VOICES OF DISSENT OP-ED
Ex-chair of Russian 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Memorial speaks out on the truths behind the war on Ukraine
In 2022, the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was the Russian human rights organisation Memorial. The organisation has now been banned and liquidated by the government of Russia as part of its purge of all dissent. On Thursday, 13 July, at 6pm, Daily Maverick will host an exclusive webinar with Memorial’s former chairperson, Alexander Cherkasov. In this article, Cherkasov sets the scene.
I have a different perspective on the Russia-Ukraine war, an “insider’s view”.
As a citizen of Russia, I, along with my comrades at Memorial, have been trying to fight for human rights in my country and in those countries where my motherland sends its troops, either overtly or covertly, for over 30 years.
In addition, Memorial studies the history of the Soviet Union and Russia, the history of repression and the struggle for freedom.
Many things are seen differently from this perspective. I will not argue here about the similarities and differences between Russia and other colonial powers in Europe, or about whether the Soviet Union was based on a shared belief in a bright future or on propaganda and political repression. Let us focus on the war in Ukraine in the context of the events of the last 30 years.
For someone who has carefully studied many sources, both independent and related to the warring parties, several assertions are obvious and require no new evidence.
In Ukraine, there was no “coup” organised by the “West” that brought the “junta” to power: there was a mass popular movement against the corrupt government, followed by fair elections organised by a legitimate parliament.
There is no “Nazi rule” in Ukraine. There was no threat to the lives of the Russian-speaking population there. There were no mass popular movements for secession and no legitimate referendums on the independence of the “people’s republics”.
Russian aggression in Ukraine began in 2014, and now my country is conducting in Ukraine not some “special military operation”, but a large-scale war with massive use of all available means, except strategic bombers and nuclear weapons.
Russian propaganda lies on all of these points – as it does on many others.
How is this war different from those waged by the West?
A fourth question might reasonably be repeated to this: how is this war different from the wars waged by the West? From the bombing of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria? And torture? In addition to Guantanamo, was the Abu Ghraib prison also famous?
A closer look reveals significant differences, not quantitative, but qualitative. They did not find piles of hundreds of bodies in the vicinity of the prisons at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib or near the military base at Bagram, where people were also tortured.
In Chechnya, by contrast, this murderous assembly line has been operating for many years: kidnappings, secret prisons, torture, extrajudicial executions, and unmarked graves.
In essence, the Russian military and special services repeated what the Americans did in Vietnam during “Operation Phoenix” and in Latin America during “Operation Condor”, and what French General Ossares did during the war in Algeria. And the Soviet military in Afghanistan.
For the last year and a half, Russia has been doing the same thing in Ukraine.
Similarly, Russian artillery and aviation were used in Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine massively and indiscriminately. And “targeted strikes” were carried out against civilian objects – in Syria against hospitals, in Ukraine against thermal and electric power plants.
You would think such practices would have been condemned, named a crime against humanity and left in the past millennium. But Russia reproduces them again and again.
A system of organised impunity
In what way?
There is a system of organised impunity. Those responsible for kidnappings and disappearances, torture, massive bombings of cities, refugee columns and “safe zones” are not brought to justice but are given new shoulder insignia and new positions. And their impunity inspires new criminals.
In fact, Russia is carrying into the new millennium the colonial practices of those countries it furiously condemns.
But what significance could these events in Europe have for Africa?
After all, Europe has overlooked for decades the wars and genocides on the African continent where the human costs have been much higher. I think there is no disregard or disdain: this is the optics of the “world of worlds” in which we live – everyone sees their own world first and foremost. But this does not cancel out the interconnectedness of these different worlds.
International peacekeeping troops were deployed in Somalia in the early 1990s. The events of 3-4 October 1993 in Mogadishu are shown in the Ridley Scott movie, “Black Hawk Down” – the bodies of slain American special forces being dragged through the streets by Mohamed Aydid’s men while being video recorded.
Television news proved to the world that in “peacekeeping operations” one has to pay with the lives of peacekeepers. This threw the international community into disarray.
For 21 months, the idea of “humanitarian intervention” was compromised. That’s why the 1994 genocide in Rwanda became possible – the killing of hundreds of thousands of people with the complete inaction of “peacekeepers”.
Echoes of what happened in Mogadishu in Europe were also loud. The world powers were blinded and frozen when they were following the bloody events of the First Chechen War from December 1994 to June 1995.
Paralysed Europe watched the Bosnian war, right up to the genocide in Srebrenica, until the massacre of thousands of Muslims in July 1995. Only after these events was the prolonged pause interrupted.
Now, unpunished Russian aggression in Ukraine means, for Africa, not only a possible loss of grain supplies and the prospect of hunger and social unrest but also an inevitable change in the global “rules of the game”.
Not to mention the tens of thousands of Wagner Group fighters who gained a new and terrible experience in Ukraine and are ready to carry it to all the continents of our large, but very small planet. DM/MC
Alexander Cherkasov was chair of the Nobel Prize-winning Russian human rights organisation Memorial until it was officially liquidated by the Russian government late last year.