“Grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about where their grandfathers and grandmothers served.” Oleg Orlov's closing statement in court
“Grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about where their grandfathers and grandmothers served.” Oleg Orlov's closing statement in court
27 February 2024, 12:33

Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

The Golovinsky court in Moscow sentenced Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Memorial, which was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, to 2.5 years in prison for “discrediting” the Russian army. Last October, the famous human rights defender was already fined $1,500 for “discrediting the army” in a Facebook post titled “They Wanted Fascism. They Got It.” The prosecution appealed—and a renewed case was opened. Now, the prosecution insisted Orlov was driven by a “hatred toward traditional values” in his so-called crime. He refuses to participate in the hearings, apart from a concluding statement. Mediazona publishes what Oleg Orlov said in court.

On the day this trial began, Russia and the world were shaken by the horrible news of Alexei Navalny’s death. The news shook me as well. I even thought about foregoing my closing statement altogether: what’s the point of words now, when we still aren’t over the shock this news brought? But then I thought: these are all links in the same chain—the death, or rather the killing of Alexei, the judicial reprisals against other critics of the regime, including myself, the suffocation of freedom in the country, the invasion of the Russian army in Ukraine. So I decided to speak up after all.

I have committed no crime. I am being tried for an article I wrote for a newspaper, in which I called the political regime that’s established in Russia totalitarian and fascist.

I wrote the article over a year ago. At the time, some of my friends thought I was laying it on too thick. But now it’s absolutely clear. I wasn’t exaggerating at all. The state in our country controls not only the public, political, and economic life. It also seeks total control over culture, over scientific thought and invades private life. The state has become all-pervasive. And we see it.

Just in a little over four months that passed since my first trial in this very court, so many things have happened that illustrate how rapidly our country is sinking deeper and deeper into this darkness.

I’ll very briefly list some recent events, which differ in scale and tragedy:

— In Russia, books by a number of contemporary Russian writers have been banned.

— A nonexistent “LGBT movement” has also been banned—in reality, this means unashamed state interference in people’s private life.

— Applicants to the Higher School of Economics are prohibited to cite “foreign agents.” So now, before applicants and students can study a topic, they have to learn and memorise lists of foreign agents.

— A well-known sociologist and leftist writer Boris Kagarlitsky has been sentenced to five years in prison. And for what? For a few words about events in the war in Ukraine that differ from the official narrative.

— And finally, when speaking publicly about the beginning of World War II, the person whom propagandists are calling the “national leader” said this, I quote: “After all, the Poles forced... they got carried away and forced Hitler to start World War II with them. Why did the war start with Poland? Because it—Poland—turned out to be disobedient. Carrying on with his plans, Hitler had no other choice but to start with Poland.” End of quote.

How else can you describe a political system where all of the things I listed are happening? In my view, there’s no doubt about the answer. Unfortunately, I was right in my article.

It’s not just public criticism that’s banned, but any independent opinion. Even actions that seem to be unrelated to politics or criticism of the authorities can be punished.

There is no field of art where free artistic expression is possible, there is no academic freedom in the humanities, there is no more private life as well.

Oleg Orlov with a copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

I will now say a few words about the nature of the accusations against me and, in similar hearings, against many others who, like me, speak out against the war.

During the opening of this trial, I refused to take active part in it, which gave me an opportunity to reread Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” during the hearings. Our current situation really does have a few things in common with the situation Kafka’s protagonist ended up in—absurdity and lawlessness masked as formal adherence to some pseudo-legal procedures.

There you have it: we’re accused of discrediting [the Russian army], but no one explains how this is any different from legitimate criticism. We’re accused of spreading knowingly false information, but no one bothers to show what is actually false about it—this is exactly like the Soviet regime acted, declaring any criticism a lie. And when we try to prove why the information is in fact accurate, these efforts in of themselves become grounds for criminal prosecution. We’re accused of not supporting the system of beliefs and worldview that the leaders of our country have deemed correct. But Russia is not supposed to have a state ideology, according to the Constitution. We’re convicted for doubting that the goal of attacking a neighbouring state is to maintain international peace and security. That is absurd.

Through the end of the novel, Kafka’s protagonist had no idea what he was accused of, yet he was convicted and executed. And we, in Russia, are formally informed of the charges, but it’s impossible to understand them within any framework of law and logic.

However, unlike Kafka’s protagonist, we do understand the real reason why we’re being detained, tried, arrested, sentenced, and killed. In reality, we are being punished for daring to criticize the authorities. In Russia today, this is absolutely prohibited. Of course, members of parliament, investigators, prosecutors, and judges don’t openly acknowledge this. They conceal it under absurd and illogical wording of new so-called laws, indictments, and verdicts. But that’s a fact.

Right now, Alexei Gorinov, Alexandra Skochilenko, Igor Baryshnikov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and many others are slowly being killed in penal colonies and prisons. Why are they being killed? They are being killed for protesting against the bloodshed in Ukraine, for wanting Russia to become a democratic, prosperous state that does not pose a threat to the world around it.

And in recent days, people have been seized, punished, even jailed simply for coming to memorials for victims of political repression to honour the memory of killed Alexei Navalny. An amazing person, brave and honest, who, in incredibly harsh conditions, did not lose optimism and faith in the future of our country. And of course, this was a murder, whatever the specific circumstances of his death might have been. And even after his death, the authorities are at war with Navalny. They fear him even in death—and have all the reasons to be afraid. They are destroying pop-up memorials to him. And those who are doing this hope that it will demoralise the part of Russian society that continues to feel a responsibility for their country. But these hopes are misplaced. We remember that Alexei urged us: “Do not give up.” And I would also add on my part: do not lose heart, do not lose optimism. Because truth is on our side.

Those who have dragged our country into the pit where it is now represent the old, senile, outdated order. They have no vision for the future. Only false narratives of the past, delusions of “imperial greatness.” They are pushing Russia backward, into the dystopia Vladimir Sorokin described in “Day of the Oprichnik.” But we live in the 21st century, the real future is with us, and that is the basis of our victory.

In conclusion, and perhaps to the surprise of many, I have a few words to say to those who are working to push forward the roller of repression. Government officials, members of law enforcement, judges, prosecutors. In reality, you know perfectly well what’s going on. And not all of you are convinced that political repression is necessary. You sometimes regret what you’re forced to do, but you tell yourself: “What else can I do? I’m just following orders. The law is the law.”

I’m addressing you, your Honour, and the prosecution. Aren’t you yourselves afraid? Aren’t you afraid to witness what our country—the one you probably, likely, also love—is turning into? Aren’t you afraid that not only you and your children but, God forbid, your grandchildren will have to live in this absurdity, in this dystopia? Doesn’t the obvious occur to you: that sooner or later, the roller of repression might roll over those who started it and moved it forward? That’s what happened many times throughout history.

I’ll repeat what I said at the previous trial. Yes, the law is the law. But as I recall, in 1935, the so-called Nuremberg Laws were adopted in Germany. And then, after the victory in 1945, those who followed them were put on trial. I’m not entirely sure whether the creators and enforcers of Russia’s anti-legal, anti-constitutional laws will be held accountable themselves. But punishment is inevitable. Their children or grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about where their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers served and what they did. And the same will happen to those who, by carrying out orders, are committing crimes in Ukraine. In my view, this is the worst punishment, and it is inevitable.

Well, the punishment for me is clearly inevitable as well, because in today’s circumstances, hoping for an acquittal on this charge would be the highest level of naivete. And now, very soon, we will see what the verdict is. But I have nothing to regret or repent for. That’s it.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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