By Dimitry Savvyn, for Petr&Mazepa
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
On the twenty-fourth of November of this year a very interesting bill was registered in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, concerning criminal responsibility for the public denial of the Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people and of the Holocaust as genocide of the Jewish people. Will this bill become law? Not necessarily. But the trend, as they say, is obvious, and if so, it makes sense to figure out in some detail where this trend can lead to.
Given the sensitivity of the topic, I will allow myself here to point out some facts from the history of my own family, which I try not to mention too often. Two of my great grandfathers were dispossessed during Stalin’s collectivization. One survived, the other died from hunger in Siberia (like my great grandmother). So I have no personal reasons to deny the reality of Holodomor – rather on the contrary. And I am not prepared to justify neither it nor other Bolshevik atrocities. And besides that, the fate of my ancestors gives me the moral right to talk about Holodomor and to be heard: no less of a right than, say, that of a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Madame (or Comrade?) Irina Farion.
However, the talk in this case will not be about Stalin’s crimes of the 30s, but about that quagmire which Ukraine can end up in if they pass such an apparently correct and necessary law…
A thought expressed is… a crime?
Are there bad ideas? I would not want to upset the liberals, but – sadly, yes. It is enough to look at what was spawned by the communist ideology on the territory of the former Russian Empire, in Eastern Europe, in North Korea, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere around the globe, to admit: the bright ideas of communism turned out to be a virus, the spread of which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. And in places which successfully fought it – for example, in South Korea, Spain, Finland or Chile – in the end, life turned out much better than in places where they took root.
So this idea that any and all ideologies are equal, and their spread should not be limited, I, unfortunately, cannot agree with. Some of them really should be limited.
The denial of the very fact of the mass and, actually, artificial hunger, borne out of “industrialization and collectivization” is not only amoral, it is also a political rehabilitation of the communist system. Is it worth combating this? Absolutely. More precisely, it is essential. The only question is: how?
Regarding educational and outreach work it is clear. How about legislative bans and criminal prosecution? In some cases such measures are very possible. For example, in Ukraine they very recently tried to ban the communist party. It would be very helpful to finally recognize this organization as criminal and to close it down once and for all. We can pass a law on “toponymic lustration,” on renaming all the streets, square and geographical objects named after Soviet leaders, making it forbidden to ever perpetuate their names through the years.
But the ban under threat of criminal prosecution to deny the reality of Holodomor gives the whole affair a completely new character.
What is the difference? Only in that in the legal field, all concepts, especially those linked with the definition of an offense and determining the presence of a crime, should be formulated as clearly and accurately as possible. For example, the fact of membership in the Communist Party is a fact that can be determined easily. And here the limits are quite clear. The same with the names of streets, etc. But how do you determine the fact of “public denial”?
Circumventing such a ban is easy. For example, you write an article, the main point of which is that there never was any Holodomor. But in the first paragraph, in the introduction, you make some reservations: “Of course, we are in no way denying the fact of Holodomor as the genocide of the Ukrainian people…” and that’s it! You can’t go against that!
So the law simply will not work. And what must be done for the law to start working? The same thing that now exists in the Russian Federation regarding Article 282: a broad interpretation. And here the festival begins.
A factory of criminal cases
Broad interpretation is a wonderful thing. The key word here is ‘interpretation.’ The possibility arises to interpret someone’s thoughts in this or that manner. For example, if someone might not even be denying it openly, but in a subtle way – he is denying it. This can be “broadly interpreted” as a criminal offense. But who will do this?
And here we come to the next, most interesting, stage. The fight against “denial” is a fight against thought crime. But a common cop will not work on this – it does not fit his profile. Therefore, we need a special body that will do this job. (Again, as in the Russian Federation, where there is the “General Directorate for Combating Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation”). Here there are no simple cops any more, but special ones. The kind who can’t catch thieves and crooks, but who can monitor the Internet and the book market for the presence of any sedition. And of course they will have experts on call who will make the decisions: does this or that text or saying have the unfortunate “denial” or not.
After that, of course, the law will start working. But exactly at that moment the government and society cross a dangerous line: a special unit appears whose purpose is to fight sedition. And a unit, as Dmytro Korchinsky rightly noted, is defined by its function. So later on the “deniers” will be caught and jailed not because they are dangerous, but simply because this unit exists and must meet its quotas.
In Kyiv, this bureau will have work to do: close down some underground fan club of Starikov, or turn off a bad website. But what will this department do, for example, in Lviv? Are there many activists there who deny Holodomor? I suspect that there are hardly any. But the department will have a branch there. In the branch there will be a cop. The cop will have a wage, seniority and a need to deliver results. And he will deliver them. The horror stories from the Russian province, where they put a man away for two years in a high security jail for a re-post in VKontakte are caused to a large extent by precisely this. Some CPE guy is sitting there in a rundown provincial town, no fascists or Nazis to catch. But he has to fulfil the quota somehow. So he gathers up evidence in the corners of social networks until eventually he gathers enough for several years of a real imprisonment.
This is exactly what awaits Ukraine if the aforementioned law is passed. Because all the real “deniers” will quickly either go quiet or will end up beyond the reach of the Ukrainian government, working through the Internet (mostly, of course, the latter). And the specially trained cops will remain. And then you can look forward to criminal cases for re-posts in social networks, or even for arguments in comments. Or for a joke. Or for a newspaper with an article on Holodomor, which some Mykola will happen upon one time, and the conscious expert will see a “denial” in it. You think you won’t have it like this? In 2001 I also wouldn’t have believed that something like this is possible in Russia. And now we live in this.
Or maybe you are hoping that the cops will be controlled by some scientific experts? Alas, there are no clear criteria in a “broad interpretation”. So the professor from Lviv, a Svoboda party member, whose granddad and grandma died in Siberia, will very likely find “Holodomor denial” even in some incomprehensible mumbling of a Komsomol member from Donbas. Exactly in the same way as a Kharkiv professor, a veteran of KPSS and the Party of Regions, will not see anything wrong even if they put a newspaper under his nose with the name “We are denying Holodomor!” with a million copies in circulation.
There can’t really be a real scientific expertise on this. There can be only subjectivism, or in other words, despotism. And the cop put forth to combat sedition gets all the means to fabricate criminal cases.
But this is not even the end of the banquet.
Prohibit more, more, more…
The appearance of one law punishing for wrong thoughts and opinions creates a whole wave of similar ones. Because there are always influential social groups, religious or ethnic communities, who will want to get a hold of such an option. It is forbidden to deny genocide of Jews and Ukrainians? Crimean Tatars also consider themselves to have been the victims of genocide! And they will want the same law. Meanwhile the genocide of Armenians has been recognised already by many countries in Europe. And they will also demand that its denial be forbidden under threat of criminal prosecution.
Later on, logically, there will appear a law on the defense of rights of believers. Because if feelings and thoughts are now regulated by the articles of the penal code, why should the religious sphere be excluded? Afterwards, probably, the atheists will want to defend their feelings. And public officials will claim that they constitute the social group “public officials” and will demand a ban on the kindling of strife regarding them.
Is it funny? An exaggeration? But I did not invent any of this. Almost all of this is present today in Russia.
The MOI [Ministry of the Interior of the RF] and SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] will support these initiatives. For two reasons: firstly, if they have departments to fight “denial,” they need work. The more the better (there is a reason to increase funding, to overstaff, etc.). Secondly, such laws make anyone potentially guilty. A student will call a professor in the medical academy a “yid” for failing him, someone will have an argument with an Armenian and will post a picture of Enver Pasha on his Facebook, someone will simply say something out of place… with the right expertise the “denial” can even be found in instructions for an electric kettle. Almost anyone can be worked on in this way. The security forces have their hands untied. And there are no such law enforcement agencies that are fundamentally opposed to the expansion of their powers.
That, in fact, is roughly how freedom of speech ends.
* * *
By passing a law that punishes opinions and thoughts – even if they are the most unseemly – we are always opening a Pandora’s box. In the best case, the new legislation will simply be stillborn. In the worst case – we unleash a meat grinder, which at first maybe chops up some “bad guys,” but later on inevitably starts sucking in everyone.
What to do?
Does this mean that we shouldn’t combat neo-Bolshevik propaganda? No, it does not. If someone is interested in my opinion, here it is.
First of all, finally ban the Communist party and all Communist organizations. For good measure.
Secondly, carry out a lustration. A real lustration.
Thirdly, create memorials to the memories of the victims of communist terror, museums and ideally a powerful research institution, which studies the relevant issues.
Fourthly, conduct active educational activities, both online and offline.
Fifthly, make HIGH-quality movies and TV series with the right content, and equally release the right computer games.
And, of course, build a state of law, where life will be comfortable for EVERYONE. That will be more than enough.
But criminalizing bad thoughts is not necessary. It is a very dangerous thing. In introducing such laws, we are stepping on a minefield. We were there already. We didn’t like it. And we don’t recommend you go there either.