Monday 16 October marked the 600th day since the start of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. The wanton destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and cultural assets, and the cynical targeting of civilians as well as the slaughter of Ukrainian and Russian service personnel are deservedly given detailed coverage in the media throughout the world.
Less attention has been given to the virtually complete destruction of Russian civil society and the implications this has for the future of that country, its citizens and cultural life. Not since the time of Stalin has it been more difficult and dangerous for Russians to disagree with the State and its policies, worldview and opinions, regardless of an individual’s social status, education or popularity.
Navalny speaks out: now lawyers targeted
The case of opposition leader Alexey Navalny is well known. Incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, Navalny has been serving a 9-year sentence on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, in addition to his original 30-month sentence for violating parole conditions for an earlier conviction. Then, in August this year, the lawyer and anti-corruption activist was sentenced to an additional 19 years on charges of extremism. Despite facing degrading and barbaric prison conditions which have seriously affected his health, the Sakharov prize-winner has continued to speak out about Putin, corruption and the war in Ukraine through his legal team, thus continuing to be a thorn in the flesh of the government.
As a result of this, the State has now targeted Navalny’s lawyers in an attempt to isolate and silence him completely. A few days ago, three of his legal team, Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexey Liptser were detained, following raids on their offices and homes. The lawyers are accused of participating in an extremist group. In other words, it is now the case that professionals who defend an opponent of the State as part of their regular work are to be considered in the eyes of the authorities equally ‘guilty’ as their clients.
Human rights activist film-maker sent to penal colony
The journalist, film-maker and political activist Vladimir Kara-Muza is another example of a defender of human rights and the rule of law imprisoned for his opposition to Putin, corruption and the invasion of Ukraine. Kara-Murza was convicted of treason, defamation of the Russian army and lying about the war in Ukraine in April of this year. He was immediately sent to an isolation cell in a maximum-security penal colony in Omsk, some 1,760 miles from Moscow, where inhuman prison conditions will be having a detrimental effect on his health, already weakened by mysterious poisonings in 2015 and 2017.
As well as his Russian citizenship, Kara-Murza has UK nationality, which he acquired after his history degrees at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in the early years of this century. For the Václav Havel Human Rights prize-winner there is just the possibility of a future prisoner swap should there be a suitably prominent Russian national or actor held in a UK jail. A possible candidate might be the former security guard at the British embassy in Berlin, David Ballantyne Smith, who in February of this year was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for spying for Russia.
Public figures sentenced and denounced for speaking out
Marina Ovsyannikova, the former Russian TV journalist who came to the world’s attention with her courageous anti-war protest on live TV in March 2022, fled her homeland and pre-trial house arrest the following October with her 11-year-old daughter. She was sentenced in absentia on 4 October to eight and a half years imprisonment for discrediting the Russian army. One week later, she was hospitalised in Paris with suspected poisoning, though medical investigations have failed to discover the cause of her sudden illness, which now appears to be over.
Another high-profile prominent woman accused of telling lies about the war and the Russian army is Natalya Komarova, the governor of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug in Western Siberia. A few days ago, the 67-year-old senior politician and member of the ruling United Russia Party was denounced for her honest answers to questions from indignant locals about the inadequate and defective military equipment their relatives were having to contend with in Ukraine. Komarova told her constituents that they ‘didn’t need the invasion’ and that the lack of ammunition and equipment was down to the fact that the special military operation had not been planned for.
It will be interesting to see how this case plays out as governors are all de facto political appointees of Putin. Those convicted of spreading false information about the Russian military face a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Creative artists face imprisonment and cancel culture
Prison sentences have recently been given for the same offence to several members of Russia’s cultural elite such as Dmitry Glukhovsky, the journalist and science-fiction writer, best known for his novel Metro 2033, which deals with the survivors of a global nuclear holocaust living in the Moscow Underground. Alexandr Rodnyansky, the Russian-speaking Ukrainian film producer of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s prize-winning modern Russian classics, Elena and Leviafan (Leviathan), is also charged, though he has never held Russian citizenship.
Cancel culture is not only being applied to living people, but also to notable now deceased Russians who were rehabilitated during Gorbachev’s perestroika or in the 1990s under Yeltsin, as well as to contemporary works of art. In April of this year, the Bolshoi Ballet was forced to drop its new work about the life of Rudolf Nureyev, the celebrated dancer who dramatically defected to the West while on tour in France in 1961. This was due to the recently tightened legislation on the depiction of LGBTQ+ behaviour. The wiping of the long-awaited work from the Bolshoi’s repertoire was a vengeful act against its choreographer, Kirill Serebrennikov, whose films such as Uchenik (The Student) depict corruption in Russian society, its moral decay and the cruel hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church and its traditional values, much lauded for political purposes by Putin and his circle.
Progressive Russian culture is alive – in exile
Of course, Putin’s influence thankfully has its geographical limitations, and Russian literature can still flower outside the country and demonstrate to the world that another Russia with progressive and anti-war values exists.
One interesting and poignant new work which does exactly that is Nataliya Lizorkina’s Vanya zhiv (Vanya is alive), which played to appreciative houses at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In it, a Russian mother whose son has died at the front is forced to embrace the Orwellian double-speak of the current Russian regime and pretend that not only is her son unharmed, but all is well in the best possible of worlds.
Such works demonstrate that another Russia is indeed possible and provide a crumb of hope that Putin’s corrupt, perverted barbarous autocracy will not last for ever.
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