Makarov recalls another problem that all new political regimes face.
“Okay, they dismiss judges who were implicated in political cases. But then who will sit on the bench? This is what reformers often face when they have an old staff who are not showboats, who do what they are now told to do, who have a certain competency, who are professionals, more or less. The reformers don’t have any other staff, but the state needs to function.”
If we recall Vladimir Putin’s own KGB past, however, should such people be allowed to run the country?
“At a minimum, we have to take into account that, in the late 1990s, it was not widely known that Putin had worked on the ideological front in the KGB, and not only as an intelligence officer,” replies Makarov. “On the other hand, there were terrorist attacks, the desire for a ‘strong hand,’ and so on. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, very few people opposed Putin, including with the argument that he was a KGB veteran. It didn’t matter very much to most of society.”
Was the KGB not regarded as a criminal organization?
“Generally, no, it wasn’t, and here’s why not,” says Makarov. “Because this is not only a question about the KGB—it is a question, first of all, about the CPSU. Was it a criminal organization or not? What if you had been a rank-and-file member of the CPSU and, for example, had skipped all the meetings at which mattes were put to a vote, and had joined the Party, for example, at the front during the war? Society could not accept the idea that they and their relatives had been living and working for a criminal state for decades.”
The chance to assess the CPSU’s historical role appeared in 1991–92, when the Constitutional Court considered a lawsuit by Communists, who asked the Court to rescind Boris Yeltsin’s decrees dissolving the Party and confiscating its property. Nikita Petrov and his colleagues at Memorial were tasked with writing an expert opinion for the Constitutional Court.
“Our job was to open the eyes of society and prove that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been criminal throughout its history,” says Petrov.
In its final ruling, dated 30 November 1992, the Constitutional Court acknowledged that “the CPSU’s leadership were the initiators, and its local organizations were often the agents of a policy of repression against millions of Soviet people, including the deported peoples.” However, the Court did not consider the constitutionality of the Party itself, since the CPSU had already ceased to exist by that time, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation had not yet been registered. The half-hearted ruling disappointed the supporters of vetting.
“The Court simply argued that the authorities had relied on violence and the violation of human rights and committed crimes against the population of the country. So, I would say, the theoretical, qualitative case had been made. It was another matter that it later proved to be all for nought,” says Petrov.
Economic reforms soon became the focus of attention, and the question of the KGB’s role in society took a back seat. Both Makarov and Petrov agree that Russia had practically no chance of implementing vetting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “They were unable to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” argues Petrov.
“It’s not a matter here of vetting per se,” he continues. “Even if vetting were carried out in the most correct and ideal manner, the danger of society’s backsliding and the danger of the old regime’s restoration would still exist. We have to look at the state of society itself, at its wants and needs. We can talk at length about what we left behind and where we arrived, but I cannot talk about vetting as a panacea, although I am an ardent supporter of it. Because here we are dealing with what are called the rudimentary foundations of social existence: people who were trained to doublethink for seventy years, to say one thing and think another, had a very hard time refashioning themselves. Generational change under a democratic system would have to occur for this to become a thing of the past.”
Does this mean we cannot say that if vetting had taken place Putin would not have become president and we would not be at war?
“It wouldn’t have changed anything for one simple reason,” replies Petrov. “Vetting is not a lifelong professional ban, and many retired KGB officers no longer worked in the KGB in the 1990s. What vetting did they face? So, vetting in this case is a good tool for morally purifying society, of course, but it is not a panacea against possible relapses.”
Does Nikita Petrov still think that vetting was needed?
“I think it was necessary, of course,” he says. “Maybe it would have laid the groundwork for stronger democratic foundations. It was even needed as a kind of moral compensation for those who suffered under the Soviet system. It was another matter that it could not have cured all problems. In five to ten years the same people who had been vetted and ousted could have come back to power, and what would we have done about that? It was the rupture that was needed in this case, declaring the Soviet system criminal and disavowing Soviet policies. By not breaking with the Soviet legacy—and vetting would have helped us break with it—we have ended up replicating [Soviet] practices.”
“If we talk about civil society, it has other things on its mind now: it is busy either helping Ukrainian nationals, or surviving at home in Russia or abroad,” says Alexei Makarov. “In part, this is a generational story. It will be easier for the new generation to deal with this, on the one hand. On the other hand, the question is whether there will be a need to deal with it.”
“I am not a supporter of simplified approaches, but many see vetting as a panacea, as a chance at leaping into a happy future in a single bound,” argues Yan Rachinsky. “A mandatory prerequisite for vetting is a fundamental break with the previous period, at least on one specific point. There should be a clear criterion. This is quite difficult to imagine in the near future. It is worth talking, rather, about recertifying all government officials, security services officers, and judges. In any case, it should be a matter of personal culpability, not class affiliation. A deputy voted for a criminal resolution, and so now he is prevented from continuing his legislative career. A judge handed down an illegal sentence, and now he is looking for another job. Vetting should be based only on specific actions: we should not get too carried away with purging people.”