February 2nd, 2021 marked one of the most shameful days in modern Russian judicial history.
After being poisoned with a chemical nerve agent by the Russian intelligence service FSB, the opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been sentenced on fabricated charges to serve three and a half years in a labour camp. As a verdict has been delivered, rumors surfaced that the ruling elite seeks to incarcerate him for decades.
To put it in the words of the late Russian Nobel Prize winner and political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Navalny was sentenced to three and a half years, [will have] served 13 years, and then he got lucky and was released ahead of time. But beware – in 21st century Russia, sarcasm will get you into trouble. By way of illustration, a few days ago, the editor-in-chief of an independent Russian media outlet retweeted a joke. For this horrific crime, a figure who resembled a judge sentenced him to 25 days in jail. One may wonder, whether it would not in that case be simpler for the Kremlin to dissolve the people and elect another? Berthold Brecht sends his regards.
Discipline and Punish
The Russian poet Igor Guberman once wrote,”sitting in prison I felt that the country in all its vastness is an immense prison cell.“ In 1979 Guberman was arrested and sentenced to five years in a labour camp on trumped-up charges. Shortly before, in 1975 the French philosopher Michel Foucault published “Discipline and Punish”. Whether he read it or not, Guberman understood how to make Foucault’s work poetically his own.
While the repressive power of intimidating, poisoning, and imprisoning Alexey Navalny comes from the Kremlin, perhaps the more decisive power is anchored in the Russian minds – the normalizing, invisible power, in what Foucault described as “the disciplinary power … [that] is everywhere and always alert; it functions permanently and largely in silence.“
In consequence, the case of Alexey Navalny is symbolic and has larger repercussions. In fact, it is a matter of creating discipline within the Russian mind – generating an invisible mind cage to demonstrate to the Russian people that they are nothing but eighteenth-century Russian serfs – though better educated and fed than their predecessors.
To the reader who wants to take a stroll down memory lane, dictatorships had a penchant to hunt down, imprison and kill millions of people. Think of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution in China. Or the Great Terror under Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union. This is the past. Today, all dictators need to do, is to imprison a handful of people every once in a while, kill a few of them, and with full government media control, broadcast it a million times on TV, radio, and the internet.
Though the pictures of peacefully demonstrating children who were beaten up by security services in Moscow and all across the country were truly shocking, it does not necessarily require a lot of violence. Time and again, through the exercise of precedents and the dissemination of propaganda, the Russian people have learned to discipline themselves and behave in ways expected from them by their masters who are hiding behind the Kremlin walls.
Correspondingly, in his speech in court Navalny said; “The main thing in this whole trial isn’t what happens to me. Locking me up isn’t difficult. What matters most is why this is happening. This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions.“
Escaping the Foucauldian cage
In the West, some have already gotten used to it. Others believe it’s just a Netflix reality show. At our convenience, we can turn off the news and get busy with other things. Why should we even care about the future of the Russian people? There’s a simple reason after all. Wouldn’t it be short-sighted and also selfish of us to think only of our own freedom? Could we – after what we have experienced – really be free as long as we would not want to stand up for the freedom of other people?
Whereas we should provide moral support, the ultimate sacrifice must come from the Russian people themselves. Will the Russian people have the courage to escape from their Foucauldian cage?
A patriot, who puts himself at the service of the Russian people, Navalny closed his speech in court with the words, “the very best are the [Russian] people who aren’t afraid — people who don’t look the other way.“