Russian activist Boris Kagarlitsky among those arrested in latest wave of repression
Russian sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky is among those arrested in the latest wave of repression against opponents of the Putin government.

Over 20,000 anti-war opponents have been subject to a wide range of reprisals by Russian authorities to silence all public dissent against the invasion of Ukraine. Amnesty International, which has been tracking the repression, compiled the figure in a recent report.

Meanwhile, a team of experts convened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates authorities have arrested 27,000 Russians for protesting against the war, “posting fake news,” or violating a new law against “criticizing” the military.

The UN expressed alarm over a Russian Constitutional Court rejecting challenges to the law that “criminalizes all public actions aimed at discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces, including calling the invasion a “war” and reporting on Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including the complete destruction of cities, housing, and energy infrastructure; bombing and execution of civilians; and torture, rape, and abduction of children. The latter charge has already earned Russian President Vladimir Putin an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.

“The decision to deny constitutional protection of the right to freedom of expression constitutes a new low in Russia’s clampdown on the freedom of expression and the free flow of information,” the UN experts said. The Russian parliament passed the law, which carries a ten-year sentence, shortly after the invasion last year.

According to Amnesty International, Russian authorities are using a wide range of tactics to harass, intimidate, and pressure opponents of the invasion. Reprisals include imprisonment without fair trials, use of fake evidence, torture, fines, job dismissals, cancellation of concerts of performers, and charges of being “foreign agents.” Authorities have arrested over 500 people in connection with the wartime censorship law so far.

One of those jailed is well-known Marxist academic, author, and political scientist Boris Kagarlitsky, an outspoken critic of Putin’s autocratic regime. Kagarlitsky was charged on July 25 with “justifying terrorism” after posting a social media analysis of the Ukrainian military strike against the Kerch Strait Bridge.

The bridge connects the Russian mainland with the Crimean peninsula, which is still recognized as part of Ukraine by most countries and international bodies. Under the principles of the UN Charter, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea since 2014. Ironically, Kagarlitsky supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea as well as independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, but even this wasn’t enough for authorities.

“Kagarlitsky may have once supported sections of the Russian patriotic left who yearn for territorial expansion,” said Andriy Movchan, a Ukrainian left activist. “But no other well-known leftist has done more to instill into thousands of Russians a simple thought: The Putin regime is criminal, the invasion of Ukraine is criminal, there is no justification for it, and it must be resisted.”

An international campaign is seeking Kagarlitsky’s release. Supporters of an online petition include Nadya Tolokonnikova, member of the punk band Pussy Riot; Bill Fletcher, Jr., U.S. labor, peace, and justice activist; Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All-India Progressive Women’s Association; Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the British Labour Party; Tariq Ali, journalist and historian; and Russian Marxist sociologist and anti-war activist Grigory Yudin. The Nation and Jacobin magazines have editorialized for Kagarlitsky’s release.

Kagarlitsky, who led the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, is one of many Russian leftists and progressives who view the primary reason for the war, in addition to Russian imperial expansion and elimination of Ukraine as an independent state, as an effort to provoke patriotic enthusiasm to reverse Putin’s dropping popularity in response to an accelerating social crisis and disastrous governmental policies, especially a 2018 pension reform.

“Yes, there is a problem with Western military expansion, with the policies of the U.S. and Europe, with how the EU handles the Ukrainian crisis,” said Kagarlitsky. “But it explains little,” he wrote, referring to NATO expansion and the provision of weapons to the Ukrainian government. These problems, Kagarlitsky has argued, “existed for years and years, and the Russian government did nothing. Nor did they do anything about the violence in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. What changed? Nothing. It was very much the domestic reasons for the invasion.”

Kagarlitsky has spoken out at significant personal risk but chose not to leave the country. Authorities are detaining him in Syktyvkar, about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) north of Moscow, where he is awaiting trial. He faces a seven-year sentence if convicted.

“To my Western colleagues, who, after more than a year since the beginning of the war, continue to call for an understanding of Putin and his regime, I would like to ask a very simple question,” wrote Kagarlitsky in Russian Dissent.

“Do you want to live in a country where there is no free press or independent courts? In a country where the police have the right to break into your house without a warrant? In a country where museum buildings and collections formed over decades are handed over to churches, heedless of the threat of losing unique artifacts? In a country where schools drift away from the study of science and plan to abolish the teaching of foreign languages, but conduct ‘lessons about the important,’ during which children are taught to write denunciations and hate all other peoples? In a country which every day broadcasts appeals on TV to destroy Paris, London, and Warsaw with a nuclear strike?

“I don’t think you would want to. So, we in Russia also do not want to live like this,” he wrote.

Even before applying the latest censorship restrictions against Kagarlitsky, the Russian government had already declared him a foreign agent in 2022 under laws passed in 2015. “The government declared me a foreign agent, but they failed to explain a foreign agent for which country,” Kagarlitsky told Democracy Now in a recent interview.

Russian authorities have attempted to shut down the Rabkor YouTube channel and online publication which Kagarlitsky edits. His arrest is part of squelching all alternatives to state-approved media, including censorship, blocking access to independent media critical of the Putin government, VPN channels, exiled media platforms, and other sources of information.

Kagarlitsky has long been a critic of authority in Russia—and the USSR before that.

In 1982, Soviet authorities arrested Kagarlitsky for “anti-Soviet activities,” a charge connected with publishing an oppositional journal. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian police imprisoned him for opposing efforts to dissolve the Supreme Soviet, which President Boris Yeltsin did in 1993 using tanks. At the time, Kagarlitsky was an elected member of the Moscow City Soviet.

In 2020, Russian police arrested him for organizing against a constitutional change that allowed Putin a fifth term as president. He was behind bars again in 2021 for organizing against massive electoral fraud following the elections of that year.

During those elections, Kagarlitsky strategized with anti-Putin candidates running for the State Duma. The opposition, including the imprisoned Alexei Navalny, joined forces under the “smart vote” strategy. The united opposition encouraged a protest vote on the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) line.

Support for the CPRF candidates reflected growing discontent with the Putin government, corruption of capitalist elites, deepening of social and wealth inequality, and police repression.

Russian police detain anti-war protesters in Moscow, Sept. 21, 2022. The demonstration was called after President Vladimir Putin ordered a mobilization of 300,000 reservists to join the fighting in Ukraine. | AP

However, authorities used massive fraud to deny winning CPRF candidates their seats. The stolen election sparked mass demonstrations, which much of the CPRF leadership chose not to join. The CPRF, which gets the bulk of its funding from the state, supported the Russian annexation of Crimea and the February 2022 invasion and occupation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. However, significant sections of the party membership and three of its leading parliamentarians opposed the invasion.

The arrest of Kagarlitsky is part of stepped-up repression against any criticism of the government, whether coming from the left or the right. It is widely suspected that leaders of the Wagner private mercenary group, including Yevgeny Prigozhin, were murdered by the Putin regime on August 25 in revenge for the failed coup attempt of June 24. Also arrested was Telegram blogger Igor Strelkov, defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Strelkov, whom many Ukrainians consider a terrorist, was found guilty by a Netherlands Court of masterminding the 2014 Malaysia Airlines crash in the Donetsk region that killed all 298 passengers aboard.

The clampdown reflects alarm over the increasing shakiness of Putin’s grip on power, including divisions within Russian ruling circles over the invasion. Putin is demanding total fealty, perhaps in advance of a new mobilization of reservists for the war. Hundreds of anti-war activists were arrested last September during the first mobilization of 300,000 army reservists.

Opposition among Russians to the war is hard to gauge, for obvious reasons. Kagarlitsky told Democracy Now that most Russians were apathetic until the mobilization and remained ambivalent toward the war. Of the remaining, ardent supporters and opponents are evenly divided, with opposition strongest among young people.

But with authorities eliminating public dissent, anti-war activists are turning to other means of expression. Ham radio operators broadcast messages, anti-war stickers replace store labels, a domestic militia took credit for a May drone attack on the Kremlin, conscription opponents firebomb military recruitment offices, miniature plasticine protests and graffiti are increasingly common, as are reports of rebellious conscripts, exiled artists share anti-war songs, and approximately 700,000 people have fled the country, mainly to avoid military service.

In a letter that Kagarlitsky wrote from prison, published Aug. 29, he said, “My current arrest can be considered a recognition of the political significance of my statements.” Comparing his own imprisonment to the future of Russia as whole under Putin, he wrote: “We share the same fate, no matter where we are or what conditions we’re in.”

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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.