The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dark days again in Russia. For prisoners, an endless carousel of absurdity.

Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza on Capitol Hill on March 29, 2017, in D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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To understand Russia today, it is necessary to reach back to Stalin’s Great Terror, when the secret police were called NKVD. In 1937, the writer Evgenia Ginzburg was shocked to find a professor and colleague under suspicion. She knew he had done nothing wrong but at a Communist Party meeting was confronted about why she hadn’t denounced him. “Don’t you know he’s been arrested?” she was told. “Can you imagine anyone’s being arrested unless there’s something definite against him?”

Everyone was scared; even Communist Party theorists were “frightened out of their wits like rabbits.” The “power and importance of the NKVD grew with every day,” she wrote in a memoir, “Journey Into the Whirlwind.”

Sadly, much the same is happening today. More than at any time in recent memory, the Russian security services are grabbing people arbitrarily and imprisoning them for criticism of Vladimir Putin or his barbaric war against Ukraine. A prominent and alarming example involves Post contributing columnist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was arrested in Moscow in April on a sham charge of disobeying the police, then indicted on a charge of “public dissemination of knowingly false information” about the Russian military, a law approved after the invasion and intended to squelch any criticism of the Kremlin’s misadventure. Now, Mr. Kara-Murza’s lawyer says the authorities are preparing yet another bogus charge, this time for participating in a nongovernmental organization deemed “undesirable” in Russia, under a law first approved in 2015 and expanded last year with the aim of closing down organizations that receive funding from abroad. Mr. Kara-Murza, in detention still, hasn’t been indicted on this charge, and his lawyers said they know little more.

The Opinions Essay: Russia locked up Vladimir Kara-Murza for telling the truth about Ukraine

But they know the method — an endless carousel of arbitrary prosecutions. The same approach has been employed to unjustly imprison Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, and, most recently, Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader accused of spreading “false information” about the military, reportedly for discussing on his YouTube channel the killings of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, by Russian troops. On July 8, a Moscow court sentenced local politician Alexei Gorinov to seven years in prison under the same provision. Defiant, Mr. Gorinov said in court, “I am convinced that this war is the fastest route to dehumanization, when the line between good and evil is blurred. War is always violence and blood, torn bodies and severed limbs. It is always death. I do not accept this and reject it.”

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Russian journalists who have written often about the Russian secret police, say in Foreign Affairs that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, has been turned into “a far more expansive arm of an increasingly ruthless state. In its sweeping reach into domestic society, foreign affairs, and the military, the FSB has begun to look less like its late-Soviet predecessor, the KGB. It now resembles something much scarier: the NKVD, Stalin’s notorious secret police, which conducted the great purges of the 1930s.”

There have been 16,403 detentions of people taking a stance against the war in Ukraine since it began. These are once again dark days for Russia.

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