Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


The Evil Empire collapsed. Putin’s regime will, too.

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, left, and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, right. (Natalia Kolesnikova; Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

In the long line of people who have been victims of Soviet and Russian dictators, Alexei Navalny was extraordinary. He dedicated himself to unmasking the cynical, corrupt nature of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. And he succeeded, revealing the truth to the world.

He was so dedicated to exposing the nature of Putin’s regime that he chose to return to Russia to force his would-be murderers to make their villainy public. In going back, he showed the people of Russia and the world that he was not afraid — and that neither should they be afraid to act.

In a letter he wrote to one of us from prison, Navalny stated that the “virus” of freedom will never be killed and that hundreds of thousands of people will continue to fight for freedom and against the war in Ukraine.

This was also the message that Vladimir Kara-Murza sent earlier this week from his solitary cell in a “special regime” prison colony in Omsk, Russia. Kara-Murza, a Post contributing columnist, suffers from polyneuropathy, a disease affecting peripheral nerves that has resulted from two near-fatal attempts by the Russian regime to poison him, in 2015 and again in 2017. He, too, is fighting on with astonishing courage.

In so doing, Navalny and Kara-Murza, as well as hundreds of other dissenters, activists and protesters, have followed in the footsteps of Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents who showed that, with courage and moral clarity, it is possible to change the world.

Kara-Murza said after his sentencing that while he had initially expected that his imprisonment and trial would resemble what the Soviet dissidents experienced in the 1960s and ’70s, he now saw parallels with the Stalin period. There is no question that the Kremlin’s campaign of political repression is intensifying. According to Memorial, a human rights organization that continues to monitor the arrest of dissidents despite it being muzzled by courts, Russia now holds 676 political prisoners, nearly four times the number in 2018 and more than in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Nearly all independent political figures from the Russian opposition who have not fled the country are now behind bars or under house arrest, including Kara-Murza’s friend and political ally Ilya Yashin, who is serving an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence for “spreading false information” about Russian massacres of civilians in the city of Bucha, near Kyiv.

The scope of political repression extends far beyond the vocal democratic opposition. According to OVD-Info, a Russian nongovernmental organization that tracks detentions, more than 8,500 administrative cases have been initiated under Article 20.3.3 on “discrediting the armed forces.” This includes Alexei Moskalyov, a single father who was sentenced to two years in jail for discrediting the Russian army after his then 13-year-old daughter drew an antiwar picture in school.

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They are not the only victims. Their families, many with young children, have been left to survive on their own, often with no source of income or other support. To help them, Kara-Murza announced from prison, before he was sent to Omsk, that he will donate the funds he received from three human rights prizes — some 110,000 euros — to provide direct financial support to the families of Russian political prisoners. To do this, he and his wife, Evgenia, have founded the 30 October Foundation, named after the Day of Political Prisoners that was established by Soviet dissidents in 1974. The foundation continues in the tradition of Yelena Bonner’s fund to help children of political prisoners and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Social Fund to aid political prisoners and their families, both established in the 1970s.

The political prisoners in Russia, along with thousands of antiwar protesters across the country who have risked arrest, are the cutting edge of a larger movement of political opposition. People are mounting a collective response to the growing number of political prisoners. Networks inside and outside Russia continue to organize letter-writing campaigns to these captives, providing them with independent news and information to counteract the propaganda that is prevalent in Russian jails. In addition, crowdfunding campaigns have collected significant donations. A telethon organized by several independent media outlets last June raised 34.5 million rubles ($415,000) to defend people facing criminal prosecution for demonstrating against the war.

It would be profoundly wrong to assume that there is no possibility for a democratic opening in Russia, especially considering the devastating consequences of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Navalny and Kara-Murza have said repeatedly that a reckoning will come — that there will be another window of opportunity, not unlike the 1990s following the collapse of Communist rule. But this time, Russians must not repeat the terrible mistake of failing to break with the evils of the past — the brutal dictatorship and repression, the foreign aggressions, the Orwellian system of lies and subverting not just the truth but normal human values.

If these evils are to be vanquished, they must be fully understood — and condemned. There must be a moral awakening. That can’t happen without the leadership of the prisoners of conscience, who — like Navalny and Kara-Murza and the countless others imprisoned alongside them — have the moral courage, democratic vision and political fearlessness to chart a new path for Russia. They deserve our full solidarity since the fate of freedom far beyond the borders of Russia rests heavily on the success of their struggle.


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