Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 31 December 2021]

2 January 2021

By Simon Cosgrove

Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation

The week-ending 31 December may well prove to be a watershed in post-Soviet history as Russian courts orderd the closing down of International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, organisations whose origins lie in the final years of the 1980s of the Gorbachev reforms and that from that time have embodied hopes and aspirations for a freer and democratic Russia.

The moves to shut down the organisations (they may still appeal) was condemned by human rights groups around the world, including Amnesty International (also here), Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders, FIDH (also here), as well as the board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović and the Venice Commission joined in the chorus of condemnation. That very day, in an immediate response, the European Court of Human Rights granted an application by the Memorial Human Rights Centre and the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre for the enforcement of the proceedings to be suspended under Rule 39 of the Court, pending the Court’s judgment in the cases relating to the ‘foreign agents’ law lodged in 2013. Meanwhile, in another move against Memorial and all it stands for, a court in Karelia increased the jail sentence handed down to 65-year-old Gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev from 13 to 15 years.

Memorial has not been the only organisation under attack. In the confrontation between the state and society Aleksei Navalny’s attempts to build independent organisations to take part in elections has met with a ferocious response. This week police reportedly detained five former activists who worked with Navalny’s now disbanded organisations in Tomsk, Irkutsk, Arkhangelsk, Barnaul, and Saratov. Three were subsequently released, but former regional coordinators Ksenia Fadeeva and Zakhar Sarapulov have been charged with involvement in an extremist group. At the same time Yury Zhdanov, the father of Navalny associate Ivan Zhdanov who now lives in exile, was rearrested in what appears to be a politically motivated move days after he had been given a suspended sentence on corruption charges widely seen as fabricated. Ivan Zhdanov said  his father had been re-arrested and detained for allegedly breaking the terms of his suspended sentence.

The squeeze on the public space has also impacted the Pussy Riot protest group. Two of its members jailed for online posts from several years ago – Maria Alekhina and Liusya Shtein, went on hunger strike at the prison, demanding they be allowed to share a cell and be allowed to communicate with each other. Two other group members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Veronika Nikulshina – were designated as ‘foreign agents.’

The ‘foreign agent’ legislation has been used not only to restrict and close down civil society groups but to restrict freedom of expression and harass media outlets and journalists. Not only Pussy Riot members were labelled as ‘foreign agents’ this week. New designations have been prominent satirist Viktor Shenderovich, independent journalist and editor of the Holod news website Taisiya Bekbulatova, the art collector Marat Gelman and the founder of the Yaroslavl Neft film club Andrei Alekseev.  

In a report this week Human Rights Watch considered freedom of expression and the internet in Russia. The organisation said the Russian authorities had ‘redoubled their efforts’ over the past year to repress online freedoms, citing the blocking of tools used to circumvent censorship, expanding ‘oppressive’ Internet laws, and pressure on tech companies to comply with ‘increasingly stifling regulations.’ There was fresh evidence of such repressive measures this week as the country’s communications regulator blocked the website of the prominent human rights group, OVD-Info, Andrei Zakharov, an investigative reporter working for the BBC’s Russian-language service in Moscow designated a ‘foreign agent’ in October, said he had left Russia because of ‘unprecedented surveillance,’ Roskomnadzor added Netfllix to its register of ‘audio-visual services’ (thereby requiring the streaming service to offer state TV channels to Russian customers) and Reporters Without Borders called for the release of YouTuber Andrei Pyzh, sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly obtaining and sharing state secrets in what RSF called an ‘opaque and unfair trial.’

If all the above indicate the severity of the repressive measures the Russian state is currently inflicting upon society, there are still two areas of life where violations are particularly horrendous. One is the penitentiary system. Presumably in response to the recent spate of exposures about torture in the prison system, this week Anatoly Yakunin, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), was dismissed. However, the Belarusian Syarhey Savelyeu, who publicized a great many of the recent videos exposing torture in places of detention, claimed that a large number of officials know about the abuse but take action to combat it. Indeed, Marsel Amirov, a current prison inmate, said he suffered retaliation at the hands of prison officers for complaining about torture and rape he had experienced at their hands. He went on a 22-day hunger strike in protest.

The second area is territorial: Chechnya. In recent days six opposition activists critical of the Chechen authorities and human rights defenders reported the detention or disappearance of dozens of relatives. A lawyer working for the NGO Committee Against Torture said 21 of his relatives had been ‘abducted’ in Chechnya.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union a question has hung over the new Russia: what are the chances of a return to a regime as repressive as the Soviet Union? Despite the huge changes that have taken place in the country, under Vladimir Putin and his associates those in command of the levers of state power have demonstrated time and again that when push comes to shove they will not tolerate the existence of independent forces – groups and individuals – in society. Such an attitude is incompatible with the observance of human rights.

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