The Return of Russia’s Soviet Past

  • Themes: Russia

Vladimir Kara-Murza’s trial is a chilling reminder of the trials of Soviet dissidents in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits in a cage in a courtroom prior to a court session in Moscow, Russia, 2023.
Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits in a cage in a courtroom prior to a court session in Moscow, Russia, 2023. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

By the time it crumbled ignominiously in 1991, the Soviet Union had sent some 20 million of its citizens to labour camps and countless others to prison or psychiatric hospitals for political offences. The existence of political prisoners was one of the worst stains on the Soviet Union’s reputation, as it is on the reputation of every country that jails citizens for the mere crime of having the wrong opinions. Now Russia has resurrected this brutal practice, most recently with the 25-year prison sentence imposed on Vladimir Kara-Murza. The opposition politician’s harsh punishment is a dramatic illustration of Russia’s journey back to autocracy.

‘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. And that’s not even to mention the harshness of the sentence requested by the prosecution or the talk of “enemies of the state.” In this respect, we’ve gone beyond the 1970s – all the way back to the 1930s,’ Kara-Murza told a Moscow court at the closing session of his treason trial. A few days later, on 17 April, the judge needed only a few minutes’ deliberation to deliver his verdict: 25 years in a penal colony for the crime of speaking ill of the Russian government.

Kara-Murza’s trial, what with its secrecy (no foreign media was allowed to attend), its treason charges and its draconian sentence, is a chilling reminder of the trials of Soviet dissidents in the sixties, seventies and eighties, although it doesn’t reach the abyss of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, when millions of citizens were sent to labour camps following little more than a denunciation. Those of us who experienced even just a few years of the Cold War vividly remember hearing of Soviet citizens sent to prison for the crime of calling for democracy. Many were convicted of ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ and sent to serve their sentences in prisons or penal camps. Read about some of these courageous citizens in this 1975 report by Amnesty International. One of them, the Baptist Yakov Pavlov from Kazakhstan, was sent to prison for ‘violating the separation of church and state’, defaming the Soviet Union and teaching his children about religion. Other dissidents were locked up in psychiatric hospitals and administered medications they didn’t need, often following a diagnosis of ‘sluggish schizophrenia’. The condition, thought up by Soviet psychiatrists, manifested itself in people being able to function normally while also exhibiting ‘reform delusions’ and seeing themselves in a ‘struggle for the truth’. ‘They said, “Maybe you should find new friends, or find a hobby. Go to the theatre. Try to avoid problems.” They said things are even worse in the West. I wouldn’t be able to work in my specialty. They said the only thing you can do in the West is make anti-Soviet slanders,’ one such bedlam political detainee, Serafim Yevsyukov, later recalled being told by hospital staff. He’d been sentenced to psychiatric care for the crime of wanting to emigrate and spent his days there being involuntarily injected with a powerful tranquiliser.

Since officially the Soviet Union didn’t have any political prisoners or political crimes – many were convicted of vague offences, including the all-encompassing charge of ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ – it’s hard to know exactly how many citizens endured such life-scarring (and life-ending) fates. In the mid-eighties, the number was estimated to range between 500 to 2,000. What’s certain, though, is that the practice didn’t even end after Moscow signed the Helsinki Accords, including the agreement’s famous human rights obligations. A sure sign that things were changing came when Mikhail Gorbachev began releasing political prisoners. In the Yevsyokov family, Serafim was released, as was his son, who had been sentenced to prison for refusing to perform military service. In honour of the Bolshevik Revolution’s seventieth anniversary in 1987, Gorbachev arranged for a mass release of political prisoners.

Thirty-six years later, Kara-Murza will serve 25 years behind bars for the crime of disseminating falsehoods about Russia. The anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is serving an eleven-year sentence in a penal colony. Other, less famous, Russians have been given punitive sentences merely for opposing the Ukraine war. A 23-year-old student named Dmitry Ivanov, for example, is serving an 8.5-year sentence for the crime of calling the Ukraine war a war on social media. Some 500 Russians are thought to be in prison on political charges.

As brutal as the Soviet Union was, its post-Stalin leaders always seemed uncomfortable knowing that the world was aware of its citizens being put in prison and psychiatric hospitals for political ‘crimes’. Today, by contrast, Vladimir Putin, his coterie and the courts don’t seem bothered by the fact that non-offending citizens are met with brutal punishment and that the world knows about it. Indeed, the sentences seem to be especially draconian for PR purposes, the message being that nobody should think about opposing the government. What has happened to Russia, when even the Soviet Union seems lenient in comparison?


Elisabeth Braw