Aleksandr Cherkasov: War is impossible without repression [Human Rights in Ukraine]

18 July 2022

by Aleksandr Cherkasov, until its closure chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre

Source: Human Rights in Ukraine [Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group]; reprinted by kind permission

Translation by Human Rights in Ukraine

Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of attacking the United Russia party office. On June 6, a conference organized by the Committee of Mathematicians and the Human Rights Center “Memorial” was held in support of the young scientist. At this event, Oleksandr Cherkasov, head of the Council of the “Memorial” OC, spoke about the connection between political repressions within Russia and the aggressive war against Ukraine.


Thank you for the invitation to speak.

Our meeting is devoted to the case of Azat Miftakhov, but I will not talk about the case itself. Those who are gathered here, I believe, know this name and this case.

And generally speaking, after February 24, 2022, after Russia started a largescale war in Ukraine, we can hardly talk about anything else but this war. Or, if that is too strong an assertion, then: it is hardly possible, while talking about something, not to talk about the war in Ukraine. But it is also true that talking about the war in Ukraine, about the tens of thousands of dead and millions of refugees, about war crimes and crimes against humanity, one cannot forget about the causes of the war. About the conditions that made this unthinkable war possible.

And political prisoners, political repression in Russia, is one of those conditions.


A state that grossly and massively violates human rights inside its borders sooner or later becomes a threat to peace and international security. This is, if you will, a theorem – seemingly definitively proven by the experience of the Second World War. The system of international cooperation, the system of international organizations, was built on this experience in order to prevent a repetition of 1939. Preventing it did not work: war was again unleashed in the center of Europe.

It is naive to ask why in Russia itself an impeachment procedure has not been started, why there are no prominent speeches by opposition leaders in the parliament or an anti-war campaign in the national media. The parliamentary and party systems have long since been dismantled, only decorations remain, and the media is controlled by the state and turned into a propaganda tool. The feedback loops that were supposed to prevent all that did not work. How and why they failed, did not have time, did not try to stop this process of transforming Russia into an aggressor, into the “sick man of Europe” is a separate painful theme.

But here is a question that has been asked repeatedly all these months: Why are there no mass anti‑war street demonstrations? What is the reason why the state has such effective control over society? The reason, not least of all, is the very political repression, criminal convictions and imprisonment for peaceful activities. But there is also the context of this repression that makes it so effective.


It is, firstly, political terror.

Yes, there is no death penalty in Russia, but I will name a few names. Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta journalist, Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer and leftwing activist, Natalia Estemirova of Memorial. All of them had fought against enforced disappearances in the armed conflict zone in the Caucasus, Chechnya – and all of them were killed. The opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who after 2014 became one of the leaders of the anti‑war movement in Russia, was murdered. It would seem that these deaths could be attributed to marginal groups or the authorities in Chechnya. But after the attempted poisoning of another opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and largely thanks to him, was uncovered a system of political murders using poisons, poisonings perpetrated by agents of the Russian central authorities. Navalny survived the poisoning, investigated the poisoning, and is now in custody.

Why am I talking about political assassinations here – a seemingly different, very special topic? But this “very special topic” gives importance to everything else – as the “essentially singular point” of a function says a lot about the behavior of that function at other points. It puts an imprint on the whole of society. In the same way that enforced disappearances, which have become a widespread and systematic practice, have left their mark on contemporary Chechnya. Half a century ago, the Soviet scholar and dissident Valentin Turchin called this “inertia of fear”, referring to Soviet society in the post‑Stalin period. But even now, when discussing Chechnya, for example, the “Kadyrovites” and the omnipotence of Ramzan Kadyrov, one must remember the many thousands of disappeared people whose deaths formed the basis of the current “stability” and governability of Chechnya.


In Russia, those who openly oppose the war are arrested and tried.

Another Russian politician who survived two attempts by Russian agents to poison him is Vladimir Kara‑Murza. He has been very active in promoting the topic of Russian political prisoners around the world. Now he has been arrested for speaking out about the war in Ukraine. He spoke in the American outback, in Arizona! – and is now in a Russian prison.

Tomorrow, July 7, another court hearing will be held in Moscow in the case of Moscow municipal councilor Alexei Gorinov. At the municipal council meeting, he talked about the war, about the victims of the war, about murdered children – and was arrested for this. In the coming days a sentence will be handed down, and it is likely to be severe.

They are being charged under a new article in the criminal code on “fake news about the army”. Appreciate the logic: any statement that does not correspond to official statements by defense ministry officials is declared false in Russia. You can get up to 10 years in prison for such a statement.

Or another Moscow deputy, Ilya Yashin, who has been directly and systematically expressing his anti‑war stance. He is now under administrative arrest. But it is likely that the administrative case here is a police lemma preceding a proof of a theorem based on Article 207.3 of the criminal code.

A person is detained under an article of the administrative code while at the same time they prepare grounds for a criminal case – “fakes about the army, up to 10 years”.

And here I would like to draw your attention to the second important point – the correlation and interrelation of administrative and criminal repressions in today’s Russia. They are comparable to what it was in the late Soviet years – from the late 1950s to the late 1980s.

In the post-Stalin era, the authorities of the Soviet Union faced a problem: how to effectively control society (albeit in a situation of “inertia of fear”) without using mass repression? As a result, in 1959 a system of ‘prophylaxis’ was introduced which meant that for every person convicted of a criminal offence ‘for politics’ there were about a hundred people subjected to extra-judicial repressions. Administrative or unofficial, but with the obvious threat of criminal reprisals if the activity continued.

The repressive system that has been put in place in recent months and years shows a similar, if not the same, logic.

In the past, you could face Article 20.2.5 of the Administrative Code, with a fine of several tens of thousands of rubles for going to a rally or picket. For a repeat picket you face Article 20.2.8 of the same code, up to 300 thousand rubles fine, or up to 30 days of arrest. And if you are detained three times within six months, you may be criminally liable under Article 212.1 – up to five years in prison. This article is also referred to as the “Dadin article” after Ildar Dadin, who was the first person convicted under it.

At the very beginning of the war in Ukraine, on March 4, 2022, special articles on “discrediting the Russian army” were introduced, Article 20.3.3 of the administrative code (a fine of up to 50 thousand rubles, or up to a hundred thousand if you call for public actions), and Article 280.3 of the criminal code (up to five years in prison).

That is to say, although nowhere here is the word “prevention”, the prospect of criminal punishment in the event of continued activity in both cases is clearly spelled out.

Many thousands of people have been detained under these administrative offences in recent months. More than two and a half thousand for “defamation” alone. These people have not been convicted or even charged with criminal offences, but they are already under threat of imprisonment if they take to the streets again.

They don’t even have to be apprehended by the police. We live in the twenty-first century, progress continues, and Moscow has a system of facial recognition on cameras installed on the streets and in the metro. Last year, records from such cameras were used to register administrative cases “for rallies and marches”. A month ago, such camera footage was used to stop people who were not at any rally, but who were simply entering the metro to go to the city center.

There is another point which will particularly amuse mathematicians. In the case of this ladder of responsibility – administrative cases first, followed by criminal cases – in the second stage, in the criminal court, administrative decisions (i.e. arguments known to be “weaker”) are used as valid evidence in the subsequent criminal conviction. In administrative courts, the defense does not have the same rights as in criminal proceedings. The prosecution is represented by a judge, i.e. they are one and the same person. But there is administrative prejudice!


Third – in order, but not in importance – is an important circumstance: the conditions of detention during the investigation and after conviction. Simply put, torture, cruel and degrading treatment and punishment.

That is what is happening right now, these days.

First example. The aforementioned councillor Alexei Gorinov, recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner, was placed in a four-bed cell with seven people after his arrest. He could not sleep properly. Being ill, he did not receive the treatment and care he required.

A second example. The scientist physicist Dmitri Kolker was arrested by the FSB on June 30. We did not have time to include him in the lists of political prisoners. He had the fourth stage of cancer, was taken away from the hospital, and died in prison on the third day.

I should say here that even in the dark ages, when Yuri Andropov was the head of the Soviet Union, the USSR State Security Committee did not arrest people with severe cancer! When Solzhenitsyn’s Fund for Assistance to Political Prisoners was “smashed up” in 1983, Andrei Kistyakovsky, the manager of the Fund, was not arrested because he was terminally ill. I could go on and on with this list. At that time this would seem indecent in front of the whole world. Now, no, it’s no longer indecent. On the contrary: everyone knows that even a sick, dying man can be thrown in prison.

A third example. Recently the conditions in which political prisoner Alexei Navalny is being held became known. A “prison within a prison” has been created for him in a high‑security colony. A six‑meter high blanket fence, strict isolation. Maximum uncomfortable conditions for a man with a bad back, during working hours and after work. To listen to songs glorifying the FSB. To sit under Putin’s portrait. This is probably better than the “special conditions” created for Navalny in the previous camp. But, mind you, this is Navalny, the man in the spotlight.

With “ordinary” political prisoners things are simpler. The aforementioned Ildar Dadin was tortured in custody by the camp administration. This is no exception: torture in Russian prisons has long been a system – not for “political” prisoners, but for anyone who cannot be broken.

Just as torture during interrogations and investigations has long been the system. I spoke above about the Foundation for Assistance to Political Prisoners – well, in 1983, its administrator, Sergei Khodorovich, was tortured after his arrest for six months – but it was done by his cellmates, criminals who collaborated with the investigation. This was called a “press cell”, which is still the case today. However, unlike in the late Soviet era, the system has long been “unmediated” torture by “men in uniform”.

And it is no secret – everyone knows about torture in Russia today. So, do those who came out to protest against the war in Ukraine.


To summarize, I can say that political repression – criminal conviction for non‑violent activity – has become the most important method of social management, “social engineering” in Russia. Including (now above all) as a way of suppressing the antiwar movement.

There are dozens of such criminal cases, but these reprisals also indirectly affect the thousands of people who have been convicted administratively – reminiscent of the Soviet practice of “prevention”. But such “prevention” is ineffective without ongoing criminal reprisals.

It also gives a different perspective on the number of political prisoners in contemporary Russia – about half a thousand. Is this a lot or a little? After all, if this repression has a purpose, this purpose is not “to put everyone in jail”, but “by putting the few in jail, to control everyone”.

When talking about “control”, systemic factors such as torture and ill-treatment during investigation and in custody, and the practice of political assassinations (which in a sense replaced the death penalty in the USSR) must also be taken into account.

“Prevention” is ineffective without criminal repression, social control is impossible without repression, war is impossible without repression.

One last thing. The number of prisoners and forcibly detained Ukrainian citizens now stands at over six thousand. But the Ukrainian prisoners are being held, albeit separately, in the same prisons. They are interrogated by the same interrogators. They are being tortured in the same way as Russian citizens were tortured before.

Repression is a necessary condition for war. Torture and political assassinations are a precondition for the effectiveness of repression. So, the struggle for the freedom of political prisoners, the struggle against torture and political assassination in Russia is an integral part of the struggle for peace.

Thank you.

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