What’s in a name: Russian militia to be called police again

The draft of the new Law ‘On the Police’ has been released for public comment, and bears some more detailed consideration, to follow. [Edit: though do take a look at this excellent and detailed study in A Good Treaty.] In the mean time, though, one element which Dmitry Medvedev has proposed is that the militsiya regain their old, pre-revolutionary name, the politsiya, police. On the one hand, this might sound a little like rechristening the Titanic in the hope that this will make it float again, but it is in fact not quite as tokenistic a move as it may at first glance appear.

When the Bolsheviks adopted the name ‘militia’ for their police force, they were seeking to make a symbolic break from the old, tsarist police order. The force which emerged was a ramshackle collection of revolutionary activists, opportunists, bandits-turned-nominal-lawmen and former tsarist police. Idealistic notions that they would be a radically different force from their predecessors came to naught, though, given that the Bolshevik state largely face similar challenges: an inability to deploy enough police effectively to control the countryside, a commitment to political policing over the rule of law, and as a result an implicit or reluctant acceptance of local vigilantism and mechanisms of social control. To be sure, under Stalin, the state was able to assert its power over the rural population, this hardly meant law and order (for a splendid cinematic evocation, watch My Friend Ivan Lapshin).

Take away the red stars on the badges, and the militsiya looked a lot like the tsarist gorodovye (urban police), complete with pseudo-military ranks and uniforms. (I think the semiology of uniforms an interesting area of study — or am I the only person who found deeper meaning in Leonid Tokar’s Sovetskaya Militisiya? Quite possibly.) They also behaved much the same, from their endemic corruption and casual reliance on kulachnoe pravo, the ‘law of the fist’, through to their broad range of responsibilities and their habitual if often tacit conformity with local structures of social control, from the busybodies of the comrades’ courts to the complex mutual-assistance blat networks of communities of neighbours, friends and coworkers.

It would thus be tempting to suggest that names don’t matter, that it doesn’t matter whether they are called police or militia, so long as the culture and state superstructure require them to do the same things and create similar relationships between police and the policed.

But names do have power, including in police reform, as witnessed by the decision to make the Royal Ulster Constabulary the Police Service of Northern Ireland as (a very successful) part of the peace accords. Under the tsarist order, though, the police lacked any single identity. There were the urban gorodovye, as well as the gendarmes, there were the paramilitary pseudo-police of the Cossacks, and the rural stanovie pristavy (rural constables), uriadniki (deputies) and strazhniki (guards). The Soviet police, while divided into different branches, nonetheless does have a much more coherent single identity and culture. This may not always be the most pleasant, professional or service-oriented culture, but it is at least quite homogenous — and thus amenable to re-engineering in a way the fractured tsarist one was not.

A new name in and of itself will not be a panacea. Indeed, given the cost of new identity documents, signs and vehicle livery, in the short term it may even be an obstacle to meaningful reform. However, if — and admittedly this is a big ‘if’, especially while Rashid Nurgaliev remains Minister of Internal Affairs — this is part of a more serious and comprehensive reform, which will include streamlining the MVD, a clearer sense of police powers and better salaries for those officers retained, it also begins to address the cultural dimension of change.

Of course, ‘reform’ doesn’t always mean warm and fuzzy niceness. The new law, probably to come into effect 1 January 2011, while incorporating some useful changes proposed by liberals and still open to change, in many ways parallels the new law on the FSB. In other words, it is about codifying often-authoritarian practice rather than reversing it (and by bringing all police budgets into the federal budget it also represents a centralisation). But, again, by establishing limits to police powers (even to quite which parts of the body they are allowed to hit with their truncheons) and thus both explicitly and implicitly creating mechanisms through which to challenge the police when they exceed them (up to and including the courts), such laws to create the potential foundations for a rule-of-law state, itself the vital precondition for true democracy.

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