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International Norms 3

Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg
By Alexander Podrabinek

 During the 20th century, communism in the USSR created a mechanism for the destruction and selective breeding of fellow citizens that is unique to our time – a system of prisons and camps in which the most talented and moral people were annihilated. These people could be considered the nation’s property, its foundation, and namely these people posedthe biggest threat to the communist regime.

Later, the experience of the Soviet Union’s communists was used in other communist counries; in the countries of Eastern Europe, in China, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and Cuba. Although in terms of the cruelty of repression these countries differed, the methods of persecution and the relationship of the authorities to the citizens was greatly similar. For this reason, the experience of the anticommunist opposition in the Soviet Union can be interesting and useful for those who continue to put up resistance to communism in their own countries. 

The possible ways to behave during the investigation in court and subsequently in prison are extremely varied. The spectrum runs from betraying like-minded people and actively collaborating with state security, to fully obstructing the authorities and categorically refusing to participate in court proceedings and prison measures of “re-education.” 

 Different people are capable of different conduct. The understandable motive of prisoners is a desire to save their own lives and freedom at any price. But also understandable are the motives of people wanting to maintain their honor and remain faithful to their comrades and chosen path to the end. However, the point of these paragraphs is not to explore morality, but to relay the results of the anticommunist  opposition’s experience in the USSR.

 The quintessence of this experience is captured in the words expressed by the refrain in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipeago: “Don’t believe, don’t fear, don’t beg.” Do not believe the authorities’ promises. Do not fear their threats. Do not ask for indulgences. Experience shows that following this advice not only allows one to maintain a steadfastness of spirit that more than anything else is necessary in prison, but also, as paradoxical as it may sound, is greatly pragmatic. A steadfastness in relations with authorities in some cases forces them to make concessions that are sometimes meaningful. Just when the compliance and compromise inspire the authorities to more repression, the dissidents see that they are attaining success through their methods.  Any battle strategy foresees the offensive position as more profitable than the defensive one. The transition from the defensive to the offensive position in prison conditions can be accomplished through only one tactic – to beat the weapons out of your opponent’s hands and guard your own. For that, it is necessary to disregard both the threat of yet bigger repressions and the promises of pardons, and to preserve unbiasedly your own ideology of opposition. The authorities, deprived of their weapons – the possibilities to exert an influence on the hopes and fears of the prisoner – lose initiative and stimulus for further exploitation of the prisoner. For example, the authorities ceased their torture when the prisoner managed to persuade them that it was absolutely ineffective. This can also be applied to other methods, not just to torture. 

 Naturally, a universal recipe for conduct does not exist. Dissidents in the USSR from the 60s to the 80s worked out their own means of dealing with authorities, with which they nevertheless managed to preserve their own ideology of opposition and remain legally in the right. Such a position rested in a refusal to collaborate with investigative bodies and courts because of the governing bodies’ non-observance of the law. A knowledge of procedural legislation allowed the dissidents the full possibility to pinpoint the court’s infringement of rights, and in alleging such infringement, refuse to give testimony and comply with investigative procedures. The flawed court procedures and official summons to court or to an investigative body, the infringement of procedural time limits, the unlawful methods of investigation – all this and more could be used as a basis for refusing to give testimony during an interrogation or in court. 

 Several dissidents did not seek out a legal basis to support themselves, but simply announced their refusal to participate in the proceedings for moral and ethical reasons. With this tactic they proceeded from a very simple and clear fact that the court needs the authorities, not the dissidents. Therefore, why take part in something which is not to one’s benefit? 

 Court proceedings on political crimes for the most part took place behind closed doors: only close relatives and specially invited persons, usually party officials and state security personnel, were allowed into the courtroom. Many dissidents refused to participate in the legal proceedings under these circumstances and authorities asked that they be removed from the court. In rare instances, when court proceedings were open or not fully closed to the public, the dissidents were able to use the witness stand as a podium from which they proclaimed anticommunist and human rights ideas. 

 The experience of dissident activity in the USSR was a logical continuation of all anticommunist experience, but it acquired a specific quality – a preponderant legal line of reasoning. This not only simplified the dissidents’ position to a certain extent, making representatives of the law out to be criminals, but also attracted the sympathy of international public opinion which is kind to those whose legal rights are being infringed upon by authorities.

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