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.
2023 has been a year with more news than days. Every corner of the world is a cacophony of broadcasts describing horror, injustice, sorrow and pain. There are times when you just want to cover your ears, close your eyes and hope for peace in all senses of the word. But in this barrage of bulletins dictators thrive.
Whilst the United Nations scrutinises the Israel-Hamas war, the United States Congress holds crunch talks over the future of funding for Ukraine in its defence and Beijing gears up for the trial of Jimmy Lai, Putin lurks in the shadows. His nefarious and nihilistic plots continue their march to his single goal of power at all costs. This week Vladimir Putin announced that he will be seeking yet another term as President of the Russian Federation. He boasts that he will hold polls in the occupied territories he illegally invaded in Ukraine and brushes over the matter he is riding roughshod over the Russian constitution once again.
However, Putin’s determination to cling to power can only happen when he oppresses and silences dissidents. The latest victim of the Russian President’s tyranny is Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. The trumped-up charges from the Kremlin are “spreading false information about the Russian army”. This is the latest crackdown on dissent being undertaken by the Russian state.
This week we also heard that lawyers for Alexei Navalny have been unable to contact the Russian opposition leader. His legal team have made two attempts to reach the two penal colonies where they believe Navalny is being held. Neither of the colonies have responded to the requests for information. Only last week the jailed Russian opposition leader fell ill within prison and was due to appear in court again this week.
Another thorn in the side of Putin, the former member of a Moscow municipal council Alexei Gorinov, has grown ill whilst incarcerated for seven years in prison. Gorinov no longer has the strength to sit up or even speak.
Gessen, Navalny and Gorinov all reflect the autocratic approach by Putin to his critics: imprisonment, abuse, and hunting down those who are able to escape. Whether you are a journalist, politician or member of the public in Putin’s Russia you are at risk of the whims of a man who yearns only for more control.
Whilst war rages in Ukraine it is easy to lose sight of the dissidents saying loudly that the Russian state doesn’t act in their name. During turbulent times it’s all too easy for us to be deafened by events and for dissidents’ voices to be muffled. We cannot allow that to happen and as long as Index on Censorship exists we will give a megaphone to those fighting for freedom of expression to ensure you can hear what they are saying.
To finish – as we reach the end of 2023 – the only thing I can really promise you is that the team at Index will be required to keep fighting for dissidents in 2024 – and that will do our job with the dedication and commitment that you expect from us.
So from the team at Index – we wish you well over the holidays and hope for a much better 2024.
The war grinds on, the cemeteries grow bigger by the day and comedy as a critical engine of power has ceased to exist in Russia. Not so in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin’s 71st birthday will be celebrated – that isn’t the right word – on 7 October by the second VPDFO festival. The letters stand for Vladimir Putin Do Fuck Off, a phrase that Index readers won’t tremble to read but the digi-lords at Meta/Facebook don’t favour. In Cult Motive, an old grain warehouse in Podil, the Shoreditch of Kyiv, people will be treated over the weekend to the very latest in Ukrainian bands, fashion, cuisines, stories about the war – and jokes.
Our two-day festival will do its best to reflect Ukraine’s unique sense of humour, anthracite-black as it is. Bleakness is all. For example, two soldiers, Dima and Vova, are discussing who is sending the best kit to Ukraine: the Americans, the Swedes, the Germans, the British?
Dima: “The British stuff is best.”
Vova: “But the steering wheel is on the wrong side.”
Dima: “Yes. The steering wheel is on the wrong side. So the Russian snipers shoot the passenger. What’s not to like?”
The festival will feature stand-up spots from four top Ukrainian comedians, Bohdan Vakhnyc, Ramil Yangulov, Max Vyshinskyi and Andrii Berezhko.
With soldiers dying at the front, the lion’s share of the humour will be directed at the Russian killing machine, at the tyrant who sent it to Ukraine and the Kremlin’s useful jellyfish in the West. Donald Trump will get it in the neck, the buttocks and the front bottom too but it’s bad form to write out comedians’ jokes in print.
Ukraine’s democracy is being forged in war and a robust honesty about the failings of civil society, from President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people around him down, comes as standard. Zelensky was a comedian, or, better, a comic actor before the big war. It is, to put it mildly, unlikely that whoever takes over from Vladimir Putin in Russia will have the same CV.
It’s hard to define Ukraine’s sense of humour but it’s a combination of Jewish and Yiddish themes of self-deprecation under terror, a Soviet or post-Soviet love of irony written in cement and a wonderful, anarchistic fuck-you-ness. Even in the darkest days of Russia’s war against Ukraine, when the Kremlin’s heavy metal was just 12 miles from the centre of Kyiv, jokes blossomed, memes about Ukrainian tractors stealing Russian tanks flooded the internet. A year ago, when fears of a Russian nuclear strike against Kyiv were at their height – Putin won’t send nukes to Ukraine because the Chinese have told him not to – the word was that the moment the nuke birds were in the air, there would be a massive orgy on an unpronounceable hill in Kyiv. The beauty of the hill’s unpronounceability is that it would defeat Russian spies from gate crashing the orgy. And, it has to be said, British journalists too.
If you wish to support the festival, go to VPDFO.ORG
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian-British activist, journalist, author and filmmaker who was imprisoned in Russia for 25 years in April. He was found guilty of treason, spreading “false information” about the Russian armed forces and participating in an “undesirable organisation”. On 31 July his sentence appeal was quashed. The court that sentenced him, his lawyer claims, are “slaves to (Vladimir) Putin’s regime”.
Today is Kara-Murza’s 42nd birthday and he will be spending it behind bars, though activist and financier Bill Browder, a noted Putin critic, thinks Russia has made a mistake in jailing him: “Putin has elevated his status exponentially,” he told Index.
“When things get rocky due to the disastrous war, Russians will decide who should replace Putin. Somebody, like Vladimir, who gave up their freedom and potentially life for the good of the country, will be highly validated.”
The son of a Russian journalist also called Vladimir, Kara-Murza earned an MA in history from Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge at the same time as working as a reporter for a number of Russian newspapers. After becoming Washington Bureau Chief of the Russian language network RTVi in 2004, he produced a four-part TV documentary, They Chose Freedom, about one of his passions: the history of the Soviet dissident movement.
After being released from RTVi in 2012, he helped advance the 2012 US Magnitsky Act, a law that imposed sanctions on Russian officials thought to be responsible for serious human rights violations, denying them entry into the USA and freezing any US assets. Browder noted the impact Kara-Murza had in its adoption.
“He pitched to the US government and Congress that it was the most pro-Russian piece of legislation because it punished kleptocrats and human rights deniers in the Russian government.
“His was one of the key voices for politicians to support it,” he said.
This wasn’t without negative consequences. In 2015 Kara-Murza was hospitalised with kidney failure and was in a coma for a week. Tests revealed he had ingested a poisonous substance. He was back in hospital again in 2017 with the same diagnosis. He survived both and went on to collect the Civil Courage Prize and was a pallbearer at former US Senator John McCain’s funeral in 2018. Despite his survival, the incidents have had long-term impacts on his health. Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said it’s led to heart disease and a nerve condition called polyneuropathy.
“This condition is hard to treat in freedom, impossible in prison. A doctor from the Moscow medical prison system claimed he could survive just a couple more years. It’s a matter of life and death,” Prokhorov told Index.
After being initially arrested last year in Moscow for disobeying a police officer, Kara-Murza soon faced more more serious charges, resulting in the long sentence.
“His sentence is based on just five public speeches, including [one in which] he criticised Putin’s full-scale invasion in front of the US Congress in March 2022,” Prokhorov said.
“The sentence is completely unjustified. It’s his opinion, his free speech. It’s straight out of the Stalin playbook. It’s dangerous for Russian civil society”.
Prokhorov believes Kara-Murza has been, or is currently being, transferred to the Omsk Betrayal Detention Centre No.1 in Siberia after he lost his appeal, but doesn’t think it’s his final place of detention.
Explaining that Kara-Murza has defended human rights not just in Russia, but also with the promotion of Magnitsky Acts all over the world, Prokhorov ends by saying: “Vladimir’s a brilliant, intelligent, thoughtful and brave man. It’s important the civil and international community don’t forget about him.”