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The Week In Russia: Freedom And Its Betrayal


Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his last respects near the coffin of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow on September 1.

In the days after Mikhail Gorbachev's death, Moscow's war on Ukraine and developments in Russia underscore the erosion of his achievements. Imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny comes under additional pressure in prison, a former reporter is handed a 22-year sentence, and the paper Gorbachev helped create is targeted -- again and again -- by the state.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

The Great Rollback

Mikhail Gorbachev's legacy, in a word, is freedom.

The last Soviet leader let the Warsaw Pact countries that had been under Moscow's thumb for nearly half a century go without bloodshed in 1989.

The 15 Soviet republics won their independence two years later, though in some places deadly crackdowns aimed at stopping them from breaking away marred that process.

And within the Soviet Union before it fell apart, democracy, human rights, and basic freedoms were on the increase as he opened up the country and the balance between the individual and state shifted for the first time in decades -- or centuries.

When Gorbachev died on August 30, at the age of 91, it was in a Russia that might be unrecognizable to optimists who lived through those tumultuous times or watched the momentous developments from the West -- but grimly recognizable to pessimists, perhaps.

Ukraine -- whose independence drive was crucial to the way things played out in the two years before Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, finalizing the Soviet Union's demise -- is under attack in a massive, unprovoked effort by Russia to deprive it of its sovereignty, which Moscow unequivocally accepted at the time. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and some 12 million driven from their homes in Ukraine, where cities and towns have been turned to rubble and evidence of atrocities mounts.

A Russian soldier patrols a street in the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol in April.
A Russian soldier patrols a street in the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol in April.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also seeking to curtail the sovereignty of the Central and Eastern European countries that broke free from Moscow's dominion in 1989. Among the sweeping demands that Russia made of the United States and NATO late last year as part of what may have been little more than an effort to create a paper trail designed to justify the February 24 invasion of Ukraine -- at least in Russia's eyes -- was a call for the Western alliance to withdraw weapons and forces from the territory of countries that joined in 1997 or later.

And as the war in Ukraine persists with no end in sight and autumn approaches, Russia is attempting to use energy supplies -- particularly natural gas -- as a crowbar to try to pry Europe's substantial unity in support of Ukraine apart.

In Russia, meanwhile, many of the advances of the Gorbachev era and later years are being rolled back in ways both suffocatingly broad and -- when it comes to the treatment of people who fall into the widening circle of Putin's perceived enemies -- grimly specific.

Behind Bars

For at least the past two years -- since he was poisoned with a combat-grade nerve agent in what he asserts was an assassination attempt by Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- the most glaring example of the latter has been Aleksei Navalny.

Navalny was arrested and jailed upon return from treatment in Germany in January 2021. Now, he is serving a nine-year sentence on charges he dismisses as absurd and politically motivated, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation and network of offices nationwide has been branded "extremist" and outlawed by the state.

A stark photograph posted by colleagues on September 2 shows how Navalny, 46, looks after a year and a half in jails and prisons -- which, aside from courtrooms and the Moscow airport where he arrived from Berlin, are the only places in Russia he's been since he returned.

Aleksei Navalny looks at a camera while speaking from prison via video link during a court session in January.
Aleksei Navalny looks at a camera while speaking from prison via video link during a court session in January.

On September 7, Navalny said on Instagram that he had been placed in punitive solitary confinement for the fourth time since mid-August at Corrective Colony No. 6, the prison where he is being held in the Vladimir region east of Moscow.

And the following day, he said on Twitter that the prison administration summoned him to tell him that his communications with his lawyers would no longer be protected by attorney-client privilege, a development that close associate Leonid Volkov said was "very bad. Can't be underestimated."

"Not only [have they] put Navalny into [a] solitary punishment cell, they are now trying to cut his communication to the outer world entirely," Volkov tweeted.

While the seemingly ever-tightening clampdown on dissent entered a new phase with Navalny's imprisonment -- and tightened further still following the February invasion of Ukraine, which dramatically widened an eight-year war in the Donbas -- its victims are myriad.

'Baseless'

In a sentencing that stunned Kremlin critics and observers, even it it did not surprise them, Ivan Safronov, a former defense industry reporter for newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti and a former aide to the head of the Russian space agency, was convicted of treason and handed a 22-year prison term. He is 32 years old.

Supporters, Kremlin critics, and observers said the case against Safronov -- based on allegations that he passed classified information to Czech and German secret agents -- was "entirely fabricated," as Sam Greene, a political analysts and author of a book on Putin, put it.

In a report published on August 29, the investigative media outlet Proyekt, which examined the case documents, said it had found that the charges against Safronov were "baseless."

Ivan Safronov stands in the defendants' cell in Moscow City Court for the announcement of his verdict on September 5.
Ivan Safronov stands in the defendants' cell in Moscow City Court for the announcement of his verdict on September 5.

Back to Gorbachev, who used the cash award from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to fund the creation of Novaya gazeta, a groundbreaking independent newspaper that has delved into injustice across Russia in the following decade and in the 23 years since Putin, president or prime minister since August 1999, came to power.

On the day Safronov was convicted and sentenced, a Moscow court revoked Novaya gazeta's print license -- and the next day, it cancelled the registration of the outlet's magazine.

The court rulings, which came at the request of the state media regulator Roskomnadzor, added to mounting pressure on the paper over ts coverage of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Novaya gazeta announced in March that that it was suspending publication after receiving official warning from the state over its coverage of Russia's war on Ukraine.

Putin's government calls the ongoing invasion a "special military operation" and has taken numerous steps to punish people and media that criticize or question it, including making it illegal to refer to the war as a war.

Gorbachev's funeral procession, on September 3, was led by Novaya gazeta's editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov, who was a co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. He was cited for his "efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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