Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 28. (Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik/AP)
4 min

People can be imprisoned, but their ideas can’t. Dictatorships never seem to figure this out. The latest example comes from Moscow, where Russia’s police ran around on Tuesday searching apartments and arresting a leader of Memorial, the storied human rights group that President Vladimir Putin has been trying to extinguish for years.

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year along with human rights groups in Ukraine and Belarus. Formally registered in 1989 in the years of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, Memorial has made it its mission to preserve the memory of Joseph Stalin’s repressions and to defend human rights today. It became Russia’s most important civil organization, a powerful symbol of the ideal that misdeeds of the past won’t be forgotten, nor the lessons. This was anathema to Mr. Putin, the former KGB officer who, during the blossoming of democratic hope in Gorbachev’s years, was serving the security and intelligence agency in Dresden, Germany.

Nine years ago, Mr. Putin began to tighten the vise, labeling Memorial a “foreign agent,” under a law targeting groups receiving financial support from abroad and requiring them to identify as foreign agents. The term was used in Stalin’s day to stigmatize and discredit people as traitors and spies. In 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered Memorial liquidated on grounds that it had repeatedly violated the “foreign agents” law. Its headquarters was closed.

All of this was a pretext to silence an institution that has frequently held the Russian authorities to account for human rights abuses. It has persevered nonetheless. Some of Memorial’s leaders regrouped and resumed work last year under a new entity. They have continued to call attention to unjust detentions and political prisoners, including a political scientist and essayist in St. Petersburg who posted material about the Russian military on social media; three poets who read aloud verses against the Russian war near a statue of Vladimir Mayakovsky in Moscow; and a performance artist whose acts included taking a metaphorical cup of “Tomsk tea” to the Federal Security Service front door when opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned.

Memorial’s persistence was too much for Mr. Putin and the security services that now have outlawed all free expression. On Tuesday, the homes of nine Memorial leaders in Moscow were raided. Oleg Orlov, co-chair of the group’s human rights practice, was charged with “repeatedly discrediting the armed forces,” under a law passed after the invasion of Ukraine last year and used often to silence critics of the war. The charge was related to an article he wrote for a French website and published on Facebook in Russian that condemned the “bloody war unleashed by Putin’s regime in Ukraine” and that said “a victorious fascist Russia would inevitably become a serious security threat not just for its neighbors, but all of Europe.” If found guilty, Mr. Orlov would face up to three years in prison.

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In Vietnam, a one-party state, democracy activist Tran Van Bang was sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison and three years probation for writing 39 Facebook posts. The court claimed he had defamed the state in his writings, according to Radio Free Asia. In the past six years, at least 60 bloggers and activists have been sentenced to between 4 and 15 years in prison under the law, Human Rights Watch found. Read more of the Editorial Board’s coverage on autocracy and Vietnam.
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Separately, the same determination to quash free expression continues to unfold in neighboring Belarus, whose leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is Mr. Putin’s ally. According to the human rights group Viasna, there are 1,456 political prisoners in Belarus today. One of them, Ihar Losik, a prominent journalist and blogger, attempted suicide in recent days. His lawyer was arrested. Two leading editors of a website, Maryna Zolatava and Lyudmila Chekina of, who have both spent nearly two years in pretrial detention, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of distributing material harming national security. But the real reason was their honest journalism.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report on the grim situation in Belarus. It found “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” during and after the 2020 presidential election, which Mr. Lukashenko stole from the legitimate victors, a ticket led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Over the past 2½ years, the report found, authorities under Mr. Lukashenko have “arbitrarily arrested and detained tens of thousands of people, many of whom for taking part peacefully in demonstrations related to the 2020 presidential elections.”

All of these arrests represent difficulty and trauma for those unjustly thrown in jail. But police searches and arrests cannot suppress an idea — or the desire of people to live free of the despots ruling Russia and Belarus.

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