During the early days of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, before Western journalists had been ordered to toe the Russian propaganda line or leave, TV cameras showed a very elderly Moscow woman holding a large anti-war sign as she was escorted to a waiting police van.
There have been many arrests since then, but that old woman’s arrest sums up all of them in a message Vladimir Putin must repress at all costs:
“I love my country, but I hate your war on Ukraine.”
The old woman represents Russian patriotism at its bravest and her protest is a part of a proud legacy of dissent that goes back to the days of the old Soviet Union, to jailed dissenters like the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and the Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
It is truth-tellers like these that Mr. Putin is most afraid of. It is why he has shut down opposition TV outlets in favor of state media. In this way, he tries to sustain his big lie, that Russia is liberating Ukraine from modern-day Nazis and a decadent irreligious Western culture.
To make Mr. Putin’s lie believable, a lot has to be ignored, such as the fact that the Ukrainian president is Jewish, that there are many thriving churches in Ukraine, including Orthodox churches, or that every day Russian missiles strike Ukrainian hospitals, schools and train stations full of fleeing refugees.
All such reports are fake news, Russian media insists.
The horrible scenes from the streets of Bucha, of people murdered execution-style with their hands tied behind their backs, has all been staged by Ukrainians, Putin’s apologists explain.
Mr. Putin offers up many justifications for his invasion, including the need to restore traditional religious values in Ukraine, a fellow Slavic and Orthodox country that has, he argues, been contaminated by Western democracies.
The Russian dictator has locked arms with Russian Patriarch Kirill, who recently declared in a sermon that “In order to enter the club of those countries (Western democracies), it is necessary to hold a gay pride parade.”
This rhetoric of “God is on our side” has not gone unchallenged. Recently, 300 Orthodox priests and deacons signed a letter calling for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.
It is this kind of courageous dissent that may eventually lead to Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. But it comes with many personal risks. The truth may set you free, but it may also send you to prison.
In 1945, despite being a captain of artillery in the Red Army, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to prison for writing a letter criticizing Joseph Stalin. He spent eight years in Soviet prisons and labor camps and another three years in enforced exile.
But his imprisonment only emboldened Solzhenitsyn to get the truth out. In the winter of 1974, illegal copies of his history of the Soviet prison system, The Gulag Archipelago, began to circulate in the Russian underground.
Solzhenitsyn tells not only his own story but the stories of other survivors. He traces the system from the midnight knock on the door, through interrogations seeking confessions by the use of torture, to being stripped naked and put in isolation cells to the long train rides on open cattle cars to Siberia or the labor camps in the Arctic Circle.
At different times, he explains, Stalin targeted different groups. Religious figures, including Catholic priests, were arrested, but Orthodox clergy were a bigger priority: “Monks and nuns, whose black habits had been a distinctive feature of Old Russian life, were intensively rounded up on every hand, placed under arrest, and sent into exile.”
The irony is that Mr. Putin, a former KGB communist, has now sought to make Russian Orthodoxy his friend in a bid to recreate the ancient imperial Russian empire of the Czars.
His religious rhetoric makes a mockery of the rich tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church.
No honest person, and certainly no person seeking to follow Christ’s Gospel of love and peace, can take Mr. Putin seriously, as Russian forces gun down old men, rape women, leave children orphans and kidnap innocent civilians, taking them to “filtration camps” in Russia.
These war crimes will never be forgotten or excused, even in Russia, so long as brave Russians are willing to speak up and risk jail time to speak the truth to Putin’s tyranny.
The author is a lifelong examiner of history and public policy.