Only a Trial will do This Time (2013)

On Sunday, 18 March 2018, Vladimir PUTIN ran for the Russian presidency for a fourth time and won easily in the first round, claiming 77% of votes cast (by 68% of the electorate), in a contest that was neither free nor fair.

His most prominent opponent, following the murder of Boris Nemtsov, was Alexei NAVALNY, but the latter was not allowed to register as a presidential candidate and take part in the 2018 elections.

In a set of 15 theses, drawn up and published some years before, VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY argued that the popular campaign against corruption (Navalny famously denounced Putin’s United Russia as the party of “conmen and crooks”) did not address the main problem posed by the present regime. That had its roots in the issues not tackled in the early 1990s, after the demise of the USSR.

As a consequence, an unreconstructed KGB lieutenant-colonel, became President of Russia in 2000 and has led the country since the beginning of the 21st century.

JC, 5 May 2018


1. The situation in Russia can no longer be resolved by round-table negotiations, only a trial will do.

Present Russian arguments about whether it is possible to negotiate with the regime of “conmen and crooks” misses the very heart of the problem, in my view. We all know we are facing not just thieves or embezzlers, but murderers. As yet, only a few have had the audacity to say this out loud.

2. This regime began its existence with crimes against humanity, blowing up apartment blocs in 1999 (in Buinaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk), and committing genocide in Chechnya (1999-2005).

For as long as it has existed, Putin’s regime has murdered people: Galina Starovoitova in 1998; Yury Shchekochikhin and Sergei Yushenkov in 2003; Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko in 2006; Yury Chervochkin in 2007; while Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natalya Estemirova, Maksharip Aushev and Sergei Magnitsky were all killed in 2009.[1] And they are only its best known victims.

Until such crimes have been investigated and those responsible have been brought to justice we cannot say that we have put an end to the Kremlin gang.

3. Why do many of those who so eagerly (and rightly) accuse the regime of corruption, deceit, falsification, provocation and even the usurpation of power, yet hesitate to speak of its most heinous crimes?

Undoubtedly, it is a heavy responsibility to bring such accusations. With conmen and crooks it is possible, perhaps, to reach a peaceful agreement. If they will give back what they stole and leave the scene, that is enough.

When we talk about murder, however, a stolen life cannot be restored: consequently, there can be no compromise with the killers. When companies like Gazprom and Lukoil were stolen from the people and the votes they cast at elections were taken from them, the nation might forgive the thieves. No one can forgive a murderer: the living have no right to do so.

4. Dealing with the assassinations committed by the State is not an abstract moral issue — it is a matter of pressing political importance.

The main slogans of public protest have today been formulated in terms of criminal justice. The country has risen not against a policy or an ideology, but quite specifically against the rule of lawless behaviour throughout Russia.

Such a revolution cannot end with a “round-table” discussion. That would be like a deal between the judicial system and the criminals. This uprising can only end with a trial and, in the worst scenario, with a lynch mob.

5. Attempts to “engage in dialogue” with the regime are not merely harmful – they are suicidal.

Tens and hundreds of thousands of people have been coming out on the street to demand justice, not “round-table” negotiations with the punks in the Kremlin. The protestors will see negotiations in such a situation as a criminal conspiracy. Whoever agrees to such talks will be regarded as an accomplice of the mafia.

After living for an extended historical period under a mafia regime, the Russian nation has a quite subtle understanding of how such criminals settle their scores. It is natural, and entirely justified, to apply this understanding to the present confrontation with the Kremlin.

On his deathbed Don Corleone advised his young successor, There’s no way to  avoid a war: the first person who suggests holding talks with the enemy is a traitor. Our people have watched “The Godfather”. Furthermore, they have lived in Russia. Society has little faith in politicians today. Talk of a “dialogue with the regime” will destroy what little confidence remains.

6. Such a firm attitude to our self-appointed negotiators is justified, among other things by our own historical experience.

Twenty-five years ago, the democratic opposition in the USSR wasted a decisive moment on “dialogue” with а Soviet regime that was on its last legs. The conmen and crooks of the old nomenklatura, as a result, were able to calmly redefine themselves as “democrats” and remain in power.

Supposedly, dialogue was then necessary for a peaceful and bloodless change of regime. Within a few years it became clear that there had been no change of regime, merely an alteration in its outward appearance. The same gangsters in a different uniform started killing people in Moscow, in Chechnya and in police stations all over the country …

Instead of a bloodless revolution there were rivers of blood; freedom and democracy remained as remote as ever.

7. The 1989 round-table discussions in Poland was hardly a positive historical example.

Among other things, during the transition period the Communist regime in Poland managed to negotiate for itself two-thirds of the seats in the Sejm and a continued tenure of the presidency. Naturally, the Polish nomenklatura used this breathing space to fortify its own position, and survive, well funded, in the new Poland with control of the regime and of the media. For a generation, the round table held back the healing of Poland as a country and rendered the process more difficult.

As the archives would reveal, there was no need for the opposition to make concessions.  Within his own circle, Jaruszelski acknowledged, if it had not been for the round table his regime would have only kept going for a few months. Eventually, the Poles were obliged to put the general’s accomplices on trial. It was twenty years too late.

8. Post-war West Germany is the classic example of a country that rapidly rid itself of the totalitarian plague.

The healing of West Germany after the war became possible, thanks to the Nuremburg Tribunal. Only by uncovering and condemning all the crimes of the Nazi regime could the country move forward. Poland needed almost 20 years before its own experience made it realise the same. Kampuchea required more than 30 years, but, in the end, it had to put the leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial.

By not deciding, at the right moment, to put the Soviet regime on trial, Russia has paid more heavily than any other “post-Communist” country. I would like to believe, this time, that we shall not repeat that mistake. It is beyond doubt that the Kremlin mafia will strive, at any cost, to avoid such a trial.

9. The present Russian leadership are no longer the kind to fight heroically until the last bullet.

They will make full use of their trump card – the real or illusory threat of bloodshed.

Most probably they will deploy this threat to push us towards round-table negotiations. At the very least, this will provide immunity from prosecution for a whole range of Kremlin thugs and punks.  Immunity is not just a civilized rejection of vengeance: it means that any investigation of their crimes is being rejected.

They may toss a couple of the most hated courtiers (men like Vladimir Churov, say, and Putin himself) onto the halberds of the rebellious guards.[2] It would be dangerous to let Putin live, in any case, because he knows too much and, if a trial was ever held, he might betray his accomplices. Yet it is not stamped on the foreheads of Russia’s myriad conmen and crooks that that is what they are.

A dispassionate investigation and a fair trial are necessary. Granting such figures immunity will be to leave them forever with a presumption of innocence. There will be a change of leaders, certain cosmetic reforms, but no change of regime. Once again, the criminal gang from the Lubyanka will evade responsibility and remain in power, and steal this new revolution from under our noses – they are conmen and crooks, when all is said and done.

10. In short, if the round-table solution is adopted we shall be the fools who allowed a hard-won victory to slip through our fingers.

When, like the the Civil War partisans in the Far East, the whole country rebels and takes the justice it has been denied into its own hands, who will condemn it? The people will not be to blame. The responsibility will then lie with the self-styled leaders of the revolution who betrayed their just demands, crying with them “We shall not forget or forgive!” – only to offer official amnesia and clemency in return for seats in the government.

11. We should not be thinking of a round table now, but of our own debt to history and to our country. We must ensure that justice prevails, and that it takes a civilized form.

Fortunately, while Moscow’s intellectual politicians still nurture such illusions, more responsible people have been found in Russia.

Beyond the capital a movement has begun,  setting up public tribunals to investigate and deliver a legal assessment of the crimes of the present regime. Even if they are not endowed with punitive functions these tribunals can, on the one hand,  help to avoid lynch mobs and, on the other, prevent impunity.

Of course, there must be a national tribunal, to complement these regional tribunals and to investigate the most extensive of the regime’s crimes. Doubtless, it will begin with the “original sin” of the Putin’s regime: the September 1999 blowing up of four apartment buildings in Dagestan, Moscow and southern Russia. If there is a lack of sufficient evidence and testimony, the release of documents, and the calling of witnesses and suspects, are entirely lawful demands for such an investigation. Moreover, the work must begin today. Tomorrow it may be too late.

12. Of course, the regime will defend itself. It would be naïve and irresponsible to expect an easy victory after holding a couple of rallies.

The regime already finds itself cornered, like the rat Putin once chased as a boy. As it turned to fight him, Putin gazed into its eyes and saw his future. If he did not then understand that prophetic encounter, he undoubtedly realised what it meant in December 2011.

Will we give the rat a chance to attack us, or will we strike first? That is the only question today. And if we are going to strike then we must aim where the creature is most vulnerable. The sooner we finish off this rat, the less painful it will be for Russia.

13. We must not delude ourselves. A showdown with the regime cannot be avoided and we must prepare for it. If we draw on the experience of the Poles, we should look to their post-1981 resistance to the State of Emergency, not to the round-table talks of 1989.

The regime will try to seize opposition leaders in Moscow and across the country. We must be prepared for that. We must set aside apartments, telephones, Internet access and simple printing devices against that day.

Communication via Internet and mobile phone may be blocked for some time: we must be ready with alternative means of communication. Opposition media will not be able to function and we should reach agreement in good time about emergency forms of communication and organisation.

14. A confrontation is inevitable: we should be thinking how to avoid bloodshed.

Negotiations are of no help in such a situation – just as it makes no sense trying to do a deal with a cornered rat. You might get the regime’s agreement not to use force, but will that save anyone? Who can trust them at their word? So long as those serial killers remain in the Kremlin the danger of bloodshed will not go away. We must save the country, and save innocent lives, from their clutches – not by reaching agreement with them.

If the regime is strong enough to put down a revolution it will not agree to significant concessions. It will use any talks to divide and compromise the opposition. If the regime is so weak it is ready to hold serious negotiations, then we must not make concessions. In that case, we must demand unconditional surrender. We cannot permit the revolution to spill blood or to be false to itself. Experience shows that a phoney revolution also ends in great bloodshed.

15. Of course, it is impossible to foresee all potential scenarios.

Remember, we are dealing with liars and criminals. We cannot trust them and no compromise with them is possible. The investigation of the crimes of the regime cannot be subject to negotiation, neither can the release of political prisoners or the holding of fair and free elections.

That is the indisputable and clearly expressed will of the people. Any concessions on these issues will rightly be regarded as treachery. And so long as the regime is not ready to surrender, there is nothing to discuss with the country’s present rulers.

First published on 19 January 2013, Echo of Russia online journal

Written early in 2013, after two years of rallies and protests in Moscow and elsewhere, this publication refers to the period before renewed external aggression — the March 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine — was added to mounting internal repression.



[1] MURDERED OPPONENTS (in chronological order of death)

  1. Galina Starovoitova – shot 20 November 1998, aged 52, in St Petersburg. Ethnographer, veteran politician and likely 2000 presidential elections candidate.
  2. Sergei Yushenkov – shot April 2003, aged 52, in Moscow. Ex-army, veteran politician, State Duma deputy, apartment explosions committee.
  3. Yury Shchekochikhin – poisoned and died in July 2003, aged 53, in Moscow: veteran journalist (Novaya gazeta) and State Duma deputy (1993-2003). On the Apartment Explosions committee.
  4. Anna Politkovskaya – shot 7 October 2006, aged 48, in Moscow. Journalist (Novaya gazeta) writing about Chechnya and Putin’s Russia.
  5. Alexander Litvinenko – poisoned 23 November 2006, aged 44, in London. Former FSB investigator, covering links between organised crime in Russia and Spain.
  6. Yury Chervochkin – died on 10 December 2007, aged 22, as a consequence of a severe beating on 22 November. Opposition activist.
  7. Stanislav Markelov – shot 19 January 2009, aged 34, in central Moscow. Lawyer (e.g. Budanov case) and Antifa activist; and Anastasia Baburova, shot 19 January 2009, aged 25, in Moscow. Journalist (Novaya gazeta intern) and Antifa activist.
  8. Natalya Estemirova – shot 15 July 2009, aged 51, in Ingushetia. Journalist (Novaya gazeta) based in Chechnya, close colleague of Politkovskaya.
  9. Maksharip Aushev – shot in October 2009, aged 53, in Kabardino-Balkaria. Ingushetia activist and journalist, succeeded Magomed Yevloyev (shot 2008) as owner of opposition news website.
  10. Sergei Magnitsky – died, aged 37, in Moscow pre-trial detention on 16 November 2009. Company lawyer exposing corruption.
  11. Boris Nemtsov – shot 27 February 2015, aged 55, next to Moscow Kremlin. Deputy prime minister for a while under Yeltsin; opposition activist and leader since 1988.

[2] Vladimir CHUROV (b. 1953)

A close colleague of the President from Leningrad days, in the 1990s he worked with Putin in the External Affairs department of the Petersburg city administration.

From 2007 to 2016, Churov headed the Central Electoral Commission, although he lacked the legal training previously required of anyone holding the post. Today he is an Ambassador-at-Large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bukovsky’s reference to courtiers and rebellious guards is an allusion to the “Revolt of the Palace Guard” in 1698, when unpopular courtiers were put to death on Red Square.

Translated, edited and annotated
by John Crowfoot

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