Vienna, July 2 – Ever more Russian institutions from the courts to the interior ministry to the Academy of Sciences are maintaining “extremist” lists which, because of elastic definition of that term, threaten not only those individuals, groups and works included on them but also everyone else thinking about doing anything the powers that be in Russia today might not like.
As a result, while some involved in compiling these lists may simply be going through the motions for careerist or other reasons, any who do take part are, whether they recognize it or not, thereby threatening the foundations of civil society in the Russian Federation and pushing that country back toward its totalitarian past.
And that is all the more so because those who figure on these lists have already been subjected to one or another form of persecution by officials and pro-government activists and are now in some cases threatened with even more severe consequences because they or their works figure on a list that someone among the powers that be considers “extremist.”
The first and most well-known of these “extremist” lists is the one maintained by the Justice Ministry of publications that one or another court in the Russian Federation has declared to be “extremist” and thus subject to confiscation. As that list approaches 400 titles, however, there are indications that some plan to use the list in a broader and more dangerous way.
This week, the justice ministry added three more Muslim books to its “extremist” list. Unusually, all of them were published with imprimatur of the mufti-curator of the Far Eastern Federal District for the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), a decision that Orthodox activist and notorious anti-Muslim specialist Roman Silantyev said called that body’s existence into question.
In a comment to the Interfax-Religion news agency, Silantyev said that this court decision represented “a long-awaited gift to the traditional [that is, pro-Moscow] Muslims of the Far East who have long complained about the non-traditional activities in the region of the emissaries of Nafigulla Ashirov (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=30848).
Ashirov is simultaneously the deputy head of the SMR and of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Portion of Russia, and Silantyev suggested that the appearance of these books on the extremist list raises “a big question” about the “further activity” of that group and of Ashirov himself, someone the Orthodox writer has often criticized.
The second Russian “extremist” list consists of a data base maintained by the Interior Ministry to track and block those with views the authorities deem to be “extremist.” The MVD officer in charge of this list has said that this list poses no threat to law-abiding citizens, but one of Russia’s senior specialists on the police said yesterday that he is wrong.
In an interview published by “Rossiskaya gazeta” on June 9th, Lt. Gen. Yuri Kokov, the head of the new MVD Department for Countering Extremism, said that there was no reason for anyone to believe that the data base his group maintains represents any threat to political dissent in Russia (www.rambler.ru/news/events/security/572297907.html).
But in an article published yesterday in “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Irina Borogan of Agentura.ru demolishes that argument by showing that MVD officers have already used the data base against people who can in no reasonable way be called extremist and that it appears they are preparing to do so even more frequently in the future (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=9230).
She provides chapter and verse on a series of cases in which the MVD has used the data base to stifle dissent but reports that the MVD anti-extremism department is regularly employing both the interior ministry’s general files and creating its “own, specialized data base” on “extremists” in support of its work.
Borogan reports that a new contract Kokov’s department plans to let to build this data base – one that it has said it will pay 11.3 million rubles (350,000 US dollars) for – suggests that the new “extremist” list will be far broader than anything the Russian government now has and thus is likely to include the names of many who are not extremist in any reasonable sense.
And a third case is provided by the call by Valery Tishkov, the head of the history section of the department of historical-philological sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, for those who work in that section of scholarship to send in “annotated lists” of those who have engaged in falsification of Russian history (www.polit.ru/news/2009/07/01/falselist.html).
Tishkov, who is the director of the Institute of Ethnology, said that scholars should describe “the potential danger of a given falsification to the interests of Russia” and talk about how they would “unmask” such falsifiers in line with the directive of President Dmitry Medvedev to do just that.
An “electronic” copy of Tishkov’s letter was published on Radio Liberty’s website and subsequently has been picked up by various Russian media outlets. When queried by the Western radio station, Tishkov first said that he had written the letter only for his colleagues “and not Radio Liberty,” and therefore “does not permit [the radio or others] to cite it.”
Tishkov, who is also a member of the Russian Social Chamber, then said he had sent the letter to gather information for an article in the Moscow media, adding that he would “call the letter back, I swear to you.” And he added for good measure that the letter had been composed by other officials and that he had only “corrected” it before putting his signature to it.
Not surprisingly because Tishkov’s call for another “extremist” list affected intellectuals, it has been widely discussed and almost equally widely denounced. In an article on Grani.ru today, Moscow commentator Ilya Milshteyn was savage, arguing that Tishkov was calling for “denunciations” (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.153220.html).
Such appeals, and especially the willingness of some to issue them openly, Milshteyn said, recall Soviet-era campaigns against “cosmopolitans, Weismanites and falsifiers,” and thus represent an act of intimidation not just against those likely to be included on this list but also against all those who might be expected to have an opinion about them.
But in another and important sense, the Grani.ru analyst said, Tishkov’s action represents a serious miscalculation. He did not expect his letter to be published and challenged. And consequently, he was prepared to disown it. But that in itself typifies the current situation, “an epoch of imitation,” something that undercuts attacks on those who criticism the Soviet past.
The danger that all this will nonetheless go in a very dangerous direction is all too real, but there have been some unintentionally comic, if very sad touches. Forty years ago, Bertram Wolfe wrote an article entitled “Krupskaya Purges the Peoples Libraries.” Now, Russian rights activists note, officials there are using an “extremist” list to purge Krupskaya’s library.
According to the SOVA Center, Kostroma oblast officials are demanding the removal of “extremist” literature from the Krupskaya Library there, despite such demands being a violation of Russian laws on libraries and an act that by its very perversity has the effect of subverting itself (xeno.sova-center.ru/89CCE27/89CD2B5/D31E9F1).