The former head of Memorial Human Rights Centre that was closed down by the Russian authorities considers Ukraine’s victory a guarantee of future changes in Russia.
Support for Ukrainian military victory and a recognition of the necessity of defeat for the Kremlin on the battlefield is now not only the position of many politicians and military officials in the West, but also of human rights activists from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. This was made clear by representatives of three human rights organizations – Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties, the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, and Russia’s Memorial – during a recent joint working trip to Washington.
‘The dismantling of the Putin regime is important for us. However, the main common goal of the Russian opposition is the victory of Ukraine, because without that it will be impossible to solve the other task,’ said Aleksandr Cherkasov, former chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on 26 July. His Ukrainian and Belarusian colleagues supported his statement.
At the end of 2021, Memorial Human Rights Centre and the International Memorial Society were closed down by decisions of Russian courts.
Voice of America’s Russian Service talked to Aleksandr Cherkasov at the end of his trip to the United States about whether Ukraine’s victory means Russia’s defeat.
Danila Galperovich: During your speech at the Carnegie Endowment, you said Ukraine’s victory is necessary to end impunity for the Russian government’s crimes and to dismantle the Putin regime. But do you want a military defeat for Russia? How do you answer this question for yourself?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: If we’re talking about the defeat of the Putin regime, about its dismantling, about changing Russia, which the Putin regime has corrupted and desecrated over the years, then absolutely. Russia has nowhere to go, but what we have now is people who believe in nothing and a state that looks like a factory where all the equipment has been removed and all that’s left is the security service and PR department. And something has to be done about that. But what is going on right now is even more terrible. Because regional and social policy, which have basically been nonexistent for a very long time, are now returning, if you like, as a ‘necronomy’ – an economy of death, because it is from the depressed regions that people are volunteering for the war, and money is turning up in those regions both for the living who have returned and the families of those who have died, because a man is paid more if he’s dead than if he continues to live and work. This ‘necronomy’ is changing Russia, and changing it more and more and also more catastrophically. So this has to be stopped, something has to be done about it, it has no right to exist. People have to have other opportunities to live in a normal state, not in this one built on the Book of the Dead.
Danila Galperovich: Nowadays most people in Russia, judging from various data, either have a neutral attitude to this war or support it. We are facing the same problem Germany faced – there was a similar attitude to the war waged by the Reich. But there is a difference from Germany: that country was occupied, it capitulated, so changes took place. In the current case, what can be done with a society that has been so corrupted, as you have described?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: First of all, we don’t know what people in fact think. They are very good at concealing their true feelings, thoughts, and so forth. ‘How much is two times two?’ ‘How much should it be today?’ In the absence of normal sociology, in the absence of a press with regional networks, and given the criminal liability for the word ‘war,’ to think that somewhere there is objective information attesting to prevailing moods. . . . I recall in Romania a month before December 1989, Ceaușescu’s ratings were at around 90 percent. That didn’t help. At one time, in 1983, Andropov said, ‘We don’t know the country we live in.’ Right now once again we don’t know the country we live in. A month before Stalin’s death, probably no one could have thought that his Politburo would race each other to dismantle the system they’d created. It is probably worth taking into account the experience of previous attempts when we did not take advantage of an opportunity. But that also requires work and an understanding of which steps should come first, second, and third. When the regime comes crashing down, it may be in the form of a ‘cascading collapse,’ that is, events will be drastic. The picture will be grave, but in the dust-covered ruins people will see each other. The dust will settle and we’ll have to clear the ruins and build something new.
Danila Galperovich: Memorial has been banned in Russia, but you and your colleagues are obviously continuing your work that is so important for all of us – so important that it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Tell us about the main areas of your work now.
Aleksandr Cherkasov: Before its liquidation, Memorial Human Rights Centre was working on issues of assistance for refugees and forced migrants. We were doing major work in the North Caucasus, too, and in conflict zones in general. We did a lot of work with the European Court of Human Rights . A very important part of our work was maintaining the register of political prisoners that Memorial has been keeping since 2008. The regime’s main claims against us were that we should not be calling those people political prisoners. It was for those working on that topic that being declared extremists and terrorists and criminal prosecution were the most likely threats. Those people created a separate organization, left Russia’s borders, and are continuing their work. Understandably, certain kinds of work have become more difficult. It’s difficult to help refugees if you don’t have offices, an organization, and the rest. You can’t work in Chechnya without having an office there, nonetheless, for example, during the war we have been able to verify lists of fatalities and refine assessments of the number of fatalities among Chechnya residents who fought in Ukraine. This is just as an example. You’d think it was impossible to work there, but something was possible after all. Yes, the fact that Russia has left the European Court’s jurisdiction is a difficulty, but this problem is not ours so much as a shared one. Working with UN structures where we can still file complaints – these are other procedures, these are not legally binding decisions, but we are trying to adapt somehow. In any case, I see that some of our analytical materials are in very high demand.
Danila Galperovich: You said that war strengthens the regime. Do you think there will be some kind of breaking point, or do you think that as long as there is this state-imposed unity and binding of the nation together with blood, it will only grow stronger?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: I don’t know the answer to that question because we need normal, thorough-going opinion polls. Direct observations speak to the fact that where there is military industry both jobs and salaries have appeared. Where people had nowhere to go to work, now they can sign a contract and join the army and provide their family with prosperity unthinkable in previous times. But the ‘necronomy’ only touches a few branches of the economy. If we look at other branches, everything is much more complicated there. For example, unemployment has dropped sharply because some have been mobilized, some have left Russia, and there is a huge personnel shortage. Production has dropped in export branches, the tax base has shrunk, and shrunk radically, accordingly, and budget revenues have dropped. The import of many irreplaceable components has stopped. For now this is visible to the very persistent eye, but it will be much more noticeable when due to the lack of spare parts, due to the lack of components, the quality of key services will stop or deteriorate sharply.
Danila Galperovich: Is there a sense that it is already possible to talk about a timeframe for when these processes will yield results?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: I’ve had long talks with knowledgeable people working as top managers in the widest variety of areas of the economy, and they say there is a threat of stagnation and collapse, that in three or four years everything will be completely awful. Even though right now these processes aren’t that noticeable. . . . A characteristic example from Moscow: in one district there are 150 vacancies in Zhilishchnik, the residential property management organization, of which only 40 have been filled. And there are no equipment operators at all. Why? Previously, equipment operators would come work from places like Ryazan region, where there were no jobs. But now there are jobs in Ryazan region because they’ve mobilized staff operators and they’re in demand, they’re paid there. That is a change in the labour market itself. Or construction. There seems to be construction under way, but in fact huge salaries are being paid to finish out sites that are nearly ready, so as not to be holding on to completely useless capital, so as to go on making use of it. There are huge problems with new construction. So that, if you look closely, under a microscope, it turns out we can already see the contours of a crisis.