20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia begins a series of publications on Russia’s political prisoners. The list of political prisoners designated by Memorial Human Rights Center on the basis of international human rights criteria has been published on the IMR website. In an interview with IMR Advisor Boris Bruk, Alexander Cherkasov, the chairman of Memorial, explains who should be considered a political prisoner and why.



— In one of your comments, you mentioned that the topic of political prisoners has become “popular, if not fashionable” in Russia. Yet political leaders have repeatedly emphasized that there are no political prisoners in the country.

— For over two years, the release of political prisoners has been a priority on the agenda. Starting with the December protests, that was one of the major demands made to the authorities. The demand emerged in December and within a few weeks or months, if not a discussion, at least a realization, of the problem surfaced. Quite a few lists of political prisoners were formed, and those lists reflected the differences in understanding the problem.

— How important is the problem of political prisoners for the general public?

— What is essential is that there is a general understanding that political prisoners exist in the country. Some fifty years ago, the Moscow community encountered a similar situation—there was a sudden realization that there was such a category as “political prisoners.” After Daniel and Sinyavsky were convicted and sent to the Gulag prison camps, it was brought to light that a huge number of people had been convicted of political charges. This means that despite Khrushchev’s claims, far from everyone had been released and quite a few individuals were still being charged for political reasons. The authorities continued to use criminal repressions in an effort to solve political problems.
There is no commonly accepted definition of the term “political prisoner.” One might simply say that for quite some time political prisoners were considered to be good people arrested by bad authorities. But who are these “good people”? For example, communists might say that Kvachkov is a political prisoner while in their opinion, it would be unclear for what reasons others were arrested. Nationalists can offer their own list, which could also be considered somewhat problematic. The political prisoner is not necessarily a good person, not necessarily “ours” in the narrow meaning of the word. This kind of understanding develops quite slowly. The thing is not that the individual belongs to the “us” camp or is pleasant to a particular circle of people. One example is nationalist Daniil Konstantinov, who has been recognized as a political prisoner, a person who needs help. An important thing is that political repressions cannot serve as a tool to solve problems—neither for those belonging to “us,” nor for those who might be considered opponents.

— You highlighted a historical aspect of the problem of political prisoners. One might argue that in the 1980s and 1990s, the situation improved. Then it worsened again. What changed in the 2000s?

— I believe if we look back into the 1980s to 1990s, it is important to take into consideration the areas in which the repressive entities believed they could continue their activities. For example, falsification of criminal cases against “spy scientists” occurred in the early 1990s. In 1992, the chemists Fedorov and Mirzayanov, who wrote that Russia was violating international agreements related to the development of chemical weapons, were arrested. In the same period, there were repressions against environmentalists: Nikitin, Pas’ko, Soyfer. I believe that there exist repressive structures that cannot continue their existence without doing anything, without showing some results. For example, a few days ago, in Nizhniy Novgorod, a criminal prosecution of three activists from the so-called Antifa-RASH was stopped. Initially, the case was presented in a way that there was an organization with a program, a charter, and membership cards. Taking into consideration the fact that Antifa is predominantly an anarchist group, it is hard to imagine that they created a program, a charter, and membership cards. Most likely, the case was fabricated. When the authorities have a particular political agenda and there is a lack of reaction from society, the system works. The current structure is quite similar: there are those who fabricated cases against leftists in the 1990s, and there are those who have fabricated cases against representatives of national Bolshevism and Antifa. To a significant extent, the potential [for these cases] remained because the repressive structures were neither dismissed nor reformed.

“The thing is not that the individual belongs to the ‘us’ camp or is pleasant to a particular circle of people. Political repressions cannot serve as a tool to solve problems—neither for those belonging to ‘us,’ nor for those who might be considered opponents.”

— What do you think about the recent amnesty that freed a number of political prisoners, among other individuals? Is it appropriate to say that that was a victory of civil society?

— This is partly correct. Because in our strange world there is an event of the year—in fact, the year 2013 did not end on the 31st of December. The year will end at the beginning of March, after the Olympics. Because what happened shortly before the Olympics is not a matter of coincidence. Some kind of makeup is being applied. Instead of a broad amnesty that would have freed many people, including political prisoners, the authorities chose a very limited, narrow amnesty, which in many respects is in line with the previously set agenda. For example, those who used violence against the authorities will not be covered by the amnesty—either those who used violence or those who were accused of using violence, including the Bolotnaya defendants. The authorities are acting in accordance with an agenda offered by somebody else. The agenda related to the political prisoners was set by civil society.


The Memorial Society was co-founded by Andrei Sakharov in January 1989.


— Taking into account the events of December 2013, would it be appropriate to argue for the emergence of positive trends?

— I think it is a little too early to talk about that; the situation has to be examined within a longer time period. Recently, there has been a series of events that in their combination have become one event. The amnesty that was adopted reduces the number of the most problematic, most famous Russian political prisoners. First of all, we are talking about the detained environmentalists traveling aboard the Arctic Sunrise vessel and Pussy Riot, who was charged with hooliganism. Also, the decision was made to release Khodorkovsky. Whether this trend will be maintained after March of 2014 is, to a significant degree, a question for Russian society. At the same time, one should not forget about the international community—the addressee of all those actions.

— You mentioned the decision to release Khodorkovsky. What, in your opinion, is the reasoning behind that decision?

— He was one of the most problematic political prisoners for Putin. And his release, as we see, improves [Putin’s] image.

“The authorities are acting in accordance with an agenda offered by somebody else. The agenda related to the political prisoners was set by civil society.”

— This past fall, Memorial issued a list of political prisoners. What does this list look like?

— As you know, the list is non-exhaustive. We have recently included Zarema Bagavutdinova, an activist from Dagestan, on the list, who was arrested in the summer of 2013. We also added the names of the Islamists convicted in Chelyabinsk for being members of an organization that had been banned in accordance with an unpublished document. Additionally, I believe we will include a number of individuals arrested and put on trial in Russia’s Northern Caucasus. In other words, the work continues. Unlike in, say, the 1960s and 1970s, when the authorities did a substantial part of our work for us by using political articles (e.g., Article 70), sentencing decisions are currently based on articles of another kind. Moreover, the authority to use criminal repressions to achieve political aims has been transferred from the top [levels of government] to the bottom. While previously, in order to put someone in jail on false political charges, a special request had to be sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and it was possible to identify who had been imprisoned on political grounds, it is very unlikely that any similar requests are currently being sent to the presidential administration. That is why the work of identifying these people has to go on.

— The list of political prisoners was based on the new criteria for what defines a political prisoner. How important was the development of such criteria?

— The criteria were developed by a large coalition of human rights organizations from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This is an effort to consolidate and formalize work done by these organizations. It should be noted that these criteria are not formally and automatically utilized. It is important to investigate aspects of each particular case and make a decision only after such investigations. The criteria adopted by a broad coalition of organizations have become an essential additional tool for our work. I think we will be using them for a year and trying to see what the pitfalls are. At the same time, as I have already said, it is important to investigate each particular case in detail.

— There is an opinion that political prisoners serve as hostages held by the authorities in their fight with the opposition. What do you think about this?

— This is partly true. Another thing is that it is not normal, when authorities are at war with society, that one of the tools used for political purposes is criminal repressions. The very existence of political prisoners is a very grave symptom sufficient to make an unfavorable diagnosis.