The Week In Russia: ‘Sinking Into Darkness’

By: - March 1, 2024

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I’m Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what’s ahead.

As Aleksei Navalny’s family prepared to bury him, Russians remembered Boris Nemtsov, assassinated near the Kremlin nine years ago, and a leading human rights activist, Oleg Orlov, was sentenced to prison for his criticism of the war against Ukraine.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Prison And Death

One was being buried, another was sentenced to prison, and a third was remembered nine years after he was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin.

Aleksei Navalny. Oleg Orlov. Boris Nemtsov.

For supporters, all three represent a Russia that could have been and perhaps could still be – but not, opponents of President Vladimir Putin fear, anytime soon.

To varying degrees, their fates are all connected to the most momentous thing Putin has done in almost a quarter-century as president or prime minister: attacking Ukraine, both in 2014, with the occupation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, and with the full-scale invasion of February 2022.

At a protest a year before his killing, Nemtsov railed against Moscow’s rapidly unfolding aggression in Ukraine, calling it “despicable” and “impudent” – and also “harmful for Russia.”

He and his associates were working on a report on the extent of Russia’s interference in Ukraine when he was assassinated on February 27, 2015.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Aleksei Navalny, attends a mourning ceremony for slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on March 3, 2015.

On the same date this year, Orlov — co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Memorial human rights center — was found guilty of discrediting the Russian military and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. The verdict came after a retrial – initially, his punishment was a fine of 150,000 rubles ($1,650), but prosecutors appealed the ruling, and a new trial was ordered.

Orlov was charged over an article in which he wrote that Russia was “slipping back into totalitarianism, but this time the fascist kind.”

“The bloody war that Putin’s regime has unleashed in Ukraine is not only the mass murder of people and the annihilation of [Ukraine’s] infrastructure, economy, and cultural sites,” Orlov wrote. “Not only the destruction of the foundations of international law. It is also a severe blow to the future of Russia.”

A Reckoning Rejected

Nemtsov and Navalny were firmly rooted in post-Soviet Russia, both young enough so that most of their adult lives – and in Navalny’s case, all of it – were lived after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

Orlov, 70, is a bridge to the past, not just by dint of his age but also because the now-outlawed Memorial was founded in the 1980s and, in addition to its human rights work in the Putin era, the group chronicles crimes of the state going back to Stalin’s Great Terror and beyond.

In 2022, Memorial was awarded a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for its “outstanding effort to document war crimes, human rights abuses, and the abuse of power” in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. To some Russians, it embodies a crucially needed effort for a reckoning with the country’s past — and a time when that reckoning seemed within reach.

If Orlov represents the unfulfilled promise of a time now past, Navalny – for supporters – represented a ray of hope for what he liked to call the “beautiful Russia of the future.”

For a decade or more, he was the most prominent opposition leader – in part because the field was thinned by the killing of Nemtsov. The pair had appeared at many of the same protests in 2011-12, when Russians hoping for political change hit the streets to protest parliamentary elections tainted by widespread evidence of fraud and Putin’s plan to return to the presidency after a stint as prime minister.

Boris Nemtsov (left) and Aleksei Navalny attend a rally to protest alleged vote-rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections in Moscow on December 24, 2011.

Boris Nemtsov (left) and Aleksei Navalny attend a rally to protest alleged vote-rigging in Russia’s parliamentary elections in Moscow on December 24, 2011.

He presented himself as an alternative to Putin and sought to challenge Putin in the most direct way possible, though it turned out to be impossible: by running against him in 2018.

‘Links In A Chain’

After surviving a near fatal nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020 and returning in January 2021 to Russia, where he was arrested upon arrival in January 2021, he died in prison on February 16 under suspicious circumstances.

Open-source investigators have linked the poisoning to Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives, and Navalny has alleged that Putin was behind it. Three and a half years later, family and associates say they believe Putin had him killed.

In a statement to the court on the day of his conviction, Orlov said that Navalny’s death belongs squarely in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the spiraling state clampdown on dissent, which has intensified since Putin launched the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

“Actually, these are all links in one chain — the death, or rather the murder, of Aleksei Navalny; judicial reprisals against other critics of the regime, including me; the stifling of freedom in the country; and the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine,” he said. “These are all links in the same chain.

“In just over four months since the end of my first hearing in this court,” said Orlov, who was led away in handcuffs after the judge pronounced the verdict, “many events have taken place that show how quickly, and how much more deeply, our country is sinking into darkness.”

However, he voiced confidence that the descent will eventually be reversed.

“Those who have dragged our country into the pit where it is now…have no vision for the future. Only false narratives of the past, mirages of imperial greatness. They are pushing Russia backward,” Orlov said. “But we live in the 21st century, the real future is with us, and that is the basis of our victory.

That’s it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to [email protected].

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