Friday, 27 January 2023 10:36

The Week In Russia: ‘A Great Sin’

I’m Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what’s ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Amid relentless attacks on Ukraine, which received pledges of U.S. and German battle tanks, the Russian state ramped up its campaign against civil society at home yet again, with a court ordering the closure of a revered rights group and authorities tightening the vise on the Sakharov Center, a vital Moscow institution dedicated to promoting historical truth, basic freedoms, and civil society.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

’To Destroy With Such Ease’

Russia’s war on Ukraine tends to grab the headlines and dominate the discourse about those two countries on a daily basis, which is perfectly natural. There are major developments every day: fierce fighting on the front lines, deadly Russian bombardments of cities far from the front lines, and intricate debates about support for Kyiv further west, in Europe and North America.

But this flood of information, much of it blood-curdling, frequently drowns out big developments inside both countries, even if they stem directly or indirectly from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Case in point: In Russia, there was a key court decision that in peaceful times would have attracted much more attention. But with Russia launching new attacks following a strike on an apartment building that killed at least 46 people in the city of Dnipro earlier this month, and the spotlight on pledges to send German and U.S. tanks to Ukraine, the ruling was just part of a doomy drumbeat in the background of a war whose end is not in sight but whose outcome is crucial to the future of the world.

Satisfying a motion from the Justice Ministry, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), Russia’s oldest human rights organization and one of its most respected.

The January 25 ruling was just one of many blows -- albeit a big one -- in the Kremlin’s implacable effort to dismantle civil society, a campaign that began long before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February but has intensified ever since.

’You are committing a great sin,’ MHG co-chair Valery Borshchyov told the court.

While the ruling was in no way unexpected, Borshchyov suggested it still came as a shock -- like many things said and done by the representatives of the state both inside and outside Russia these days.

’The ease with which you are deciding our fate amazes me,’ the veteran human rights activist said. ‘How is it possible to destroy, with such ease, what was built over decades?’

The MHG was established in the 1970s by prominent Soviet dissidents including Yury Orlov, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Andrei Amalrik, Natan Sharansky, and Yelena Bonner in the Moscow apartment of legendary rights defender and physicist Andrei Sakharov.

Alekseyeva led the group from 1996 until her death, at the age of 91, in 2019. President Vladimir Putin visited Alekseyeva at her Moscow apartment on her 90th birthday, in 2017, and expressed his ‘gratitude’ to her and the MHG for their ‘significant contribution to the strengthening of democratic institutions and civil society’ in Russia.

Also since 1996, a two-story building near that apartment in east-central Moscow has housed the Sakharov Center, a museum and cultural institution dedicated to furthering his heritage, preserving the memory of Soviet totalitarianism and the fight for freedom, and fostering human rights and civil society in Russia.

’Foreign Agents’ And ‘Undesirables’

The Sakharov Center has been a focal point for rights defenders. In 2015, thousands of mourners streamed there to pay their last respects to slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, whose body lay in an open casket, and made a solemn procession to the cemetery for his burial.

Similar ceremonies have also been held there for other rights activists and Kremlin critics, such as Sergei Kovalyov and Valeria Novodvorskaya, and prominent foreign figures including Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik have spoken at the center.

The Russian government branded the Sakharov Center a ‘foreign agent’ in 2014, using what was then a new tool to hamstring civil society and suppress dissent.

This week, the center said that the Moscow authorities, under a new incarnation of the foreign agent legislation, are ejecting the organization by ending its leases on the main building and Sakharov’s former apartment, which houses his archives, as well as another property.

In a statement on January 26, the Sakharov Center said the move ‘once again proves that the goal of state policy is the destruction of independent organizations that defend public interests.’

The center said it had received a letter about the evictions on January 24, a day after the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office labeled the U.S.-based Andrei Sakharov Foundation (ASF) an ‘undesirable organization’ in Russia, employing another legal instrument Putin’s government has used against civil society groups.

The government swung the same cudgel this week at Meduza, a Latvian-based news outlet that publishes in Russian and English and focuses on Russia and other former Soviet republics. The ‘undesirable’ label came two years after Meduza was listed as a foreign agent.

The designation is part of ‘the full-scale war against media freedom that Putin has conducted since the very beginning of his presidency,’ Meduza co-founder and Executive Director Galina Timchenko told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

’We will continue to work as we have worked,’ she said.

’Myths Based On Fear’

The ASF said it saw no reason for ‘this sudden antagonistic action’ and added: ‘We will, of course, continue our peaceful work.’

To some visitors who have gone there to listen to lectures or see exhibits on issues such as the killings of millions of civilians during the Stalin era, the Sakharov Center has seemed like an exotic island -- a place where damning information about the past and present is on clear display as the state steps up efforts to hide the truth and distort history.

The organization sharply criticized Putin’s government for the large-scale invasion of Ukraine not long after it began last February, saying it was causing ‘death, destruction, and untold suffering in a neighboring country’ and pointed to ‘the moral bankruptcy of our society.’

It lambasted the Kremlin again in the new statement.

’Uncontrolled power that corrupts society with myths based on fear, hatred, and a false sense of superiority, power that manipulates real and imaginary national traumas, cynically exploiting even the most exalted feelings of the people, inevitably follows the path of repression, lawlessness, destruction, and bloodshed,’ it said. ‘Sakharov warned about this, and we are seeing it with our own eyes today.’

That’s it from me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036