Letter From the Editors

Vladislav Inozemtsev this week expresses a grim assessment of Russia’s role in the modern world: “With its drift toward political insanity, Russia has discredited the idea of multipolarity as effectively as it discredited the ideas of socialism, liberalism and modernization over the last century.” Inozemtsev posits that instead of becoming multipolar, the world has formed a new bipolar configuration: the West vs. China. An extravagant claim, perhaps, but it may be supported by the latest Washington-Beijing “spy game,” in which the US government has charged two Chinese citizens with opening and operating an “illegal overseas police station” of China’s Ministry of Public Security in an office building in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Meanwhile, Russia seems to be busy playing spy games against its own people. An event that strikes us as symbolic of the current domestic climate happened April 16 in the heart of Russia’s capital, when the Sakharov Center for human rights officially closed down, pursuant to an eviction order from Moscow City Hall. This decision was the latest in a series of crackdowns on rights groups, including Memorial, the SOVA Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group, not to mention the local offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Freedom of speech has become an especially scarce commodity since the start of the war in Ukraine, as we can see from the torrent of legislation that has been flowing through the Russian parliament. The most visible consequences are the harsh punishments meted out to journalists like Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza for “spreading fake news” about the war. A more subtle, but equally telling case is the new Law on Citizenship of the Russian Federation, which states that naturalized Russian citizens can lose their status if they commit any of dozens of crimes, including “threatening Russia’s national security.” According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin sternly shut down debate over whether the proposed legislation was constitutional.

Similarly, the recently passed “digital summons” amendments to the conscription law, which will make it much harder to evade the draft, would have sailed through the Federation Council with no dissent at all if one senator – Lyudmila Narusova from Tuva – had not voiced objections. In an interview with Novaya gazeta Europe, Narusova recalled that afterward, a “very respectable man with many years under his belt” gave her this compliment: “You’re the only one among us with balls of steel.” However, interviewer Irina Tumakova was quick to point out that Narusova’s connections in high places may give her carte blanche to say whatever she pleases: After all, she is the widow of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg who mentored Vladimir Putin in the 1990s.

The trend of “political insanity” within Russia might leave one with a sense of total discouragement – and yet this issue of the Digest also contains some of the most inspiring quotations we’ve seen in years. Here are just a few.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, veteran human rights activist: “Freedom cannot be shut down. Freedom is inside a person.”

Journalist Ilya Yashin, on his imminent transfer to a stricter penal colony: “We all understand how this system works. . . . Basically, they want to break you and bring you to your knees. So I’m steeling myself and doing my best to prepare mentally. I know I’m fighting for the right cause, and I hope that this realization . . . will help me cope with it. . . . One day, the political regime in Russia will change, and then we will be able to talk to each other again.”

In the same vein, Yelena Sannikova, herself a former political prisoner, said at the Sakharov Center event: “History shows that hard times always come to an end and intense pressure gives even more strength to resist. . . . [E]verything will be revived one day, just like grass grows through new asphalt.”

May hope spring eternal.