You would think that the centenary of the death of Leo Tolstoy, widely regarded as among the greatest of novelists, would be celebrated in the country of his birth. You would be wrong, however. He is actually considered an embarrassment. That’s how bad things are in Russia today.
When Dmitry Medvedev came to power as president in 2008, he was painted as a less authoritarian leader than his predecessor Vladimir Putin who is now prime minister. But increasingly it is clear that on his watch, state-sponsored terrorism against those who challenge government appointees and the rule of the super-rich is continuing with a vengeance.
We are not talking only about contract killings against journalists and human rights activists and the continuing military occupation of Chechnya, but the atmosphere of repression against anyone considered “unpatriotic”. The tyranny of the state goes hand in hand with the unfettered influence of the deeply reactionary Russian Orthodox Church and a largely corrupt legal system.
Writers and film-makers who depict the country and its history from an anything others than a glorifying point of view are frowned upon. A recent movie – a new feature film by Aleksander Buravsky about the famous 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II – was denounced because it showed Stalin’s secret police tracking down a dissident policewoman while the city starved.
As for Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he is persona non grata in official circles. Tolstoy, whose last years are depicted in the Oscar-nominated The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, died 100 years ago. His centenary is being marked around the world but not officially in Russia.
This is because Tolstoy was excommunicated by the orthodox church in 1901 due to his anti-state views. He was an aristocratic Christian anarchist who championed the poor peasantry. He was opposed to war and believed in non-violent resistance. Tolstoy defied the Tsarist state in circulating anarchist writings in the later years of his life.
The Russian church still runs a vendetta against him in a ferocious defence of its terrain. Last September, a court in the southern Russian district of Rostov, quoted Tolstoy’s denunciation of the church as “extremist material” in a case against a group of Jehovah’s witnesses. Clearly Tolstoy still remains an enemy of the state and church.
Those who try to expose the police and the security services risk being silenced by thugs. When a detective called Major Alexei Dymovsky went public on YouTube to denounced police corruption in the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, he was sacked and jailed. A human rights campaigner who tried to defend him was attacked brutally.
British international human rights lawyer Bill Bowring maintains that the legal system in Russia is subservient to those at the top of the political tree. A recent report commissioned by a body overseen by Medvedev himself revealed that cases decided in accordance with the law, but not in the interests of officials, will be overturned on appeal and returned for further consideration. Judges whose decisions are overturned too frequently are soon dismissed.
Convictions predominate and there is a fear of acquitting, according to the report. The rate of acquittal in non-jury cases is 1%. The report says that “the most important factor in the work of the judges is fear and dependence on the chairman of the court”. A former Deputy chair of the Constitutional Court, Tamara Morshchakova, has pointed out that if a judge seeks to oppose other state powers, she is simply “eaten up”.
Tolstoy’s opposition to such a judiciary and such a state is as relevant today as it was in the years running up to the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. He could have been writing about 2010 when he remarked that “there could not be worse violence than that of authority under existing conditions”.
A World to Win secretary