Writing in the Moscow Times, even Russophile bagman Alexei Pankin is now worried about the echoes of the Soviet Union he hears all around him. Maybe he should have been a bit more careful about spewing forth all that crazed pro-Kremlin rhetoric in the past. These cowardly traitors to democracy always realize too little, too late. If he says it’s this bad, can you imagine how bad it REALLY is? Do you dare to try?
On Sept. 9, agents from the Interior Ministry’s economic crimes department for Moscow’s Northern Administrative District searched the offices of VinLund, a shipping company that also imports Italian wines. Three VinLund employees were beaten during the search, and company documents and computers were seized, according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation.
VinLund owner Peter Vins is a former Soviet dissident and political emigrant. Both his fate and that of the Sakharov family were closely intertwined. The diaries of Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, were published recently, and they contain glowing references to both Peter, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and his father, Georgy, a Baptist minister. Sakharov records how he helped save the Vinses from the gulag and to emigrate to the United States.
In 1993, Peter Vins returned to the newly democratic Russia and started a business. In 2000, in memory of Sakharov, and with Bonner’s blessing, Vins established the Andrei Sakharov Journalism as an Act of Conscience award, which to this day remains one of the highest honors in the field of journalism.
The online media have already begun discussing the political actions against Vins, suggesting it was his support of independent investigative journalism that drew the wrath of the authorities. On first glance, this would seem absurd — were it not for the fact that law enforcement agencies recently shut down the Educated Media Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that helped train television journalists.
The more likely explanation is that it was a run-of-the-mill police racket operation. But getting squashed under the heels of the police is no more pleasant than being persecuted by political officials.
As a jury member of the Andrei Sakharov award, I see hundreds of investigative journalism articles every year from all across Russia. Many of them focus largely on the same two scenarios: one, how law enforcement officers carry out attacks against the very people whom they are obligated to protect, doing everything from harassing individuals to beating entire groups of people; and two, how the siloviki seem to have taken the place of the criminal racket.
It is disturbing to contemplate the parallels between the persecution of the Sakharovs and the Vinses. Sakharov and his wife were exiled to Gorky, subjected to force-feeding during their hunger strike, KGB provocations and a campaign to discredit them in the eyes of the Soviet and international communities. In both cases, the punishment was not commensurate with any “danger” they might have represented to the system. In fact, most of their run-ins with the authorities were over their efforts to help a handful of people emigrate. And while the enormous Communist security apparatus was hounding Sakharov and other dissidents, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected as general secretary in full conformity with the charter of the Communist Party. But it was Gorbachev, and not the dissidents, who ultimately buried communism.
It would seem the Communist Party was absolutely lacking the instinct for self-preservation. Have the current authorities inherited this political flaw? If Russia’s leaders are building a democracy — whether managed or sovereign — then the corruption, racketeering and general lawlessness of the law enforcement agencies constitute a greater threat to the country than people like Educated Media’s former director, Manana Aslamazian, whose activity was limited to offering seminars on camera technique, television design and the like, or Peter Vins, who imports Italian wine and sponsors the $5,000 Andrei Sakharov award.
As far as I know, Peter Vins is the first dissident from Soviet times to be persecuted by Russia’s authorities, whether motivated by political or petty economic interests. Whatever the case may be, I see it as a bad omen.