Oleg Orlov Could Be Jailed for Criticizing Putin’s War in Ukraine
As soon as Oleg Orlov walks into the Moscow courtroom, he says exactly how he feels about being tried for criticizing the war in Ukraine.
The Russian human rights activist has been working for many years. He opens his briefcase and takes out a book. He shows it to the cameras on TV. End of the Regime is the title.
“I like the title. One of Russia’s most respected rights activists, Mr. Orlov, says, “I think you should read it.” “The whole point is how totalitarian and fascist regimes end.”
Oleg Orlov has been a vocal critic of both of the wars that the Kremlin is currently fighting: the war in Ukraine and the war on dissent in Russia.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, thousands of Russians have been prosecuted under new laws meant to stop people from criticizing the country’s war effort.
The 70-year-old Mr. Orlov is being tried for breaking one of these laws. He could get up to three years in prison for criticizing the war in Ukraine and the Russian army over and over again. This is called “discrediting” the Russian army.
Mr. Orlov told me before his trial, “The article I’m being tried under is called “Public actions to discredit the use of the Russian armed forces to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and to keep international peace and security.”
“First of all, the Russian Constitution says that people have the right to speak their minds. I wrote an article about how I saw things going. It’s against the Constitution to charge me with that.
“Second, what is happening in Ukraine—let’s be clear and call it a war—is against the interests of Russia and Russian citizens. As for “keeping peace and security around the world,” that’s a joke. It makes me think of the books “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery” by George Orwell. “It is nonsense to say that the war in Ukraine is “for the sake of international peace.”
Article 29 of the Russian Constitution does protect the right to speak freely.
In reality, Russians who criticize the government in public do so at high risk. The Russian government has made a lot of restrictive laws that can be used to punish people who don’t agree with the government or Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In addition to making it illegal to “discredit” the army, Russia’s criminal code now makes it illegal to spread “deliberately false information about the use of the Russian armed forces” to the public.
It is often called the “Law on Fakes,” and it has been used to put Kremlin critics like Ilya Yashin in jail. He was given an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence last year.
There are other “tools” to use.
Zhenya Berkovich, a Russian theatre director who wrote and posted poems against war, has been accused of “justifying terrorism” in one of her plays. She could go to jail for up to seven years.
Vladimir Kara-Murza was a critic of the Kremlin and an anti-war activist. In April, he was found guilty of treason and given 25 years in a prison colony.
Oleg Orlov thinks that the amount of repression and the number of cases remind him of the time of Leonid Brezhnev, who was the leader of the Soviet Union. “But based on how cruel people are and how long they stay in jail, it’s like Stalin’s time.”
The Orlov trial has been criticized around the world. The case was called “a travesty of justice” by the Council of Europe, which is Europe’s oldest political organization and works to protect democracy and human rights across the continent.
“The government of [Russia] wants to control what people think. It wants to hear only opinions that agree with its policies, even if that means starting a war, says Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.
“It’s important that all of us who are keeping an eye on what’s going on in Russia make it clear that this is not okay.”
People who are in jail are not forgotten in Russia. I see people sitting at tables in the center of the Russian capital writing letters and postcards to political prisoners.
It happens once a month and is put on by Yabloko, one of the last liberal parties in Russia that is still allowed to work.
In a country where it is hard to protest as a group, you can still show solidarity and support with a pen and paper. Portraits and short biographies of prisoners have been printed on flyers and put on tables. Visitors can send messages to as many of these people as they want.
A young man named Ilya tells me, “I came here because I feel guilty.” “Some people have gone to jail for saying what they think. I don’t agree with this. I want to back them up.”
“It is so important to help Russian political prisoners right now,” says Alina. “I already know people who are in jail, and I know that these letters can save their lives.”
“When you don’t have anything to do, your mind starts to think you’re alone,” says Yulya. “You could get down on yourself. So I hope they feel better when they read these cards and letters.”
And for those who send these postcards to prisoners, it’s a way to show that they won’t be silenced, even though repression is getting worse.