Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia

22 May 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

This week, on the 100th anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s birth, Moscow City authorities cancelled an exhibition entitled ‘Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov: Anxiety and Hope’ organised by the Sakharov Centre. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee presented the 2021 Sakharov Freedom Award to historian and dissident Yury Dmitriev, currently serving more than 13 years in prison. A court dismissed Aleksei Navalny’s legal challenge to the refusal by the Russian authorities to open an investigation into his attempted murder and the Investigative Committee placed dozens of staff members of the Anti-Corruption Foundation under investigation on charges of fraud. Nikolai Platoshkin, a former diplomat and prominent opposition activist, was given a five-year suspended sentence and fined 700,000 roubles on charges Amnesty International described as ‘absurd’ of ‘incitement to commit mass disorder’ and ‘dissemination of false information’. The State Duma passed three bills in first reading that would impose arbitrary restrictions on participation in public life and expand the reach of the legislation on  ‘undesirable foreign organisations.’ The European Court of Human Rights handed down two judgments regarding Russia, finding violations of Article 6 (fair trial) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention. Seventy-seven years ago this week, on 18-20 May 1944, at least 191,044 Crimean Tatars were deported from their homes by the Soviet authorities of whom nearly 8,000 died en route to the Uzbek SSR and tens of thousands subsequently perished. In Crimea itself, the tragedy was commemorated by courageous individuals who braved the warnings by the authorities not to hold ‘unsanctioned public events.’ 

End note

This week by cancelling an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s birth the Russian authorities seemed to case aside any pretence that Sakharov’s ideas – and ideals – are compatible with their politics. This incompatibility was illustrated starkly by the awarding of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s 2021 Sakharov Freedom Award to the imprisoned human rights activist and historian of the Stalin-era Terror, Yury Dmitriev. This makes all the more pertinent Lev Ponomarev’s question: ‘Let’s ask ourselves: what would happen to Sakharov if he was alive today?’ We may each answer in our own way, but events this week give some idea as to what would be his fate. We see the dismissal by a court of Aleksei Navalny’s legal challenge to the refusal by the Russian authorities to open an investigation into his attempted murder; the investigation of dozens of Navalny’s staff members for fraud; the conviction of Nikolai Platoshkin, a former diplomat and now opposition activist, on charges Amnesty International describes as ‘absurd’; the adoption in first reading by the State Duma of bills that will further restrict participation in public life and civic associations; violations of human rights that the Russian judicial system persistently fails to remedy; and residents of Crimea warned not to publicly mark the tragic events of their history – the deportations of 1944. Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre, in an essay has urged us all to ask, ‘How can Sakharov’s legacy be applied to our times?’ Lukashevsky’s own answer, at least in part, lies in the form of a quotation from Sakharov that speaks to the need to adhere to the ideals of human rights even as their protection and advancement in the real world becomes so difficult: ‘If we don’t have ideals, there’s nothing to hope for.’

Leave a Reply