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The Week In Russia: 'Force And Fear' And A Fiery Crash

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left), once known as "Putin's chef," serves Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner outside Moscow in 2011.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left), once known as "Putin's chef," serves Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner outside Moscow in 2011.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Signs of the times: The Sakharov Center is shut, suspicions settle on the Kremlin as Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is presumed dead in a plane crash, and Ukraine celebrates the independence it is guarding from relentless Russian attacks.

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

Evict And Liquidate

For more than a quarter-century, a modest building in a small park just off the Garden Ring in Moscow served as a kind of oasis of historical truth in a country whose leadership, particularly since Vladimir Putin came to power, has been increasingly dishonest about the past.

It took its name from Andrei Sakharov, the hydrogen-bomb designer turned dissident who fought for human rights and freedoms and died two years before the U.S.S.R. collapsed after a failed coup staged by plotters bent on undoing the reforms he helped usher in and preserving the Soviet Union.

The Sakharov Center, by contrast, worked to preserve the memory of the crimes of the Soviet state and of their victims, who numbered in the millions. One exhibit displayed there featured a large number of faded, dog-eared documents from the time of Josef Stalin's Great Terror, each including a citizen's name and a one-word order saying that he or she would be shot.

The coup attempt was over less than three days after it began on August 19, 1991. Almost 32 years later to the day, on August 18, a Moscow court issued a different kind of death sentence, ordering the closure and "liquidation" of the Sakharov Center, which had been evicted from its longtime premises in January.

The shutdown of the Sakharov Center is just one of the latest steps in a relentless campaign by the Russian state to stifle civil society and silence dissent amid the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which reached the 18-month mark yesterday with both sides far short of their goals: in the case of Moscow, the aggressor, subjugating Ukraine, and in Kyiv's case driving Russian forces out the country.

The clampdown, since the invasion in February 2022 but can be traced as far back as a dozen years ago, when the state suppressed large protests over evidence of election fraud and Putin's return to the presidency after a stint as prime minister, has become part of the fabric of Russia as he approaches a quarter-century in power.

But that would have been hard to predict when the coup plot collapsed on August 21, 1991, hastening the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and raising hopes for robust democracy to take hold in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the former Soviet republics. Critics say Putin, a KGB officer in the Soviet era, began reversing steps in that direction soon after he came to power.

‘Turn The Clock Back'

Today, far from being scions of those who thwarted the coup, author and analyst Mark Galeotti suggested, Putin's government is "the spiritual descendant" of the members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency, the GKChP, who were bent on preserving the circumstances that gave them power and personal security no matter what it meant for the millions of citizens desperate for change.

Putin's Kremlin, Galeotti said, "owes so much of its attitudes and its fears to…the people in this emergency commission, who thought that [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had gone too far and was going to bring about the dissolution of their entire system, and that all they could do was essentially try to turn the clock back through the use of force and fear."

"That, quite frankly, provides much more of a sense of the credo of today's Kremlin," he said on his podcast, In Moscow's Shadows. "No wonder they may not be sleeping that calmly."

The clearest example of Russia's efforts to "turn the clock back through the use of force and fear" is the invasion of Ukraine, which at its heart is a bid to regain control over some of the territory that was under Moscow's thumb in the Soviet era but has been independent for 32 years -- a milestone marked across the country on August 24 in defiance of the invasion.

In ultimatums -- cast as "proposals" -- leveled at the United States and NATO weeks ahead of the February 2022 invasion, Russia sought to undo some of the chief effects of the collapse of communism in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later by restricting the rights of countries across Central and Eastern Europe to provide for their own security.

Russia's war against Ukraine raged on with sickening persistence this week. On August 20, a missile strike on the northern city of Chernihiv -- which Russia besieged in the first weeks of the invasion but failed to capture before beating a retreat back across the border -- killed at least seven people, including a 6-year-old girl, Sofia.

Work For The Clampdown

Inside Russia, the closure of the Sakharov Center also looks like an attempt to turn back the clock -- in this case, to a time before activists began documenting the crimes of the Soviet state.

In the years that followed the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, such efforts were seen by many in Russia as part of a reckoning that was crucial to the development of the country going forward. In the Putin era, rights activists say, they are treated by the authorities as attacks on the state -- actions to be nipped in the bud, not nurtured -- because they are perceived as threats.

Amid the war in Ukraine, the persistent state campaign to neutralize perceived threats has gone into overdrive.

The closure of the Sakharov Center is an example, as is the ongoing trial of Oleg Orlov, a leader of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which was shut down by court order in December 2021. Memorial has long been at the heart of efforts to establish historical truth, and in the crosshairs of the Kremlin as a result.

With a presidential election looming in seven months, so is the increasing pressure on Golos, a group that has monitored elections and tracked voting fraud claims since the early 2000s, and the prosecution of its co-chairman Grigory Melkonyants.

So is the new conviction of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who was sentenced this month to 19 years in an isolated, harsh, high-security "special regime" prison after a trial on extremism charges that he dismisses as absurd.

'Retribution And Reprisal'

So too, possibly, is the August 23 plane crash that probably killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner leader whose brief mutiny exactly two months earlier brought his mercenary force within 200 kilometers of Moscow and made Putin look vulnerable.

"It is pretty straightforward," Maria Snegovaya, a Russia analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told RFE/RL. "He did something that was taboo. He was going to be eliminated sooner or later, and this time it came quite fast."

Many Russians suspect that Putin had Prigozhin killed. And a "preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment" concluded that an intentional explosion caused the crash, the Associated Press reported, citing unnamed U.S. and Western officials who said it was in line with Putin's "long history of trying to silence his critics."

In a way, though, what really happened hardly matters.

"Whatever the reasons for the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of retribution and reprisal, and the Kremlin will not interfere much with this," Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Berlin-based Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote on Telegram.

That prediction seemed to be borne out by Putin's first public comments about the crash, issued late on August 24. He offered condolences and praise for Prigozhin, but said the Wagner leader had "a difficult fate" and had made "serious mistakes in life."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site, or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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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.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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