Russia Needs Human Rights

by Robert Zubrin
Liberty, not license, is the platform from which Russians can best oppose tyranny.

Item: In the year 2000, Russia had a vibrant free mass media, but over the past decade the regime of Vladimir Putin has used various pretexts to take over or close down nearly all of it. On Monday, Russia’s last independent TV network, Dozhd, was eliminated.

Item: The Sochi Olympics are a display of world-historic corruption, with 25 times the actual cost of holding such an event (as demonstrated repeatedly elsewhere) drained off by regime cronies. Yet when Russian activists dare to speak the truth about this, they face years in prison.

Item: Last month, Vladimir Putin misappropriated $15 billion from the Russian people’s National Welfare Fund and used it to provide fellow dictator Viktor Yanukovych the cash necessary to crush — in some cases, to crucify or kill — Ukrainians voicing a desire for liberty.

One would think that such direct assaults on political freedom would merit the forcible and sustained protest of Western media and political elites. But these events have been hardly mentioned. Instead, virtually all critical attention has been focused on Russia’s laws constraining the promotion of gay lifestyles.

To read the press, one might be led to believe that LBGT rights are the only rights that the West stands for. And that is exactly the propaganda message that the regime wishes to promote.

There is a valid gay-rights issue to be taken up in Russia, but it is not that country’s law forbidding propaganda promoting homosexual lifestyles to minors. That law has over 90 percent popular support in Russia and is no more stringent than laws that prevailed in many Western nations until fairly recently. What is of much greater concern is the frequent failure of police to protect gays from violent attacks by skinheads and other criminal elements. But this is part of a larger problem — namely, the denial of effective police protection to all kinds of ethnic, religious, and political minorities, hundreds of whom are assaulted or murdered every year. What Russia really needs is not gay rights but human rights, and the rule of law. By fixating on gays as the sole victims of oppression, the international LGBT lobby has served to narrow the base for an effective reform campaign, while assisting the efforts of the regime to portray itself as the defender of decency.

The problem with Russia is not that it has laws restricting promotion of the gay lifestyle. The problem with Russia is that it has no laws that effectively constrain the strong or protect the weak.

The problem with Russia is not corruption per se, or even Putin per se. Russian government is not corrupt because Vladimir Putin has absolute power. Russian government has been corrupt, and will always be as long as anyone has absolute power.

The key issue is not who is in charge but what. Russia’s problem is constitutional. There is no division of powers. The judges, the police, and the legislature all work for the same people, and there is essentially no trial by jury. As a result, anyone can be arrested and accused of anything, and conviction is almost guaranteed. (The actual conviction rate in Russia today is over 99 percent. When prominent regime opponent Aleksei Navalny went on trial in Moscow last summer on phony embezzlement charges, he was judged by a magistrate who has never found anyone innocent.) This means that no one’s life, liberty, or property is secure. Anyone can be imprisoned and expropriated at any time by those in control of the state.

Article 29 of Magna Carta, enacted in 1215, stated: “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be dispossessed of his Freehold, or Liberties, of free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.”

These rights, guaranteed in the English-speaking world 800 years ago, do not yet exist in Russia. Conceivably, Russia might have evolved something similar, as its founding states of Kiev and Novgorod were fairly free by medieval standards. Unfortunately, however, the possibility of such development was cut off when the Mongols conquered the country circa 1260 and imposed a brutal yoke that, in one form or another, has persisted ever since.

“Eurasianist” theorists like the increasingly influential ideological guru Alexandr Dugin claim that Western ideas of freedom are unacceptable to Russia, even denouncing the concept of human rights as “racist” because it originated in distant lands. In fact, in celebrating totalitarianism (including, in Dugin’s case, its Nazi form) as Russia’s most appropriate type of governance, the Eurasianists are endorsing a foreign occupation that has been oppressing the Russian people for three quarters of a millennium.

But why should anyone not want liberty? Because, answer the Eurasianists, like all advocates of tyranny before them, it leads to license. “Look at the West,” they say. “It is Sodom and Gomorrah. They profane religion, tradition, and the family. It is gay this, gay that. All they care about is satisfying their unnatural sexual appetites. And now they want to lure your children into their perverted ways . . . etc., etc.” By fixating on gay rights, to the near exclusion of others, the Western media are serving to help validate this false propaganda.

Liberty does include potential for license, although not as much as tyranny does, as evidenced by the Eurasianists’ own paradise, a country where young girls are kidnapped off the street in large numbers by well-connected criminal businesses and sold into slavery, where army officers sexually abuse boyish recruits and never face criminal prosecution.

It is not license that liberty stands for, however, but the ability of citizens to protect themselves from all kinds of depravity and depredations, through the instrument of a government answerable to them.

Russia badly needs laws that effectively constrain the powerful. The Eurasianists say otherwise, claiming that it is the unlimited “silnaya ruka,” or strong arm, of the ruler, that makes Russia strong. But this is false, and the lessons of history prove it. Far from making Russia strong, the silnaya ruka has made it weak. In 1941 the Soviet Union came within a hair of total defeat and annihilation by the Nazis because Soviet dictator Josef Stalin murdered the best elements of the Red Army officer corps in purges in 1937. If the Soviet Union had had a system of fair trial, few if any of those thousands of dedicated officers (and millions of others) would have gone to their deaths, and the country would have been much better able to defend itself.

Tyrants must always fear those with talent and enterprise. As a result, those with talent and enterprise must always fear tyrants. If Russia is to develop, it will need to protect talent from tyranny. No one will create much if the product of their efforts can be so easily stolen.

Russia doesn’t need gay-rights parades. Russia needs a Magna Carta. It needs limited government, separation or powers, and the rule of law. It needs freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial, which means trial by a jury — not by a hangman. It needs free elections. And it needs friends in the West who are willing to make it clear that the forces of liberty are the forces of dignity.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books