August 7, 2023
Asked about the arrest of renowned socialist intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky, Russian president Vladimir Putin said on July 29: “It's the year 2023, and Russia is engaged in an armed conflict with a neighbour. And I think that there should be a certain attitude towards people who harm us inside the country.”
The “harm” Kagarlitsky is alleged to have caused relates to an October 8, 2022 Telegram post in which he analysed the military implications of an attack that had occurred just days before on the Crimea bridge. For this, he has been held in custody since July 25 and faces up to 7 years’ jail if found guilty of “justifying terrorism”.
“We must keep in mind”, Putin added, “that in order for us to achieve success, including in a conflict zone, everyone needs to follow certain rules.”
His comment led some to ironise on Russian anti-war Telegram channels that Kagarlitsky should have launched an armed mutiny instead of simply voicing his anti-war opinions — a reference to the contrasting treatment dealt to Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom Putin accused of “treason” after Prigozhin led his Wagner mercenary troops in a coup attempt in late June, only to then let him walk free.
While Prigozhin’s coup attempt failed, it exposed Putin's weaknesses and triggered a crisis on the domestic front. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Russian military leaders and pro-war bloggers are warning of flagging morale and heavy losses, as Ukrainian forces pursue their latest counteroffensive.
In weeks following the mutiny, the Kremlin has responded by purging high-profile military leaders, jailing pro-war critic and far-right extremist Igor Girkin, and sentencing opposition leader Alexy Navalny to an extra 19 years in prison.
The domestic crisis also explains the jailing of perhaps the most high-profile — and one of the last remaining — public left-wing voices opposing the war inside Russia.
But Kagarlitsky’s arrest is just the latest in an ongoing and escalating war against domestic dissent.
Since the start of June, several prominent left politicians and activists have been labelled “foreign agents”, a designation that imposes severe restrictions on personal and professional activities and which many view as the last step before arrest. These include Moscow City Duma deputies Yevgeny Stupin and Mikhail Timonov, municipal deputy Vitaly Bovar and democratic socialist Mikhail Lobanov, who was also fired from his university post.
That same month, anti-war activist Ivan Kudryashov was sentenced to six years’ jail. Arrested for a street art piece with the words “Fuck the War” last September, Federal Security Service (FSB) officers tortured Kudryashov until he “confessed” to preparing an arson attack on a military enlistment office.
Putin’s repression has not been limited to Russia’s borders: Left Bloc activist Lev Skoryakin and Left Resistance activist Alena Krylova, were detained in Kyrgyzstan in June and are set to be deported back to Russia at Moscow’s request, a fate already sealed for anarchist anti-war activist Alexey Rozhkov.
In total, some 21,000 individuals in Russia have faced reprisals for opposing the war, including more than 2000 who have been jailed in a country where it is illegal to publicly criticise the self-dubbed “special military operation”, according to Amnesty International.
Given the circumstances, the Russian Socialists Against War coalition issued a statement on July 29 declaring: “The campaign in defence of Kagarlitsky is not just a matter for his relatives and colleagues or human rights activists. Opposition to each new attack is an important political action that reduces the likelihood of new repressions.
“In this case, such action could unite not only leftists, but also representatives of other segments of the Russian anti-war movement, and many thousands of people around the world who have heard Kagarlitsky's name, read his books and articles, and argued with him.”
A broad international solidarity movement calling for Kagarlitsky’s release, along with all other political prisoners has emerged, involving individuals and organisations with often differing views over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Among those to declare their support are British politicians Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Swiss parliamentarian Stefania Prezioso, European deputy Miguel Urbán Crespo, Brazilian federal MPs Fernanda Melchionna and Sâmia Bomfim, Puerto Rican senator Rafael Bernabe, Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova and academics such as Slavoj Žižek, Enzo Traverso, Alina Bárbara López Hernández, Étienne Balibar, Simon Pirani and many more.
Yet Kagarlitsky’s case has caused controversy among certain sections of the left, due to various positions he has held towards Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine.
Back in 2014, Kagarlitsky supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military support for pro-Russian separatist movements in Donbas, which he viewed as progressive and “anti-imperialist”.
Ukrainian socialist Andriy Movchan notes this position led Kagarlitsky to become “a frequent guest on state television”, with “his new milieu” coming to be “dominated by people associated with Russia’s so-called ‘patriotic left’, which often involved conservative and imperialist positions.”
In contrast, in 2022, Kagarlitsky opposed Russia’s full-scale invasion.
The day of the invasion, Kagarlitsky helped convene the Anti-War Round Table of the Left Forces, which unequivocally condemned Putin’s “aggression against our brothers and sisters of the Ukrainian people” and urged Russian citizens “to lead an anti-war agitation with your neighbours, relatives, colleagues and other citizens of Russia”.
Outlining his position in an interview with theAnalysis.news — one he has repeated throughout the war — Kagarlitsky said: “In 2014, I was critical of the Ukrainian policy of military intervention in Donbas … This time, it’s the other way around … this time it is Putin and his entourage who started the war and are responsible. In some way or another, they have to be punished.”
Movchan writes that as a result of this shift, “Kagarlitsky’s Rabkor YouTube channel and website has published anti-war content from Marxist positions” since the invasion started and “other anti-war leftists and even liberals began to appear on Kagarlitsky’s live streams — people who were on the opposite side of the argument from him eight years ago.”
Because of this, some who have, to more or a lesser extent, taken Russia’s side in the war — and enthusiastically championed Kagarlitsky in 2014 — have remained silent on his arrest. On the flipside, some Ukraine supporters have argued Kagarlitsky is not worthy of solidarity or that his case is simply a “distraction”.
In light of this controversy, the editorial collective of Russian left anti-war site, Posle, declared: “[Kagarlitsky’s] numerous books and public speeches had a great influence on several generations of the Russian left, and that is why his responsibility for certain assessments remained exceptionally high.
“In 2014, Kagarlitsky actively supported the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the so-called ‘People's Republics’ in eastern Ukraine. This support, unfortunately, played a role in disorienting part of the Russian left.
“These, like many other moments in Kagarlitsky's activities, are completely unacceptable for the members of the Posle team. Our fundamental differences have not gone away, we will certainly discuss them with Boris — but only after his release.”
Anti-war movement needed
For Posle, “the arrest of Kagarlitsky is part of a new large-scale repressive campaign by the authorities aimed at completely clearing the political space of any critics of the war … it has become clear that repression is reaching a new level and the number of activists in the immediate risk zone has increased significantly".
Given this, they argue for an international campaign in support of Kagarlitsky and all political prisoners.
Noting he was detained for his anti-war convictions, Andriy Movchan writes that “for this reason alone, [Kagarlitsky] deserves international solidarity”.
But he adds a further important argument: “Without an anti-war movement inside Russia itself, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to end the war in Ukraine.
“Russian society is far from ideal, of course, but only from this imperfect society, with its imperfect people with their imperfect biographies, can an anti-war and anti-government movement emerge.
“Anyone who delays this movement is doing harm. For the last 18 months, Kagarlitsky brought it closer.”
[Visit links.org.au to view a collection of petitions and statements in support of Kagarlitsky.]
Thanks to Green Left Weekly, where this article was first published. – Richard Fidler