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“Not every Reich is a thousand-year one.” Alexander Cherkasov on why it is important to prepare for prosecuting Russian war criminals

The Memorial Human Rights Center, this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is closing down for good in Russia. The cassation court has upheld the decision to shut it down, following a court order for the confiscation of the Memorial building in Karetny Ryad Street. Alexander Cherkasov, former board chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, told The Insider why it is still necessary to fight legal battles in Russian courts, how to prepare for the trial of contemporary war criminals, and what elements of the Soviet system Putin is trying to revive.

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- What is the purpose of endless appeals, cassations and complaints if all decisions of Russian courts are predictable and the ECHR is viewed as a meaningless set of letters?

- It's time to repeat the question posed by Captain Barbossa from “Pirates of the Caribbean”: “After you kill me, what is it you plan on doing next?” Remember the title of Alexey Yurchak's book about the Soviet Union: “It was meant to last forever...

- ...until it was over.”

- And our Czechoslovak friends had a saying: “Forever with the Soviet Union – but not a day more.” Not every Reich is a thousand-year one. Let us recall the trials of the cogs in the “death machine” that operated in Argentina from 1977 to 1983. Or let's remember the junta of the “black colonels” in Greece under whom the country left the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court: the ECHR had been accumulating a series of decisions for all these years, from 1967 to 1974, which, once the “forever” ended, were produced for enforcement.

It's silly to say that justice in contemporary Russia is impossible, seeing as it was possible – albeit in a reduced form - even in the USSR. My great-uncle Sergey Sergeyevich Ruzov, one of the founders of Soviet hydrography, was sentenced to death during the winter blockade of Leningrad in 1942 in the “Leningrad intelligentsia case.” His execution was commuted to ten years in a “sharashka” (prison research lab), he survived “eternal” exile in the Turukhansk Krai, was released and saw the trial of his executioner in 1955. Nine people, sentenced in “the intelligentsia case,” did not live to see freedom. But in the end, investigator Kruzhkov got twenty years in prison, seven of which he served. And the “chief executioner of Sandarmoh,” Mikhail Matveev, head of the NKVD prison in besieged Leningrad, where Sergei Sergeevich was kept and tortured, had previously been convicted in the case of the Belbaltlag firing squad. However, he was released and, as a valuable NKVD officer, got his job back.

Today, working in courts is not without meaning. It prevents tragedy from being turned into statistics. For more than a quarter of a century I have been investigating enforced disappearances - kidnappings, secret prisons, torture, extrajudicial executions, hiding of dead bodies... During the Second Chechen war alone between three and five thousand people were killed that way. With such a huge number of disappeared persons only four criminals were convicted in Russia. And several hundred verdicts handed down in Strasbourg. In none of these hundreds of verdicts has Russia complied with the requirement to find and punish the perpetrators. However, the totality of those decisions evidences the existence of a widespread and systematic practice of enforced disappearances. That is, according to the 2006 UN Convention on enforced disappearances they may be deemed as crimes against humanity, with all the ensuing consequences, including the absence of a statute of limitations. Under Russian law, the statute of limitations for the gravest crimes punishable under Article 126 of the Russian Criminal Code (“kidnapping”) is 15 years. It would seem that the executioners of the “mean noughties” can sleep peacefully: for example, Igor Girkin (Strelkov), one of the coordinators of the 1999-2005 forced disappearance system. But the collection of the Strasbourg court decisions makes this a crime against humanity. And the future prosecution of these “comrades” is as important as the prosecution of Nazi criminals <on November 17, Girkin was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by The Hague Court for complicity in the 2014 Boeing passenger plane's destruction and the killing of its passengers and crew - The Insider>.

It would seem that the executioners of the “mean noughties” can sleep peacefully

This task became even more urgent with the outbreak of war in Ukraine. “Heroes” of past wars become participants in the new war, and Russia's post-Soviet wars should be seen not as isolated episodes, but as “a chain of wars, a chain of crimes and a chain of impunity”. The diamond in this chain is General Surovikin, who while still a captain had not been held responsible for the first deaths of civilians in the new Russia on the night of August 20 to 21, 1991. Everyone had been forgiven then, and the case had been dropped. He had not been sentenced, had a “brilliant” career and now leads the entire “operation” in Ukraine, and as the commander of the Air and Space Forces he also leads air strikes. This is one of the results of that “chain of impunity”.

Another example: while Memorial was being shut down, the Human Rights Center, along with colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, international organizations, and heroic lawyers, exhausted every opportunity for the “Syrian case” to be tried at the national level. In 2017, a video appeared online in which Russian-speaking people, not hiding their faces, presumably “Wagnerites”, bludgeoned with sledgehammers, dismembered, and burned a man. The alleged perpetrators were identified. The main military investigative directorate brushed aside our appeal, but the Basmanny court handed down the judgement which was subsequently upheld by the appellate court: the video does not contain any evidence of a crime and does not provide any grounds even for an initial investigation. On November 6, the Moscow City Court upheld the decision in cassation. Now we know what is NOT considered a crime by the authorities, and we have exposed the mechanism of impunity. This is also important for the future, particularly for international courts.

Screenshot from the video of the execution of a Syrian by PMC Wagner mercenaries
Screenshot from the video of the execution of a Syrian by PMC Wagner mercenaries

So all the work we’ve been doing for thirty years turns out to be quite relevant and “has a great future” (like the ajika of which Comrade Stalin spoke in “The Feasts of Balthasar” by Iskander). And this work must continue.

- How do you and your colleagues work now, in wartime conditions?

- The most important work for the Russian human rights community is helping Ukrainians displaced to Russia. Helping them to obtain the documents they have been deprived of, or simply provide assistance wherever the Russian state has sent them. Three hundred Ukrainian citizens were even taken to Kamchatka! Some of the activists coordinate inter-regional assistance to Ukrainians. And some help refugees to leave Russia: thousands and tens of thousands of people in the regions do this important, albeit inconspicuous, work.

The most important work for the Russian human rights community is helping Ukrainians displaced to Russia

During the “partial mobilization” there was no less demand for legal assistance to the mobilized. We may talk about a reciprocal “mobilization” campaign involving human rights activists and lawyers to meet these challenges.

At the same time, one shouldn’t forget about helping political prisoners. The Memorial’s list of political prisoners became a separate important topic for the prosecutor's office to deal with in the course of our liquidation. This list is still being added to, now it is done by an organization separate from the Human Rights Center. So, it is not a new list, but a continuation of the previous one. Since 2008 till the beginning of 2022 one thousand people were added to this list, taking into account those who had served their sentences and those who had been released. As of October 30, 502 people were on the list.

There are many specialists who discuss history in terms of “processes”, looking down from high heaven, where people are indistinguishable, and therefore using large numbers with many zeros. We do not treat people as zeros, but rather as ones. At Memorial we deal with the past or the present at the scale of an individual human life, an individual human biography.

- Do you really believe that the Russian judicial system can be reformed?

- This is a legitimate question. Some of the decisions of domestic courts, when compared with the Strasbourg decisions, feel like a Frankenstein monster: they are made up of separate parts that are not logically linked to one another. In addition, the language in which the decisions are written is not designed for human comprehension.

But sooner or later it will have to be done. It is obvious that new judges will have to be selected and trained in a new way. In the current system, judges are often recruited from yesterday's assistants to judges and court clerks, that is, parts of the same machine rather than people whose knowledge and life experience allow them to pass judgment on the fates of others.

And each of them is just an element of the conveyor belt. This whole of the conveyor belt is reminiscent of the electric chair execution: several people, each flipping their own switch, and none of them knows exactly who closed the circuit. There is no sense of responsibility. What is to be done about it?

I am afraid that there is a long process ahead, not only related to retraining but also to the change of profession by certain characters. For example, Judge Krivoruchko, known by his presence on the Magnitsky List... I am also familiar with him: exactly three years ago he slapped me with another three-hundred-thousand-ruble ($5,000) fine for the absence of marking. Is it possible to re-educate Judge Krivoruchko? Or will he have to get a different job?

- Suppose one person finally lost touch with reality and declared war. But why haven’t his subordinates refused to continue this absurdity at some point?

- One of the reasons is the government service system built during the Putin years, where “a ruble is for entry, ten for exit”. People are loyal to the system not only because they get some preferences. For instance, once you are laid off from civil service, you must coordinate your employment with your former employer for two years. Formally it is done to avoid corruption. But in reality, it is dependency. The colossus’s feet are not made of clay, and paper with clerical glue proves to be a rather strong binding material.

- The court confiscated Memorial's building in Karetny Ryad right after the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners - and the prize was awarded on the day of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief's birthday and the murder of Anna Politkovskaya...

- “Coincidence? I don't think so!” Is that the Russian way of commenting? Some things are impossible to predict. All these things - except the birthday of Him Who Must Not Be Named - are the results of a long process. The trial is the culmination of a long bureaucratic activity of various uniformed and non-uniformed agencies. The killers received a “contract” for Politkovskaya as early as the spring of 2006, and they were tailing her for a long time, hardly thinking of anyone's birthday. The coincidence of the dates was accidental, albeit symbolic. Unless the Nobel Committee was joking.

The coincidence of the dates was accidental, albeit symbolic. Unless the Nobel Committee was joking

And it's no coincidence that the awardees are people who have known each other for a long time and well. Ales Bialiatski, leader of the Belarusian human rights movement Viasna, is our friend and colleague. On October 6 I took part in the event at the OSCE “human dimension” session with the Center for Civil Liberties and told Alexandra Matviychuk: “Lesya, you’ve got an alternative Nobel Prize (The Right Livelihood Award), but you should not stop there, you have to go forward! When's the real one coming, Lesya?” And in the morning it came... a little funny, but symbolic.

Memorial workers find out about the Nobel Prize in court. Photo by Memorial
Memorial workers find out about the Nobel Prize in court. Photo by Memorial

From the perspective of the Nobel Committee, the prize went to struggling civil society which is under pressure in Eastern Europe. But it is not a very symmetrical construct: an aggressor country, an abettor country and a country defending itself against aggression. This raised questions from state-minded people who like it when every “serf” has a master: “Whose serf are you?” We have to explain: “We don’t belong to anyone,” we are not slaves, civil organizations do not belong to any state, we do not belong to Putin, nor does Ales Bialiatski to Lukashenka.

It's not easy, Memorial is being eventually deprived of its premises. Compared to the fate of Ales Bialiatski it’s not the worst that can happen, but we also have our own prisoners: Yury Dmitriyev, Bakhrom Khamroev. Some of our colleagues were killed... And the Centre for Civil Liberties is now working under bombs. No Nobel Peace Prize had ever been awarded in wartime to citizens of the warring parties - this is the first time this has happened.

This prize is for the entire Memorial movement, and, even more broadly, for the social movement to which Memorial was and is affiliated. In the 1980s, Memorial was the largest social movement in the former USSR. And then, when it fell out of vogue, a lot of people were working there all the same, trying to do something. In Chechnya during the First Chechen War, dozens of people worked in the so-called “Kovalyov group”, beginning with Sergei Adamovich himself and his peers, the Soviet dissidents. My wonderful Chechen colleagues. Natasha Estemirova, who was killed in 2009. The lawyer Stas Markelov, whom I got to know in 1993 - we carried wounded people to safety together during our “Little Civil War” in Moscow. Many other people who sacrificed their lives or their freedom. Dozens of friends who gave their lives for this work. This is a prize also for those who did not live to receive it: like Arseny Borisovich Roginsky, like Sergei Adamovich, like his friend Alexander Pavlovich Lavut and many, many others... Like Natasha, Stas and Anna Politkovskaya. This is an award for all those for whom both history and human rights (a little bit of a cliché) were important, for whom they were their life's work.

- Why was the Memorial building confiscated so late?

- Over the course of last summer and fall, the uniformed agencies tried to “test” us. They moved very slowly! It was evident how clumsy this machine was, what difficulties they had with communication, until there is a “life-giving kick in the behind”, that is, until the case is “placed under control”.

I understood that at that stage it was the prosecutor's office and the court who were dealing with us. The Ministry of Internal Affairs had tried to deal with us, but it didn't work. And the FSB was waiting its turn! Because if they had gotten involved at that stage, without additional commands from above, the results of their “work” would have been credited to those competing agencies who at the time were “leading” in the implementation of the “action plan”. Why would they interfere?

And indeed, the FSB joined the effort at the beginning of 2022. But slowly: it is not the end of the year yet! In February they arrested Bakhrom Khamroev, whose case was used as an “entry point”. In March they searched Memorial's offices and seized a huge amount of material. The interrogations began. I worked until the liquidation of the Human Rights Center and appeared in court on April 5 for the appeal, then I left... at the beginning of June. To avoid being interrogated. For some reason I didn't want to be interrogated at all...

I left at the beginning of June. For some reason I didn't want to be interrogated at all

On July 5, they started looking for me, calling me from FSB. Why then? According to the action plan, the interrogations were scheduled for the third quarter!

They took over the building because they had another circular letter from the General Prosecutor's Office: to deal with what was left of Memorial “on the ground.” So the current trials are just the beginning.

- What happens next?

- Parts of the Leviathan are making their moves in the regions: inspections, visits, requests addressed to Memorial-affiliated organizations and reception offices, to lawyers and activists. Sometimes we will learn about it from colleagues, friends, from publications in the media.... And sometimes we don’t – with everything that is happening now, it’s hardly a sensation. It is like in a physics experiment: an event may have occurred, but not all of the elementary particles produced by this event are always detected. But one thing is clear: they are going to deal with Memorial in the regions.

Bakhrom Khamroev, whose case was used to justify the searches inside the country, was recently presented with new charges – this time related to “organizing the activities of a terrorist organization”. He was accused of filing complaints with the Russian courts and the Strasbourg court on behalf of other people accused of being members of the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (banned and recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia). In other words, the FSB now considers doubts concerning court decisions and appeals against those decisions to the Russian courts or to the European Court, whose jurisdiction Russia recognized at the time, as “terrorist activities”. Moreover, this was done before similar charges were brought against Navalny.

- What are the similarities between the current “mogilization” (literally – “grave-i-zation”) and the Stalinist campaigns?

- First of all, it’s a criminal action, in terms of both its methods and goals. Like Stalin's “social engineering” in the name of cannibalistic goals and ideals.

Second, it is a typical mass operation, not a process based on laws and rules and targeting certain people. Now they are mobilizing by category – and not only those who have military specialties. They grab whoever they can. It was almost the same in the thirties - “mass operations” were category based: “kulaks” (Order No. 00447), “people from Harbin”, “Poles”...

Third. All those operations were impossible without falsifications, without jailing random people. And now it is the same: the “partial mobilization” plans turned out to be unrealizable - there is no working system of military registration. And they mobilize whoever they can. Back in the day there were also unrealistic plans - although no one dared to say they were unrealistic. When the “kulak operation” was planned, encrypted telegrams were sent to all NKVD directorates: “Raise the files on such-and-such “colors” and report the total number”. The term “color” meant the category marked on top of the file cover: a priest, a White Guard, or a Trotskyist. “Raise” meant putting the file upright. Let's say that, as an NKVD directorate chief, I report: “973 registered”. I arrive in Moscow. First thing, there's a general meeting of all the regional NKVD chief. Then Ezhov and his first deputy Frinovsky summon us one by one, talk to us and give me a limit for the “first category” (those earmarked for execution): 1200. Nobody directly tells me to falsify! But from the very beginning they’ve given such figures that it is impossible to fulfil the plan without falsification, if we work according to the list of those whom we consider enemies. It is necessary to arrest those who are not on the list, otherwise there is no way. Then a competition among the regions begins: whoever is the most successful will be rewarded, and the least successful one will end up in the meat grinder. According to the “kulak operation” plan, 79,500 people were supposed to be “registered under the first category”, but in the end almost 400,000 people were shot – which is five times more.

We see a similar “campaign logic” in this “partial mobilization”. We see how our dark past lives on in the present.

And just as during the Stalinist campaigns, in the heat of the mobilization campaign there is suddenly a criticism of “certain shortcomings” from on high. The craziest practices stop, but only when irreparable damage has already been done. No one talks about the very basis of the campaign - the criminal goals and criminal means. Later, historians (and now publicists and analysts) are going to be looking for an intent, cunning social engineering ... And the intent is simply not there.

- Speaking of campaigns, do treason cases against physicists fall into this category?

- There’s nothing new about this category of cases, spy cases have been fabricated since the 90s. Currently, aerodynamics and hypersonic research is the most dangerous. Also a typical campaign, but it’s not on mass scale, we do not have a massive number of scientists. And if after the mass arrests of scientists under Yezhov Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria proceeded to eliminate excesses by trying to use those who survived, now the use of arrested scientists according to their specialty is out of the question.

After each iteration, Stalin's epigones are more stupid than their predecessors and subjects of admiration. The logic of Soviet campaigns almost always led to the invisible elimination of the mechanism that made the consequences so catastrophic.

After the Big Terror, the “album” convictions, which allowed the “certificates” to be signed in a summary manner, were abolished. A special commission of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) was set up to initial death sentences. Even during the war this mechanism worked, and people got pardoned. As I’ve mentioned before, my great-uncle Sergey Sergeevich Ruzov, sentenced to death during the blockade winter of 1942, was instead sent to “sharashka” for ten years. The Central Committee Commission was a “stopper” on the wheel of terror preventing it from spinning too fast.

Or take 1959, when after a less-known almost three-year repressive campaign, a “prophylactic” mechanism was introduced. Not everyone on the radar of the “organs” was jailed, only one person in nearly a hundred, and the rest were subjected to administrative punishment. At that time, the Central Committee remembered how the meat grinder could grind those who had been recently rotating its handle...

The Central Committee remembered how the meat grinder could grind those who had been recently rotating its handle

Or take the campaign of mass punitive deportations which began in the autumn of 1943 and ended by the summer of 1944. It turned out that after the complete deportation of the population whole regions “dropped out” of the economy due to depopulation. After all, it is impossible to halt agricultural work in the mountains to wait until the so-called “lawful population” replaces the Chechens who have been deported. This is unacceptable during wartime. That’s why the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in May 1944 was the last in a series of operations of this kind. When the Red Army entered the territories with real mass anti-Soviet partisan movement, like in Western Ukraine and Lithuania, there were mass deportations, but there were no more complete deportations.

Deportation of Crimean Tatars, 18-20 May 1944
Deportation of Crimean Tatars, 18-20 May 1944

For today's admirers of the “glorious past,” those repressive campaigns are a model to follow. But no one wants to know how Comrade Stalin or the Politburo quietly criticized themselves, abolishing the most savage practices. Therefore, mistakes are getting worse, instead of being corrected. And one of the results of our work (and the work of OVDinfo, our closest partner) is an understanding of how the modern system of government control functions.

I have already mentioned the prophylactic system that was introduced in 1959 and existed till 1987. In the late Soviet period, the ratio was about a hundred of those subjected to “prophylactic” measures to one sentenced to prison, and thanks to this system the Soviet regime managed to survive for nearly thirty years.

First. There are currently over a hundred criminal cases in Russia under the Gorinov or “anti-war” Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code. It doesn't seem much, although it’s a lot: in the Brezhnev era, several dozen people were convicted for political crimes each year, while today's Russia is about half the size of the Soviet Union, and the year isn't over yet.

Second. Besides these criminal cases, since the beginning of the war over 4,000 protocols have been issued under the “anti-war” administrative article 20.3.3, where a person is subjected to criminal liability after a repeat offence. Tens of thousands (over 20,000 as of July) of administrative cases under the “rally” articles, where a person is subjected to criminal liability under the “Dadin” article of the Criminal Code not after a repeat offence, but later. These thousands are analogous to those subjected to “prophylactic” measures in Soviet times. And the ratio of those subjected to “prophylactic” measures to those jailed is close.

Third. In the USSR there was capital punishment, but in Russia it seems to have been abolished since 1996. But wait, there are political murders: Nemtsov, Estemirova, Politkovskaya, Markelov... And there is a system of using government agents to poison opposition activists, which was uncovered in recent years: Navalny, Kara-Murza, etc. Apart from famous people, it also affected “grassroots” activists –Timur Kuashev for example.

Fourth. We know about the conditions in prisons and camps, we know about torture as a systemic factor of reprisals against recalcitrant inmates.

All these four factors together bring Russia back - no, not to 1937, but, say, to 1973, when the authorities were quite effective in controlling society. And there was no Maidan in Moscow or in Kyiv, in Tbilisi or in Vilnius in 1973. Thus, all the talk today about people “rising to overthrow the “evil power”“ has acquired an important context. Back in the day, half a century ago, no one was able to rise and overthrow. In the USSR, the system of social control was effective, and our authorities have managed to restore it.

- The Right of Correspondence exhibition was held in Syktyvkar, and the Daddy's Letters exhibition was held in the Goethe Center in Tbilisi. Please tell us more about those educational projects.

- It all started in 1989, when the children of those who had been serving their sentences in Solovki and who disappeared in 1937 made their first trip to the islands. Among them was Eleonora, daughter of Alexei Vangengeim, the founder of Soviet hydrometeorology. There, on the Solovki wharf, several people showed each other their parents' death certificates. The false certificates issued in the fifties used the following language: “Died in such and such camp on such and such date, in such and such month of 1942 as a result of heart insufficiency.” The newly issued death certificates had exact dates: November 3, 1937. They saw that the year, the month, and the date were the same... Perhaps death took them in the same place. Eight years later that place was found: the Sandarmoh area, where a large group of 1,111 prisoners from Solovki was shot.

Eleanor Vangengeim preserved her father's camp letters. From her age of four to seven her father actually sent her “natural history lessons” in letters and postcards: herbaria, descriptions of everything he saw, remembered and knew. A rare case: the father did not lose contact with his child while in detention. Mothers were a little luckier, fathers’ luck was much tougher. The Memorial exhibition “Daddy's Letters”, and then the book, consisted of such stories. The book was translated into German. And another exhibition, now in German and Georgian. It seems incredible: ties that were preserved despite the camp regime, despite the executions... Actually, our work in all those years consisted in restoring connections between people and times.

Also, there are “Last Address” signs in Tbilisi. This project is now underway not only in Russia, but also in many other countries. In September, the first plaque appeared in Paris on the house where the White Guard, General Evgeny Karlovich Miller, and his family lived.

Installation of the “Last Address” plaque in Tbilisi. Photo: ტაბულა/”Tabula”
Installation of the “Last Address” plaque in Tbilisi. Photo: ტაბულა/”Tabula”

On October 29, next to one of the “Last Address” plaques at 37 Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, people read aloud the names of those executed. The “Return of Names” campaign kicked off fifteen years ago in Moscow and has now taken on an international scale: this year it took place in 22 countries and 77 cities.

- A lot of people have given up. Where do you draw your strength and capacity for continuing your work?

- For me, this war started a long time ago. The pendulum of history started to swung back in 1992. I felt it all the time. And now there is nothing fundamentally new to me...

Even when I left Russia a few months ago, I went on a long business trip. And all I am doing is continuing what I have been doing for many years. I draw strength from those who have shown by their work and their lives that this is what normal life is all about. After all, it was harder for those who went to prison for ten years for their work, like Adamych <Sergey Kovalev - The Insider>, those who lived for many years in the midst of war and continued to help people, like Natasha <Natalya Estemirova - The Insider>, than it is for me. It would be strange to think that my job is harder.

There was a moment when I wanted to resign, in early 2003. How does it feel to search for missing persons in Chechnya? “The customer is always dead,” says the title of the TV series. But we found three survivors during our January mission. Three people who managed to get out. That's a lot. And I didn't resign. Twenty years have passed since then...

Interviewed by Alexey Ognev

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