During the Soviet period, it would never even have occurred to anyone to ask themselves whether it was possible to take the state to court. The state could put on trial whomever it wanted, when it wanted and how it wanted. It had many people sent to prison or shot without any trial at all. The people, for their part, could do nothing but submit to the state without question. The good of the state was considered the supreme value above the good and rights of individuals.
Now its all supposed to have changed. The Yeltsin-era constitution that made individual rights paramount has been in place for 10 years now, but the problem is that this change of values isnt always to everyones taste.
The terrorist attack in Moscow last October that saw 700 theatergoers taken hostage and cost 130 of them their lives during the rescue attempt had a great impact on peoples thinking. Previously, the Chechen War had seemed somewhere far away, but suddenly people realized it could hit them in the very heart of Russia and enter any home at any moment.
Perceptions of the state itself also changed as people realized they could no longer count on it to ensure their safety. But despite these doubts and questions, many were shocked by the news that several dozen former hostages or relatives of those who died, were taking the state to court and demanding compensation for the material and moral damage they suffered during the attack.
What shocked people most was the money involved: Each plaintiff is demanding $1 million. The Moscow authorities immediately rushed to frighten city residents by saying the city would go bankrupt if it had to pay 700 families $1 million each. Some people reacted with banal envy, asking how it could be that someone could potentially get the kind of money they could only dream about.
But most people quickly realized the amount of compensation demanded wasnt the issue. The former hostages and their families will never all go to court, and, in any case, the court isnt obliged to satisfy their demands in full it can name whatever figure it sees fit. Whats more, the state does have a fair amount of money at its disposal, and, most importantly, there can be no trying to save money on peoples safety.
Critics also spoke out against the law the plaintiffs are using as a base for their claims. The law in question places responsibility for fighting terrorism not on federal authorities, but on the regions, in this case, on the Moscow city government. Criticism of the law is justified, certainly, but the plaintiffs are not to blame for this law, its the only one there is, and, if the Moscow government doesnt like it, it should try to get the federal authorities to take a share of the responsibility.
Servile publicists, especially on state TV channels, went into action too, calling it immoral to even think of suing the state in circumstances like these. People who lost their health or their loved ones during the terrorist attack were accused of being unpatriotic and were told that taking the state to court when it is fighting a wearying battle against terrorism is tantamount to treason, since the state is weak and lawsuits against it will only make it weaker.
There is no logic in these arguments. First, the state itself refuses to acknowledge a war is going on, doesnt introduce the appropriate laws and wont declare a state of emergency in Chechnya. This suits the authorities, especially the Armed Forces, law enforcement and security services, as it is easier to have a free hand and keep away from public scrutiny when fighting an undeclared war. Second, the lawsuits brought against the state cant possibly stop it from fighting terrorists and dont in any way concern the forces in Chechnya. Third, the lawsuits cant weaken the state; on the contrary, they can only make it stronger. If the court takes the plaintiffs side, the state will start taking its responsibilities more seriously and fire inept officials who dont pull their weight in the fight against terrorism.
What really shocked millions of Russians was not only that dozens of armed terrorists could travel undetected all the way from Chechnya to Moscow and take a huge number of people hostage, but that no security or Moscow city officials resigned or were fired afterwards.
Instead, the propaganda machine tried to convince the public that the rescue operation, during which 130 hostages died as a result of the gas used, was an exceptional success. Three months later, the head of the Yuzhnoportovy district Interior Ministry department was fired, his only fault being that the theater the terrorists attacked was in his district.
This belated dismissal amounts to an admission by the authorities that the rescue operation wasnt as successful as all that. But if this is so, then merely firing a lone scapegoat is like a slap in the face to the public. Its clear the state cannot give its citizens any security guarantees. But in this case, people have an undisputed right, both legal and moral, to turn to the courts.
As for the court itself, the judge insultingly turned down the plaintiffs lawyers requests and refused to examine any of the evidence provided. The court was almost contemptuously quick to refuse the first lawsuits. The following ones will go the same way.
A survey of participants in NTV channels "Svoboda slova" (Freedom of Speech) program showed that people were split on the issue of suing the state, with a slim majority 56 percent as against 44 percent supporting the plaintiffs. Perhaps a broader sample would have had a majority supporting the state. But what is clear is that these events mark a step forward for peoples awareness of the rights of Russian citizens. No liberal propaganda in favor of a civil society can help make it a reality as fast as the actions of officials indifferent to the fate of ordinary people can.