Ukraine’s resilience shows us how to stand up to oppression

As we mark the second anniversary of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, it is imperative that we reflect not only on the ongoing conflict, the deaths, the child kidnapping, the sexual violence, the fear and the pain of the last two years, but also what came before and the impact on our collective human rights.

Many will consider 24 February 2022 as a turning point in global security and instability, which I of course do, but this wasn’t the first attack on Ukraine by Putin’s Russia. At Index on Censorship we have recorded the horrors which have occurred in Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin in 2014. This part of Ukraine’s story is just as important as the widely-marked second anniversary of the invasion by Russia and we must share the stories of those dissidents as well as those currently on the frontline of the war.

The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent persecution of the Tatar community – an ethnic Muslim minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula – serve as stark reminders of the human cost of authoritarian aggression and the importance of defending fundamental rights when they are under attack rather than waiting to see what happens next. Crimea should have been a warning for the global community, it should have alerted the world to the real threat coming from the Kremlin. Instead the world was seemingly distracted and Putin suffered little consequence for his invasion. That cannot be said of the people whose land he stole. For over 10 years, the Tatars have faced systematic persecution at the hands of the Kremlin.

But even in the depths of war and despair there must always be hope.

Ukraine, in the midst of its fight for sovereignty and freedom, serves as a beacon of hope in the face of tyranny. The Ukrainian people have bravely resisted Russian aggression, not only on the battlefield but also in the realm of ideas and expression. Despite facing immense pressure and intimidation, they continue to champion the values of democracy, freedom of identity and freedom of expression.

In the midst of this conflict, individuals like Nariman Dzhelyal stand as symbols of resilience and defiance. Dzhelyal, a prominent Tatar activist, has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of his community in the face of persecution and repression. Despite his imprisonment and harassment from the Putin regime, he has remained steadfast in his commitment to justice and human rights.

But Dzhelyal is just one of many voices Putin’s authoritarian regime has attempted to silence both in Russia and Ukraine. Countless journalists, activists and dissidents have been targeted for their speaking truth to power, their only crime being a desire for freedom and democracy. In Russia alone OVD-Info report 19,855 people have been arrested for anti-war protests in the last two years and 896 dissidents have faced criminal prosecution. Their imprisonment serves as a chilling reminder of the lengths to which authoritarian regimes will go to suppress dissent and maintain power.

The silencing of dissent is not only an attack on freedom but also poses a grave threat to global stability and security. We cannot stand idly by as tyrants seek to crush the voices of those who dare to speak truth to power. Silencing dissent makes the world smaller, less safe and much more dull.

On this second anniversary, let us recommit ourselves to the defence of freedom of expression and the promotion of democracy around the world. Let us stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those who continue to fight for their basic rights and dignity. And let us never forget the sacrifices made by individuals like Nariman Dzhelyal, who remind us that the human spirit is indomitable in the face of oppression.

Slava Ukraini

Alexei Navalny dead

When Alexei Navalny returned to Russia after the Kremlin had him poisoned with novichok, he took a bet that Vladimir Putin would not dare to kill the man who was on the blackest of black lists. Today Navalny lost that bet.

I met Navalny twice, once in Strasbourg and once in Moscow, and had had a long Zoom conversation with him. He was a truly extraordinary man: impossibly brave, charismatic, pig-headed, funny, great. To me, he symbolised the idea of a Russia without fascism, free and democratic. Von Stauffenberg dared to try to kill Hitler but he also did something else, he kept the idea of another Germany alive in 1944. Navalny dared to stand up to Putin and kept the idea of another Russia alive in 2024.

He could be extremely annoying. The first time we met was at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where his lawyers were suing Russia from stopping him standing against Putin. Hearing concluded, he had ten minutes to talk to me for a BBC Panorama we were making about him called Taking On Putin. Cameraman Seamas McCracken was fixing mikes on lapels when I explained that Seamas was from Northern Ireland. Seamas stopped work. Navalny was greatly amused as precious seconds slipped away while I apologised and said that Seamas was from the north of Ireland. Only when Seamas was happy did the interview happen. But what sticks in the mind was not my Irish pal sticking up for his rights but Navalny’s amusement at my difficulty.

In Moscow, he and his supporters were under continuing attack. One of his team had been hit over the head with an iron bar, another beaten black and blue by silent thugs. And yet what you got was the real thing: sardonic, amused Navalny, punching words out at the little man in the Kremlin. Is Russia a police state?, I asked him. “Absolutely,” he replied.

He started out as a lawyer representing clients who had been wronged by Russia’s corruption engine. For a time around 2008, he dallied with the far-right, calling Chechens “cockroaches” and, later, upsetting Ukrainians by saying that Crimea is Russian. It is Ukrainian. But then he dumped that dark nonsense and set out the case for a liberal, democratic Russia.

His big moment came in 2012 when Putin switched his patsy, Dmitry Medvedev, out of the Kremlin so he could get back in again and another Russia hit the streets in their hundreds of thousands. Charismatic, funny, bitter, Navalny called Putin’s political vehicle “The Party of Crooks and Thieves” and he became a kind of rock star. One time, the police arrested him, twisting his arm behind his back so he howled in pain, before locking him in a police van. That video was seen millions of times.

Navalny got going, making brilliant videos detailing corruption in Russia. Two stand out: Putin’s Palace, which got more than a hundred million views on YouTube, setting out in fine details how his oligarchs paid for a naff palace by the Black Sea with golden toilet roll holders, and a second on his poisoning. In it, Navalny had the balls to pretend being a Kremlin high-up and called one of the poisoners. The hapless goon coughed up to the mechanism of assassination, that they lined the seams of his underpants with novichok.

He went back to Russia daring Putin to murder him. A show-trial followed, the only thing that was real was the moment when Navalny, from his glass-walled dock, cradled his hands into the shape of a heart for his wife, Yulia.

I hope that Russia will wake up from its zombie state, that Navalny will get his revenge from beyond the grave but I doubt it. Still, he lost his life standing up for another Russia and his memory will shine in history.

Farewell, my fond and foolish friend.

Love in the time of dissent

This week marked another Valentine’s Day and the world was abuzz with expressions of love and affection. Yet, amidst the sea of roses and chocolates, there lies a stark reality for many: the agony of separation from loved ones. For dissidents around the globe, this pain is not merely a matter of distance; it is the consequence of standing against tyranny - for speaking truth to power.

As CEO of Index on Censorship, I have witnessed the bravery of individuals who dare to challenge oppression, knowing full well the risks they face. We need to remember this every day - but this week, Valentine's week, there is a responsibility on all of us to recognise their sacrifice and the profound commitment that drives them to advocate for change and to continue their struggle against tyrants - in spite of the personal cost for them and their loved ones.

One example is Russian activist and thorn-in-Putin's-side Alexei Navalny, whose death in a penal colony has been reported today. In 2020, Navalny fell into a coma after suspected poisoning with the nerve agent novichok and was taken to Germany for treatment. The poisoning was widely believed to have been ordered by Putin and suspicion about his death has immediately turned to the Russian president.

To the surprise of many, in 2021 Navalny returned to Russia with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya. He was immediately arrested on a variety of trumped-up charges. At the time of his death, he was serving a 19-year sentence. Navalny and his wife have been apart ever since their return to Russia, with her husband sent to a series of penal colonies, each more hideous than the last. Appearing at the 2023 Oscars when the Navalny documentary about her husband won the best documentary award, Navalnaya said in an emotional speech "Alexei, I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love."

Love was what sustained them during their enforced separation. In what turned out to be his last post on Instagram, Navalny wrote: "Babe, we have everything like in a song: cities between us, airport runway lights, blue blizzards and thousands of kilometres. But I feel you are near me every second, and I love you more and more ❤️".

Another example is Andrei Aliaksandrau and his partner Irina Zlobina. Andrei, a former member of the Index team and a Belarusian journalist and human rights defender, has dedicated his life to exposing the truth and holding those in power accountable. However, his commitment to freedom of expression has come at a personal great cost. In November 2020, Andrei was arrested by Belarusian authorities in a crackdown on dissent following the disputed presidential election. Since then, he has been detained, facing trumped-up charges and enduring harsh conditions behind bars.

Irina too was arrested and sentenced on similar charges. Now they find themselves separated by Lukashenka in different prisons in Belarus.

For Andrei and Irina, Valentine's Day serves as a painful reminder of their separation. While the world celebrates love, they are forced to endure the anguish of being torn apart by injustice.

These are just two examples among thousands of others. A reminder that there are many different manifestations of love is Tamara Davila, whose heartbreaking ordeal underscores the intersection of love and dissent in the face of authoritarian oppression. Deported from Nicaragua to the United States for daring to speak out against the government, Tamara's enforced separation from her daughter and wider family serves as a chilling example of how the Nicaraguan authorities wield love as a weapon against dissenters. Despite the government's attempts to silence her, Tamara's enduring love for her family fuels her resolve to continue fighting for justice and freedom, demonstrating the profound power of love in the face of adversity. Her story serves as a stark reminder that even in the darkest of times, love remains an unyielding force that empowers individuals to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost.

These stories encapsulate the intersection of love and dissent—a powerful force that transcends borders and inspires change. Despite the physical distance separating dissidents and their partners and families, their love fuels their resilience, reminding us all of the inherent connection between personal relationships and the broader struggle for human rights.

This Valentine's week, let us honour the courage of individuals like Alexei and Yulia, Andrei and Irina, and Tamara and her daughter by amplifying their voices and demanding justice. Let us stand in solidarity with all those who sacrifice their freedom for the sake of truth and justice. And let us never forget that love, in all its forms, has the power to overcome even the most formidable obstacles.

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to love and dissent, recognising that they are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined in the fight for a more just and free world.

How censorship wins

Januskevic Publishing House opened for business in Belarus in 2014 with the aim of publishing history books. The initial euphoria of launching a business passed very quickly.

At first, issues related to the publishing industry more broadly. It became clear that you can’t live in Belarus only publishing history books – diversification of production was required. So we diversified into e-books and then to the publication of fiction, translations from foreign languages and children’s books. We did have some good years. Between 2017 and 2022 we developed quickly. We even founded our own online bookshop. Our mission always was to make books that are interesting to the reader. We had a broad slogan: We make books that you want to read.

But after the re-election of long-time Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020 and his subsequent violet crackdown on protests, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the troubles started. In literally three days we were kicked out of the office that had served us as a showroom and a pickup point for books. We were left without a home.

We soon managed to open a fully-fledged bookshop that would serve us as an office at the same time. Except the expulsion from our original office was not some spontaneous decision. It was a deliberate signal. On the day of the opening of the Knihauka bookshop on 16 May 2022, propagandists from state mass media outlets and officers from HUBAZiK (Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) turned up. The HUBAZiK said that extremist literature was being sold in our bookshop and, with a prosecutor`s approval, they checked all the books in the shop and seized 15 items. Why these specific ones? I’m not entirely sure, although there was a certain theme through them. They were all by Belarusian authors, all history or nonfiction and some children’s books, like Iosif Brodsky’s book The Ballad of the Tugboat.

In an even worse twist bookshop employee Nasta Karnatskaya and I were arrested. I spent 28 days in jail – three terms for three court rulings – and Nasta spent 23 days in jail. This is the only case where somebody was apprehended and imprisoned for distributing books.

While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine

After being released, I realised that the publishing house could no longer work as it had. There was the external pressure that manifested itself in these arrests, as well as other pressures: literally the day after the closing of the bookshop, for the first time in Belarus’ history, the celebrated fiction book The Dogs of Europe by Alhierd Bacharevič, which was published by us and turned into a play staged throughout the world, was deemed “extremist material”. This was a very bad sign. We were moving towards a point where the publishing house itself could be recognised as extremist. I knew then that it was dangerous to stay in Belarus. It was becoming too dangerous to make books. And so we left Belarus and opened up shop in Poland.

It was definitely the right decision. Our publishing license was revoked from us in early January 2023. This was carried out by a court for the first time in Belarus` history according to the provisions of the Law of the Republic of Belarus On Publishing, with the reason given that we had systematically published literature which later was included in the list of extremist materials. To date, four books by our publishing house have been recognised as extremist.

The treatment we received was part of a systemic attack against the independent publishing sector in Belarus. It was not only us who were targeted. Other Belarusian publishing houses were and are victims. Haliyafy, for example, was forced to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. Knihazbor, despite its attempt to remain on its feet and resume its activities, was also forced to close. Today it’s impossible to work freely and to define one’s own publishing policy in Belarus.

In January 2023, we were stripped of our publishing licence. Since then, we have been not allowed to publish books in Belarus.

Following this, on 20 January I set up a fully-fledged publishing house functioning as a Polish legal entity. Since then we have published more than 20 books in Belarusian and we mail books to Belarus. You could argue that our forced relocation from Belarus to Poland has been successful.

But while I still have a licence to distribute books in Belarus and I could sell those I published earlier, almost no one takes them for sale because I have a black mark. These are the consequences of total fear in a society.

Of those publishers who left Belarus, no others continue publishing. They’re now engaged in other businesses: some have switched to writing, for example.

New publishing houses have appeared in Belarus and are managed by new people. Those who remain in Belarus are not publishing books with any strong social implications. I see that when something appears it is "neutral" literature or aimed at children. Those who suffered repression have left their businesses because there are simply no opportunities for their activities in Belarus. Either you have to work in line with the government policy, or you just don’t work.

While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Now all kinds of barriers have disappeared for Belarus authorities in the last year – they simply do what they want.

As for wholesale deliveries of foreign publishing houses to networks of booksellers in Belarus, there have been none at all from anywhere except Russia.

Indeed, since February 2022 Belarus has become part of the "Russian World", a part of the cultural policy which turns Belarus into a Western province of Russia. The prospects for the development of Belarusian culture, the Belarusian language and the Belarusian book industry under Lukashenka are very grim. It will be an imitation, paint-by-numbers culture based on folklore and ethnography. Nothing more, I’m afraid.

A first English translation of a new short story, "Punitive Squad", by Alhierd Bacharevič, is published in the winter edition of Index on Censorship. This article first appeared in The Bookseller.