By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — In Russia, April 1 — the "Day of Laughter" — often comes as a shock to people used to its tame counterpart in the English-speaking world. On this particular day, journalists are allowed to subvert their own profession, presenting elaborate and outrageous hoaxes designed to trip up the credulous.
So when the television news program Vremya, which can be seen throughout most of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, reported on the evening of April 1 that four foreign Trotskyists with 50 kilos of agitational literature had been banned from Ukraine for plotting the overthrow of the Ukrainian government, that was a joke, right?
Fooled again. For once, an improbable story put to air on April 1 was totally serious, and for left-wing opponents of the governments in Russia and Ukraine, thoroughly menacing.
"The overthrow of the government in Ukraine was planned by four ideological Trotskyists representing the International Communist League", Vremya stated in its 53-second clip.
"They passed themselves off as scholars wishing to study in archives. At one of the apartments of the visitors in Kiev, the Struggle Against Terrorism Division of the Ukrainian Security Service seized approximately 50 kilograms of propagandistic literature ...
"According to information from operatives, four foreign citizens, two from Germany, one from France and one from America, attempted to organise in Ukraine a section of the International Communist League ...
"Furthermore, they called openly for the overthrow of the constitutional order in Ukraine and for the seizure of power ...
"As a result, travel into Ukraine for the four revolutionary leaders from abroad is officially closed."
Better known to Western leftists as the Spartacists, the International Communist League has made perhaps the most determined effort of any international left tendency to set up national sections and recruit members in the former Soviet Union. Although this effort has not been particularly successful, the Spartacists have nevertheless come under repeated attack from people hostile to their ideas.
In February 1992 a member of the tendency, Martha Phillips, was murdered in her Moscow apartment. Police showed little interest in mounting a serious investigation.
"We have ... been subjected to the most invasive surveillance and police attention", members of the organisation noted in a recent statement. "Those Russian and Ukrainian youth who have expressed interest in our literature and political views have been subjected to harassment, interrogation and threats."
The Vremya segment appears to herald a further escalation of these attacks, directed not just against the Spartacists but against broad sections of the left. The immediate choice of target — a tiny group composed largely of foreigners — might seem improbable, but is not in fact so mysterious.
Concentrating their initial fire on an organisation in which Westerners figure heavily, the instigators of the attack hope to brand leftist ideas as alien and unpatriotic. Starting with slanders against a small tendency with few defenders, the people responsible for the Vremya clip evidently hope to work their way up to staging successful attacks on large political parties and trade unions.
Vremya viewers, meanwhile, are supposed to accept without regret the loss of their right to consider ideas from any source, including small political groups with foreign members. Viewers are also supposed to ignore the absurdity of Vremya's underlying claim: that the threat allegedly posed by four Spartacists to the constitutional order in Ukraine justifies the police bursting into a private apartment and seizing political literature.
The real danger to the constitutional order in Ukraine — starting with the constitution's guarantees of human rights — obviously comes not from the left, but from a chaotic state apparatus anxious to divert attention from its own looming collapse.
In Russia, the Vremya slanders fit into an unnerving pattern that has emerged recently as the government prepares new restrictions on political rights. While these initiatives have been trumpeted as blows aimed against fascism, they are obviously intended to be equally useful against organisations opposing the government from the left.
In February discussion began in the Russian parliament of a law "On the Prohibition of the Activity of Extremist Organisations in Russia". Under this law, Russian courts would be able to order the dissolution of organisations deemed extremist and to confiscate their property.
More recently, the parliament adopted a new law granting extraordinary powers to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. The FSB will receive the right to run its own jails, to establish widespread networks of informers and to enter premises without a warrant, a provision which appears to violate the Russian constitution. The "means, methods and tactics" employed by the FSB will be immune to scrutiny by the General Prosecutor's Office.