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Opinion Putin is planning a Soviet-style punishment for his critics

Police detain a man who laid flowers on the monument of Ukrainian author Taras Shevchenko in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 24, one year after Russia invaded Ukraine. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
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PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER 5, Moscow — There is hardly a practice of the Soviet repression of dissent that has not been revived by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. A host of draconian new laws has criminalized public criticism of the government and of its actions — especially regarding the war on Ukraine. Political opposition is now officially equated with treason. Opponents of the Kremlin have been murdered, poisoned and imprisoned. Today’s Russia counts more known political prisoners than the Soviet Union did in its later years. Even the forced psychiatric “treatment” of dissenters has made a comeback — in only a few cases, so far. None of this is surprising. After all, Putin not only served in the Soviet KGB but, according to new archival research, personally participated in searches and interrogations of dissidents in 1970s Leningrad.

But there is one repressive Soviet practice that is yet to return — and it looks like this oversight will soon be corrected. One after another, senior Russian lawmakers have called for stripping those they deem traitors — that is, Russians who oppose Putin and the war — of their citizenship. The speaker of Russia’s parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, recently lamented the lack of a procedure for doing this. “But I think there ought to be one,” he added.

Such a procedure did exist in Soviet times — and was widely used against Kremlin opponents whom it would have been too politically costly to lock them up. The most prominent case was that of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In February 1974, soon after the publication in the West of his seminal work “Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn was arrested in his Moscow apartment, taken to the KGB’s Lefortovo prison and charged with treason. But the Politburo had decided that imprisoning a world-renowned author would be overly damaging for its international reputation — and the next day Solzhenitsyn was put on a plane and expelled to West Germany. By special decree, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet annulled the author’s citizenship “for systematically performing actions that discredit the title of a citizen of the USSR.”

The tactic was deemed effective — and was replicated on numerous occasions until the end of Soviet rule. Among those judged unworthy of Soviet citizenship were the writers Vasily Aksyonov and Vladimir Voinovich, the musicians Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi, theater director Yuri Lyubimov, and physicist and human rights advocate Yuri Orlov.

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In a pointed rejection of this practice, Russia’s first post-Soviet constitution, approved in President Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 initiative, expressly prohibited stripping anyone of their citizenship. That provision still stands today. But so do the laws guaranteeing, say, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — that has not stopped Putin’s regime from negating both. Nothing prevents the Kremlin from treating the principle of citizenship with the same contempt.

In fact, this has already been tried once. In 2014 (the year Putin began his attacks on Ukraine) Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent author, Soviet-era dissident and fierce Kremlin critic, applied to the Russian Embassy in London for what he thought would be a routine renewal of his passport. Embassy officials told him that the Russian authorities could not “confirm” his citizenship — and that they must therefore deny his request. In short, they overcame the constitutional ban with Soviet-style bureaucratic trickery: Bukovsky’s citizenship was not annulled but simply not “confirmed.” There is no doubt that seasoned lawyers in the Kremlin will soon figure out how to neuter the constitutional protections of citizenship without formally violating them.

Their chance is coming soon. Later this year, the Russian parliament will vote on amendments submitted by Putin that would expand the grounds for canceling the citizenship of naturalized Russian citizens. Senior lawmakers have already proposed widening the measures to include natural-born citizens as well.

Dictatorships always equate loyalty to themselves with patriotism. In such a worldview, any political opponent is necessarily a “traitor” — and citizenship is something to be given as reward and taken away as punishment at the regime’s whim. In this, too, Putin is likely to follow the Soviet path. We may soon see new lists of prominent cultural and political figures deemed by the Kremlin to be “discrediting the title of a Russian citizen.”

But we also know how this ends. Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet regime, all those who had been deprived of their citizenship for political reasons were officially reinstated in their status and in their rights. After 1991, many of the former “noncitizens” — including Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich and Lyubimov — returned to Russia. Today there is a street named after Solzhenitsyn and a monument to him in downtown Moscow; I doubt many people would remember the name of the Soviet official (Nikolai Podgorny) who signed the order annulling his citizenship in 1974.

As another famed writer Kornei Chukovsky once said, “In Russia you have to live a long time, then something will happen.” He was referring to the seismic historical shifts that occur periodically in our country. In the past few decades, though, the pace of change has greatly accelerated — and the next transformation could come at any moment.