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Putin's hypocrisy on human rights

Soric Miodrag Kommentarbild App
Miodrag Soric
December 11, 2018

Russia's government is celebrating the 100th birthday of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while at the same time persecuting the opposition. The Kremlin's actions speak louder than its words, says Miodrag Soric.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at writer Solzhenitsyn's 100th birthday memorial
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/M. Metzel

Moscow is celebrating the 100th birthday of famed author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Among the guests: President Vladimir Putin, who once worked for the Soviet secret police. During his time at the KGB, Putin was tasked with jobs including following, spying on and jailing people like Solzhenitsyn. Does the fact that Putin is now paying his respects to one of the country's most revered moralists signify a belated victory for the Nobel Prize winner?

Yes and no. Yes, because Russia has, at least formally, acknowledged the values of democracy, upholding human rights and freedom of speech. No, because none of those values plays a role in Russian daily life. Russia is not a democracy, nor is it a country ruled by laws. Rather it is governed by a group of men who control the state and its resources. The president may have nice things to say about the deceased dissident but at the same time a number of human rights activists in today's Russia are currently behind bars.  

Read also: Solzhenitsyn's genius more relevant than ever

Funeral of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn, widely considered a political hero and the last great giant of Russian literature, would have turned 100 on TuesdayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Kochetkov

A sham democracy

Lev Ponomaryov, for instance, was convicted in a kangaroo court just last week. The only crime the 77-year-old was guilty of was defending people — among them youths — whom Russia's FSB intelligence service accuses of being "extremists." Ponomaryov is not alone. Oyub Titiev, who runs the human rights office Memorial in Chechnya, also spends his days behind bars. Drugs were planted on Titiev as grounds for silencing him. And theater director Kirill Serebrennikov is under house arrest for supposedly embezzling public funds. All absurd charges to intimidate uncomfortable critics.

Yet these are the type of dissidents, intellectuals and human rights activists who dare to speak the truth about the reality of Russia today. Pointing out, for instance, the fact that Russia's parliament is no such thing. Sure, debate takes place there but when the moment comes it always sides with the Putin government. That the courts may be staffed with prosecutors who supposedly uphold the rule of law but when opposition members stand before the court the FSB determines sentencing. That there are a number of radio and television broadcasters in the country but editors have developed a sixth sense as to how far they can go with their criticism of the Kremlin before they default to self-censorship.

Read more: Are Russia's anti-terror laws designed to fight democracy?

Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union. The scale of repression cannot be compared. Still, Russia seems unable to rid itself of the outmoded tradition that individuals must put their lives at risk in order to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. Is an old man like Lev Ponomaryov really such a threat to the government that he must be thrown into prison?

Solzhenitsyn, Lev Kopelev, Andrei Sakharov and the recently deceased longtime human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva were all the conscience of Russia despite being very different from one another. They did, however, have one thing in common: They believed in the truth, in the dignity of human life, in the freedom of words, in the Russian people and in their judgement. Those are the same things that human rights activists believe in today.

Human rights end where authoritarianism and dictatorship begins — no matter what authoritarian rulers may say.