A Russian Dissident’s Remarkable Courtroom Speech

Oleg Orlov began his career by protesting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At about the same time, he joined Memorial, Russia’s first and most important historical and human-rights organization—in Russia, the two subjects are organically connected—while it was still an underground, dissident operation. In the 1990s, Memorial emerged into the open and began publishing books detailing the mass arrests and murders committed by the Soviet Union. During the decade I spent researching the history of the Soviet Gulag, I ran into Memorial historians and activists all over Russia, including in their one-person “office” in Syktyvkar and in the spectacular museum, now dismantled, that they built on the site of a former concentration camp near Perm.

[Anne Applebaum: Russia has a new Gulag]

Memorial is dedicated both to revealing the truth about the past and preventing that past from repeating itself in the future. Its activists work in archives, but they also monitor human-rights violations in modern Russia. Orlov, who became Memorial’s co-chairman, worked especially hard to expose the horrors of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, and the cultural and political destruction that followed. He did so because he wanted to live in a different kind of Russia. Now he will pay a high price for his patriotism.

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the regime shut down Memorial, after 30 years of operation. The same regime arrested Orlov, who had criticized the invasion with the same unsparing language he had used for the previous four decades. “This brutal war,” he wrote in an article, is “not only mass murder of people and destruction of the infrastructure, economy, and cultural sites” of Ukraine, but also “a severe blow to the future of Russia,” a country that “is now pushed back into totalitarianism, but this time into a fascist totalitarianism.” Like Alexei Navalny, whose funeral took place in Moscow Friday, Orlov was extraordinarily brave—brave enough to publish his criticism of the war, of President Vladimir Putin, and of Putin’s regime.

[Anne Applebaum: Why Russia killed Navalny]

On February 27, Orlov received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “discrediting the Russian army.” Following in a long tradition of Soviet dissidents before him, Orlov made a courtroom speech, addressed to those in the room and beyond. Joseph Brodsky, who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature, sparred in 1964 with a Soviet judge who asked him by what right he dared state “poet” as his occupation:  “Who ranked you among poets?” Brodsky replied, “No one. Who ranked me as a member of the human race?” That exchange circulated throughout the Soviet Union in handwritten and retyped versions, teaching an earlier generation about bravery and civic courage.

Orlov’s speech will also be reprinted and reread, and someday it will have the same impact too. Here are excerpts, translated by one of his colleagues:

On the first day of my trial, terrible news shocked Russia and the entire world: Alexey Navalny was dead. I, too, was in shock. At first, I even wanted to give up on making a final statement. Who cares about words today, when we have not recovered from the shock of this news? But then I thought: These are all links in the same chain.  Alexey’s death or, rather, murder; the trials of other critics of the regime including myself; the suffocation of freedom in the country; the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army. So I have decided to speak.

I have not committed any crime. I am being tried for writing a newspaper article that described the political regime in Russia as totalitarian and fascist. I wrote this article over a year ago. Some of my acquaintances thought back then that I had exaggerated the gravity of the situation.

Now, however, it is clear that I did not exaggerate. The government in our country not only controls all public, political, and economic life, but also aspires to exert control over culture and scientific thought … There isn’t a sphere of art where free artistic expression is possible, there are no free academic humanitarian sciences, and there is no more private life either.

[Read: How I lost the Russia that never was]

Orlov continued by reflecting on the absurdity of his case, of the legalistic rigamarole in Russia that conceals the regime’s lawlessness. In fact, the law is whatever Putin dictates. Everything else, the lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, are just there for show, to pretend that there is rule of law when there is not.

Let me now speak about my current trial. When it began, I refused to participate. Thanks to that, I had the opportunity to reread The Trial, a novel by Franz Kafka, during the court sessions. The current situation in our country has a lot in common with the world that Kafka’s protagonist inhabits in the book. We live with the same absurdity and arbitrariness, camouflaged by a formal adherence to some pseudo-legal procedures.

Here we are accused of “discrediting the military,” but no one explains what this means or how it differs from legitimate criticism. We are accused of “spreading deliberately false information” without anyone bothering to prove that it is indeed false. The Soviet regime used exactly the same methods when it branded any criticism as lies. Our attempts to prove the veracity of this information are punished as crimes … We are being given prison sentences for doubting that aggression against a neighboring country is being carried out for the sake of international peace and security.

This is absurd.

Kafka’s hero has no idea, until the end of the novel, of the nature of the accusation against him. He is ruled guilty and executed anyway. In Russia, the accusation is formally announced, but it is impossible to understand it within the framework of law and logic. Unlike Kafka’s hero, we do understand why we are being detained, arrested, sentenced, or killed: We are being punished for daring to criticize the authority. That is completely banned in modern Russia.

Orlov listed a few of the thousands of Russians who have been detained for criticizing the Russian government and the war, and then continued:

In recent days, they have grabbed, punished, and even imprisoned people only for coming to memorials to victims of political purges to pay tribute to the murdered Alexey Navalny, a remarkable man, brave and honest. He never lost optimism and faith in our country’s future even in the extremely hard conditions that had been set up especially for him.

The authorities are fighting against Navalny even when he is dead; they are afraid of him even after his death, and they are right to be afraid. They are destroying people’s memorials to his memory. They do this because they hope to demoralize that part of the Russian society that still takes responsibility for their country. This is a false hope.

We remember Alexey’s appeal: “Don’t give up.” I will add to this: Don’t lose your spirits, don’t lose your optimism. The truth is on our side. Those who have led our country into this hole represent the old, the frail, the outdated. They do not clearly see the future, only false images from the past, mirages of “imperial grandeur.”

[Read: Who is Vladimir Putin’s revisionist history for?]

Finally, Orlov addressed the court itself, the government officials and clerks, the judges, and the prosecutors. Of course, he knows, as any student of Soviet history knows, that a single dictator cannot enforce an authoritarian regime by himself. Thousands of  collaborators are required. Orlov’s last words were for them.

Not all of you believed in this repressive system, of course. You sometimes regret that you are forced to participate in all of this. But you tell yourself: And what can I do? I am only following the instructions from my superiors. The law is the law.

I am speaking to you, your honor, and the others accusing me: Are you yourselves not afraid? Are you not afraid to watch what our country is becoming, our country that you, too, probably love? Are you not afraid that not only you, but also your children and, God forbid, your grandchildren, will have to live in this absurdity, this dystopia?

Do you not acknowledge the obvious truth, that the repressive machine will sooner or later also flatten those who launched it and promoted it? This has happened many times in history …

I am not completely sure that those who have created and implemented Russia’s  illegal, anti-constitutional “laws” will face judicial persecution. But the punishment will definitely come. Your children or grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about the work and the deeds of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers. The same will happen to those now committing crimes in the Ukraine. This, I think, is the most terrible punishment. And it is inevitable …

I regret nothing.

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