For Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from the 1960s to the 1980s, suppressing political dissent was a top priority. “Every such act represents a danger,” he told his colleagues in 1979, “The struggle against them must be decisive, uncompromising, and merciless.” The regime tried different approaches. Dissidents were convicted to long sentences for “anti-Soviet agitation”—an offense under Article 70 of the penal code—and sent away to prisons and labor camps alongside real criminals. Often, they were labelled “insane,” committed to special psychiatric prisons and subjected to torturous “treatment.” Both of these practices—criminal convictions and “punitive psychiatry”—met with worldwide condemnation and ultimately proved too costly for the Kremlin’s international image.
Then Andropov had an idea. Instead of persecuting opponents inside the country, he would expel them abroad, reducing international criticism but achieving the same goal: ridding the country of “troublemakers” who spoke out against totalitarianism, staged public protests, initiated petition campaigns, produced literary and political samizdat. Starting with the deportation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974, and Vladimir Bukovsky in 1976, Moscow increasingly turned to this strategy to deprive the anticommunist movement of its leading participants. Alexander Ginzburg, Eduard Kuznetsov, Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Sharansky, and others soon followed. Many more were pressured into emigrating (like Pavel Litvinov and Natalia Gorbanevskaya) or stripped of their citizenship while on a visit abroad (like Mstislav Rostropovich and General Petro Grigorenko).
It seems that Andropov’s favored practice has returned.
On July 5, the Federal Bailiff Service of the Russian Federation issued an order prohibiting Russia’s opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov from leaving the country. The decision was taken at the request of natural gas trader Gennady Timchenko, whom Nemtsov had accused of profiting from his connections to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A Moscow judge had ordered Nemtsov to publish a retraction, which he did—but, according to Timchenko and the Federal Bailiff Service, with an “incorrect” title (in fact, the long, court-ordered title was simply preceded by a shorter version). The travel ban was made public while Nemtsov was attending the European Parliament’s session in Strasbourg—with the apparent aim of forcing him to stay abroad. He returned to Moscow regardless, and the international scandal over the decision, which was condemned both at the European Parliament’s meeting and at US Congressional hearings, forced the Russian authorities to rescind it, with a clumsy explanation that it had been issued “prematurely.”
But as soon as the opposition leader was back in Moscow, a group of State Duma deputies made a fresh move. In an official statement, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR party—the third-largest group in the lower house of Parliament—proposed “stripping [Nemtsov] of his Russian citizenship” and “deporting him to the USA ... where he will be greeted with open arms.” For all his clownish image, Zhirinovsky is known as the Kremlin’s public opinion “tester”—previously, proposals such as replacing elected governors with appointees or switching to party list–only parliamentary elections were sounded by LDPR before becoming government policy.
It is worth noting that, largely as a reaction to Soviet history, Russia’s 1993 Constitution specifically prohibits the authorities from removing anyone’s citizenship (Article 6.3) or deporting a Russian citizen to another country (Article 61.1). But provisions of the Constitution have long been treated in Moscow as recommendations at best. The move against Nemtsov came just weeks after the Justice Ministry denied registration and ballot access to his Popular Freedom Party (PFP). According to the latest poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 37 percent of Russians want the government to register the PFP and allow it to contest December’s parliamentary elections (29 percent are against, 34 are undecided).
It comes as no news that Vladimir Putin takes cues from Yuri Andropov. The Russian premier never hid his admiration for his former KGB boss; one of Putin’s first actions in office in 1999 was to restore a memorial plaque to Andropov (a “distinguished political figure”) on Moscow’s Lubianka Square. Like Andropov, Putin is afraid of dissent. Like Andropov, he will ultimately fail to keep it under the lid. Seven years after Yuri Andropov’s death, the totalitarian system he tried so hard to protect crumbled in a few August days.