• Fri. Sep 22nd, 2023

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Call it fascism. Jonathan Littell on the trial of Oleg Orlov and why imprisoned dissidents are the freest people in today’s Russia

Oleg Orlov after a court hearing in Moscow, October 7, 2022
Oleg Orlov after a court hearing in Moscow, October 7, 2022
Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

A new political trial started in Moscow on Thursday, June 8. The defendant is Oleg Orlov, a Russian scientist, scholar, human rights advocate, and co-founder of Memorial, Russia’s key civil liberties organization, awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. The Russian authorities are accusing Orlov of “rehabilitating Nazism” and “discrediting the Russian military” — because he’s dared to compare Vladimir Putin’s regime to the fascist regimes of the past century. The lifelong activist is now threatened with up to five years in prison. The French-American novelist Jonathan Littell, who conducted humanitarian work in Chechnya in the early aughts, witnessing the warfare of Putin’s early years in power, writes about Oleg Orlov, the self-contradictory nature of the charges he is facing, and the importance of defiant dissidents like Orlov and their apparently impractical determination to remain in Russia, facing prosecution. Meduza has translated Littell’s defense of Oleg Orlov originally published in French.

“USSR-1945: the country that triumphed over fascism. Russia-2022: the country of triumphant fascism.” This was the brusque placard in the hands of the man who stood, in late April 2022, in front of the tricolor-wrapped tribunes, raised before the Kremlin wall for the upcoming celebration of Russia’s victory over fascism back in May 1945. The gaunt, white-haired man with a neatly trimmed mustache was Oleg Orlov. When the Russian police “admitted” him just a few minutes later, this was his fifth detention since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Last March, Orlov and eight of his colleagues from Memorial — a civil-liberties organization he and his fellow dissidents had established in the late 1980s — were questioned, and their homes were searched, in connection with a “rehabilitation of Nazism” case mounted by the authorities.

On the same day, Orlov was charged with “recurrent discrediting of the Russian military,” a felony punishable by up to five years in prison under a newfangled article of the Russian criminal law. The charges were partly triggered by his single pickets protesting the invasion, but mainly by his opinion piece, “They Wanted Fascism and They Got It,” in which Orlov called Russia a fascist state. (Orlov’s essay, first published in French, later appeared in Russian on his Facebook page.) The Investigative Committee that presented Orlov with these charges appears oblivious of the contradiction between the allegations.

Memorial, a rights organization dismantled by the authorities

‘We never counted on love from the state’ Meduza talks to Memorial’s Yan Rachinsky immediately after Russia’s Supreme Court shuttered this prominent rights organization

Memorial, a rights organization dismantled by the authorities

‘We never counted on love from the state’ Meduza talks to Memorial’s Yan Rachinsky immediately after Russia’s Supreme Court shuttered this prominent rights organization

Can today’s Russia be viewed as a fascist state? I believe the answer is obvious. I can foresee the objection: How could the modern state succeeding the country that once vanquished fascism take a fascist turn itself? Did it perhaps already contain a germ of fascism within itself? The outstanding Soviet writer Vasily Grossman appears to have thought so. In his monumental novel Life and Fate (that survived by nothing short of a miracle, even after the manuscript had been “arrested,” in the author’s own words, by the KGB), Grossman wrote a dialogue between SS officer Liss and the ardent Bolshevik Mostovskoy, to whom Liss

When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate — no, we’re gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age. Do you really not recognize yourselves in us? <…> And if you should conquer, then we shall perish only to live in your victory. It’s paradoxical: through losing the war will shall win the war — and continue our development in a different form.

What prophetic words. Russia, led by Putin and his propagandists, has been saying for over a year that Ukraine is ruled by a “Nazi regime” and that the aim of this dirty war is “denazification.” These are but gratuitous statements, since it’s very plain to see which of the two countries has succumbed to fascism. In his article on the resurgence of fascism in Russia, Orlov turned to a definition of fascism supplied by the Russian Academy of Sciences at the request of President Boris Yeltsin:

Fascism is an ideology and a practice affirming the supreme and exceptional nature of a particular nation or race, and aimed at arousing inter-ethnic intolerance, justifying discrimination against other peoples, rejecting democracy, establishing a cult of the leader, using violence and terror to suppress political opposition and all forms of dissent, and justifying war as a solution to international problems.

When re-reading this definition, it’s impossible not to think of Putin, who denies the very existence of Ukraine and its people who consider themselves Ukrainians; who conducts a brutal war of aggression in the name an imperialist ethnocentric ideology; who has methodically demolished the democracy so painfully established in Russia in the 1990s; and who either kills his political opponents or else imprisons even the least threatening of them (like pacifist schoolchildren or their parents).

George Orwell’s anxious thought about socialism

Between socialist promise and totalitarian threat Owen Boynton reviews Masha Karp’s ‘George Orwell and Russia’

George Orwell’s anxious thought about socialism

Between socialist promise and totalitarian threat Owen Boynton reviews Masha Karp’s ‘George Orwell and Russia’

Oleg Orlov, who goes on trial on June 8, has a high chance of joining Alexey Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, and other opposition figures locked up in Putin’s gulag. Orlov himself understood this perfectly well when he came to the Red Square on April 10, 2022, bearing a placard that read: “Our unwillingness to face the truth and our silence make us accomplices in crime.” After seven detentions (that cumulatively signaled the imminence of a felony prosecution), Orlov’s friends begged him to leave the country, to continue from abroad the struggle he began in 1979, when he started single-handedly distributing political leaflets in protest of the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. Like Yashin, Kara-Murza, and Navalny, Orlov refused to leave his country.

Where does this determination come from? Why do certain Russians prefer to rot behind bars to leaving their country, even when given by the authorities an opportunity to escape, even when encouraged to do so? The stereotype of the “sacrificial Slavic mindset” is far from answering this question, and the real answer must certainly have something to do with genuine patriotism, which is the polar opposite of the perverted patriotism of “Even when wrong, she’s still the Motherland,” a slogan I used to see on Russian tanks in Chechnya.


In January 2023, the Russian authorities outlawed Meduza, designating our media outlet as an “undesirable organization.” In other words, our newsroom’s work is now completely banned in the country our founders call home. And Russian nationals who support Meduza can face criminal prosecution. Today, Meduza’s need for support from people across the globe — from readers like you — has never been more important. Please, support our work.


People like Oleg Orlov, Alexey Navalny, and others whose deep love for Russia is inseparable from their sense of justice, are struggling for the country that Russia should be, instead of what it is today. They realize this is their task and not anyone else’s. It is Russians themselves, they feel, who have to transform it, cleanse it of the fascist virus, and make it free and democratic. In accordance with their quintessentially Russian logic, they believe, reasonably or not, that this struggle is not for the faint of heart and the deserters. When faced with prison, or even death, they see this as the price of liberty for the many.

Nor is this about liberty alone. Their aim is also to show that the crimes committed in Ukraine, and before that in Chechnya, Syria, and elsewhere, were committed not by “Russians” in general but by specific Russians, the leaders and minions of an undemocratic fascist regime that usurped power over the country and its resources, aided by millions of passive accomplices moved by hatred of difference, greed, callousness, cowardice, and, frankly, stupidity.

For people like Orlov, though, going to prison is going where his duty takes him, the one place for the genuinely free people in an enslaved country. Russians have always spoken of their inmates, their zeki with a certain awe: in a country of criminal bosses and a silent majority, it is perhaps only the jailed that can best keep their heads high and mock their jailers (as Navalny frequently does on his social media). They may not be able to carry on with their struggle, but they can remain defiant.

This defiance drives the regime wild, but it also has a performative value. Those who have the strength to say No to the regime and pay for it are Russia’s genuine moral representatives. We should hope they may one day represent their country in practice. When confronted with the moral force of these defiant men and women, the power-drunk imperialist mafioso regime headed by Putin can imprison them, and even kill them. What it cannot do is silence them.

Ilya Yashin, in his own words

The court is ‘way too optimistic’ about Putin’s prospects Opposition leader Ilya Yashin comments on his trial and 8.5-year sentence

Ilya Yashin, in his own words

The court is ‘way too optimistic’ about Putin’s prospects Opposition leader Ilya Yashin comments on his trial and 8.5-year sentence

Jonathan Littell

Translated by Anna Razumnaya