‘Thirty years down the line, we’re back in “1984”’

Civil liberties advocate Oleg Orlov addresses a Russian court at the conclusion of his trial

The trial of the lifelong civil liberties activist Oleg Orlov concluded today in Moscow. Orlov, chairman of the board of the now-dissolved civil liberties center Memorial, had been charged with discrediting the Russian military after publishing an essay in which he argued that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine had set Russia on a course towards fascism. At the final hearing on the case, prosecutor Svetlana Kuldisheva argued that Orlov must undergo a psychiatric evaluation, claiming that his “acute sense of justice” is combined with an “utter absence of a self-preservation instinct.” When the court dismissed her argument, Kuldisheva pled for Orlov to be convicted and fined 250,000 rubles (or about $2,500). The court ultimately ruled that Orlov was guilty of “discrediting” the Russian armed forces, imposing a fine of 150,000 rubles. Before the court made its decision, Oleg Orlov also had to speak. Here is the full text of his court speech.

First off, I’d like to mention how many people who think the same way I do have been brutally punished with long prison sentences for their mere words, for peaceful protest, and for speaking the truth.

Let’s think about Alexey Gorinov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who are being slowly killed in punishment cells. Let’s think about Sasha Skochilenko, whose health is being deliberately undermined in pretrial detention. Let’s think about the seriously ill Igor Baryshnikov, barred by the court from attending his mother’s funeral even with an escort, and now deprived of the medical help he needs. Let’s think about Dmitry IvanovIlya Yashin, and all those who were sentenced to long prison terms for protesting against war.

Against this background, the punishment requested by the prosecution for me looks exceptionally lenient. It might seem that paying such a small price for being able to state my position, which I consider to be true, shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is a big deal. If convicted, I intend to appeal, because any conviction in a case like this, be it harsh or lenient, is a violation of Russia’s Constitution, the norms of international law, and my rights.

I do not repent.

I do not repent picketing in protest of the war, or writing the essay for which I’m being tried. All of my prior life left me no other choice. I can’t help but recall the favorite motto of my teacher, the great human rights advocate Sergey Kovalev — a motto he took from Classical philosophy: “Do what you must, come what may.”

I don’t regret having remained in Russia. This is my country, and I have long thought that my voice would sound louder here. Now, thanks to the joint efforts of the political police, the detectives, the prosecution, and the court, my modest little essay has been so widely disseminated that I couldn’t have dreamed of such luck.

Nor do I regret the long years I spent working at Memorial, for the sake of my country’s future. It might seem now that our work has crumbled, that everything that I myself, my friends, and my colleagues did has been destroyed, and that our efforts have been a waste. But this isn’t so.

I’m certain that it won’t be all that long before Russia emerges from the darkness it’s currently plunged into. And this certainty is, in large part, due to the work of Memorial and the community of our friends and colleagues from Russian civil society, which no one will ever be able to destroy.

Why did I go picketing, and why did I write that little essay?

In our day, the notion of a “patriot” has been compromised. In the eyes of a great many people, Russian patriotism is synonymous with imperialism. But to me and to many of my friends, it isn’t so. From my perspective, patriotism isn’t about pride for your country, but, first and foremost, about feeling a burning shame for the crimes committed in its name. We felt ashamed during the First and the Second Chechen Wars; and how ashamed we feel now, when the citizens of my country commit crimes in Ukraine, in Russia’s name.

In 1946, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote a treatise called The Question of German Guilt. In that book, he formulated four kinds of culpability arising from the Second World War: criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical guilt. It seems to me that the thoughts formulated in that book are very consonant with our present situation — us being Russian citizens living in the 2020s.

I’m not going to talk about criminal guilt now. Those who committed crimes will either be punished for them or not. But the future of today’s Russia (just like Germany’s future in 1946) depends largely on our readiness to consider our own, as opposed to someone else’s, guilt. I’m going to quote Jaspers:

The phrase “you’re culpable” can mean that you’re responsible for the crimes of a regime you tolerated — this implies political guilt. You might be culpable of supporting and participating in this regime — this is your moral guilt. Your guilt might be that you did nothing when crimes were being committed beside you — which suggests metaphysical guilt.

I think that people who love their country cannot but think about what’s happening with it. Feeling their unbreakable connection, they cannot but think about their own responsibility for what is happening. And they cannot but try to share their thoughts with others. Sometimes they pay a price for it. I tried to share my thoughts as well.

Let me quote another source, this time an official statement from March 22 this year:

Russia and China call upon all countries to promote universal values like peace, development, equality, justice, democracy, and freedom, and to conduct dialog instead of engaging in confrontation.

This is being said in the name of a state that sent its troops to its neighbor country, Ukraine, whose territorial integrity it recognized officially not long before. This statement is being made in the name of a country at war, recognized by the absolute majority of U.N. member countries as a war of aggression.

This also being said in the name of a state where civil liberties have been crushed, and where the hastily adopted new laws that stand in direct contradiction to the Constitution are being widely applied to criminalize any critical remark. This includes the law under which I now stand trial.

And so, “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “the Russian troops in Ukraine are there to protect international peace and security.” Your honors, isn’t it patently clear that all of us, both me and yourselves, are living in George Orwell’s world, in his novel 1984?

What a remarkable time warp! In real history, the year 1984 proved to be the year when change started in the USSR. Perestroika, followed by the democratic revolution of 1991 — it seemed, then, that changes would be irreversible. But thirty-something years down the line, we’re suddenly back in 1984.

For the time being, the Russian Criminal Code doesn’t have an article on “thought crimes,” and citizens are not yet being punished for having doubts about state policies — so long as they keep their doubts to a whisper inside their own apartments. We don’t get punished for incorrect facial expressions. For now.

But if someone expresses such doubts outside of their apartment, they can very well be reported and punished. Wearing clothing in the wrong colors is already punishable too. And expressing value judgments that are different from the official point of view is certainly punishable. So is expressing the slightest doubt in the truthfulness of the official reports from Russia’s Defense Ministry. In these conditions, it’s inevitable that a new law on thought crimes will come into being as well.

Books are not yet being burned in Russia’s public squares. But books by undesirable authors are already being branded with the offensive label “foreign agent” and shoved to the far back of the bookstore displays. Libraries loan these books to readers practically in secret. Actors are already being fired from theaters if they permit themselves to say something contrary to the party line. The great actress Liya Akhidzhakova was thrown out of her profession for her civic position. This takes place amidst the silence of the majority of people who were once considered Russia’s “theatrical community.” A totalitarian state cannot have any community. Everyone must be afraid and keep quiet.

Nevertheless, I’m immeasurably grateful to the community of wonderful people who were not afraid to come to this hearing and keep showing up for other political trials. This is very important to me. Thank you all very much!

What takes place today would have been hard to imagine in Russia even a short time ago. For example, the arrest of the director Zhenya Berkovich and the playwright Svetlana Petriychuk. What for? For a play that considered the causes that push young women to join terrorist organizations.

The regime established now in Russia doesn’t need people to reflect at all. What they need is something else: public expression that’s no more complex than a cow’s moo, exclusively in support of what the power has proclaimed to be the right thing at the moment. Not only does the state control the social, political, and economic life of the country, it’s claiming complete control over culture as well, also making incursions into private life. It is becoming all-inclusive. This tendency emerged much earlier than February 24, 2022, but the war has only accelerated it.

How did my country, having walked away from totalitarian communism, descend into a new totalitarianism? What shall we call this type of totalitarianism? And who is to blame for what happened?

The article I’m now standing trial for was devoted to answering these questions.

I realize that there are people who will say that the law is what it is, and that’s that. The law has been passed, so it has to be enforced. I recall that Germany also passed the so-called Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, but after victory in 1945, people who enforced them went on trial.

I don’t have complete certainty that the contemporary Russian enforcers of these unlawful, anti-constitutional laws will carry the same burden of responsibility. But their punishment is inevitable. Their children and grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about where their parents and grandparents served and what they did. The same is going to happen to those who are now committing crimes in Ukraine in the name of following orders. To me, this is a terrible punishment, and it is inevitable. And my punishment is inevitable too, since in today’s conditions no acquittal is possible in a trial like mine. We shall soon find out what that punishment will be.

In the 1990s, I took part in developing the new Russian legislation on the rehabilitation of the victims of political repressions. When Russia is free, that law will certainly be amended, with an eye to rehabilitating all of today’s political prisoners, all those who were convicted for political reasons, including those found guilty for their antiwar position.