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Putin’s Descent Into Stalinism
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Putin’s Descent Into Stalinism

The Russian regime is detaining children who express opposition to his invasion of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech on April 6, 2023, in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

Late last month, a Russian man who’s the single father of a 13-year-old girl was sentenced to two years in prison for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” Aleksei Moskalyov’s conviction was for social media posts he had written, but his ordeal had begun nearly a year before as the result of drawing his daughter made. In early March, the daughter, Masha, had been taken by police to an orphanage and banned from communicating with her father. (Masha has recently been handed over to her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for seven years.)

Masha Moskalyova’s crime? Drawing a picture in sixth-grade art class of a mother and a child next to a Ukrainian flag. In the drawing Masha wrote, “I AM AGAINST THE WAR!” She also drew “Glory to Ukraine” on the Ukrainian flag with missiles flying from the Russian tricolor side with “No to the War” penciled on the flag.

This is not the first time Masha has been detained. Last year she was taken from school to a local office of the Federal Security Service, and this past January she spent almost two weeks in an orphanage.

Masha is not alone. The police have also harassed the family of a 12-year-old named Kirill, a sixth-grader who asked in class, “Why did Putin begin the “special operation” in Ukraine?” and cried “Glory to Ukraine!” in a school hallway. Two days later the police came to Kirill’s apartment. Home alone, the boy would not open the door. The police cut off electricity and left a note threatening to “deliver him by force” to the station.

Fifth-grader Varya and her mother were taken to a police station after the girl allegedly “polled” her schoolmates by asking “Who are you for: Putin killing Ukrainians or peace?”

According to a Russian human rights organization OVD-Info, at least eight cases have been brought against school children for “anti-war attitudes.” These are more than personal tragedies. Like the war itself, they amount to another national shame and calamity. Putin’s Russia is no longer an autocracy or even a military dictatorship. It is descending into Stalinism.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about Nina, an eighth-grader arrested for a ditty in which she mused on the Germans’ taking Moscow as they had just taken Smolensk. It was the first year of war, 1941, and as the Nazis smashed the Red Army all the way to the gates of Moscow, Stalin’s NKVD and SMERSH secret police “organs” hunted for “traitors,” “spies,” and “panic mongers.” Nina was sentenced to five years in the gulag. Who was Nina’s sledovatel (interrogator and investigator)? Solzhenitsyn demanded to know. What kind of a person would authorize an arrest of a 14-year old girl “because of a rhyme?” Was he even human? “What was his forehead like? Or his ears?”

By the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost revolution, most of Stalin’s murderous sledovateli had been retired or dead, and none was brought to trial. Yet some of the leading glasnost intellectuals suspected at the time that the absence of retribution was a huge mistake. The names of interrogators and jailers, they insisted, should have been made known so they could be judged by moral, if not legal, criteria. “National pride without national historic shame for crimes turns into chauvinism,” the poet Evgeny Evtushenko wrote in 1988. “Today we live not only among heroes and martyrs,” editorialized the leadership of Ogonyok magazine, the flagship of glasnost, “We also live among scoundrels, the scum. We must know them and execute them by our contempt, for generations to come.”

Thirty-five years passed between Stalin’s death and the advent of glasnost. This time around, the reckoning shouldn’t have to take so long. The West should be able to learn the names of the judges and police officers who sent Masha to the orphanage and persecuted other boys and girls. They must be sanctioned just as Putin’s aides, ministers, military officers, and oligarchs have been.

More important still, a national moral cleansing of a post-Putin Russia requires sanctioning and restitution. Without such a reckoning, the country would again risk slipping into toxic dreams of victimhood and revenge, and succumb to imperial conquest and barbarity. Those who are tormenting Masha must be known and seen—their miens, their foreheads and their ears.

Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War.