When It is Wrong Not to Be in Prison

Culture - May 21, 2024

European Diary: Vilnius, May 2024


Icelanders have a special reason to like Vilnius. It is one of the very few cities in the world with a street named after their remote, windswept island. In the centre of Vilnius there is the ‘Islandijos gatvé’, Iceland Street. This is because Iceland was in August 1991 the first state in the world to resume diplomatic relations with Lithuania and the two other Baltic countries after their long occupation by the Soviet Union. My friend David Oddsson, a staunch anti-communist and Leader of the centre-right Independence Party, was then Prime Minister. As a law student he had translated a book about the Soviet oppression of the Baltic countries. (He was strongly supported in the decision on the Baltic countries by his Foreign Minister, Jon B. Hannibalsson, also an anti-communist.) I certainly shared Oddsson’s antipathy toward communism. In the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago had made a great impact on me, and in 2009 I translated into Icelandic the massive Black Book of Communism (828 pages), edited by French Professor Stéphane Courtois and based on newly-found documents in archives of post-communist countries. I had intended to add a postscript on the relations between the Icelandic left wing and the international communist movement, but I soon discovered that much more research on that topic was needed. My book on the Icelandic communists, in 1918–1998 (624 pages), was finally published in 2011. (An extract in English came out in 2021.)

Platform of European Memory and Conscience

I found myself in Vilnius on 15 May 2024, attending the annual meeting of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. This is an international organisation founded in October 2011 at the Liechtenstein Palace on Kampa in Prague by 20 associations from 12 European Union states. Its foundation was in response to a resolution by the European Parliament on 2 April 2009, calling for ‘the establishment of a Platform of European Memory and Conscience to provide support for networking and cooperation among national research institutes specialising in the subject of totalitarian history, and for the creation of a pan-European documentation centre/memorial for the victims of all totalitarian regimes’. The Resolution, in turn, was inspired by Courtois’ Black Book of Communism. Unsurprisingly, the most active member associations are in former communist countries, such as the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. In 2012, I attended my first meeting of the Platform, and the small institute I run in Iceland became a member association in 2014. For the Platform, and sponsored by the Brussels think tank New Direction, I wrote in 2017 a report, The Voices of the Victims:  Notes towards the Historiography of Anti-Communist Literature. Then, for what is now ECR, the European Conservatives and Reformists, I wrote in 2018 Totalitarianism in Europe: Three Case Studies. In Iceland, my institute in cooperation with the Public Book Club (Almenna bokafelagid) has also reprinted anti-communist literature from the Cold War, by Jan Valtin, Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell, Victor Kravchenko, and others, and in 2013 we ran an exhibition at the National Library on ‘Iceland and the International Communist Movement’, amongst other initiatives.

The Platform of European Memory and Conscience has held several conferences on the crimes of totalitarianism, especially communism, which differs from Nazism in having never been subjected to investigation or judgements in anything like the Nuremberg Trials over the Nazis. The Platform has also published books with personal accounts of life under communism. Since 2014, it has also awarded a special Prize to a person who has distinguished himself or herself in the fight against totalitarianism. This year it was decided to give the Prize to the Russian-British journalist, author and filmmaker Vladimir Kara-Murza. Born in Moscow in 1981, and educated in England, in 2005 he produced a documentary on Soviet dissidents, They Chose Freedom. He has been a vocal opponent of Putin’s gradual transformation into an oriental despot, working with American writer Bill Browder and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov who was assassinated in Moscow in 2015. Kara-Murza himself was twice poisoned, and in 2022 he was arrested for ‘disobeying police orders’. Subsequently, he was indicted for ‘spreading false information about the Russian military’ and for cooperating with ‘undesirable foreign organisations’. In 2023 he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Apparently, weakened after two poisonings, he serves his sentence under harsh conditions in a Siberian prison camp.

Mustafa Dzhemilev

The lives and works of former recipients of the Prize are also instructive. Learning about them suddenly turns dry numbers into persons of flesh and blood. The 2014 Prize was received by Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars. Born in 1943 in a small village in the Crimea, then under Nazi occupation, he was only six months old when Soviet forces retook Crimea and deported the whole Tatar national community, almost 200,000 people, in two days. Stalin had decided that the Tatars had not resisted the Nazis with sufficient vigour. The whole of the Tatar community had to leave their houses and other belongings at short notice, to be locked up in cattle trains and dumped off in Uzbekistan. Dzhemilev grew up in Uzbekistan, but as a young man he took up the Tatar cause, and in 1989 he was elected leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement. The same year, he and some 250,000 other Tatars returned to Crimea, but received no compensation or help from the government. The Tatars had to build their lives anew from scratch. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Dzhemilev became Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, but since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 he has not been able to return to his homeland where an arrest warrant is out for him. I met him when he received the Prize: small of stature, friendly but modest and appearing somewhat sad, he seemed to bear on his shoulders the heavy burden of his unhappy community.

Oleg and Alexei Navalny

The 2015 Prize was awarded to the brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. Born in 1976, Alexei was a lawyer by training, the leader of the Russian democratic opposition to Putin, and a tireless, and fearless, critic of the widespread corruption of Putin and his cronies, many of them coming from the sinister secret service. Putin moved slowly and carefully against his critic. Navalny received two suspended sentences for ‘embezzlement’, in 2013 and 2014, both obviously on trumped-up charges, as the European Court of Human Rights has concluded. He was barred from running in the 2018 presidential elections. In 2020 he was poisoned whereupon he was evacuated to Berlin. Discharged a month later, he was arrested on his return to Russia for having violated parole conditions, and as a result, in 2021, his suspended sentence was replaced by a relatively short prison sentence. In 2022, he was sentenced to nine more years on further charges, and in 2023 to nineteen more years for ‘extremism’. The Russian prison authorities reported in February 2024 that he had died in a prison camp. In a statement after his death, the Platform extended its condolences to Alexei’s family and added: ‘The death of Alexei Navalny underscores the grim reality of Putin’s regime, which employs brutal tactics reminiscent of the Soviet totalitarian era. Putin’s regime ruthlessly suppresses opposition, silencing dissent through any means necessary, even resorting to lethal measures under the guise of Russian law.’ Alexei’s brother Oleg spent three years in prison on charges that were clearly fabricated, but subsequently he escaped from Russia and his present whereabouts are unknown. He is on a ‘Wanted’ list in Russia.

Leopoldo López

The 2016 Prize was awarded to Leopoldo López from Venezuela. A popular and charismatic politician from a prominent family, with film-star looks, he was elected mayor of a Caracas municipality in 2000 at the age of twenty nine, and re-elected in 1004. The ‘democratic despot’ of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, soon identified him as a potential threat, and in 2008 he was barred from running in elections. In 2014, López was arrested on multiple charges, including ‘incitement to riot’. He was subsequently sentenced to thirteen years in prison. One of the prosecutors in the case has since fled to the United States and revealed that the charges had no legal basis which is also what the international community has concluded. In 2019, López was freed in a riot by opposition forces. He sought asylum in the Spanish Embassy where he spent more than a year. After this he made his way to Colombia and from there to Spain where he now lives in exile. He is still active in the Venezuelan exile movement. As he was in prison when the Prize of the Platform was awarded, his father represented him. I had the opportunity to chat with López Sr. about the situation in Venezuela and other South American countries. The Marxists running Venezuela, working with China, Russia, and Iran, have turned one of the richest countries of Latin America into one of the poorest.

Ilmi Ümerov

The 2017 Prize was awarded to Ilmi Ümerov, another spokesman of the Crimean Tatars. Born in 1957 in Uzbekistan, Ümerov moved in 1988 to his family’s hometown in Crimea and soon became prominent in the Crimean Tatar movement. He strongly condemned the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and was subsequently imprisoned by the Russian occupiers. Following interventions by the presidents of Ukraine and Turkey, he was however released in late 2017 and now lives in Ukraine.

Ole Sentsov

The 2018 Prize was awarded to the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov who was then languishing in a Russian prison. Born in 1976, he has made several documentaries. When the Russians invaded Crimea, they captured Sentsvo. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison on the trumped-up charges of ‘plotting terrorism’. In 2019 he was released in a prisoners’ exchange between Russia and Ukraine. After the second invasion of Ukraine in 2022, he joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces and is fighting on the front against Russia.

Neela Winkelmann

The 2019 Prize was received by Neela Winkelmann. Born in 1969 in Prague, she is the granddaughter of the chemist and Nobel Laureate Jaroslav Heyrovský. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Cornell University and was active in the environmental movement before she became in 2011 the first director of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. She did an excellent job, as I could witness first hand for several years, but she left for health reasons in 2017. At a conference the University of Iceland held upon my retirement in 2023, she gave a talk, available online, about the Platform.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

The 2020 Prize was received by the Belarusian politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Born in 1982, she is a teacher by training. Her husband, Syarhey Leanidavich Tsikhanouski, a popular social media star, ran in 2020 for president of Belarus against the long-serving and autocratic Alexander Lukashenko, but two days after he announced his candidature, he was arrested. He was released after a while, but barred from standing at the election. Then Svietlana decided to run in his place. While campaigning actively for his wife, Tsikhanouski was arrested, indicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. During the campaign, the Belarusian government used intimidation, provocations and harassment to try and instil fear in its critics. ‘Every day was full of fear,’ Svietlana later recalled. In the election, Lukashenko allegedly received 81 per cent of the votes and Svietlana Tsikhanouska 10 per cent. It is widely regarded as having been rigged. It is quite possible that Sviatlana received the most votes. The European Union imposed sanctions on Belarusian election officials who had conducted ‘violence, repression and electoral fraud’. After the election, Svietlana went into exile in Lithuania, where her two children were already living. Lithuania recognises her as the rightly elected President of Belarus. She has formed a United Transitional Cabinet for Belarus and met with many world leaders, encouraging them to impose sanctions on Lukashenko and support the defence of Ukraine. Svietlana was tried ‘in absentia’ by the Belarusian government in 2023 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

International Memorial

The 2021 Prize was given to an institution for the first time, the Russian organisation International Memorial. It was founded in Moscow in 1992 as a non-commercial organisation studying political repression in the former Soviet Union and in present-day Russia. It seeks to restore historical truths about totalitarian crimes and to promote rehabilitation of persons who have been subject to political repression. Its activities were quite important in the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union when its scholars gained access to the hitherto closed archives of the security services. It was discovered that the brutal repression that Lenin’s and Stalin’s Bolsheviks initiatied in 1917 had led to many more and many worse crimes than hitherto known. Putin’s regime has long conducted a campaign against International Memorial. In 2016, it was declared a foreign agent, and in 2022 it was closed down in Russia, although its branches continue to operate in some other countries, such as Germany. It is telling that a Russian prosecutor accused Memorial of ‘making us repent for the Soviet past, instead of remembering our glorious history’ and added that this was ‘probably because someone is paying for it’. I welcomed the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the Platform at the Liechtenstein Palace in Prague on 16 November 2022 when the recipient of the 2020 Prize, Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya, handed out the 2021 Prize. The photograph above depicts Dr. Marek Mutor from Poland, President of the Platform, Svietlana, Miloš Vystrčil, President of the Czech Senate, and from International Memorial Russian historian Boris Belenkin, the author of several books on Soviet and Russian history.

Dmytro Khyliuk

The 2022 Prize was awarded to Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Khyliuk. He worked for a Ukrainian press agency, but he was abducted in the Kyiev region on 3 March 2022, during the invasion of the Russian army. He and his father had gone to their village to look at the damage done by a Russian missile to their house when suddenly five Russians with machine guns descended upon them and took them prisoners. The father was released after a week, but Dmytro was taken away to an unknown destination. For two years nothing was heard about him, but then the Russians acknowledged that he was in custody, claiming that he was a military serviceman and not a journalist. He is still in Russian captivity, obviously held as a civil hostage against international law.

Wrong Not to Be in Prison

The Prize of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience is a signal to the recipients and the whole world that their fight for democracy and human rights is not forgotten. In some countries, alas, it is not wrong to be in prison: rather, it is wrong not to be in prison.