On June 8, Moscow’s Golovinsky district court will hold the first hearing in the criminal trial against Oleg Orlov, a top Russian rights defender and my dear friend, who is facing up to three years’ imprisonment under Russia’s draconian war censorship legislation for repeatedly speaking out against the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
I met Oleg in 2000 at a news conference where he and his colleagues at Memorial, a leading human rights organization in the country, were exposing Russian atrocities in Chechnya and demanding accountability for perpetrators. Afterwards, we lingered over coffee. His fact-based accounts, steeped in gallows humor, and his overwhelming dedication to justice blew my mind and eventually led me to armed conflicts work.
Orlov has a degree in biology. In a different time and country, he might have remained in academia. But in 1979, while working in plant physiology, he couldn’t ignore the horrors of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He made and posted leaflets against the war, which could have landed him in prison for years had he been caught. That’s how it all began.
When Memorial was founded in 1988, Orlov joined in and soon headed its “hot spots” program, doggedly working in conflict zones in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Russia’s Northern Caucasus, and more. I had the privilege of working with him in Chechnya for many years and in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2016. Fearless, meticulous, and empathetic, Orlov is a stellar armed conflict researcher and an ideal travel partner who always has your back.
Orlov’s been through indiscriminate shelling, a kidnapping, death threats, the Russian government’s staggering crackdown on critics, and its punitive liquidation of Memorial. Nothing could stop him from his life’s work confronting injustice, exposing crimes by authorities, and assisting civilians who bore the brunt of abusive wars and so-called “counter terrorism operations.”
Earlier this year, when the government launched its criminal case against him, they did not lock him up. He could have fled abroad, as many Kremlin critics have done in the face of raging repression. But, a man of uncompromising principle, Orlov remained.
It would be naïve to expect the authorities to drop the case against him. But we should do our utmost to raise the costs of this politically motivated prosecution and to support a true hero who is standing up to Kremlin’s repression.