Political prisoners. Oleg Orlov: 2.5 years in prison for one anti‑war article
Political prisoners. Oleg Orlov: 2.5 years in prison for one anti‑war article
7 June 2024, 13:02

Иллюстрация: Мария Толстова / Медиазона

The number of Russians who find themselves behind bars because they oppose authorities which launched the war with Ukraine is growing by the day. There are hundreds of political prisoners in the country. Some are barely known to human rights activists and journalists, but some are real legends. Like Oleg Orlov, the co-chair of the Memorial human rights organisation. He protested against war since the early 1980s, visited a dozen hot spots as an observer, was a voluntary hostage during the terrorist attack on Budyonnovsk in the 1990s, and provided assistance and support to hundreds of political prisoners. In 2022, he was one of the people receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Memorial in Oslo. And in 2024, at 71, he is in a special confinement cell of a Russian prison.

In an interview with Mediazona, Oleg Orlov said that by the age 15, in the late 1960s, he was already “quite an anti-Soviet person”: he listened to the BBC and Voice of America, read samizdat and called his classmates, who praised the 1968 Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia, halfwits.

In 1981, when he was working at the Institute of Plant Physiology of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Orlov constructed his own printing device and began making anti-war leaflets — against the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the possible invasion in Poland many feared. He pasted the leaflets around the city, acting alone, in the middle of the night.

“I was terribly afraid, maybe I experienced the greatest fear of my life at that time. In the years to come, it was less scary than it was back then,” Orlov recalled. “When you do this kind of thing for the first time, it feels like you’re alone against the whole huge machine, and this machine is all-knowing, omniscient. Now, I understand perfectly well that the KGB wasn’t all-knowing, nor omniscient. But way back then it seemed that they know about everything that’s going on, everyone is under their thumb.”

But less than a decade later, Oleg Orlov no longer felt lonely - in the late 1980s he found like-minded people in Memorial, an emerging movement that sought to rehabilitate the repressed, free political prisoners, and at the same time collect and preserve evidence and documents about state terror. The members of Memorial were both human rights activists and archivists, creators and keepers of a unique library.

However, it is wrong to think about Memorial’s activities as quiet desk work. In the early 1990s, Orlov saw all the wars on the territory of the former USSR: in Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Transnistria, and in the zone of the Ossetian-Ingush conflict. In 1995, a unit of the Chechen military commander Shamil Basayev attacked the town of Budennovsk in the Stavropol region, captured more than a thousand people and held them in a local hospital, demanding the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya and recognition of its independence. Oleg Orlov was among the MPs and human rights activists who volunteered to become voluntary hostages in exchange for women and children.

In the decades since, Memorial has become Russia’s most important public institution. At the end of 2022, the Nobel Committee awarded it the Peace Prize.

A few months later, Oleg Orlov found himself in a criminal case under the article on ‘discrediting the army’ because of an anti-war column he wrote. The court fined him 150,000 roubles, but the prosecutor’s office appealed, and at the second attempt the 71-year-old human rights defender was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony. He was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs by 15 armed escorts.

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