Talking Truth to Tyranny, Daily Brief February 28, 2024

Daily Brief, February 28, 2024


In my opinion, it’s one of the best pieces of writing ever to appear on our website.

Monday’s closing statement by Russian human rights champion Oleg Orlov to the Moscow court trying him on bogus charges is really that good.

Regular readers will be familiar with Orlov and his work, which we’ve highlighted here before. He’s a prominent, outspoken human rights defender and co-chair of the rights group Memorial, which Russian authorities shut down soon after it became a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

The absurd case against Orlov stems from his anti-war pickets and a critical article he wrote. He was charged with “repeated discreditation” of Russia’s armed forces, as if the Russian military had not repeatedly discredited itself by its atrocity-ridden invasion and occupation of Ukraine.

In his final statement to the court on Monday, Orlov not only shredded the farcical case against him, he also dissected the dictatorship at the heart of such injustices. I encourage you to read the whole thing (translated into English on HRW’s website here), but I wanted to share some excerpts with you in this newsletter, as well.

After first noting the recent shocking, if unsurprising, death of Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, Orlov addresses his own case…

I have committed no crime. I am being tried for a media article I wrote in which I called the political regime that’s been put in place in Russia totalitarian and fascist. I wrote it over a year ago. At the time, some of my friends thought I was blowing things out of proportion.

But now it’s blatantly clear. I wasn’t exaggerating at all. The state in our country controls not only public, political, and economic life. It also seeks total control over culture and the sciences and invades private life. The state has become all-pervasive. … there is no more private life.

Orlov lists some of the many recent events in Russia that prove his point, including the banning of books, the persecution of a non-existent “LGBT movement,” and prospective students having to memorize names on the state list of “foreign agents.”

He continues by recalling how he reread Franz Kafka’s The Trial during his hearings…

Our state of affairs really does have a few things in common with the situation Kafka’s protagonist ended up in – absurdity and tyranny dressed up as formal adherence to some pseudo-legal procedures.

We’re accused of discreditation, 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’s false about it. When we try to prove why the information is in fact accurate, these efforts become grounds for criminal prosecution. … We’re convicted for doubting that the goal of attacking a neighboring state is to maintain international peace and security. Absurd.

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

However, unlike Kafka’s protagonist, we do know the real reason why we’re being detained, tried, arrested, sentenced, and killed. We are being punished for daring to criticize the authorities. In present-day Russia, this is absolutely prohibited. …

Right now, Alexey Gorinov, Alexandra Skochilenko, Igor Baryshnikov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and many others are slowly being killed in penal colonies and prisons. 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. …

Navalny urged us, “Don’t give up.” We remember that. What I can add is this: do not lose heart, do not lose optimism. Because truth is on our side.

Those who have dragged our country into the abyss where it is now represent the old, decrepit, outdated order. They have no vision for the future – only false narratives of the past, delusions of “imperial greatness.” …

In the final part of his statement – perhaps the most powerful section of the text – Orlov addresses “those who are working to push forward the machine of repression.”

To government officials, law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors.

In fact, you know exactly what’s going on. And far from all of you are convinced that political repression is necessary. Sometimes you regret what you’re forced to do, but you tell yourself: “What else can I do? I’m just following orders.” …

A word to you, your Honor, and to the prosecution. Aren’t you yourselves afraid? You probably also love our country, aren’t you afraid to witness what it’s turning into? Aren’t you afraid that not only you and your children but, God forbid, your grandchildren also will have to live in this absurdity, in this dystopia?

Doesn’t the obvious occur to you – that sooner or later, the machine of repression may roll over those who launched it and drove it forward? That’s what happened many times throughout history. …

I am not entirely sure whether the creators and enforcers of Russia’s anti-legal, anti-constitutional laws will themselves be held accountable. But they will inevitably be punished. Their children or grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about where their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers worked and what they did. The same will happen to those who, in carrying out orders are committing crimes in Ukraine. In my view, this is the worst punishment. And it is inevitable.

Of course, Orlov’s well-chosen words on Monday did not prevent the judge from sentencing him on Tuesday. He got two and a half years in prison. The Kremlin’s juggernaut of domestic terror and international atrocities won’t change course with one statement.

But Orlov called out tyranny by speaking the truth – a simple act, made heroic by the circumstances. His words will be read and reread for a long time, I believe, no doubt with increasing relevance for Russia’s future generations, who will indeed ask their parents and grandparents about these dark days.