual freedom as “a threat to the independence and worth of the human personality, a threat to the meaning of human life.”

With this in mind, is it not time that we listed the violators of intellectual freedom? There are many Russian state officials, judges, procurators, churchmen, investigators, experts and journalists who deserve inclusion in such a list of dishonour.

This list should not be “politically correct”, and it makes sense that all those who are guilty should be in it, no matter what position they hold in the state, church or any other type of hierarchy. The old Russian tradition of punishing a scapegoat, that is the little guys who act on orders from above, will only serve to convince the truly powerful that they are above the law, and will only lead to new human rights abuses “in retaliation” against the West.

This list could include those who have violated:
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion; 
  • the right to freedom of belief or opinion and the right to free expression, including the freedom to pursue one's beliefs unmolested and the freedom to seek, receive and distribute information and ideas via any medium, irrespective of state borders, through the spoken and written word, in print or art, or in any other way; 
  • the right to engage freely in scientific research and creative work. 
The development and institution of this list would undoubtedly be of most value as a preventative measure: the powers that be and bureaucrats would have to act with one eye on the possible sanctions that could be used against them. It would be even more effective in setting some real limits on how the corrupt abusers of human rights use their ill-gotten gains.

Even the very knowledge that such a list was under development could be a restraining influence on the bureaucracy and form some kind of counter-weight to the further erosion of human rights in Russia.

[1] Translation from: Andrei Sakharov, 'Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom', in The New York Times, July 22, 1968