Many great religious leaders have been martyrs for freedom of speech, thought and belief. In their memory below is the substance of a statement to the Russian Court by an editor of a student news website, Armen Aramyan:
There are not many places left in Russia now where I can speak freely about what is happening in our country. I would like to take the opportunity to say a few words in open court. A month ago, Russia launched the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Thousands of civilians have died because of military actions in Ukraine; 5,000 people, according to preliminary data, died in Mariupol alone. Before I make my final statement, I would like to announce a moment of silence in memory of those who have died in this war. I believe that every public event in Russia should now begin with such a moment.”
[Aramyan at this point stopped talking for one minute, although the judge repeatedly requested him to resume his speech]
For 12 months, my friends and I have been under virtual house arrest. The police searches of our apartments that took place at 6am on 14 April 2021 divided our lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’.
All this past year we could not study, work, meet friends, or live our normal lives. I have not been able to do my research. Alla and Volodya had to drop out of their last year at the university. Natasha lost her job. What was all this for?
This is all because of a short video that we published in January 2021 – a video in which we simply appealed to the authorities, as well as to universities and schools, with one simple demand: stop intimidating students and schoolchildren, stop threatening them with expulsion for participation in protests. We also addressed words of support to the students and schoolchildren themselves, who were intimidated by the authorities and the administrations of their educational institutions for several weeks.
I recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree. I know Russian universities, and I know the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that dominates them. Even in the most daring, freest universities young people are taught this mindset: you are still young, don’t stick your head out, don’t risk your life, we’ll expel you, we’ll ruin your life. I have seen how these often exaggerated and absurd threats affect young people. They take away our freedom and the feeling that we can change something.
Right now, fear and self-censorship are the mainstays of this regime. Every time people begin to unite for the sake of common goals, every time they feel that they have the power to change something, the state immediately perceives this as a threat. For this regime, any opportunity for people to associate freely is a threat, because it cannot govern society, it can only govern a collection of individuals. The authorities immediately react to any attempts to unite, with the aid of repression. The main goal of repression is, of course, fear.
But why, precisely, fear? Fear is generally an effective tool. Fear is effective because it divides us. When we unite with like-minded people, we feel that together we are stronger, that we are no longer just separate people, that together we can do more. And fear makes us feel like we’re alone again. Fear separates us from one another, it makes us look at each other with suspicion. When we are intimidated – when they call us to the dean’s office to threaten us with expulsion, or when we are beaten at the police station to make us give up the passwords to our phones – the state tries to impose on us the feeling that, in fact, we are always alone.
With this feeling of fear, we are always alone. There is no society, there are no common interests, we cannot achieve anything together. Fear makes me evaluate personal risks very carefully: I can be imprisoned, I can be beaten, I can be fired or expelled, something can be done to my family. The state seems to be saying: ‘If you continue to attend to your own personal affairs, we may not interfere in your little life. But as soon as you decide that you are capable of something more, together, we will destroy it in a moment.’ When Putin’s regime smashes the remnants of the independent media, declares the largest political organisations extremists, this is an attack on any free association of people.
Self-censorship is not just an order from above by the leadership of the university. Self-censorship is something we do, not them. This is how we respond to fear. Political terror works only if we agree to the rules of the game, only if we are really afraid.
Solidarity is the only thing with which society can oppose this fear. This is a mysterious, irrational feeling that, in fact, we are not alone. Even when we act separately, behind us there are thousands like ourselves, who feel that this is a common cause.
Solidarity – this was the idea behind our video. In it, of course, we did not call for any rallies – we just wanted other students and schoolchildren to feel that they were not alone, that they had support. So that threats from university and school authorities did not sow the destructive seed of self-censorship in them.
Our magazine has never censored or compromised itself because, ultimately, self-censorship leads to helplessness. Irrational fear makes you yourself refuse to act and create change. When you constantly strike compromises with a strong opponent, you gradually retreat, and eventually you find yourself on the edge of a cliff. And at the end there is no other way out – just jump off or wait to be pushed off.
We have learned a lot in these 12 months. We first learned about the real extent of the pressure on young people in our country. We saw that intimidation exists not just in individual universities and schools, but that there is already a state programme of terror against young people. Preventive talks to dissuade students from attending rallies, propaganda lectures about the war, disciplining protesting students – all this was set in motion long ago by Russian universities and schools. We could not imagine the scale of the phenomenon. As we said in our video: ‘The authorities have really declared war on youth.’
But we also learned that we are not alone. That it is in the interests of the authorities to make us think that we are a minority, that there is a certain entity called ‘the people’ which is far away from people who protest. This belief is deeply rooted among many, even among opponents of the authorities. But who we saw among the young people who were detained at the protests in January were ordinary teenagers from ordinary families. We, in fact, are society. It is our actions that speak on behalf of society, not the results of opinion polls, which are answered while staring down by the barrel of an imaginary gun.
Twelve months of prosecution, house arrest, dozens of interrogations, dozens of court hearings, 212 volumes of a criminal case that we were forced to read – all this was a rather severe test for our solidarity. But I think we managed – from the first day, we saw how hundreds of thousands of people supported us, how students and teachers of Russian universities, despite intimidation, came out to support us, how hundreds of people continue to come to our court appearances a year after the case started. We survived, we kept our sanity, we didn’t give up.
Now, as our state has unleashed the so-called ‘special operation’, the stakes have risen very high. Our state is no longer just an idle policeman waving his club around. It is now a real dictatorship. It is a war criminal. The state has succeeded in intimidating many people: it has silenced and prevented them from speaking out about this war. And these days, I only think about one thing: how to confront such a strong fear. How to continue to act and support other people when we all want to run away, hide in a cocoon, pretend that none of this is happening. Russians do not support the war – they are so strongly against it that some of them cannot even believe it is happening.
Of course, I can tell you what I think about our case. That this prosecution is meaningless; that, in principle, it is impossible to prove the accusation. The prosecution did not find a single teenager who saw our video, went to the rally, contracted coronavirus and died, because such people do not exist.
Therefore, regardless of the verdict, I appeal to young people across the country – the same appeal that the expert for the prosecution considered a call to go to specific rallies: ‘Do not be afraid and do not stand aside.’ Fear is the only thing that keeps us apart. In recent weeks, we have seen many examples of heroism, when young people, often young women, continued to take to the streets and protest against the war, despite tens of thousands of arrests and searches. They were tortured in police stations, but did not give up and continued to fight. These days, we have no moral right to stop, give up, and get scared. Today, our every word must be strong enough to stop bullets.
The main question for our generation is not just one of how we can remain decent people under fascism, how to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing. The question is how we can build solidarity and unite in a society that has been mercilessly destroyed for several decades. ‘We are the youth, and we will definitely win’, are the words that can be heard at the end of our video. And, indeed, who if not us?”
Philip Goldenberg, member of the Jewish faith
Date: Tuesday 19th April 2022