Putin critics fight crackdown and decry Kremlin whitewash of Soviet crimes

Attack on renowned Memorial rights group deepens opposition anger and international alarm

A worker paints over graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg last April 28. Photograph:   Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

A worker paints over graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg last April 28. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

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“Only ‘nonsense’ interests me, only that which makes no practical sense,” wrote Daniil Kharms, one of the most original and beloved writers of the Soviet avant-garde. “Only life in its absurd manifestations”.

It is 79 years since Kharms died in a Leningrad prison, but this city still throws up the sort of strange tales that captured his singular imagination, just as echoes of Soviet repression now shake Russia with growing strength.

Five years ago, artists painted a portrait of Kharms on the building where he lived until Soviet police arrested him in August 1941 for spreading “slanderous, defeatist sentiments” about the war effort. Six months later he starved to death in a prison psychiatric ward during the first winter of the 872-day Leningrad siege.

Residents of the building adore the mural, and it has become something of a landmark in Saint Petersburg, which reverted to its pre-revolutionary name in 1991 and still claims to be Russia’s capital of culture (and counterculture).

But now officials say the portrait must go.

“They insist it is a formal breach of the rules. It’s forbidden and that’s it,” says liberal politician Boris Vishnevsky, a leader of the campaign to save the mural.

“They say the rules make no allowance for exceptions or for something beautiful. This happened in the Soviet days too – the authorities viewed as dubious anything that was not done on their initiative . . . When this administrative machine starts rolling, it has no reverse gear. It can’t go backwards,” he explains.

“The mural carries no political threat. But imagine it was not a picture of Kharms but of [president] Vladimir Putin. If the rules are the same for all, I would like to see how they dealt with a request to destroy a portrait of Putin. I think they might handle it differently.”

A mural of Soviet writer Daniil Kharms on the building where he lived until 1941 in Saint Petersburg. City officials want the unauthorised portrait to be erased. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
A mural of Soviet writer Daniil Kharms on the building where he lived until 1941 in Saint Petersburg. City officials want the unauthorised portrait to be erased. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The remorseless and implacable bureaucracy is more Kafka than Kharms, as are Vishnevsky’s own recent travails.

Lookalikes

In September’s local and parliamentary elections, Vishnevsky found himself facing a pair of peculiar opponents: two men who officially changed their names to Boris Vishnevsky and altered their appearances to look like him, in an alleged bid confuse his supporters, take some of his votes and aid his ruling-party rival.

“If they had been ordered to change their sex they would have done that too,” says Vishnevsky, who lost both election races but retained his seat on the city council thanks to his senior place on the party list of the liberal Yabloko group.

“They took a total of about 1,000 votes in the end, so it had an effect,” he says of his “doubles”, at least one of whom has now reversed the name-change.

Liberal Saint Petersburg politician Boris Vishnevsky with a mock-up of an official election poster featuring photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevskys that took part in recent elections. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images
Liberal Saint Petersburg politician Boris Vishnevsky with a mock-up of an official election poster featuring photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevskys that took part in recent elections. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

While fighting to overturn the election results and the order to erase the portrait of Kharms, Vishnevsky has also now joined a broader battle, in Russia and abroad, to save one of his country’s most respected organisations from destruction.

Inside Russia

A series of in-depth reports from this vast and poorly understood country READ MORE

Moscow prosecutors last week sought to shut down Memorial, probably Russia’s oldest and best-known human rights group.

It was formed from local chapters across the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, amid the thaw of perestroika and glasnost reforms, and focused on researching and commemorating the country’s millions of victims of political repression.

Memorial’s continuing calls for Russia not to forget or whitewash the Soviet purges, deportations and Gulag prison camps rankled the authorities as the security services regained huge power under Putin, the former KGB officer who has ruled the country since 2000.

‘Foreign agents’

Russia designated sections of the organisation as “foreign agents” as long ago as 2014, as it set about labelling groups that received funding from abroad with a term redolent of Soviet-era spying and “enemy of the people” connotations.

Prosecutors say Memorial has failed to comply with its obligations under the foreign agent law, and is also “justifying terrorism and extremism” by recognising as political prisoners people who have been jailed on those charges, which are now applied very broadly in Russia.

Memorial has closely monitored the impact of Putin’s broadening crackdown on dissent, which this year saw opposition leader Alexei Navalny jailed when he returned home from treatment in Germany following a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia last summer.

Supporters of Boris Vishnevsky (centre, without mask) wear masks to mock two rivals who altered their names and appearance to resemble his before recent elections. Photograph: Courtesy of Boris Vishnevsky
Supporters of Boris Vishnevsky (centre, without mask) wear masks to mock two rivals who altered their names and appearance to resemble his before recent elections. Photograph: Courtesy of Boris Vishnevsky

Navalny’s anti-corruption group has now been banned as “extremist”, and the foreign-agent law has been expanded to sweep up prominent activists and journalists who investigated Putin and his rich and powerful allies.

Many opposition figures and reporters have fled abroad in fear of arrest, and last month Memorial said Russian jails now held at least 420 political prisoners, which Sergei Davidis, a senior member of the organisation’s human rights centre, called “completely comparable to the figures of the Soviet era”.

The threat to Memorial – which long served as a symbol of Russia’s break with the worst crimes of the Soviet past – has sent a wave of anger through the country’s beleaguered and severely weakened civil society.

More than 60 leading Russian academics, and the centre founded in memory of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, defended Memorial on Monday.

“The destruction of Memorial is an attempt to deprive the nation of its memory, which we should not allow, so as to prevent a repeat of an era of monstrous repressions,” the academics wrote in an open letter.

In anger at the treatment of Memorial, writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya announced that she would hand back a state prize given to her by Putin.

“Memorial is now being taken away from me, the memory of the condemned and the executed, of those who were thrown under a truck or died of hunger, who froze to death in trucks going from camp to camp, of the tortured . . . Of those beaten recently in the streets, in police vans . . . Of those sitting in jail due to faked, false cases.”

Petition

More than 29,000 people have signed an online petition in Russian titled “Hands off Memorial!” and international rights groups and western capitals have weighed in to support a group that has won awards around the world for its work.

“The move to liquidate Memorial is yet another case of using Russia’s so-called foreign agents law to further shrink the space for independent activism and to curtail historical scholarship and critical debates,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

“Russian authorities must reverse this decision and stop the unabated crackdown on civil society and independent media. Memorial is an internationally respected NGO and one of the oldest in Russia . . . The dismantling of Memorial would be an irreplaceable loss for the Russian people and the rest of Europe.”

Yet the Russian state is only increasing the strength and scope of its control after changing the constitution to allow Putin to rule until 2036, when he would be 84 years old and would have spent even longer in the Kremlin than Josef Stalin.

A growing number of websites are blocked and banned here, dozens of Russians have been prosecuted for sharing “subversive” material online, and several have been detained recently for posting racy pictures near churches, with one pair being jailed for 10 months over a photo in which a woman dressed as a police officer simulates a sex act in front of St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square.

Many Navalny allies have fled Russia, but those who remain here face grave danger: Lilia Chanysheva (39) was remanded in custody last week on apparently retroactive charges of extremism, even though the branch of Navalny’s network in her city of Ufa, in the Urals, was disbanded before the organisation was outlawed.

Lack of criticism

Even with coronavirus raging in Russia, poverty deepening, prices rising and relations with the West in tatters, criticism of Putin is completely absent from state media; at the same time, it is an open secret that celebrities are expected to support the ruling party or at least avoid political comment, and face the threat of cancelled contracts and a slide into obscurity if they speak out against the regime.

There is now a sense, grimly familiar to many Russians, that it is now safer to stay silent, to keep one’s head down, to allow things to be covered up and forgotten.

Like many liberals, Vishnevsky has differences with Navalny – whose face was quickly painted over by the Saint Petersburg authorities in April when it appeared on a big mural entitled “The hero of the new times.”

“But we consider him to be a political prisoner who is jailed unjustly and should be free,” Vishnevsky explains.

“Not long ago we thought we’d hit rock bottom when they started labelling journalists and lawyers as foreign agents. But now they want to close Memorial...This is the destruction of our historical memory. This is the successors to the [Soviet] executioners demanding that the names of the victims – and of their executioners – be forgotten, so the memory of these crimes is lost,” he says.

“Every time we tell ourselves that this is the end, rock bottom, they can’t go any lower. But then, after a little while, from underneath us we hear a knocking – and something even worse appears.”

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