Threatening the existence of the NGO Memorial – the most authoritative Russian organization for the defense of human rights and for thirty years a research center on the repression of the Soviet regime – means inflicting a severe blow to human rights in today’s Russia and to free debate about the horrors of its totalitarian past. Having an organization like Memorial or not having one reveals the degree of maturity of a company. Russian society is mature for now. But the country’s political leadership doesn’t care. For the Kremlin Memorial it is only the most famous Russian organization in Germany. And this makes it one of the most effective tools for putting pressure on German and European politicians.
When the authorities in Russia talk about the country’s internal and foreign policy, they always follow two opposite threads, two real myths. Inside the country, officials and commentators in the official media repeat, peace, harmony and stability reign. In the outside world, on the contrary, there is neither peace nor harmony nor stability. Russia is forced to deal with enemies who undermine its borders, which hinder its development and who seek to limit its influence in the world. It is true that Russia also has some internal problems, but, as the state-controlled media say, these difficulties are nothing more than a consequence of external conflicts.
The two myths of Russian politics
Tracing internal problems to external causes is an old strategy with a long and consolidated Soviet heritage which, on a rhetorical level, has the advantage of keeping the ruling class safe from possible criticism. The vectors of this malevolent external influence are what the Russian state indiscriminately calls “the others”, who have nestled themselves into the compact Russian society. They are identified and declared “foreign agents”, “unwanted” and “extremist” organizations.
The narrative that peace reigns in Russia while there is war in the outside world is invented and has very little to do with reality. Russian society is not united, but it is heterogeneous and polarized on many issues: from dialogue with the Soviet past to ideas for its political future (i.e. the path along which the country is moving). If there were parties and organizations in Russia that were free to truly represent the opinions of citizens, the political struggle in the country would lead to unpredictable electoral results and give rise to an intense and engaging national debate on many topics.
Today, however, there is no such thing: the public sphere remains the prerogative of the diligent authorities, always ready to mask and hide the real internal conflicts and create – in the citizens’ imagination – outsiders. Both internal harmony and external conflicts are built around the table: with the help of propaganda, with the support of certain groups of the population and through the manipulation of opinion polls and elections.
Russia’s war with the outside world is a fundamental political myth. In reality, however, it is precisely the people closest to power who are the most integrated abroad. As studies on Russian elites show, their attitude towards Western countries can also be hostile, contain a certain amount of resentment and dissatisfaction with the quality of hospitality received, but for these people, the West still remains the horizon of reference.
Let’s take the simple fact that, for years, it was Russian MPs who defended the right to own real estate abroad. For those who today benefit greatly from the situation in Russia, the road to the West is practically wide open, because Western laws protect their assets better, why Western universities give their children a better education, and because the level of personal security at which these people aspire to is concretely attainable only outside of Russia.
Russia is deeply integrated into the world economy as a buyer of industrial and technological products. Russian society and the country’s political leaders are personally dependent on foreign financial, legal and digital infrastructures. In this situation it is difficult to insist on Russia’s independence and leadership in international relations.
However, the Russian leadership has no intention of facing reality: it is still trying to assert its independence and leadership. And since it cannot do so by leveraging its strengths – for example, its economic weight and influence – it resorts to other methods that always fall within the sphere of conflict. It is precisely in situations of conflict that Russian leaders have at their disposal a series of arguments, or rather “weaknesses” of their adversaries, to be used in international dialogue. In this strategy it is not important to use force, but to show its potential through threats and exemplary gestures.
Values versus prices
It goes without saying that anything that is capable of hurting “adversaries-partners” can be transformed into a weapon or an instrument of conflict. And this explains the decision to amass soldiers on the border with Ukraine, the launch of new types of armaments and other bellicose declarations. Furthermore, Russia is one of the main suppliers of energy resources to Western countries, and this lever is also often used. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s strategy of using refugees as a foreign policy weapon against European countries has been heavily criticized in Russia, which means that the country will not interfere in this cruel game. In this case, the Belarusian dictator himself becomes a Russian weapon. Which is very convenient, because it allows Russia, at least from a rhetorical point of view, to easily deny its involvement in the crisis.
Some prominent organizations and figures within Russia, including Memorial, are also turning into bargaining chips. Everything (and everyone) is useful for causing scandal and opening public clashes with the enemy. In Memorial’s case, Russian political managers are interested not so much in the country’s NGO activities as in its popularity in Europe. Especially in Germany, a country that has the issue of totalitarian crimes at heart. The strategy is already working: the threat of the organization’s dissolution immediately aroused indignant reactions among the Germans. The foreign minister called the eventuality of Memorial closing “shocking”, and other public figures, including several Russian scholars, have already written and published letters in support of Russian colleagues.
The more a figure or an organization is visible, the more it “weighs” in the strategy of the conflict. At the same time, one should not think that bargaining takes place directly: the game is played by exchanging favors, as in reciprocal exchanges of spies or in the expulsion of diplomats. Of course, the Russian authorities would like the Germans to give the green light to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline immediately, but they also understand that it will be difficult to speed up a process that must follow a precise formal procedure. And which has recently become further complicated by the ongoing disputes within and at the borders of the European Union (the UK has just joined the debate on the pipeline).
In this type of conflict strategy, it is also essential to let opponents know that Russia will respond to the sanctions and pressure tools used by Westerners. This response, as a rule, cannot be symmetrical, since the Russian economic and political weight is not less than that of the opponents. But it can still hurt, because “foreign agents” and “unwanted” organizations find themselves in a situation similar to that of hostages. Last spring, Alexei Navalny’s organization and headquarters were declared “extremists” shortly after the US announced new sanctions against Russia. With that gesture, the Russian leadership effectively transferred part of the responsibility for Navalny’s fate to Western countries. The Kremlin has repeatedly shown that, in response to any outside pressure, it will target Western “agents” inside Russia.
The politicians, public figures and journalists of the Russian opposition are not agents of foreign powers, the presidential administration is well aware of this. Identifying and punishing these “agents” does not serve to eliminate foreign influences, but to rhetorically brand independent people as “other” (foreign, different, not like us). The “others” are necessary for the Russian leadership: they are one of the many levers for conducting a foreign policy of conflict and for nurturing internal political myths about the unity of the nation and the hostility of the surrounding environment.
In Russia, the active and independent part of society and the authorities have different ideas about the value of any business. For many in Russia and abroad, Memorial is a community of state repression scholars and human rights defenders whose presence in Russia is a sign of the maturity of society. A society that has similar organizations can claim its own subjectivity, that is, it may be able to have a healthy and independent relationship with the state, without being engulfed by it.
For the authorities, however, independence has no value. But it comes at a price. Which is measured by the weight of an organization or a person, by its usefulness in the exchange of blows in this policy of equilibrium between war and peace. The current Russian authorities treat public activities in much the same way that the Soviet authorities treated the works of art from the museum collections they were selling off. Even then the price was more important than the real value.
(Translation by Alessandra Bertuccelli)