Standing up for the victims of Putin’s repression

January 29, 2019

Kate Seidel explains the backdrop to demonstrations this month in solidarity with political prisoners in Russia — and the parallels with repression in the U.S. and beyond.

ON JANUARY 19, protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, supported by comrades abroad in Kyiv and London, gathered to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the neo-Nazi assassination of two anti-fascist activists: Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist.

Markelov became involved in politics through serving as a volunteer medic during the shelling of Russia’s White House under Boris Yeltsin in 1993 and participating in the student movement. As a lawyer, he was known for defending the family of Elza Kungayeva, a Chechen teenager raped and murdered by a Russian Army colonel in 2000.

Markelov represented everyone from workers who took over a paper factory and were brutalized by police — when even liberals failed to come to their aid — to other victims of neo-Nazi attacks, such as immigrants.

He always insisted on the importance of democracy and socialism in the anti-fascist movement, knowing that it needed an analysis of economic conditions that led people and the state to turn to extreme violence to protect their wealth. He also insisted that anti-fascists couldn’t rely on nostalgia for Stalinist paternalism to insulate the post-Soviet population against bigotry.

Members of the Russian Socialist Movement march in solidarity with political prisoners
Members of the Russian Socialist Movement march in solidarity with political prisoners (

Anastasia Baburova, an anarchist from Sevastopol, Ukraine, was only 25 when she was murdered. A journalism student, she was doing freelance work for Novaya Gazeta at the time of her death, covering topics like neo-Nazi violence and environmental activism.

Markelov and Baburova were shot in downtown Moscow by a member of BORN (Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists), a terrorist organization whose more presentable magazine received funding from the Kremlin as it attempted to “manage” nationalist movements and share information on leftist activists with the police.

THIS YEAR, a wide coalition of protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg paid tribute to Markelov and Baburova by demanding that political prisoners be freed. Russia has many of them.

Chief among them was “The Network,” a group of young anarchists from Penza and St. Petersburg (the creative name was given to them by police) who have been imprisoned for over a year, beaten and Tazed to extract “confessions” to a terrorist plot. (Find out here how to donate to the legal fund for the defendants in the Network case or write them a note of support.)

Specifically, they were accused of planning to disrupt last year’s fraudulent presidential elections and the FIFA World Cup. These two patriotic displays and the political repression that accompanied them — protests were forbidden in major cities during the World Cup — were meant to distract Russians from the austerity measure the government had in store for that summer: raising the retirement age by 5 years.

Russia is also holding many Ukrainian political prisoners hostage, including film director Oleg Sentsov and members of the Crimean Tatar community.

While these problems might appear to only affect activists, the St. Petersburg march organizers pointed out that average Russians also have a stake in defending themselves from state violence.

This year saw beatings in a Yaroslavl prison caught on video and slave labor in a prison in Mordovia exposed. Torture is not legally recognized as a separate offense, and “evidence” coerced from prisoners often continues to be used in their trials.

Russia has a high incarceration rate — 411 out of every 100,000 people are in jail. That’s second only to — you guessed it — the United States among developed countries.

Whether it’s the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the anti-extremism “E Center” filling their quotas by framing dissidents and ethnic minorities for crimes and terrorism, or private resellers and corrupt prison management raking in profits from prison labor, it’s clear that the prison system’s interest is merely in controlling increasingly poor and hopeless citizens.

Meanwhile, Russia’s wars in the 1990s and 2000s to stop the region of Chechnya from seceding — against which Stanislav Markelov protested and journalists at Novaya Gazeta like Baburova fought — never ended the violence there — they merely institutionalized it.

While President Vladimir Putin nominally defeated secessionists and Islamists, the outcome of the war really just entails generously funding local despot Ramzan Kadyrov in return for his loyalty. Immune from punishment and looking to avoid challenges from the right by positioning himself as an authentic representative of Chechen culture, Kadyrov is free to promote “traditional values” like lethal homophobia or child marriage.

Protesters were arrested and fined at the Moscow anti-fascist march as they carried rainbow flags and signs protesting the ongoing abduction, torture and murder of LGBT people.

AS A speaker at the rally in London pointed out, the processes happening in Russia that led to the Network case can be seen throughout the capitalist world. Russia isn’t a mysterious, backward land “catching up” to a stable, happy West. It’s a mirror for the world’s potential political futures.

Take cuts to public services, for example: A certain investment banker named Austin Beutner cut his teeth promoting “free markets” in Russia in the 1990s for the State Department-sponsored U.S.-Russia Investment Fund. Today, he’s putting his experience to work as superintendent of Los Angeles schools, writing up the privatization plans at issue in the recent teachers’ strike.

Hate crimes and right-wing terrorist attacks are also not unique to Russia. They are on the rise in the U.S., too, as Trump seeks to scapegoat immigrants. The same kind of memorial that protesters built this month in Moscow has also been seen at the site of U.S. atrocities like the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In New York City, protesters at the Women’s March drew connections between Markelov and Baburova’s deaths and the murders of activists like Berta Cáceres in Honduras and Marielle Franco in Brazil.

For people in the U.S., there’s no need to sympathize with the Democratic National Committee or believe that the CIA is defending us from Russian government-bought Facebook ads to criticize Putin or demand freedom for political prisoners. Nor should we fall for Putin’s claims to be an alternative to Western-style capitalism.

Instead, our solidarity with the people most vulnerable to the violence of the Russian state — and with the people impoverished by the capitalist order it defends — is the basis on which we say: Free all political prisoners! The real terrorists are the FSB!

Further Reading

From the archives