Oleg Orlov. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona
Moscow’s Golovinsky Court has levied a fine of 150,000 rubles (around $1,500) on Oleg Orlov, the co-chair of Memorial, the Russian human rights organisation co-awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. Orlov was accused of “discrediting” the Russian army, stemming from a Facebook post (“They wanted fascism. They got it”) and two pickets protesting the invasion of Ukraine. This is Orlov’s final statement to the court in full.
I want to start with highlighting many of my like-minded allies who have been brutally punished. They’ve lost their freedom for many years—and for what? For their words, for peaceful protest, for seeking the truth. Let us remember Alexei Gorinov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who are now suffering, being repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. Let’s remember Alexandra Skochilenko, whose health is intentionally being deteriorated in detention. And let’s not forget the seriously ill Igor Baryshnikov, who the court did not even release to attend his mother’s funeral, even under police escort, and who is now deprived of medical assistance.
Against this grim background, the punishment the prosecution is requesting for me seems extraordinarily mild. Paying such a small price for expressing my stance, for what I believe to be the truth, seems bearable. However, we will appeal any guilty verdict. Any. Because any such verdict, mild or harsh, is a violation of the Russian Constitution, a breach of legal norms, a violation of my rights.
I have no regrets. I don’t regret participating in anti-war pickets or writing the article for which I am now being sentenced. My whole life trajectory left me with no other choice. I am reminded of the cherished motto of my mentor, the great human rights defender Sergey Kovalev, a motto inspired by Roman stoic thinkers: “Do what must be done, no matter what comes next.”
I don’t regret not leaving Russia. This is my country, my homeland, and I believed that my voice would resonate louder from here. I wasn’t mistaken! Thanks to the collective efforts of the political police, the investigation, the prosecution, and the court, my modest article received an audience I could not have imagined.
I do not regret at all the many years I dedicated to Memorial, working for my country’s future. It may now seem that all has turned to dust—that everything my friends, colleagues, and I did has been destroyed, rendering our work meaningless. But that’s not the case. It won’t be long before our country emerges from the current darkness. And in this inevitable change, the community around Memorial, along with our allies in Russian civil society, hold significant merit—a merit that cannot be erased.
So, why did I attend those pickets and pen that article?
Currently, the very word “patriotism” in our country is tainted. In the eyes of many, Russian patriotism equates to imperialism. But for me and many of my friends, that’s not the case. In my view, patriotism isn’t about boasting pride for your country, but feeling a deep sense of shame for the crimes committed in its name—my country’s name. We felt this shame during the First and Second Chechen Wars, and we feel it now for the actions committed by Russian citizens in Ukraine.
In 1946, German philosopher Karl Jaspers penned “The Question of German Guilt,” where he discussed the four types of guilt Germans faced post World War II: criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical. I find his thoughts highly resonant with the situation we, the citizens of Russia in the 2020s, find ourselves in.
I won’t delve into criminal guilt at the moment. Ultimately, those who committed crimes will either face retribution or escape it. However, a more critical matter is at hand. Russia’s future, much like Germany’s in 1946, hinges significantly on whether we all, without exception, are prepared to reflect not on the guilt of others but on our own. Each of us must do this individually.
Here’s a quote from Jaspers:
“That statement, ‘You are the guilty,’ can have several meanings. It can mean:
‘You must answer for the acts of the regime you tolerated’—this involves our political guilt. Or: ‘You are guilty, moreover, of giving your support and cooperation to this regime’—therein lies our moral guilt. Or: ‘You are guilty of standing by inactively when the crimes were committed’—there, a metaphysical guilt suggests itself.”
End of quote.
In my view, people who love their homeland cannot help but ponder on the unfolding events in the country they feel an unbreakable bond with. They cannot help but reflect on their responsibility for what has transpired. These people cannot help but strive to share their thoughts with others, even if it comes at a certain price.
So, I tried as well.
I’ll share another excerpt, this time from an official statement dated March 22, this year: “Russia and China urge all nations to uphold such universal values as peace, development, equality, justice, democracy, and freedom, and to pursue dialogue over confrontation.”
These words come from a state that dispatched its troops to the territory of a neighbouring country, Ukraine, whose territorial sovereignty it acknowledged not so long ago. From a state that is now at war there, a war most UN member states deem as aggression. From a state where freedoms are stifled, where laws that starkly contradict the Constitution’s norms are hastily enacted and vigorously enforced. Laws that ban any critical statement, including the law under which I am now being tried.
Indeed, “war is peace, freedom is slavery,” and “Russian troops in Ukraine uphold international peace and security.” Your honor, is it not clear that we all—me and you—have found ourselves in George Orwell’s realm, in 1984? A fascinating twist of time!
In real history, not in fiction, the year following 1984 marked the onset of significant changes in the USSR. Then came Perestroika, followed by the democratic revolution of 1991. The transformations seemed irreversible, yet, over three decades later, we find ourselves seemingly back to 1984.
Indeed, the Russian criminal code doesn’t yet define “thoughtcrime”, and Russians aren’t penalised for privately doubting state policies in their apartments. They aren’t punished for wrong facial expressions. Not yet.
But if such doubt is expressed beyond one’s apartment, a report and punishment may follow. We are at a point where wearing clothing of the “wrong” colours can cause punishment, and any public expression of an opinion diverging from the official stance, especially doubting official reports from the Ministry of Defence, is severely punishable. Under these circumstances, it seems almost inevitable that laws banning the notion of “thoughtcrime” may surface in the near future.
Books aren’t yet burned in squares in Russia. But books by authors unpalatable to the authorities are already stigmatized with the label of “foreign agent”, relegated to remote shelves in bookstores, and handed out to readers almost secretly in libraries. Actors daring to express dissenting opinions are dismissed from theatres, like the great actress Liya Akhedzhakova, who faced professional ostracism for her civic stance. This unfolds amidst the silence of what was once known as the “theatrical community”. In a totalitarian state, communal solidarity is dismantled; everyone must fear and keep silent.
I am profoundly grateful to the remarkable people from this community who, undeterred by fear, have attended this trial and continue to come to other political trials. Thank you!
The current state of affairs in Russia, where Director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petreichuk are under arrest for a play reflecting on factors driving young women into terrorist networks, was inconceivable until recently.
The regime in place has no room for reflection; it demands something else—statements as simple as mooing—and only in support of what the authorities proclaim to be correct at the moment. It seeks to control not only the public, political, and economic spheres but extends its dominion to culture and private lives, becoming increasingly omnipresent. This trend, though exacerbated by the war, had begun unfolding much earlier. The war merely accelerated the process.
How did my country, having departed from communist totalitarianism, slide down to totalitarianism again? What should this type of totalitarianism be called? Who is to blame?
These questions were addressed in my small article, for which I am being tried.
I am aware there will be people who argue: there’s a trial because a law exists that must be adhered to. Recall, back in 1935, when Germany adopted the so-called Nuremberg Laws. Fast forward to the victorious 1945, executors of these laws found themselves on trial.
I do not hold absolute certainty that the present-day executors of Russia’s unlawful, unconstitutional laws will face trial. However, I am confident that retribution, in some form, is inevitable. The children and grandchildren of today’s executors will bear the shame of recalling where their forebears worked, served, and the actions they perpetrated. This will happen to those presently committing atrocities in Ukraine under orders. I deem this the most horrifying form of punishment, and it’s an inevitable one.
As for me, punishment seems inevitable too, for under the currnet circumstances, an acquittal on such charges is impossible. It seems like a far-fetched optimism. Unlikely to happen.
Shortly, the verdict will be pronounced.
In the 90s, I was involved in drafting the law “On the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions.” I earnestly believe that in a free Russia of the future, this law will be amended, refined to extend rehabilitation to all current Russian political prisoners, all those persecuted for political motives, including anti-war activism. Thank you.
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