The end of the year is pardoning time. Alan Turing, the British computer scientist who was convicted as a criminal in 1952 because he admitted a homosexual relationship, was pardoned by the Queen on Christmas Eve. On the same day, the Russian authorities started to release the Arctic 30 Greenpeace protesters under an amnesty proposed by Vladimir Putin, the president, and passed by the Russian parliament. The day before, two of the members of the anti-Putin band Pussy Riot were released, and a few days before that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil business leader, was let out of jail by Putin, exercising a presidential pardon.
In both the British and the Russian cases it is possible to detect the pressure of great forces at work. Forces that this newspaper, in its youthful optimism, might even call "progress".
It has been pointed out that Turing's pardon is, in part, an insult, because it assumes that he did wrong and that the British state is showing mercy. The pardon was granted under the "royal prerogative of mercy", exercised on the advice of ministers, to cut short the slow progress of a Private Member's Bill. But that is possibly to be too literal. Just as, under Russian law, Putin could not pardon Khodorkovsky unless Mr K accepted his guilt. However, Mr K continues to protest his innocence, the Russian state protests his guilt, and both sides are more satisfied than they were when Mr K was still in jail.
As for Turing, Gordon Brown had already apologised in 2009 on behalf of the British government. It was one of those peculiar apologies readily offered by modern politicians for wrongs with which they had absolutely nothing to do, but it served a symbolic purpose in recognising that the struggle for equal rights is a long one and not yet completely won.
In Russia, the forces of progress take a different form. Putin's sudden attack of clemency is widely attributed to his desire to avoid embarrassing protests at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in little over a month's time. But another motive may well lie in the miserable state of the Russian economy. President Putin needs foreign investment, and this is deterred not so much by the threat of foreigners being jailed as by the threat to Russian entrepreneurs of a capricious legal system. Russia desperately needs a hard-working and successful middle class, and will not have one if talented young people feel that their right of expression is curtailed or that what they work for might be taken away from them.
Thus the release of Mr Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30 are welcome not just in themselves, but because it suggests that President Putin realises that an authoritarian state is not in the interests of the Russian people.
If Barack Obama could be persuaded to join in this season of clemency, the new year could get off to a better start. He pardoned a turkey last month, but, as Rupert Cornwell wrote, how much better it would be if he were to reprieve the many Americans unjustly detained on life-without-parole sentences.
Let us not be too fussy about the implications of pardons and amnesties; that they are a show of generosity by the powerful that only emphasises their power. Equally, they can be a way of power yielding to progress while saving face. Let us hope for more forgiveness and progress in 2014. We wish you, the reader, a happy New Year.Reuse content