Oleg Orlov’s speech at his trial: ‘We now find ourselves in the world of George Orwell’

11 October 2023

Oleg Orlov’s speech at his trial

Source: Radio Svoboda

Radio Svoboda has published the text of Oleg Orlov’s final speech at his trial for ‘discrediting’ the Russian army for posts on social media posts and for anti-war protests. He was sentenced to a fine of 150,000 roubles.

Many of those who share my views have been punished with extreme cruelty. They have been sentenced to many years’ imprisonment for words, for peaceful protests, for the truth. Aleksei Gorinov and Vladimir Kara-Murza are now being killed by being placed in a punishment cell. Aleksandra Skochilenko’s health is being deliberately undermined while she is held on remand. The court refused to allow Igor Baryshnikov, who is seriously ill, to attend his mother’s funeral under escort, and he himself has essentially been deprived of medical care. And let’s not forget Dmitry Ivanov, Ilya Yashin and all those sentenced to years of captivity for protesting against the war.

Against this background, the punishment the prosecution is seeking in my case appears extremely lenient. It would seem a small price to pay for expressing a position that I believe to be true. But in case of any conviction, we shall appeal, because any conviction in this case, whether the sentence is severe or mild, will be a violation of the Russian Constitution, a violation of the law, a violation of my rights.

I do not regret going on anti-war pickets or writing the article for which I am being tried. My entire previous life left me no other choice. I cannot but recall the favourite motto of my teacher, the great human rights defender Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, a motto formulated long ago by Roman thinkers: ‘Do what must be done and let, what will be, be.’

I do not regret that I did not leave Russia. This is my country, and I believe that my voice would sound louder from Russia. And now, thanks to the joint efforts of the political police, the investigation, the prosecutor’s office and the courts, my modest newspaper article has received the kind of publicity I could never have dreamed of.

And I have absolutely no regrets at all that for many years I worked at Memorial for the future of my country. It may seem now that ‘everything has gone to ruin.’ It may seem that everything that I and my friends and colleagues did has been destroyed, that our work was pointless. But that is not so. I am certain that before much time has passed our country will emerge from the darkness in which it is now immersed. And the fact that this is inevitable owes a great deal to the community around Memorial and all our friends and colleagues in Russian civil society, which no one will be able to destroy.

You may ask, why did I go on pickets and why did I write this short article? Nowadays the very concept of ‘patriotism’ in our country has been compromised. In the eyes of a huge number of people, Russian patriotism has become synonymous with imperialism. But for me and for many of my friends this is not so. In my opinion, patriotism is not primarily pride in one’s country, but burning shame for the crimes committed in its name. Just as we were ashamed during the first and second Chechen wars, so we are ashamed now for what, in the name of Russia, citizens of this country are committing in Ukraine.

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote a treatise in 1946, The Question of Guilt. On the Political Responsibility of Germany. In this work he formulated theses about four types of guilt on the part of Germans as a result of the Second World War: criminal, political, moral and metaphysical. In my opinion, the ideas set out there are very consonant with our current situation – the situation of Russian citizens in the third decade of the 21st century.

I will not speak here about criminal culpability. Those who have committed crimes will either be punished for it or not. But the future of today’s Russia (like the future of Germany in 1946) depends to a large extent on whether we are all, without exception, ready to reflect not on the guilt of others, but on our own guilt. Here is a quote from Jaspers’ work:

The phrase: ‘You are to blame’ can mean that you are responsible for the crimes of a regime you tolerated. Here we are talking about our political guilt. You are also to blame in that you supported this regime, participated in it – this is our moral guilt. You are to blame because you did not act when crimes were being committed nearby – here we are talking about metaphysical guilt.

In my opinion, people who love their homeland cannot help but think about what is happening to the country with which they feel inextricably linked. They can’t help but think about their responsibility for what happened. And they cannot help but try to share their thoughts with others. Sometimes there is a price to pay for that. And I have tried.

And here’s another quote. This time from an official statement made on 22 March of this year:

Russia and China call on all countries to promote universal human values such as peace, development, equality, justice, democracy and freedom, and to engage in dialogue rather than confrontation.

This is being said in the name of a State that has sent its troops into the territory of a neighbouring country, Ukraine, whose territorial integrity it continued to recognise until recently. This is said in the name of a State waging a war that has been characterized by the majority of UN Member States as aggression.

This is being declared in the name of a State in which all freedoms have been suppressed, in which laws that directly contradict the Constitution have been hastily adopted and are being applied everywhere, laws that criminalize any critical speech. Including the law on the basis of which you are now judging me.

Yes, ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery’, and ‘Russian troops in Ukraine are upholding international peace and security’. Your honours, isn’t it obvious that we now find ourselves in the world of George Orwell, in his novel 1984? What an amazing time warp!

In real history, as opposed to literature, the year following 1984 was the year when serious changes began in the USSR. Then there was perestroika, and then the democratic revolution of 1991. It seemed that the changes were irreversible. And now thirty-odd years have passed, and we find ourselves back in 1984.

There is as yet no concept of ‘thought crime’ in the Russian Criminal Code. Russian citizens are not yet punished for doubting the correctness of state policy, so long as these doubts are expressed in a whisper and in their own apartment. They are not yet punished for making the wrong facial expression. Yet. But if such doubts are expressed outside one’s apartment, denunciation and punishment may follow. It is already punishable to wear clothes of the ‘wrong’ colours. And, moreover, any public expression of an opinion that does not coincide with the official viewpoint is punishable. It is punishable to express the slightest doubt about the accuracy of the official reports of the Ministry of Defence. In these circumstances, of course, the  emergence of a law on thoughtcrime is inevitable, perhaps in the near future.

So far in Russia books are not being burned in public squares. But books by authors that displease the authorities are already marked with the humiliating label ‘foreign agent’. In bookstores they are removed to the farthest shelves, and in libraries they are given to readers almost in secret. Actors who have allowed themselves to speak out in terms that don’t quite coincide with what the authorities say are dismissed from theatres. The great actress Liya Akhedzhakova was thrown out of the profession for her civic stance. While all this is happening the majority of those who until recently were called the ‘theatre public’ are silent. There can be no public in a totalitarian state. Everyone must be afraid and keep silent.

All the more am I immensely grateful to that public, to those wonderful people who were not afraid and who came to this trial – and continue to come to other political trials. Thank you very much!

What is happening in Russia now was impossible to even imagine even quite recently. Theatre director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk have been remanded in custody for a thought-provoking play about the reasons that sometimes push young women into the networks of terrorist organizations.

The regime that has been established in Russia has no need at all for people to think for themselves. What is needed is something else – statements as simple as mooing, and only in support of what the authorities proclaim to be true at the given moment. The state no longer only controls the social, political, and economic life of the country – it claims complete control over culture and interferes in private life. It is becoming all-encompassing. This trend did not just manifest itself after 24 February last year. It appeared much earlier. The war has only accelerated this process.

How did my country, which had left Communist totalitarianism, slip back into totalitarianism? What should we call this type of totalitarianism? Who is to blame? These questions were the focus of my short article, for which I am on trial. I understand that there will be people who will say: there is the law, it must be obeyed. I remember that in 1935 the so-called Nuremberg Laws were adopted in Germany. And then, after the victorious year 1945, those who made these laws were put on trial.

I have no confidence that the current Russian creators of these unlawful, anti-constitutional laws will be punished in court. But I am certain that punishment is inevitable. The children and grandchildren of those who made these laws will be ashamed to remember where their fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers worked, where they served and what they did. Exactly the same will happen to those now committing crimes in Ukraine in fulfilment of orders. In my opinion, this is the most terrible punishment. And it is inevitable.

Well, and punishment for me is also inevitable, because in the current circumstances an acquittal on such charges is impossible. We shall soon find out what the sentence will be.

In the nineteen-nineties I participated in drafting the law ‘On the rehabilitation of victims of political repression’. And in the free Russia of the future, this law is certain to be supplemented and refined in order to provide for the rehabilitation of all current Russian political prisoners, all those who were prosecuted for political reasons, including for anti-war activities.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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