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Grigory Pasko: In the Land of Déjà Vu

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Say what you will about the administration of justice in Russia, but the tireless innovation of government officials is beyond doubt. Recently, Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov gave an interview to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, coming up with the brilliant idea of creating an alternative to the investigative isolators (SIZOs) – special facilities where dangerous inmates (such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky) are held for years without conviction while the prosecutors complete their investigations before trial. Konovalov said that instead of the SIZO, the state could create “small special receivers [spetzpriyomniki] for those who are being accused of non-grave crimes. People will not be locked up in four walls and will be able to toil and more frequently be in the fresh air. The main task of [large-]scale reform of the criminal-execution [penal–Trans.] system – so that punishment would not break the life for a person, but would achieve goals of bringing him to reason, when this is possible.

Only probably is that these special receivers already exist.  Further, having spent time in both SIZOs (in Vladivostok, where I was put in nearly every cell and spent a year and a half in the solitary confinement) as well as in special receivers (in Vladivostok and in Moscow), I would respectfully point out that these establishments are identically harmful to the unfortunate people stuck there – whether they are facing grave or light charges.

To put it lightly, the living conditions are horrendous in both SIZOs and special receivers. There is virtually no fresh air, apart from a miserable hour-long stroll through a small and tight concrete enclosure, which metes about the identical abuse to the human body as sitting in a cell for months.  I won’t even raise the topic of food or risks of disease and violence.

Yet what is most surprising about Konovalov’s comments to the newspaper was the framing of the whole issue in terms of punishment, which under Russian law has nothing to do with the purpose of these facilities. After all, the SIZOs and special receivers exclusively house citizens who have NOT YET BEEN CONVICTED by a court! (Here, apparently, it was the RG journalists who got confused, but one can’t blame them for having forgotten about the presumption of innocence in Russia).

In his interview, the youthful and sunny Konovalov continued with his strong arm, law-and-order pitch: “A harsh and working system of administrative punishments must be created.  The protection of society is attained not through the ferocity, but through the unavoidability of punishment.  The striving to socialize those who went through places of deprivation of liberty, and the softening of the system of punishments – this is by no means charity or altruism. This policy is directed first and foremost at ensuring the safe life of the population of Russia.

The Minister of Justice’s “innovations” don’t really offer anything new beyond the same old song familiar to all Russians.  We are a people who are fond of certain inviolable truths:  the River Volga must flow to the Caspian, freedom is better than non-freedom, everything gone wrong is Chubais’s fault, and, finally, the only way to eliminate crime and misconduct is to crush the prisoners with merciless brutality.

Why do we keep hearing these same old songs?  Our country is run by experienced and smart people, some of whom were not part of the former regime.  They don’t live on the moon, after all, but in Russia, and in theory should know when what there are saying is just an echo of the past. Where do they get such a devil-may-care attitude towards their own country?

Come on, these songs have already been sung a hundred times before Konovalov! And these slogans have already been cried to the sky! And despite all the gabbing, nothing has changed!

In the Russia of today, everything is like this.  Nothing new is being created, but just the playing of the same old songs – and not the good songs either.  In watching this reinvention of our past before our very eyes, I feel like I am seeing a technicolorization of the old songs. Our ministers – déjà vu; our slogans – déjà vu; our whole country – déjà vu…