Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov: ‘Putin’s victory in Ukraine would mean preserving a fascist regime for years to come’

The leader of the Memorial Center for the Defense of Rights doubts the effectiveness of Western sanctions against Russians and says that it will take a generation for his country to overcome imperialism

Oleg Orlov
Oleg Orlov, the co-president of the Memorial Center for the Defense of Rights, at his home in Moscow.Javier G. Cuesta
Javier G. Cuesta

A year ago, Oleg Orlov warned that peace at any price could be catastrophic. “A victorious fascist Russia will inevitably become not only a serious threat to the security of its neighbors, but also to all of Europe,” he concluded in his November 2022 column “They Wanted Fascism and They Got It,” published in the French daily Mediapart. A year later, the veteran Russian activist was tried for that article by the same system — ”half feudal, half corrupt state capitalism” — that he denounced: Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The 70-year-old Moscow native is the co-president of the Memorial Center for the Defense of Rights, an organization created after the Kremlin destroyed its historic center for the defense of human rights in 2022. Orlov was fined 150,000 rubles, about $1,650 at the current impoverished exchange rate. The activist appealed, and so did the Prosecutor’s Office, which is demanding that Orlov be sentenced to three years in prison on the grounds that he, “along with Memorial, is undermining social stability.” Other dissidents — such as Alexei Gorinov, Ilia Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza and many other lesser-known dissidents — were imprisoned earlier.

Next to the entrance of his home, there’s a threatening graffiti with the Russian army’s “Z” and the phrase “war against them.” Orlov, who has defended human rights for over 40 years, from the Soviet Union’s death throes to the repression in the Caucasus, is calm about it: he says he never had any choice but to do what he thought was right.

Question. Memorial has worked for democracy in Russia over than 30 years. Has it helped?

Answer. I haven’t had a choice. I thought it was right to oppose the coup plotters in 1991; I thought it was right to participate in drafting the laws for a new democratic Russia. Why would I seclude myself in my private life and do nothing?

Q. Do you think Europe understands the Russians?

A. Russia’s future will largely be decided on the battlefields of Ukraine. And Putin’s victory there means the preservation of this regime, which I consider fascist, for many years. Europeans find it very difficult to imagine that people are imprisoned for many years [just] for going out onto the street. Now, a private conversation is enough [for punishment]. Recently, a woman spoke positively of Zelenskiy in the dining room of a health spa. Someone denounced her and she was handed over to the Center for Combating Extremism. So, before claiming that Russian society does not protest, one should understand that there is a very harsh totalitarian regime here. This is completely different from protesting in Madrid, Paris or Berlin.

Q. In your article you compare the current Russian system with the dictatorships of Spain’s Francisco Franco and Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar. Do you expect to see changes in Russia?

A. I think the situation in Russia could be very similar to what happened in Spain and Portugal. When the dictator leaves power, he dies somehow. Often, there is a division among the elites, as was the case in Spain. Some of these elites realize that it is no longer possible to continue down the road being taken by the dictator, and there are people who are beginning to lead the country toward a certain freedom. Here, the role of the real opposition — not just the political one — is very important. The role of human rights activists, the real opposition and the trade unions is to pressure the government in order to take power after the dictator [is gone] to move toward a real… not fictitious democracy. As soon as the dictator disappears, the most unexpected people from his entourage will appear as reformers who want changes to save themselves and the system from collapsing.

Q. Salazar and Franco ran their countries for 40 years. Franco died in bed without a revolution rising up against him. And now Russians are being asked to protest against Putin while Europe imposes sanctions on them. Do they serve any purpose?

A. I don’t have a clear answer as to whether they are right or wrong. It seems to me that Europe didn’t think it through. It is naïve to believe that the sanctions will make the oligarchs overthrow Putin. They don’t stand a chance. You want to divide the elites? Give them a chance to get off the sanctions list; it will slowly increase the division among them. I don’t have a clear [answer] about general sanctions, either. Russian citizens find it difficult to travel and feel uncomfortable in Europe, do you want them to put their hands on their heads and try to overthrow Putin? With a totalitarian regime, that is naïve.

Oleg Orlov
Oleg Orlov lays flowers at the Solovetsky memorial in honor of victims of political repression in Moscow on October 29.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA (REUTERS)

Q. Now they are not only arresting political opponents, but also members of the pro-war sector who have made some type of criticism. Do you notice a war weariness?

A. There have been many people in favor of the war since 2022, but the number has decreased. The fatigue is evident. If freedom of expression had not been destroyed, if we were not punished for speaking in [public], the mass discontent would be very visible. But many people are very afraid; they keep silent or don’t want to think about it.

Q. In your article you cite the myth that Russians want an iron fist, a Stalin. Has this changed?

A. Repression has hardened. Almost all independent organizations have been shut down and there are more arrests and new sentences every week. I am surprised that I have been given so much freedom and can grant you this interview. I am prepared to talk to you openly, but 90% of Russians will refuse to deal with a Western correspondent. They think the authorities will find out tomorrow and lock them up in prison.

Q. You reiterate that it is impossible to hold a peaceful protest in Russia now. There was the Wagner riot in the summer. Maybe Putin doesn’t have everything under control?

A. No, I don’t think he does. If before Wagner’s rebellion someone had said that there would be a military mutiny in Russia, nobody would have believed it. [Wagner’s] rebellion revealed a lot: generals disappeared and were taken out. The plane exploded, everything seems to be back in order, but there is a clear fear of military pronouncements. On the other hand, the suppression of peaceful demonstration is dangerous not so much because of Wagner, but because the desire for non-peaceful protests will emerge. Terrorism occurs, an armed response occurs, and the authorities intensify repression, increasingly brutal terror. The authorities are pushing Russia into a vicious cycle.

Q. You have denounced the liquidation of the judicial system in Russia. In your trial, linguists confused the jedi (from Star Wars) with disco DJs in their sources. What is your assessment of your trial?

A. The accusations are stupid and senseless; they were very poorly prepared. In Russia, they don’t even try to formalize the charges well; they think that any accusation will be translated into a guilty verdict. Anyway, in my case the judge has generally behaved decently. This charge would have been dismissed in a normal court, but our courts are not independent for political reasons, so they will do whatever they are told from above.

Q. How do you see the future of relations between Russians and Ukrainians?

A. I understand that a part of Ukrainian civil society does not want to talk to any Russians. It is painful for them. Relations will be very difficult, but the fact that there are links between part of Russian civil society and part of Ukrainian civil society is a kind of guarantee that normal relations will return in the future. But I understand that most Ukrainians curse Russians now.

Q. Ten years ago there was general ecstasy in Russia over the seizure of Crimea. Putin has said that some territories of other countries were Russian. If the Kremlin had won this war easily and the West had looked the other way, do you think Putin would have gone further?

A. Whatever happens, he has lost. He is pushing the world toward nuclear war, and I suspect he is insulated from reality. He is a dictator who, at the end of his dictatorship, has gone mad, not in the sense of mental illness, but in the sense of his disconnection from reality. Undoubtedly, he considers himself a historical figure, a man with the historical mission to revive the russki mir, the Russian empire, not the Soviet Union. He foolishly thought that he would defeat Ukraine in three days, that the Ukrainian generals would overthrow “the drug addicts” — as the Kremlin labels the Ukrainian government — and take power into their own hands. In that hypothetical scenario, a part of Russian society would have been inspired.

Q. In Spain, that happened over a century ago with Cuban independence.

A. There is a stereotype that our country is made up of three brotherly peoples: Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. Putin’s imperialism is based on some kind of cultural code that needs to be overcome. I’m afraid it will take a generation to overcome that.

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