Tycoon's Arrest Evokes Russia's Dark History

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Let us recall the infamous Moscow show trials of the 1930s. In those well-staged mockeries of justice — which the naive West bought lock, stock, and barrel — Stalin had his key political enemies legally lynched. Former premiers, members of the ruling Politburo and top military commanders were shot as traitors, saboteurs or foreign spies. Almost all of them were innocent of the crimes of which they had been accused, and almost all were posthumously exonerated.

The bitter irony is that they were indeed guilty of other, real crimes: they all took part in the coup d'état otherwise known as the Great October Socialist Revolution. They all covered their hands in innocent blood when their Communist Party provoked civil war, unleashed Red terror or ordered collectivization, which resulted in mass exiles, executions and famines that claimed millions of lives. But accusing them of the real crimes they had committed was tantamount to self-accusation on the part of the party and the Soviet state they had so faithfully served. They were executed on the grounds of political expediency rather than on those of justice. Stalin also used their demise as an excuse for further executions, purges and repressions that lasted as long as he lived.

The old style of repression may now be returning. Russian President Vladimir Putin is unleashing his wrath on the oligarchs who picked up much of the power that the Communist Party dropped a decade ago. Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire business tycoon, is in self-imposed exile, while his close associate Nikolai Glushkov, former vice president of Aeroflot, is being interrogated in Lefortovo prison. Media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested in Spain on demands from Moscow. The Spanish government's decision on his extradition to Russia is pending.

The wrath of the Russian President is easy to understand: during the past decade of "reform" many believe that Russia has been bled white by its newly created high and mighty. If Moscow wants justice done in Gusinsky's case, for example, why is he being accused now of what he allegedly did back in 1996? Because back in 1996 he was moving with the tide and supporting Putin's predecessor and benefactor, Boris Yeltsin. If Moscow wants justice done to Berezovsky for his alleged misdemeanors of the 1990s, why was he given an influential official position with the powerful Security Council back then, rather than hauled into court? Could it be that, just as in the 1930s, those accused will be prosecuted on grounds of political expediency rather than justice? Might Moscow want Gusinsky and Berezovsky in jail not for alleged crimes but because they publicly speak out against the regime.

At the time of the 1930s show trials it was too late for the Russians to stop Stalin. But it was not too late for the West to see through Stalin's falsehoods. The West chose not to. Respected intellectuals from George Bernard Shaw to Lion Feuchtwanger returned from Moscow with soothing tales of Stalin justice in the workers' paradise. Thus the U.S.S.R. kept rolling along its road to hell. Now, Russia risks sliding the same way once again. Maybe it is too late for the exhausted and bewildered nation to halt the slide. Arresting Gusinsky is easier. But should Spain extradite Gusinsky to Moscow, the West might be making the same mistake it did in the 1930s.