Famed author George Orwell is remembered primarily for Animal Farm and his dystopian nightmare, 1984. Both novels depict societies—a four-legged one and a two-legged one—in which truth and freedom are shackled by concentrated power, cynically sprinkled with disingenuous promises of security, justice, and equality.
The tyrants who run such places routinely lie and rewrite history to serve their ends. They silence dissent as they impose a “party line”. They commit horrific crimes against innocent people who stand in their way. Orwell even invented a name for their language of deceit: Newspeak. Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin, the butcher of Ukraine, is a case in point.
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” wrote Orwell. Putin claims Ukraine isn’t a legitimate country, that its people and the Russian people are one. The courageous Ukrainian resistance fighters beg to differ.
Orwell once said, “One is almost driven to the cynical conclusion that men are only decent when they are powerless.” Power is the intoxicant that fuels Putin’s madness. Twenty years at the top has corrupted his vision and his soul. Lord Acton warned of this decades before George Orwell (“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”),
As in Orwell’s 1984, the purpose of Newspeak is to serve the interests of power and power-seekers, no matter what, the truth be damned. Controlling others is everything to this crowd. It is apparently what makes their lives worth living, To cast aside such values as fairness and honesty and peace for the sake of violent power is about as anti-social as human behavior gets.
The longer that Putin reigns over Russia, the more the country resembles the worst of the old Soviet Union—expansionist, aggressive, paranoid, and dictatorial. Putin reminds me of a largely forgotten Soviet legal theoretician from decades ago. His name was Nikolai Krylenko.
Under the communist dictatorship of Lenin and then Stalin, Krylenko (1885-1938) rose through the Soviet Union’s legal system to become People’s Commissar for Justice and a Prosecutor General. He was a leading practitioner of the theory of “socialist legality,” which held that an accused person’s innocence or guilt depended on that person’s politics (real or imagined). It sounds nuts and indeed, it was. It was the stuff of Orwell’s nightmare, and one of the reasons the Soviet Union thankfully perished of its own poison.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounted an episode involving Krylenko. Shortly after Lenin’s Bolsheviks assumed power in 1917, an admiral named Shchastny was sentenced by one of the regime’s judges “to be shot within 24 hours.” When some in the courtroom expressed shock, it was Krylenko who responded thusly: “What are you worrying about? Executions have been abolished. But Shchastny is not being executed; he is being shot.”
To Krylenko, the only morality was what served the Party and the State, which of course in the Soviet Union were one and the same. If your politics were not correct, you would be “corrected,” one way or the other. In Richard Pipes’ authoritative book, The Russian Revolution, Krylenko is quoted as exclaiming, “We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.”
What happened to Nikolai Krylenko? It’s called “what goes around, comes around.” The very system of politicized, arbitrary judgments he wielded against his fellow citizens came back to bite him. He lost favor with the politicians (namely, Stalin) and fell victim to the Great Purge of 1938. Accused of anti-Party activity, he was tortured until he “confessed” and summarily executed.
The rule of law did not exist in the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Krylenko. In its place, what prevailed was the rule of men—power-mad men of no conscience. Civilized people will not pity the likes of Krylenko, but they will always regret the innocent that his “legal theory” victimized.
A kind of justice finally claimed Nikolai Krylenko and, in time, it claimed the regime that produced him too. Civilized people will not be disappointed if something similar befalls Vladimir Putin. Krylenko deserved it, and so will Putin.