Support Russian political prisoners — Free Boris Kagarlitsky!

Boris Kagarlitsky

First published at Labour Hub.

It’s certainly no coincidence that Alexei Navalny’s death occurred just before the second anniversary of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and in the run-up to the Russian Presidential ‘election’ – a fake election that only Putin can win. It’s also probably not a coincidence either that just three days before Navalny’s death the Russian leftist Boris Kagarlitsky had his sentence for opposing the Ukraine war increased from a fine to five years in a penal colony – following an appeal initiated by the state.

While he can’t lose the Presidential election, Putin aims to drum up as much populist support as possible – whether it be by right wing Great Russian chauvinism, imperialism and war, or homophobia and hate against those who don’t conform. He also wants to ensure that potential opponents – and there are many – are repressed and silenced. While Russia may be a ‘modern’ neoliberal, capitalist oligarchy – a nuclear state headed by a ruthless dictator backed by a vast security apparatus – Putin certainly knows how to wield all the old reactionary tools from Russian history – Tsarist imperialism, Russian orthodox religion, Stalinist terror and of course the falsification of history and the truth itself. Whipping up nationalism, while instilling fear in potential opponents is the name of the game.

Navalny was prepared to oppose and expose the regime, including the endemic corruption and criminality, the wars of conquest and Putin’s enormous hidden wealth stolen from the Russian people. He was able to prove, along with journalists from Bellingcat, that the security services had been following him across Russia for months and tried to murder him – putting Novichok in his underwear. He even duped one of them to explain on the phone exactly how it was done! Kagarlitsky is also a long term opponent of the Russian mafia/capitalist state. Putin wants to shore up support for his illegal war and suppress opposition. His message: beware any followers who tries to walk in their footsteps!

A few days before his funeral, Navalny’s demise was debated in the European Parliament and addressed by his widow Yulia. She said that “tens of millions of Russians” are against Putin and they must not be persecuted. “Putin must answer for what he has done to my country, for what he has done to a neighbouring, peaceful country and for what he has done to my family.”

She concluded by urging the Parliament to fight “this criminal gang” and said that financial investigations instead of diplomatic methods will be key. She called on the EU to further uncover the financial interests that Putin and his cronies have in the West and ensure that sanctions are fully effective – there are many loopholes in a neoliberal financial world!

As for the UK, we know that Blair, Cameron and Johnson (before 2022 of course) were keen to do business with Putin and attract Russian oligarch money to the City of London. The oligarchs were happy to avail themselves of the UK’s ‘world-beating’ financial services – particularly those related to offshore money-laundering, tax avoidance and property investment. All this is done with aplomb and ‘discretion’, so that it’s almost impossible to know who actually owns assets and properties and the true extent of Russian dirty money sloshing around the City. Central London was soon nicknamed ‘Londongrad’, Sloane Square became ‘Red Square’, and Chelsea FC became ‘Chelski’ – a team so flush with money that it proceeded to win many trophies.

Since the only law in Russia is Putin’s law, Russian oligarchs needed a neutral referee and have used the UK legal system to settle their differences and silence criticism – much to the benefit of certain City law firms. After all, there’s always been one law for the rich and powerful in the UK – see the Post Office scandal.

Given this backdrop can we really trust the British establishment to ensure that sanctions concerning Ukraine are as effective as they should be? In Parliament, Labour should call for an independent audit of how effective these sanctions are – as well as demanding an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s death.

The labour movement as a whole should to do everything possible to protect the  political prisoners in Russia – over 20,000 are being held under ‘terrorism legislation. There is a pressing need to raise awareness and campaign for freedom on their behalf. This should include a campaign to free Boris Kagarlitsky, a Russian academic, a Marxist and a political activist who is well known on the international left. In 2022 he opposed the invasion of Ukraine and was declared a ‘foreign agent’ by the authorities.

In December 2023 he was found guilty of “public justification of terrorism” based on a satirical video called “Explosive Congratulations for Mostik the Cat” published in the wake of an attack on the Crimea Bridge (built by Putin to give access to Russian occupied Crimea). The image of a real cat called Mostik (meaning Bridge) had been used by state media to promote the idea that Crimea belonged to Russia. In court Kargarlitsky was fined some £6,000. Three weeks ago the authorities appealed and he was sentenced to five years in a penal colony. Amnesty International has called for his immediate release and urged the international community to show solidarity with all those critics of the regime who have been silenced in this way. 

The Ukraine War has made it clear to both the Ukrainian people and the Russian Opposition that their future in intertwined. The stronger the resistance to Putin’s war in Ukraine and in Russia then the greater the possibility of freedom for both. In supporting the Russia opposition we also have to recognise the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination and to resist Putin’s onslaught. Comrades like Boris Kagarlitsky are an important part of this struggle and international solidarity is vital.            

The influence of Boris Kagarlitsky on the left

In my view the left owe a great debt to Kagarlitsky for his work over the past 40 years in analysing and explaining the collapse of the USSR and exposing and opposing the regimes that succeeded it. To this can be added his other academic work, his internationalism and political activism and his wonderful sense of irony and humour.  

I first met Kagarlitsky in the late 1980s on a labour movement trip to Moscow and Leningrad. Gorbachev was in power and our aim was to experience what was happening in terms of ‘Glasnost’ (openness) and ‘Perestroika’ (economic reform) and to meet various political groups. We rather naively hoped that the USSR was on the brink of progressive political change, a revolution even, that would lead to a much freer, more democratic socialist society.

Kagarlitsky was the most interesting and radical contact that we had discussions with. He was a dissident under the Andropov regime having been arrested for samizdat (circulating government-suppressed materials) and ‘anti-Soviet activities’ in 1982. In 1988 he published his first book in English The Thinking Reed, chronicling the relationship between intellectuals and the state in the USSR, which won the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize. He was also very active politically, supporting free trade unions. In 1990 he was elected to the Moscow City Soviet representing the Socialist Party (USSR) – later the Soviet was abolished by Yeltsin.

Our short trip also made it clear to us that, despite the green shoots of democracy and reform, the USSR was in a deep economic crisis and society and the system were beginning to disintegrate. When we entered the USSR £1 = 1 rouble; when we left two weeks later it was £1 = 10 roubles. In the streets there were long queues for food and essential goods and in GUM, the massive department store, many shops were empty of goods and the only one without a queue was selling Lenin badges, albeit 150 different types! Bartering, begging and alcoholism seemed the norm across the city.

Events moved rapidly after that and Kagarlitsky was to the fore in explaining what was really happening beneath all the chaos and confusion. The Gorbachev experiment didn’t last much longer and only demonstrated that the Soviet bureaucracy was incapable of reforming the sclerotic system and was itself deeply divided.

The Communist Party hardliners wanted to restore the old ways and staged an armed coup in August 1991. This was easily defeated by a mass mobilisation leading to the defection of troops. Gorbachev was in Crimea at the time and held under house arrest by the hardliners. Boris Yeltsin, a former party boss recently elected head of the Russian Republic by popular vote, seized the opportunity to lead the movement and champion ‘democracy’. Gorbachev was then sidelined by Yeltsin and destroyed politically. In December 1991 the USSR was dissolved and replaced by a Commonwealth of Independent States – this was when Ukraine’s independence was guaranteed by an international treaty and a referendum.

Kagarlitsky has always been a leading critic of the emerging mafia/capitalist system in Russia under Yeltsin and then Putin. He has written many books and articles analysing the collapse of the USSR and what replaced it. His work Russia Under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy (Pluto, 2002), is a brilliant analysis of the oligarchic system, the rise of dictatorship and of reactionary Russian nationalism and imperialism. It flies in the face of some of the bizarre theories that Russia represents some form of progressive camp that is opposing Western capitalism.

What Yeltsin represented was certainly not ‘democracy’, let alone social justice. Egged-on by the West, he introduced a programme of neoliberal market reforms that restored capitalism by selling off industries cheaply to a group of ‘businessmen’ (some with former links to the party and others to the Russian mafia, or both!). As for democracy, Russia was essentially governed by an oligarchy, ‘The Family’ headed by the boss Yeltsin. He began to strip away some of the democratic gains arising from the Gorbachev period, although this was not completed until after Putin came to power. 

Yeltsin faced strong opposition to his privatisation programme from the elected Russian Parliament, leading to a constitutional crisis in Autumn 1993. He resolved this by ordering tanks to shell the same White House that he had defended in 1991! In effect he carried out a ‘self-coup’ against Russia’s new parliamentary democracy and replaced it with Presidential rule by decree. Kagarlitsky was active in opposing Yeltsin. In 1992 he had co-founded the Party of Labour (Russia) in opposition to Yeltsin’s programme and was arrested during the crisis, although released following international protests.

By 1998 the market reforms had led to a massive financial crisis and bankruptcy for many. The oligarchs needed to get rid of Yeltsin before the 2000 election. They chose Putin as a competent functionary who they thought they could control. However, things turned out differently! Putin’s main ‘achievement’ was to stabilise the situation and develop a much stronger state apparatus. As Kargarlitsky points out, “the oligarchs had to be disciplined to preserve the oligarchic system, but the political leadership from now on had to belong to the people from the security apparatus”.

Yeltsin was ‘retired’ and Putin – already PM – replaced him before the 2000 election. To ensure that he ‘won’ the forthcoming election, the second Chechen War was started and a massive propaganda and dirty tricks campaign launched, whipping up fear and nationalism and portraying Putin as the strongman standing up to ‘terrorism’.

Kagarlitsky also continued to publish historical and theoretical Marxist works that contribute to our understanding of the development of capitalism and imperialism. For example, Empire of the Periphery (Pluto 2007) demonstrates how Russia has always been on the fringes of the world market and how this has influenced its development.

Under Stalin the zigzags of policy were linked to the USSR’s economic relationship with the capitalist world market. “Socialism in one country” was based on selling Russian primary products in exchange for resources to develop industry and technology at a relatively slow pace. To raise agricultural production, private ownership was encouraged  via the kulaks.

However, this approach – strongly challenged at the time by the Left Opposition – proved disastrous following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, when the price of Russia’s primary products plummeted relative to industrial capital goods. What followed was a new plan for development – a rushed and forced collectivisation of the peasants (millions died in the Ukraine famine) and the Five Year Plans. This policy was accompanied by the purges and the horrific Gulag system, whereby millions were criminalised and press-ganged into forced labour as a means of rapid industrial development.

In 2014, after the overthrow of Yanukovych in the Maiden Revolt, Kagarlitsky was supportive of separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. He believed they were autonomous and progressive, although, in fact, they were soon controlled and manipulated by the Russian security services. While many, particularly in Ukraine, strongly disagreed with and were disappointed with Kagarlitsky’s position, by 2017 his assessment was beginning to change. He began to publicly denounce Putin’s statements about Russia being a ‘fortress’ besieged by the West as the ludicrous outbursts of a corrupt regime.

He supported the democracy movement in Belarus against Lukashenko in 2020 and called for the release of Alexei Navalny. His strong opposition to the Russian war on the whole of Ukraine in 2022 was welcomed by many Ukrainian leftists, as being in line with his consistent, long term opposition to the Putin regime and they have called for solidarity following his sentence.

Frank Hansen is a former Councillor in the London Borough of Brent.