Oleg Orlov: “We’re here to stay.” How activists, journalists and human rights defenders continue their work in Russia

4 May 2022

by Oleg Orlov, human rights defender and member of the board of the Memorial Centre

An extract from ‘Понаоставались тут. Как активисты, журналисты и правозащитники продолжают свою деятельность в России’, The Insider, 4 May 2022

Source: The Insider

Oleg Orlov has worked as a human rights defender for more than 30 years and has co-authored many of the reports of the Memorial Human Rights Centre. As an observer, he repeatedly visited areas of armed conflict in the former Soviet Union. In 1995, after the release of Budennovsk residents seized during a terrorist attack on the city hospital, he and several other MPs and human rights activists volunteered to be a ‘human shield’ during the retreat of Shamil Basaev’s group of fighters. Over the past two months, Oleg Orlov has been arrested several times as he held single-person pickets in protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine. Orlov also co-founded the Council of Russian Human Rights Defenders, which released its Humanitarian Manifesto Against the War on 25 March 2022.

On 24 February, we were abroad. We had a retreat there where we discussed our future lives. When we learned that the invasion had begun, we were horrified. We understood, unlike most of our fellow citizens, that this was some kind of turning point. I remember several such turning points in my life. This is just such a difficult, terrible turning point of a lifetime.

All the members of Memorial who took part in the retreat went back to Russia. No one at the time had any thought of staying abroad. After all, we were discussing our future lives and we had to go back and at least do everything possible so that in the new conditions Memorial could continue its work and do what it had been doing. During the war some of my colleagues left, some stayed. I am also staying. More than once there were times when people were saying we should leave and it was getting worse here. I always thought I didn’t want to go anywhere. This is my country. I started working at Memorial 30 years ago for the sake of my country and I want to live and die in my country. I work for my country’s sake. Though I can’t say for sure that no matter what happens I’m going to stay.

Nothing too bad has happened to me so far. All right, so I was arrested, so I was taken to the police station. However, I wasn’t the only one. My colleagues were also brought in, and I met some really good people in the police van and at the police station. Where I was, there was nothing of the kind that happened in some police stations, where they not only threatened people but also used physical force. Everything was within the legislation, if you can call it legislation. But everything that has happened is absolutely outside the law.

The authorities have passed a whole heap of completely draconian laws that have practically destroyed freedom of speech. They include criminalising ‘the dissemination of knowingly false information about the actions of the armed forces of the Russian Federation,’ and ‘discreditation,’ which can mean anything at all. They consider the words ‘Fascism will not pass’ as discrediting the armed forces. Of course, anyone who says anything about the war now is in danger of being on the receiving end of repressive measures.

It is quite obvious that the overwhelming majority of people are not ready to protest. Many, deep down, do not support these developments, but they think that it is better to remain silent. They are afraid, they don’t want any trouble and, relatively speaking, a significant proportion of society is indifferent. It is quite obvious that our Russian society is abnormal and profoundly diseased, and has been diseased for a long time now. Indifference is probably the most terrible and serious disease there is. People simply do not see that this war will inevitably impact them.

I am sure that it would have been possible to influence the authorities. It could have been like Bolotnaya, the white ribbon movement with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, and the authorities perhaps would have acted differently. Maybe this would soon start to de-escalate this war. Of course, it wouldn’t have stopped it immediately, there would be no repenting and no withdrawal of troops from the DPR and the LPR. But at least all of the horror that has been happening this month in the warzone might not have been happening to the same extent. It’s quite possible that the authorities would have been much more amenable in negotiations, and would have sought a compromise, if they weren’t already seeking one. At what price, what terrible price, will this government of ours, God willing, finally compromise? At the cost of the lives of our fellow citizens and, to a far greater extent, at the cost of the lives of Ukrainian citizens, primarily civilians, and at a terrible cost to the economy.

Of course, no alternative point of view is reported to Russians, precisely so that there won’t be protests. To some extent this betrays the weakness of the authorities: they are very afraid of protest fever breaking out. This, again, shows that Russian society had the opportunity to prevent the war from breaking out in the way that it now has. But society did not take advantage of this opportunity. 

It would probably be possible to wake people up if there were alternative information and if people started to understand what was happening. It seems to me that the reality will inevitably begin to reach people, and maybe it is already reaching them. Even through our propaganda channels – I don’t like them, and I wouldn’t usually watch them, but I do now because you have to understand what they want to say – even there they are saying that the military are facing formidable resistance and that they are struggling to occupy towns and villages. Inevitably, people are starting to realise that the ‘short, victorious war’ is turning into something terrible. 

More than once, I have been asked the question: ‘Where have you been for eight years and why didn’t you talk about the shelling of Donetsk?’ Eight years ago, we took many trips to both sides of the frontline. We went to both the so-called LPR and DPR, and the Ukrainian side. We saw everything and described all the horrors. We described the pseudo-referendum [a reference to the referendum ‘On the Independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic’ which took place on 11 May 2014 – The Insider] – in the report entitled A Failed Referendum because we most certainly – and factually – showed that the referendum was a farce, that there had not been a referendum there, and that it was impossible to calculate how many people had voted. 

Then, when the fighting started, we were recording what was happening. I was in Donetsk when shells were falling there from the Ukrainian side, when residential areas were being shelled. We said this directly also to our Ukrainian colleagues, and we wrote about it in the report, and we said internationally that this is a crime, that you cannot strike residential areas of a city, any populated area, with Grad missiles. We were told by our Ukrainian colleagues, and we saw for ourselves, that these residential areas were where the DPR and LPR firing positions were located. Yes, this is true, but it does not justify a strike that kills children and causes shells to hit hospitals. And we mustn’t forget that our propagandists kept talking about what the Ukrainian side was doing, but they did not say that settlements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were also being destroyed by the other side – by separatist shelling and by shelling from our troops, which were then several times brought in and withdrawn. We saw the results of this shelling, we were there where people were dying at the time, and we see it now on our TV screens.

At some point they no longer wanted us, people from Memorial, to be there. In the DPR and LPR we were told: ‘Our special services have declared you personae non grata. Unfortunately, in exactly the same way the Ukrainian foreign ministry negatively assessed one of the reports that we had written and published jointly with our Ukrainian partners. They also wanted us just to talk about one side of the conflict. Both sides wanted that, so at some point they both stopped letting us in.

After a month had passed from the start of the war of aggression against Ukraine, we, a number of Russian human rights defenders, not in the name of our organizations, some of which had already been liquidated, but speaking as individuals, issued a manifesto that we called the ‘Humanitarian Manifesto.’ In this manifesto we very clearly called everything by its right name: war – war, aggression – aggression, deaths of civilians and the terrible consequences of all this for Russia. In this manifesto we also announced the creation of a Council of Russian Human Rights Defenders to coordinate our actions under these very difficult circumstances.

The spring call-up is now underway and a huge number of young people may be drafted. If events continue to unfold as they are unfolding now, we absolutely cannot rule out that conscripts will be sent to fight. Hence the importance of alternative civilian service, the opportunity for people to use all their legal rights to protect themselves from conscription. We have to provide that. Then there is the question of refugees. They must be helped, we are already helping them and we are ready to increase this help. Then there is the question of those who are fighting there – their relatives have the right to know their fate. Some of these soldiers have disappeared without trace. Relatives have the right to receive the bodies of their loved ones if there is information that they have been killed. And they have the right to demand an exchange of prisoners if their relatives have been taken prisoner. Another important area is assistance to the victims of political repression. The numbers of these victims are increasing now, and new repressive legislation looks inevitable. Next is the protection of the media, of journalists. It is clear that there is minimal opportunity to protect the media and journalists in conditions where there is no freedom of expression. Nevertheless, something can and must be done in this direction. It seems to me that in these conditions of general fear, of a kind of paralysis of Russian civil society, it was important for us to say this publicly and to announce that we are not paralyzed and are ready to keep working.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove and Verity Hemp

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