President Trump chats with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House. (Russian Foreign Ministry/Agency France-Presse via Getty Images)
The pictures from the Oval Office on Wednesday — published by a Tass photographer, as no U.S. media were present — are jolly and good-humored. President Trump, who fired his FBI director a day earlier, is grinning for the cameras and shaking hands with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. They, too, smile and laugh, relishing the many ironies of the moment.
Have a close look at those happy faces; keep the images in your head. Then turn your attention just for a moment to the story of Ildar Dadin, an unusually brave young Russian. Dadin was arrested in Moscow in 2015, one of the first to fall victim to a harsh new Russian law against dissent. His crime was to have protested peacefully and repeatedly, mostly by standing silently in the street with a sign around his neck.
Dadin was sentenced to three years in prison in Karelia, the northwestern province that was once home to the White Sea Canal, one of the most infamous prison camps in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Far away from the capital, he discovered that torture, of a kind also practiced in Stalin’s Soviet Union, was still in use. In Karelia, guards throw a prisoner into an isolation cell as soon as they arrive, Dadin has written, “so that he understands straight away what hell he’s got into.” Later, he was hung up by his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back. Others in Karelian prisons were beaten on the soles of their feet, drenched with water and left in the cold, beaten on the back and stomach.
Why? In Stalin’s day, people were tortured to get them to confess to crimes they had not committed. Nowadays they are often tortured as a form of extortion: If their families pay up, the torture stops. Dadin’s wife, Anastasia Zotova — she was in London meeting with human rights organizations — also told me that some prisoners are forced to work for prison guards and their families (another tradition handed down from the Gulag). It is fitting, somehow, that in Putin’s Russia, people torture for money and not ideology.
Dadin is lucky: He is educated, comes from Moscow and was able to make use of what remains of the press and the judicial apparatus in Russia. Meduza, a Russian-language website published outside the country, posted a letter he wrote from prison; thanks to Zotova and some dedicated lawyers, he got Russia’s human rights ombudsman interested in his case and was released. But his story is exceptional. By contrast, gay men in Chechnya, another Russian province, have been kidnapped, tortured and killed by police with impunity after Chechen officials decided to “eliminate” homosexuality altogether. Russian prosecutors also recently arrested and detained Yuri Dmitriev, one of the country’s best-known historians of Stalinism, on trumped-up charges. Dmitriev literally knows where the bodies are buried: In the 1990s, he uncovered hundreds of mass graves, the only remaining evidence of Stalin’s mass murders. Knowledge like that has become increasingly uncomfortable in a Russia that no longer wants to distance itself from its murderous past.
What is the connection between those stories and the photographs in the Oval Office? There isn’t one. Neither Trump, nor Lavrov, nor Kislyak is remotely interested in the fate of Dadin or Dmitriev, if they have even heard of them, which seems unlikely. Nor are any of them much interested in the fate of Dan Heyman, the West Virginia reporter arrested recently for persistent questioning of Tom Price, the health and human services secretary. Due process, rule of law, all of the dull rules and procedures that deliver justice are uninteresting to men who believe in personalized power unconstrained by traditions, institutions or constitutions. Look at how pleased they were to see one another — and compare those pictures with Trump’s stiff and awkward news conferences with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May.
I know that investigations should continue, but let’s be clear: Russia would have needed no inducements or collusion to support Trump’s election campaign. His personality is the kind they understand, his cynicism and his dishonesty are familiar, his greed is the same as their greed. Above all, his lack of respect for the law is their lack of respect for the law. Trump fired the FBI director to get him off his television screen; Russian police lock up dissidents to get them out of public view. No, it’s not the same thing. But it’s not that different either.