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The Week In Russia: Trial And Terror

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza (right) attends a pretrial hearing in Moscow last month. Kara-Murza is charged with treason, and prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence after a trial widely denounced as a farce.
Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza (right) attends a pretrial hearing in Moscow last month. Kara-Murza is charged with treason, and prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence after a trial widely denounced as a farce.

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.

A gruesome video adds to apparent evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Accounts of “terrifying torture” during the occupation of Kherson expand with a Human Rights Watch report. And in Russia, a Kremlin opponent faces a verdict in a treason trial widely condemned as a farce.

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

'Barbaric Acts'

When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine and the oppressive atmosphere in Russia itself, sometimes it seems like things just couldn’t get any worse.

And then they do, again and again.

This week, a video that appeared to show Russian forces beheading a captive Ukrainian soldier caused outrage in Ukraine and the West. If authentic, the video adds to the growing pile of evidence of atrocities committed by Russia and its troops since President Vladimir Putin ordered the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Czech President Petr Pavel said that if the video is real, “it will mean that Russian soldiers are on par with the Islamic State. This is something that…all of us universally should condemn."

Pavel, a former senior NATO official, noted that “the Russian Armed Forces have committed a whole range of barbaric acts on Ukraine's territory which have already been documented.”

Circulation of the video occurred against a backdrop of daily death and destruction wreaked by Russia on Ukraine and its people. An 11-year-old girl in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhya and her father, 50, were among at least five civilians killed in Russian attacks over the weekend, Ukrainian authorities said.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, added to already mounting evidence that Russian forces who seized the southern city of Kherson soon after the invasion operated a “torture center” and several similar facilities in the area before it was liberated and they retreated across the Dnieper River in November.

"Russian occupying forces carried out terrifying torture and other abuses against Kherson residents in the torture center on Teploenerhetykiv Street and numerous other detention facilities," Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at HRW, said as the group issued its report on April 13.

Ukrainians who were held at the facilities during the occupation “consistently reported similar forms of abuse, including severe beatings with sticks and rubber batons, electric shocks, threats of death or mutilation, and use of painful stress positions,” HRW said. “No adequate medical care was provided to detainees.”

Kherson is the only regional capital Russian forces have seized since the February 2022 invasion. Their withdrawal was one of several setbacks they have suffered in an assault that Putin is widely believed to have expected would bring Ukraine to its knees within days -- or a few weeks at most.

Almost 14 months later, predictions made out in the open and in secret suggest the war is unlikely to end this year and could go on far longer.

A Jailed Journalist

In Russia, a state clampdown on dissent, political opposition, independent media, and civil society that can be traced back to numerous points in time since Putin first came to power nearly a quarter-century ago had intensified in 2021, with the arrest of Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny, and again in 2022, with the large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Like the war, it shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Unlike the 7 1/2-year period between the Soviet Union’s collapse and his initial appointment as prime minister in 1999, the Putin era has been defined to a large degree by the prosecution of perceived enemies, with politically charged arrests, trials, verdicts, and sentences following one after the other in times of peace and war.

Among other ingredients, the clampdown consists of countless court cases that Kremlin critics charge are motivated by politics or geopolitics. Three of the most prominent prosecutions that are occurring now – each of them at a different stage – paint a picture perhaps bleaker than at any time since the former KGB officer was put in charge of the country.

At least one of them is unprecedented: On March 29, Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested by the KBG’s main successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), on espionage charges that his newspaper, his family, and the U.S. government have roundly dismissed as fabricated.

Gershkovich, 31, is the only American journalist to have been arrested and accused of spying in post-Soviet Russia. He is being held at Lefortovo, a notorious former KGB jail that is associated with Soviet-era repression and is now used by the FSB, and would face a prison sentence of up to 25 years if tried and convicted.

The United States has designated Gershkovich “wrongfully detained,” meaning it sees him as a hostage, and analysts say it’s crystal clear that at least one of the Kremlin’s motives for his arrest is just that: Russia has acquired yet another high-profile hostage for a potential prisoner swap.

Another message: Real reporting on the war in Ukraine and related matters is off-limits, even for accredited foreign correspondents.

Poisoned Again?

The Russian state’s efforts against Navalny are at a more advanced stage, and his treatment in prison is an increasing cause for alarm. The opposition politician was arrested when he returned to Russia in January 2021, after barely surviving a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and the FSB.

Navalny, 46, has received prison sentences of nine years and 2 ½ years in separate cases he contends were fabricated to punish him for his dissent and to keep him out of elections and off the streets of Russia, where he has joined, led, or helped organize many of the biggest anti-government protests of the past 12 years. From prison, Navalny has denounced Russia’s war on Ukraine.

He has repeatedly been sent to punitive solitary confinement, enduring more than 100 days in such cells since August 2022, and fears for his health have intensified as supporters say he has been denied medical treatment. An ambulance was called on April 7, when he was suffering severe stomach pain, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.

"Every time we have to fight to make sure that some sort of medical assistance is provided for him, while the prison’s medical personnel inject unknown substances into his body and refuse to tell us what these substances are," Yarmysh said in a video statement posted on social media on April 13.

“We cannot rule out that, right now, they are slowly poisoning Aleksei Navalny -- killing him slowly so as to attract less attention," she said.

Meanwhile, the government is getting ready to imprison another opponent who, like Navalny, returned to Russia from abroad despite the clear risk that he would be targeted for prosecution, arguing that the country is his home -- and he belongs there no matter what.

Prosecutors have asked a Moscow court to sentence Vladimir Kara-Murza, 41, to 25 years in prison on treason charges that stem from his opposition to Putin’s government and his public criticism of its actions, including the invasion of Ukraine. A verdict is expected on April 17.

Kara-Murza “is facing a monstrous prison term for no more than raising his voice and elevating the voices of others in Russia who disagree with the Kremlin, its war in Ukraine, and its escalating repression within Russia,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, which called for his release.

Kara-Murza, who before his April 2022 arrest lived part-time outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and children, believes that two severe illnesses he suffered during visits to Russia, in 2015 and 2017, were the result of intentional poisoning attacks linked to his lobbying for U.S. sanctions against Russian officials allegedly involved in rights abuses.​

'A War Will Be Called A War'

In a final statement at his closed-door trial, which was published in The Washington Post, Kara-Murza began by saying that “after two decades spent in Russian politics, after all that I have seen and experienced, that nothing can surprise me anymore.

“I must admit that I was wrong,” he said. “I’ve been surprised by the extent to which my trial, in its secrecy and its contempt for legal norms, has surpassed even the ‘trials’ of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and ’70s.”

"In this respect, we’ve gone beyond the 1970s — all the way back to the 1930s," he said, evoking the harrowing times of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s political purges -- the Great Terror.

Like other imprisoned Kremlin opponents, he ended his statement with a message of hope, saying he knows “that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate.​

The day, he said, “when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.”

“And then our society will open its eyes and be horrified by what terrible crimes were committed on its behalf,” he said. “From this realization, from this reflection, the long, difficult but vital path toward the recovery and restoration of Russia, its return to the community of civilized countries, will begin.”

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

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, 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 Apple Podcasts.

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