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Putin won't be able to stifle anti-war protests in Europe - interview with Sergei Davidis, head of the Memorial project


Sergei Davidis, co-chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Centre and head of the project "Support for Political Prisoners”. Sergei Davidis gave an interview to Media Loft.

He spoke about how Memorial helps political prisoners in Russia from Europe, whether Russia can follow the path of redemption after Putin, like Germany after Hitler, and when democracy will come to Russia.

Sergei Davidis

"Putin did not fall from the sky on us"

A lot of analogies are now being drawn between today's Russia and Nazi Germany. Many experts therefore wonder how long it will take Russia to redeem itself, and whether it will be able to go the way of Germany at all.

"This [Germany's path] is a very unlikely development, because Germany was defeated in the war, occupied, and it took 25 years to go through this penance. That is to say, years have now passed. After 25 years of consistent policy, the country has finally come to an understanding of national responsibility," says Davidis.

The problem of Russia's historical responsibility is now being actively discussed. And it is clear that Russia is not the only country which has shameful tragic pages where the state has committed crimes against its own and others' citizens. Many countries, including countries in Europe, have gone this way, but in the end they have reached democracy.

 "France in relation to the Algerian war and other colonial wars has overcome this. All the former colonial countries have overcome it in one way or another now. But it took decades of democratic development. And Russia will get there, I think. And in that sense it is, of course, quite natural to use the experience of other countries.

Davidis thinks that sooner or later Russia will become a European country with democratic values. But a full-fledged understanding of its responsibility and repentance is clearly not a matter of the near future.

"It is important for Russians to overcome this past, in order to build a future that will be different and not go around in circles, it is necessary to understand both the crimes that have been committed and the mechanisms that led to these crimes. Also important, is understanding what each of us has not done, and vice versa, what we have done, which allowed it to happen. Putin did not fall on us from the sky.

Despite the Kremlin's assurances that Russia is unlike any other country and has its own way, it is not unique at all.

"It's Putin's crazy paradigm that Russia is a unique country. It is similar to all the other countries: the experience of dictatorships, the experience of human rights violations, the experience of wars of aggression. It is not unique in the sense that Putin says it has a special grandeur.

Final severing of ties with Europe

The Russian authorities are now withdrawing from Council of Europe treaties, including the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This marks the final stage of Moscow's break with the organisation and its institutions.

Davidis believes that as long as Russia was a party to international treaties, the authorities at least recognised their validity and could appeal to them.

"The court knew that there was a convention - and this was also a norm... The authorities recognised that this was also a norm. Now this balance has been removed, shifted towards arbitrariness and the right of the strongest... Now the authorities are saying that this is not the way [as written in international conventions], that these are enemies, that we have our own truth, our own law and our own special human rights. This is another step that poisons our future," says Davidis.

This will all change the view of the new generations who don't have a European convention and who are told in school that it's all 'made up by the West'.

It is possible to provide aid in Europe too

Despite the fact that many of Memorial's staff, particularly the project to support political prisoners, are abroad, they continue to help political prisoners in Russia. So do OVF-Info, Agora and Network Freedoms, Davidis says.

"Being in Russia, you are very limited in your ability to help, to draw attention to the case, the lawyers can help more directly anyway. That is, there are issues of remuneration, organization of the process, and crowdfunding for people to hand over transfers, so that families can travel to the colony, if necessary. And we are involved in these processes.

Davidis said that it was Memorial and the lists of political prisoners maintained by the organization that became the main source of information about political prisoners and contemporary political repression in Russia. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the U.S. Congress and many others rely on this data.

"These lists are very necessary and important because international attention based on our lists is a useful thing for political prisoners. It is much more difficult to draw attention to specific cases when they are in Russia, especially after the start of the war, when dozens of people are imprisoned on charges under new articles that are connected with their anti-war stance."

Protests are a signal to political prisoners

In January, rallies were held around the world in support of political prisoners on the anniversary of the arrest of politician Alexei Navalny. The actions were organised by Russian émigrés fleeing Putin's regime.

According to Davidis, even though the protests abroad will not change the political situation in Russia, they will still draw attention to the problem, both at home and abroad. At the same time, political prisoners also feel that they are not abandoned.

"This is a signal to the Russian authorities that political prisoners are remembered. The head of the colony, the head of the pre-trial detention facility understands that the person has support, attention is drawn to him. Therefore, one should be more careful with him. Finally, these actions are an appeal to the world at large".

Sergei Davidis

Putin destroys any hotbed of resistance

The problems of political prisoners are also related to other problems in Russia. After all, the war will end sooner or later, and Russia will remain where it is now.

"For Russia to stop being a threat to the world, a threat to the surrounding countries, it is important that it becomes a democratic country. The fight for the release of political prisoners is an important element of the struggle to change Russia."

In order to be able to unleash and wage a year-long war of aggression against Ukraine, Putin needed to first crush Russian civil society, the expert said.

"[Putin tried] to destroy all pockets of resistance, centres, associations, structures that brought people together, to suppress any alternative voices of dissent."

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, Russians came out to rallies and pickets, which were quickly suppressed. The Russian authorities launched an internal crackdown, with more than 21,000 detentions and at least 370 criminal cases for anti-war statements and speeches, according to OVD-Info.

"After all, at what cost, thanks to what efforts inside the country, thanks to what repression has Putin been able to achieve a situation where it is impossible to go out on the street, organize mass protests, impossible to speak loudly in public against the regime? This is because those who did it were put in prison."

Saving the honour of the country

Unfortunately, the balance of power is now such that neither Ilya Yashin, nor Andrei Pivovarov, nor Alexei Gorinov, nor many other activists, by speaking out against the war, could expect to change the political system in any way.

"They were rather saving the honour of the country by speaking out against the war. They could hardly expect to stop the war. They were exactly saving both their honour and the honour of the country. And in that sense, drawing attention to their plight is about protecting the honour of the country."

In Europe, many Russians are now organising actions and coming out to protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Well, Putin cannot, of course, stifle the anti-war protests of Russians abroad, but he is making efforts to compromise all Russians, including those who oppose him. So we can see that the efforts of the bots on the internet are aimed at equating all Russians and Putin. Well, Putin is doing his job and we have to do ours."

The Russian human rights society Memorial, which researched political repression in the USSR, was one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was then shared by the Russian Memorial society, Belarusian activist and political prisoner Ales Belyatski and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties.

Davidis believes that the prize is a reward for Russia's human rights community as a whole.

"The Nobel Prize is traditionally respected after all, and reprisals against a Nobel laureate are still worse than reprisals against someone who does not have that status. In addition, it makes our voice stronger, louder. It allows us to draw more attention to the problems, particularly of political prisoners. And this is a good thing."

Chain of impunity

To mark the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre has released a report analysing Russia's actions in Ukraine. Thus, the authors say, the practices used by Russia in the current war inherit the methods of the two Chechen wars and the conflict in Syria in 2015.

All post-Soviet wars have spawned a chain of impunity that entails more war crimes, the report states.

"Surovikin, Strelkov and other 'heroes' of the war in Ukraine have brought there the experience of three decades of unpunished violence. The murdered city of Mariupol is a consequence of the destruction of Grozny. The impunity of the murderers of Samashki and Novye Aldy inevitably gave birth to Bucha. "The 'filtration camps' through which Mariupol residents passed inherit the 'filtration system' that existed in Chechnya," the report's authors write.

In January 2023, the European Parliament approved its decision to prosecute Vladimir Putin and his entourage for military actions against Ukraine. Such a tribunal would be able to "fill a vacuum in international justice," according to the initiative.

In February this year, the Netherlands also announced plans to set up an international centre for prosecuting Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the Netherlands would like the court to be in The Hague.

But talk of a tribunal or an international prosecutor's office to try Putin and his associates has been going on since last year. Discussions on the subject have become increasingly heated, but at the moment there is no international court with jurisdiction to try Russia's leadership for war crimes in Ukraine, let alone their crimes against its own people.

By: Katya Kobenok
Cover photo: From the personal archive of Sergei Davidis

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Event/The Netherlands

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