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Opinion How Russia wields prisons as a weapon against its political opponents

Daniel Beer is a historian of modern Russia and author of The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which won the 2017 Cundill History Prize.

Last month, Vladimir Putin branded his long-time critic, the British-American hedge-fund manager Bill Browder, a "serial killer" and issued a warrant for his arrest. Mr. Browder is the architect of the Magnitsky Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012, which imposed sanctions on several high-ranking officials involved in the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a Muscovite tax accountant who had been investigating state corruption.

The accusation comes as little surprise. The Kremlin routinely wields Russian courts and prisons as a weapon against its political opponents. Since his rise to prominence in 2011, opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been repeatedly locked up in order to hamper his political activities and prevent him from standing in next year's presidential elections. The oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in an East Siberian prison following his recklessly public criticisms of official corruption and his even more recklessly open political ambitions. Following their staging in 2012 of a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in protest at the Orthodox Church's uncritical support of the Kremlin, members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a grim women's prison.

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The Kremlin's persecution of its political opponents might have proved an effective strategy for quashing dissent in the short term. But over time it has eroded the authority of the government and created martyrs who inspire increasing numbers of supporters. Mr. Navalny's stints in jail have only bolstered his credentials as a fearless opposition leader. Having undergone something of a moral transformation from oligarch to philanthropist in Siberia, Mr. Khodorkovsky now lives in Europe and heads a foundation dedicated to promoting civil society and reform in Russia. Pussy Riot, meanwhile, emerged from prison as an already global phenomenon whose criticisms of corruption and oppression in Russia have since gone viral.

This pattern of political crackdown diminishing the standing of the government while burnishing the credentials of its opponents has a long pedigree in Russia. In 1849, the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labour in a Siberian penal fort for membership in a radical reading group. The House of the Dead, his account of his time in captivity, offered a terrible indictment of the squalor, casual violence and petty despotism endured by men guilty of nothing more than crimes of conscience.

Abroad, too, the treatment of Russia's political prisoners was blackening the name of the czarist regime. The fate of tens of thousands of Poles, exiled to Siberia following their repeated attempts to fight their way to independence from St. Petersburg, pricked the conscience of the reading public across the globe. The authority of the Russian government appeared to rest not on the consent of the governed but on whips, chains and prisons. When, in 1839, the Frenchman Marquis de Custine met Czar Nicholas I amid the pomp and ceremony of the St. Petersburg court, he fancied that the czar "has two faces, like that of Janus, and the words violence, exile, oppression, or their full equivalent, SIBERIA, is engraved on the face which is not turned towards me."

As the revolutionary movement gained strength in the decades before 1917, thousands of czarism's opponents were exiled to Siberia for heinous crimes such as possessing subversive literature, operating underground printing presses or spreading propaganda among workers and peasants. In their far-flung prisons, they took advantage of the rising public interest in their fate to dramatize the tyranny of the state. In one notorious case, 20 political prisoners in Eastern Siberia poisoned themselves in protest at the flogging of one of their women comrades. Six of them died and the ensuing scandal delivered a mortal blow to the moral authority of the crown.

By the 1890s, The New York Times was regularly reporting on "The Horrors of Siberian Political Prisons" while the Siberian Exile Petition Association had chapters in 50 American cities and gathered more than one million signatures on petitions protesting the czarist government's treatment of political prisoners. When the explorer George Kennan returned to the United States from his travels across Siberia in the 1880s, he lectured to audiences on the exile system, often appearing on stage with half his head shaved and clad in rags and chains, like a Siberian convict. His message was clear: "The Siberian exiles are not wild fanatics, they are men and women who have given up all that is dear to them and have laid down their lives on what we regard as the essential and fundamental rights of a human being." At Mr. Kennan's lecture in Boston, Mark Twain rose from his seat and tearfully exclaimed: "If such a government cannot be overthrown otherwise than by the use of dynamite, then thank God for dynamite!"

Overwhelmed by the revolutionary upheavals it had sought to prevent, in 1917 the czarist penal system imploded. Tens of thousands of prisoners were amnestied, freed by crowds of supporters, or they simply fled. But Siberia surrendered her prisoners only temporarily. Amid the political witch hunts of the Stalin era, millions of Soviet citizens were rounded up, prosecuted on delusional charges of spying and sabotage and, if they were lucky enough to escape the firing squads, were cast into the forced labour camps of the Gulag. Even in the 1970s, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was cementing the image of a state built upon the brutal suppression of political freedoms, the Soviet Union still continued to exile and incarcerate its critics. Dissidents such as the physicist Andrei Sakharov were sent into internal exile or imprisoned; others were diagnosed with mental disorders and forcibly committed to psychiatric institutions. Such repressive measures ultimately came at a political cost for a regime that never managed to escape the shadows cast by its prisons and forced-labour camps. Eventually, the glasnost-era revelations of repression and suffering on an industrial scale demolished what was left of the fading state's credibility.

Given this long and troubling history, why does the Kremlin's renewed use of repression to silence its critics today meet with such little public opposition? One reason is that Russians have, since glasnost, turned away from confronting the uncomfortable truths of collaboration and complicity in their own past. The mass burial sites and the decaying architecture of barracks, watch towers and rusty barbed wire fences that still dot the Siberian landscape command little interest from a public more comfortable with heroic (and sometimes misleading) narratives about the Soviet Union's victory over Nazism.

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Without an honest reckoning with Russia's dark history of political repression, there can be no shared determination that it should never be repeated. True, in Moscow, Mr. Putin recently unveiled a rare memorial to the abstract victims of an abstract state repression (it fails to mention a single victim or perpetrator – even Stalin – by name). But historians and non-governmental organizations dedicated to documenting the individual fates of those imprisoned, tortured and executed as "enemies of the people," and the identities of those individuals who staffed the interrogation rooms, firing squads and forced-labour camps, are harassed by the authorities. The human-rights organization Memorial has been branded a "foreign agent" while pioneering researcher of the Stalinist Terror Yuri Dmitriev is currently standing trial on charges (widely believed to be fabricated) of possession of child pornography.

The Russian government would itself do well to ponder the long-term costs of its enduring reliance on courts and prisons as instruments of politics. As Mr. Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, once remarked, "You can build a throne of bayonets, but you can't sit on it for very long."

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