MOSCOW -- Although the sentences for oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon Lebedev, were expected to be harsh, they still come as something of a blow. The nine-year terms imposed Tuesday on both men were the culmination of a brutal, Soviet-style demonstration of the state's power over an individual who dared challenge its superior authority and refused to bend to it. In fact, the Khodorkovsky trial and the atmosphere around it were imbued with the spirit of the Soviet police state.
On the second week of the lengthy reading of the verdict, a couple of hundred Khodorkovsky supporters picketed outside the courthouse. To counterbalance the modest public protest against an unfair trial, the authorities organized an anti-Khodorkovsky rally: Sullen people with identical-looking signs stood silently in the street trying to avoid reporters' attention. The space where Khodorkovsky sympathizers were allowed to stand was mostly occupied by construction equipment delivered to the site because of a sudden need for "repair work," although the construction workers mostly sat idle in the sun, some of them dozing off.
This sort of primitive covert operation is strikingly similar to the methods used against Soviet dissidents by Leonid Brezhnev's KGB. Once, in 1974, as a small bunch of underground artists mounted their works for an improvised exhibition on a vacant lot, a bulldozer and trucks with seedling trees suddenly drove onto the lot to displace them.
Putin himself has reminisced fondly about operations conducted by his internal security colleagues in Soviet times. In a book of interviews published in time for his anointment as president, Putin tells how a group of dissidents in the late '70s planned a minor demonstration in his home city of Leningrad. They invited foreign diplomats and journalists "in order to attract the attention of the world community," Putin notes mockingly.
Instead of dispersing the dissident crowd, the KGB operatives staged their own rally on the same spot. The place was encircled by the police, music was played, wreaths were laid, and the foreigners left disappointed. In the book Putin sounds genuinely delighted by this disguise; they knew how to act surreptitiously, he says admiringly to his interviewers, so that "ears would not stick out."
Of course, one had to be totally clueless about the mind-set of the Soviet people in the 1970s to suggest that this sort of deception was fooling them. Not just foreign diplomats, journalists and the dissidents themselves, but most of the Soviet people knew where to look for the KGB's "ears," and they saw them with full clarity. Stalin's terror may have killed the very instinct to protest, but the people knew they lived in a state built on lies.
Though the Khodorkovsky trial has been compared to the show trials of Stalin's time, it has little in common with the atrocious purges of the 1930s, in which victims confessed their "crimes" and pledged allegiance to the very regime that tortured them. Nor is the atmosphere of today in any way similar to that of the state terror, when bloodthirsty masses were seized by hatred for "enemies of the people."
Putin's government campaign against Khodorkovsky and his partner has a lot more in common with the persecution of individual dissidents, human rights activists, writers, poets or artists of Brezhnev's Soviet Union, and this similarity goes beyond mere covert tricks. Most of the individual freedoms granted by Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and reinforced by Boris Yeltsin's political reforms are still in place. Yet, not a single perpetrator of Brezhnev-style political persecutions has been pilloried, let alone legally penalized.
Putin's political backlash and, especially, the empowerment of the FSB (among Putin's top-ranking appointees are those who handled dissident cases in the '70s and early '80s) has brought back the bulldozer instincts of the Soviet state. Once an enemy of the state is identified, the state machine moves against him with brutal force that defies logic, evidence, laws and procedures.
The general atmosphere of today also reflects a hard legacy of Brezhnev's period. Soviet people back then were grateful that the state no longer killed or tortured them, and even though they mostly thought the regime was morally corrupt and economically absurd, they preferred apathy to action. It was generally understood that independent activism was regarded with suspicion, while passivity and double-think were rewarded.
Dissidents were a tiny bunch of bold spirits; those who sympathized with them preferred to keep their feelings private. On the other hand, anti-dissident actions had to be organized by the authorities; people were not eager to denounce the enemies of the regime.
In today's Russia people may see the Kremlin's machinations as clearly as they did in the Soviet days (in a recent poll, about half of the respondents regarded the Khodorkovsky trial as "lawless" in substance if not in form). But public rallies are able to bring together only a few hundred protesters.
An individual cannot win against a bulldozer state if the public puts up with its arrogant lawlessness. But while Khodorkovsky is defeated for now, it's worth recalling that most victims of Brezhnev's police state outlived the regime that oppressed them, fulfilled their missions and rose to fame in spite of, or even because of, the persecutions they endured.
Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.