Ex-Soviet dissidents warn Russia slipping back into police state
NEW YORK (AP) More than 50 former Soviet dissidents who spent years in prisons and Siberian exile say Russia is in danger of slipping back into a police state under President Vladimir Putin and the former KGB colleagues he has brought to power.
Graying and aging, the former political prisoners reminisced one night this week about how they challenged the totalitarian superpower to abide by laws that on paper guaranteed free speech, a free press and fair trials.
Today Russians are turning to Putin, a former KGB colonel, to restore order in their chaotic, market-driven democracy, said Eduard Kuznetsov, 65, who spent 17 years in prison for planning to hijack a plane in Leningrad in 1970 to get out of the Soviet Union.
"More than 50% of the key state positions are occupied by former KGB officials," Kuznetsov said. "The KGB officials have a specific mentality. They can't change. There is a danger that it will really be a police state. Not so straightforward as it was under Brezhnev, because there is inertia.
"Because they have to balance between the (opinion of) the free world and a controlled society." Leonid Brezhnev ruled from 1964-82, now labeled the era of stagnation.
Vladimir Bukovsky, who was labeled insane and spent a total of 12 years in Soviet jails and psychiatric hospitals for repeatedly demonstrating, said Russia is "slowly returning to the pre-1991 situation" before the end of the Soviet Union.
"But it will never go back all the way to Brezhnev's time. History doesn't repeat itself so precisely. But they will make a couple of generations miserable again. That's what they will do," said Bukovsky, 61.
"You cannot return the Soviet system. It collapsed because it had to collapse. Not because the CIA undermined it or subverted it. They cannot understand in their small minds that it was absolutely doomed. Now by trying to restore it, they are simply bankrupting the country."
Bukovsky, who won his freedom in a swap for Chilean Communist Louis Corvalan on Dec. 18, 1976, recalled that Putin has lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as "a tragedy." He said Putin's colleagues also share this view.
"They do so because they used to be young officers of the KGB ... and they still have the feeling that they served the great power and now they want the great power to be back, and they think by repeating the Soviet example they once again will bring greatness to Russia," Bukovsky said.
Putin, who proposed ending the direct election of governors after the Beslan school hostage crisis in September in which more than 330 people, mainly children, were killed, has denied that his planned overhaul of the electoral system signaled a retreat from democracy. Putin earlier drew criticism for shutting down two independent television stations with national reach — purportedly for financial reasons.
Yuri Orlov, a physicist, now 80, who spent seven years in Soviet prisons and five in Siberian exile for forming a group to monitor Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki agreement on human rights, said he fears Russia will regress but not to what it was. "Russia today is different."
The reunion was held at the headquarters of the nonprofit American Jewish Committee. Vladimir Kozlovsky, who grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the West in 1974, said the assembled dissidents were his idols.
"They were a major factor in turning Russia into a semi-free country from a heavily authoritarian one. My childhood heroes. People I don't cease to admire. They probably spent a couple of hundred years combined in Soviet jails. And those were nasty jails. It was no picnic."
Ludmilla Thorne, a veteran of the human rights movement who worked with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, said: "The initial stage of the Soviet Union's demise is here in this building.
"The people you see in this room are the people who laid the foundation. The first epoch was dissent. These were a small group — 2,000 no more."
She said the dissidents were using words like "glasnost" and "perestroika" nearly 20 years before former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made them the slogan of his push for democratic and free-market reforms.
"After coming to power in March 1985, Gorbachev borrowed the term 'glasnost' and made it his own."
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