PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER 5, Moscow — One morning last week, the prison guard called my name through the cell door: “Be ready in 10 minutes. There’s a commission to see you.”
I was fine, I said, as I do to every visiting commission — adding that my only complaint was over being imprisoned for my political views in the first place. My conditions are okay. I know they must certainly be better than what my grandfather experienced when he was arrested on “anti-Soviet” charges in 1937 before being sent to the gulag. He survived that (and went on to serve in World War II, earning some of the highest military decorations). I can certainly survive this.
I did have one request for the ombudswoman, though. On Sept. 11, Moscow will hold municipal elections for some 1,400 district council seats across the city. Until I am convicted, I still enjoy my voting rights. The prison where I am held is only a 40-minute drive from my home and my polling place in downtown Moscow — so I said I wanted to exercise my right to vote. The ombudswoman promised to look into it.
“Voting rights,” of course, is a difficult phrase in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For years, our elections have been deprived of any real meaning. Politicians who posed a genuine challenge to the Kremlin have been murdered, imprisoned or pushed into exile. Some opposition parties have been banned. Independent media outlets have been shut down. And, on top of all that, the authorities have introduced a variety of electoral “reforms” that are clearly designed to allow manipulation of the results.
But even when your vote does not affect the results, it’s still important to express your voice. Years ago, I visited the former Gestapo headquarters in Cologne, Germany, which now houses a museum of national socialism. Among its exhibits is a ballot from one of the many plebiscites held in 1930s Germany to demonstrate universal support for the Führer. Someone had carefully put a cross next to the word “Nein” — “No.” I remember looking at that ballot and thinking that, even though the person who used it might not have changed the course of history, he or she took a step to reject the crimes committed with the complicity of the supportive or silent majority.
Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, more than 16,380 Russians have been detained at antiwar protests across the country. More than 2,400 have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Dozens, including me, have been arrested under a new Criminal Code clause that penalizes public opposition to the war by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Earlier this month, a Moscow court sentenced municipal lawmaker Alexei Gorinov to seven years in prison for denouncing the war on Ukraine at his district council meeting. In the same period since the start of the war, some 150,000 people have chosen to simply flee Russia.
But there are many more people in this country who oppose Putin’s war on Ukraine — yet aren’t prepared to risk years in prison by speaking out publicly. (The situation that, I believe, would be true of most societies.) And that is why September’s elections matter. Residents of the capital will have a chance to take a stand on the situation just an hour’s flight away from Moscow, where cities continue to be bombed and people continue to die every day as a result of Putin’s imperial ambitions. Putin’s own United Russia party has placed support for the war — still euphemistically referred to by the state media as a “special military operation” — at the center of its municipal campaign platform. Meanwhile, the so-called official opposition parties, such as the Communists or Just Russia, seem to be competing to show who can be the loudest at expressing support.
The one exception is Yabloko, Russia’s veteran liberal party. It has managed to retain access to the ballot in Moscow, and it opposes Putin’s war on Ukraine. Some of its leading members, including journalist and historian Lev Shlosberg and Moscow municipal lawmaker Andrei Morev, have been fined for making public antiwar statements. In September, Yabloko will be fielding candidates across Moscow, and even though they won’t be able to say much because of the new laws criminalizing antiwar speech, the party’s stance is well known. “Our stand for peace is a matter of principle,” said Maxim Kruglov, a member of the Moscow City Duma and Yabloko’s campaign coordinator. The word “peace” is still legal in Russia, at least for now.
In a few weeks, Muscovites will get a rare chance to say “no” to dictatorship and aggression, as that anonymous German did with their ballot. I may have few rights in a Russian prison, but that is one I am certainly intending to exercise.