Robert Service

Putin’s ‘loyalty cards’ are a new low for his regime

(Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

Loyalty cards in the West are used by supermarket chains to influence our shopping habits. They are fortunately absent from our politics, and we can freely speak our minds about public affairs, history and morality. In Russia it is different. The Russian TASS news agency reported on Wednesday that the Ministry of Internal Affairs has prepared a mandatory ‘loyalty agreement’ for all foreigners entering Russia.

Our supermarkets do not demand a personal declaration of loyalty, and our governments make no such requirement of visiting foreigners. But travellers to Russian parts will run into as yet unspecified trouble if they are thought to engage in ‘distorting’ the record of Soviet people in the defence of its Fatherland between 1941 and 1945. Other matters too are to be ruled unquestionable. The Kremlin’s traditionalist orientation in policies on the family and sexuality will be treated as sacrosanct. There will also be a prohibition on suggesting the desirability of changing pieces of Russian legislation.

Fear of what visitors from abroad might say about the past is nothing new. In Soviet times, most important archives were guarded from international scrutiny. Even Russians could not see them, and contact with foreigners was heavily patrolled. I have a painful memory of my time in the mid-1970s in a Leningrad student hostel when sharing a room with a Russian postgraduate. After weeks of forming a bond of mutual trust, we exchanged views on the USSR. It all ended badly. My room mate was ejected from the hostel and when I chanced upon him a fortnight later, he was almost too scared to exchange greetings. Evidently some kind of surveillance had caught us out, and his eagerness to hear about conditions in the West was judged injurious to the communist state order.

Even after the fall of communism official sensitivity about what a foreigner might write about the Great Patriotic War remained.

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Written by
Robert Service

Robert Service is Emeritus Professor of Russian History, St Antony's College Oxford and Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His next book, Blood on the Snow, on the Great War and the Russian Revolution, is out in November.

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