Putin's Gulag Stability

Oleg Kozlovsky being arrested at a demonstration in St. Petersburg last year.
Oleg Kozlovsky being arrested at a demonstration in St. Petersburg last year. (By Mikhail Dorozhkin For The Washington Post)
By Oleg Kozlovsky
Monday, May 19, 2008

Vladimir Putin hails stability among his greatest achievements as president of Russia. But stability in Russia exists in appearance only, supported by enormous oil revenue and massive propaganda from the government-controlled mass media. Behind the facade lies an unprecedented increase in corruption, a population largely mired in poverty, and a bureaucracy and domestic intelligence apparatus whose power is unchecked.

Putin's stability is the stability of the gulag, where wardens ensure that all the prisoners have their allotted rations, reward the most obedient and punish potential troublemakers to preempt disorder. The difference between Russia today and the Soviet gulag is that most Russians have never known another type of government, so they do not realize that they are confined.

As you read this, I am in prison in Russia. I am a leader of the youth movement Oborona ("Defense"), which advocates nonviolent resistance to oppression by the authorities. Before my arrest this month -- I was picked up while walking on the street and charged with civil disobedience -- my last encounter with the government had occurred in December, when officers of the FSB (as the Federal Security Service, a successor organization to the KGB, is known) forcibly placed me in the army under Russia's draft.

My activities with Oborona have long caused me problems with the government. At age 23, I have been arrested more than a dozen times, have twice served short terms in prison and have been fired from a job at the FSB's request. The government could never find a reason to imprison me for the long term, so it has yet to get rid of me completely.

Late last year, the intelligence services took a different tack. On Dec. 20, I was once again arrested. Despite health problems and the fact that I am a student, both of which should have exempted me from conscription, I was sent to the army to serve as an enlisted soldier. FSB officers escorted me to a military unit in a forest about 150 miles from Moscow and told me that I was expected to serve for one year.

My trip into the army took only a few hours, but getting out took 2 1/2 months. I was finally freed on March 4, two days after Russia's presidential "election" was held. Military authorities have acknowledged that I was inducted into the army illegally, but no one has apologized to me. Shortly after my release, the Moscow headquarters of Oborona was raided by the police. I and 10 others were arrested and threatened; some of us were beaten by the police, who confiscated our leaflets, papers and a computer.

I am just one of the many political activists in Russia who face repression. Others include Maxim Reznik, the prominent leader of the Yabloko political party in St. Petersburg. He was arrested after being falsely accused of beating up three police officers and was held without trial. He is still alive, though. In December, a member of the Other Russia coalition, Yuri Chervochkin, was beaten to death; it is thought that his killers were employees of a special police unit.

Over the past two years, the scale of repression in Russia has reached a level similar to that in the worst years of the Cold War. The regime's clampdown and strategic mistakes made by previous opposition leaders have brought us to the point where traditional political parties have lost any influence in this country. Old illusions about how democracy advocates might achieve power through the vote were smashed with the results of December's parliamentary "elections." Old parties are unlikely to return to Russia.

The recently inaugurated president, Dmitry Medvedev, is an old friend of Putin's and is part of the system. Hopes that Medvedev will ensure a more open future are misplaced. Far from having interest in liberalizing Russia, Medvedev well understands that any such attempt would lead only to a loss of control, which would present a fatal threat to the corrupt heights of power in Russia.

The only real possibility for changing the political regime in Russia today is through grass-roots pressure. Nonviolent resistance on the model of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the last option available in the arsenal of pro-democracy advocates. This has already become clear to some of the most open-minded politicians, such as those in the Other Russia coalition.

To be successful we must first analyze our mistakes, learn to work together more effectively and rouse society from its apathetic state. For this we need groups such as Oborona, a union of sincere young people striving not for power but for change in their country. The mission of those planning an uprising in the modern Russian gulag is to not become the next wardens.

The writer, who is serving a two-week jail sentence for civil disobedience, is coordinator of the Russian youth movement Oborona and is a member of the executive committee of the Other Russia opposition coalition. He blogs in English athttp://olegkozlovsky.wordpress.com.

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