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The week in Russia: “Deep into the darkness”


I’m Steve Gutterman, editor-in-chief of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus bureau.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I analyze the main developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and consider what lies ahead.

As Alexei Navalny’s family prepared to bury him, Russians remembered Boris Nemtsov, murdered near the Kremlin nine years ago, and a prominent human rights defender, Oleg Orlov, sentenced to prison for his criticism of the war against Ukraine.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the lessons for the future.

Prison and death

One of them was buried, another was sentenced to prison, and a third was remembered nine years after being shot on a bridge near the Kremlin.

Alexei Navalny. Oleg Orlov. Boris Nemtsov.

For their supporters, all three represent a Russia that could have been and perhaps still could be – but not, President Vladimir Putin’s opponents fear, in the near future.

To varying degrees, their fates are all linked to the most important act Putin has made in nearly a quarter century as president or prime minister: attacking Ukraine, both in 2014, with the occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbass, and with the large-scale invasion from February 2022.

At a demonstration a year before his assassination, Nemtsov denounced the rapidly changing situation in Moscow. aggression in Ukrainecalling him “despicable” and “impudent” – and also “harmful to Russia”.

He and his associates worked on a report on the extent of Russia’s interference in Ukraine when he was murdered on February 27, 2015.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Alexei Navalny, attends a mourning ceremony for murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on March 3, 2015.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Alexei Navalny, attends a mourning ceremony for murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on March 3, 2015.

On the same date this year, Orlov — co-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Memorial human rights center — was guilty for discrediting the Russian army and sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison. The verdict was handed down after a retrial – initially his sentence was a fine of 150,000 rubles ($1,650), but prosecutors appealed the decision and a retrial was ordered.

Orlov was indicted for an article in which he wrote that Russia was “falling back into totalitarianism, but this time of the fascist type.”

“The bloody war that the Putin regime has unleashed in Ukraine is not only a massacre of people and the annihilation of (Ukraine’s) infrastructure, economy and cultural sites,” Orlov wrote. “This is not only the destruction of the foundations of international law. It is also a severe blow for the future of Russia.”

A judgment rejected

Nemtsov and Navalny were firmly rooted in post-Soviet Russia, both young enough that most of their adult lives – and in Navalny’s case, all of them – were lived after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 .

Orlov, 70, is a bridge to the past, not only because of his age, but also because the now-banned Memorial was founded in the 1980s and, in addition to its human rights work in the The Putin erathe group’s chronicles state crimes dating back to Stalin’s Great Terror and beyond.

In 2022, Memorial received a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for its “outstanding efforts to document war crimes, human rights violations, and abuses of power” in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. For some Russians, it embodies a crucial effort to reckon with the country’s past — and a time when that reckoning seemed within reach.

If Orlov represents the broken promise of a bygone era, Navalny – to his supporters – represented a beacon of hope for what was happening. he liked to call the “beautiful Russia of the future”.

For a decade or more, he was the most important opposition leader – in part because the battlefield narrowed with Nemtsov’s assassination. The two men appeared at numerous similar demonstrations in 2011-2012, when Russians hoping for political change took to the streets to protest parliamentary elections marred by widespread evidence of fraud and Putin’s plan to return to the presidency after a stint as Prime Minister.

Boris Nemtsov (L) and Alexei Navalny take part in a rally to protest allegations of electoral fraud in Russia's parliamentary elections in Moscow on December 24, 2011.

Boris Nemtsov (L) and Alexei Navalny take part in a rally to protest allegations of electoral fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections in Moscow on December 24, 2011.

He presented himself as an alternative to Putin and sought to challenge Putin in the most direct way possible, although that proved impossible: by running against him in 2018.

“Links in a chain”

After surviving a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning in August 2020 and returning in January 2021 to Russia, where he was arrested upon arrival in January 2021, he died in prison on February 16 under suspicious circumstances.

Open source investigators have linked to poisoning to agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Navalny alleged that Putin was behind it. Three and a half years later, family and associates say they believe Putin got him killed.

In a statement to court On the day of his sentencing, Orlov said Navalny’s death fell squarely within the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the spiral of state repression of dissent, which has intensified since Putin launched the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

“In fact, these are all links in the same chain: the death, or rather the murder of Alexei Navalny; legal reprisals against other critics of the regime, including myself; the stifling of freedom in the country; and the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine,” he said. “They are all links in the same chain.

“In just over four months since the end of my first hearing in this court,” said Orlov, who was led away in handcuffs after the judge pronounced the verdict, “many events have occurred that show how quickly and to what extent our country is sinking into darkness.

However, he expressed confidence that this trend will eventually be reversed.

“Those who have dragged our country into the abyss it currently finds itself in… have no vision for the future. Only false stories of the past, mirages of imperial grandeur. They are pushing Russia back,” Orlov said. “But we live in the 21st century, the real future is with us, and this is the basis of our victory.

That’s it for me this week.

If you want to know more, find my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, released every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket castings).


Steve Gutterman

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