Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 5 May 2023]

7 May 2023

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

This week in Russia theatre director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrychuk were arrested and remanded in custody for two months for a play, Finist, the Bright Falcon, that had won a major Russian prize in 2022. A Russian soldier was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for absconding from his unit because he did not want to fight. A woman arrested after she was overheard criticising the war in the street was beaten up at a police station. Amnesty International called on the Russian authorities to ensure Aleksei Navalny’s health and safety and unconditionally release him. Human Rights Watch condemned the Russian authorities decision to prosecute human rights defender Oleg Orlov for criticism of the war. Reporters Without Borders placed Russia in 164th place in its 2023 Index of media freedom, noting in particular its pursuit of a ‘propaganda war’ and ‘systemic censorship,’ and Amnesty International published its submission to the 44th Session of the Universal Periodic Review to be held in November 2023 which it entitled Russian Federation: Dark Times for Human Rights and in which the organisation evaluates the implementation of recommendations made to Russia in its previous UPR and assesses the national human rights framework and the human rights situation on the ground. Meanwhile in Ukraine Russian authorities arrested and remanded in custody on charges of espionage Lenia Umerova, a Ukrainian citizen who went to Crimea to visit her father dying of cancer, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) confirmed that the journalist Dmytro Khyliuk, a correspondent with the Independent Ukrainian News Agency (UNIAN), has been abducted by Russian forces and is in detention in Russia, and Human Rights Watch condemned the adoption of new legislation by Russia that criminalizes assistance to foreign and international bodies, thereby notably targeting the International Criminal Court.

Inside Russia

Theatre director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrychuk were arrested and remanded in custody in Moscow for two months in connection with their play Finist, the Bright Falcon about women who marry radical Islamists online and join them in Syria, OVD-Info reported. Police officers had earlier searched the flat of Berkovich’s parents and grandmother in St Petersburg and questioned the director of the SOSO Daughters Theatre where the play was staged. The play

Freedom of artistic expression is impossible in Russia: critical statements can easily become a pretext for prosecution. The production of Finist, the Bright Falcon does not justify terrorists, its authors only wanted to examine why women were willing to go to Syria to lovers they didn’t even know in person. ‘What can be so wrong with a person, a woman, that she is prepared to put her whole life on the line, to trust not even a man but a picture on a screen?’ – that’s the question the playwrights wanted to answer. The play won the Golden Mask prize in 2022.


Private Sergei Spiridonov from St Petersburg who has been trying to resign from service for almost a year has been sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for absconding from his unit during mobilisation, OVD-Info reported. After the war began, Sergei Spiridonov began to deliberately commit disciplinary offences in order to be dismissed. After the announcement of the ‘partial’ mobilisation, Spiridonov escaped from his military unit five times and hid with his girlfriend, which became the reason for the criminal prosecution.

Sometimes even those who were prepared to serve in the army before the war began do not want to participate now. There are many reasons for this – for example, the fear of dying during the fighting, or opposition to the attack on Ukraine itself. But once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out. And spending years behind bars may be a better option for some than following criminal orders. However, even a criminal case may not save you – a soldier may, for example, receive a suspended sentence, after which he will be sent back into battle.


Muscovite Inna Olenich, detained after she and a friend loudly criticised the war in Ukraine in the courtyard of a residential building, was beaten up at a police station when, in October, security forces knocked her teeth, out, OVD-Info reported. A police officer began to inspect her bag, and the woman tried to grab it back, after which the officer pushed her away, knocked her face down on the floor, twisted her hands behind her back and cuffed her. According to Olenich, several of her teeth were knocked out, and blood smeared on the floor and on her clothes. At A&E, she was found to have multiple bruises.

The beating and torture of anti-war protesters at police stations has become commonplace. Sometimes the brutality of the police is completely inexplicable – for example, in the case of Inna Olenich, they did not need to get a statement from her. However, they know that they are unlikely to be punished for their actions, so they continue to take out their anger and aggression on ordinary people.


Amnesty International has made a submission to the 44th Session of the UPR Working Group (13 November 2023), entitled Russian Federation: Dark times for human rights, in which Amnesty International evaluates the implementation of recommendations made to Russia in its previous UPR, including in relation to counterextremism and counterterrorism legislation, domestic violence and social security and assesses the national human rights framework and the human rights situation on the ground.

With regard to the human rights situation on the ground, Amnesty International raises concern about violations of freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, conscience and religion, use of torture and other ill-treatment and persecution of LGBTI persons. It ends with a set of recommendations to Russia which, if implemented, would contribute to improving the human rights situation.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International in a statement called on the Russian authorities to ensure Aleksei Navalny’s health and safety, and unconditionally release him.

The health condition of Aleksei Navalny, Russian opposition leader and prisoner of conscience, raises serious concerns. The Russian authorities’ failure to provide him with adequate healthcare, his continued harassment and ill-treatment in prison, and their recent use of force against him gravely violate his human rights and Russia’s international obligations. Amnesty International demands the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksei Navalny and, pending it, that Russian authorities ensure that his life, health and safety are protected, and that his ongoing and further persecution stops.

Amnesty International

Human Rights Watch deplores the prosecution of human rights defender Oleg Orlov for criticism of the war.

Last weekend, Russian authorities moved one step closer towards potentially locking up Oleg Orlov, one of Russia’s most prominent and outspoken human rights defenders. On April 29, the prosecutor’s office formally indicted him on charges of repeatedly “discrediting” the Russian military, for which he faces a maximum three-year prison sentence. Authorities should immediately drop the charges. [….] On the same day as Orlov’s interrogation, law enforcement searched Memorial’s office, which the government was about to confiscate, and also searched the homes of Memorial’s leading representatives – including Orlov – and homes of their family members. […] The authorities are likely no less galled that Memorial, like many Russian human rights defenders, have remained in Russia even after the government closed down their legal entities, and in defiance of the Kremlin’s steamrolling persecution of dissent. Orlov’s prosecution sends a chilling signal to all of these courageous individuals.

Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch

Reporters Without Borders in its annual report placed Russia in 164th place in its 2023 Index of media freedom, noting in particular its pursuit of a ‘propaganda war’ and ‘systemic censorship.’

The terrain has been favourable for an increase in propaganda by Russia (164th), which has fallen another nine places in the 2023 Index. In record time, Moscow has established a new media arsenal dedicated to spreading the Kremlin’s message in the occupied territories in southern Ukraine, while cracking down harder than ever on the last remaining independent Russian media outlets, which have been banned, blocked and/or declared “foreign agents”. Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine (79th) helped give this country one of the Index’s worst scores for security.  […] In 2022, the war in Ukraine enabled the Kremlin to begin a final “purge” of the Russian media landscape. Systemic censorship and the forced exodus of independent Russian and foreign media outlets have freed up space for the dissemination of coordinated propaganda by pro-government media.

Reporters Without Borders

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Russian authorities have arrested and remanded in custody Lenia Umerova, a Ukrainian citizen who went to Crimea to visit her father who was dying of cancer in 2022, on suspicion of espionage, OVD-Info reported. Umerova, who is a Ukrainian citizen, was detained at the border with Georgia and held for several months in isolation in a temporary detention centre for foreign citizens. A court had cancelled her deportation back in March.

Russia is grabbing land that belonged to Ukraine, and families are being separated. This is turning into tragedy – a daughter can’t visit her father who is suffering from a terminal illness. And the Russian authorities have no compassion, so instead of letting the young woman go, she may be imprisoned for many years. The article of the Russian Criminal Code on espionage has been used for this purpose – apparently as a way of putting pressure on unwanted foreigners.


Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that it has obtained first-hand accounts confirming that Independent Ukrainian News Agency (UNIAN) correspondent Dmytro Khyliuk was taken by Russian forces and remains detained in Russia – official denials notwithstanding.

Dmytro Khyliuk has not disappeared. Russia has built a wall of lies about the Ukrainian journalist’s fate. But five exclusive accounts obtained by RSF have allowed us to follow the reporter’s trail, from the time of his arrest on 3 March 2022, in his village north of Kyiv, to his imprisonment and harsh interrogation in a Russian prison near the Ukrainian border. […] The ICRC has not had access to hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners held at Preventive Detention Centre No. 2 in Novozybkov, a small city in southwest Russia about 50 km from the Ukrainian border. RSF has traced Khyliuk to that installation. Blocked access constitutes a violation of Article 126 of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. A Russian lawyer for Khyliuk ran into the same obstacle when she went to the prison last year.

Reporters Without Borders

Human Rights Watch in a statement highlighted new Russian legislation that targets the International Criminal Court in a new move against accountability. On 28 April 2023, Russia adopted a new law criminalizing assistance to foreign and international bodies. HRW called the new law ‘an affront to victims of serious crimes. The organisation said the law ‘prohibits cooperation with international bodies, “to which Russia is not a party,” such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) or any ad hoc international tribunals that may be established to prosecute Russian officials and military personnel, as well as foreign courts. Such cooperation is punishable by up to five years in prison.’

The new law is apparently aimed at further undermining international efforts to secure accountability for crimes committed by Russian nationals, including in Ukraine. The law in Russia is a new toxic addition to the growing array of draconian criminal legislation adopted in recent years in the name of ‘state security.’ […] The adoption of this disturbing law is another move by Russian authorities to systematically stifle any effort to seek justice and deter scrutiny of Russia’s conduct abroad. The international community should publicly make clear that they will remain undaunted in their support for judicial bodies like ICC and will not tolerate Russia’s attempted obstruction of their crucial work.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch

Amnesty International’s submission to the 44th Session of the Universal Periodic Review sets out in excellent detail just how far Russia has fallen in terms of human rights since Putin came to power in 2000; this same week Reporters Without Borders in its annual Press Freedom Index has placed Russia in a shameful 164th out of 180 countries. And think back, in 2000 there were still many hopes, along with concerns, among Russia’s civil society actors – and Russia’s partners abroad – that the country that had emerged from the Soviet Union would, under new leadership, adhere at least partially and with some predictability to the fundamentals of the rule of law, democratic government and human rights.

Each reader can place their own date when such hopes were finally dashed. For many, it would have been 24 February 2022. For others, the moment Putin in September 2011 decided to return to the presidency after Dmitry Medvedev’s single term in office. For others, yet earlier.

This week we have seen a whole series of events that could have come from the Soviet playbook – the continuing torture in incarceration of the regime’s main political opponent, the prosecution of a high-profile human rights defender for opposing government policy (objecting to the war), the prosecution (reminiscent of the trial of Daniel and Sinyavsky) of a theatre director and a playwright, a woman arrested for comments casually made in the street, a soldier given seven years for refusing to fight in an illegal invasion of a neighbouring country. And that is not to mention such high-profile on-going cases as those of Evan Gershkovich and Vladimir Kara-Murza, whose treatment resembles nothing more than banditry in the guise of state policy.

Meanwhile we see the consolidation of the regime’s arbitrariness in the country that Russia has illegally invaded – Ukraine. If the day-by-day atrocities are put to one side (as if that were possible), this week the Russian authorities charged a Ukrainian citizen who went to Crimea to visit her father dying of cancer with espionage, are keeping a foreign correspondent the regime’s forces abducted in Ukraine in detention in Russia, and adopted legislation criminalizing assistance to foreign and international bodies in an attempt to shield itself from accountability under international law for war crimes and other atrocities. It remains to hope that none of the regime’s crimes will be forgotten, and for every crime, in one way or another, it will be held accountable.

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