Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky, a prominent Russian Marxist imprisoned by Vladimir Putin’s government on false charges, has had his appeal denied. He deserves our solidarity.

Boris Kagarlitsky in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

Once again Boris Kagarlitsky requires our solidarity.

On June 5, 2024 the Russian Supreme Court’s Military Chamber rejected Boris Kagarlitsky’s appeal against his five year prison sentence for “justifying terrorism.” Kagarlitsky must now remain confined to a penal colony in Torzhok, some 155 miles northwest of Moscow. The decision was unjust, but not unexpected, and will be contested.

Kagarlitsky was initially jailed in July 2023 and held for nearly five months in pretrial detention. He was charged with “justifying terrorism” for ironic remarks he made on his social media channel after the 2022 explosion on the Crimean Bridge. In December 2023, a military court freed him after imposing a fine. But in February 2024, in an unexpected appeal trial, prosecutors overturned the December verdict, citing excessive leniency.

During the June 5 appeal hearing, Kagarlitsky said naming the offending YouTube video “Explosive Congratulations for Mostik the Cat” — a reference to a stray cat that lived on the Crimea bridge, was “an extremely unfortunate joke.” But he argued that his jail term was disproportionate to the offense. Kagarlitsky’s attorney plans to appeal the verdict with Russia’s Constitutional Court on the grounds that his client received excessive punishment.

The appeal court judges refused to change Kagarlitsky’s sentence, despite an appeal from thirty-seven international political figures and intellectuals, including Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Yanis Varoufakis, as well as Spanish government ministers and members of parliament from France, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium, and Brazil. An international petition demanding Kagarlitsky’s freedom has collected more than eighteen thousand signatures.

Spurred by the international campaign to free Boris, academic positions were secured for Kagarlitsky from top universities in Brazil and South Africa. It was hoped that Moscow might be induced to free him if he agreed he leave the country. But at the June 5 hearing, the judge refused to allow the official letters of appointment from the deans, rectors, and presidents of these universities, stating they were not relevant to the case. The judicial panel, however, decided to include the documents in the record.

For the time being Kagarlitsky is sitting in the gulag-period penal colony in Torzhok. Because of his age, sixty-five, Kagarlitsky is housed with other pensioners and is not required to work. But the conditions in this colony are inferior to those he had in pretrial detention in the Komi Republic. That was apparent when Kagarlitsky appeared in the courtroom through video link from Torzhok. He has lost weight and appeared haggard.

The judge’s decision ignored basic democratic and legal rights. It was simply a decision handed down in advance from the regime, determined to crush domestic opposition to the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine. It represents a gross but entirely deliberate miscarriage of justice.

There have been more than one hundred thousand cases of fines imposed on people for real or imagined protests against Putin and his war. As Kagarlitsky wrote in his “Plea to My Western Progressive Friends”:

There you can also find numerous reports of fines imposed on people who had inadvertently painted their fence yellow and blue many years ago, now risking undesirable associations with the Ukrainian flag, or who thoughtlessly went out into the street in blue jeans and a yellow jacket . . .

[T]ry to imagine what it is like to live in a state where you can be detained and prosecuted for wearing the wrong clothes, [or] for liking a “seditious” post on social networks. . . . As a matter of principle, Russian courts do not pass down acquittals (in this regard, the situation is much worse than in Stalin’s time), so any accusation, even the most absurd, is considered proven as soon as it is brought . . .

To my Western colleagues, who . . . continue to call for an understanding of Putin and his regime, I would like to ask a very simple question. [Would] you want to live in a country where there is no free press or independent courts? In a country where the police have the right to break into your house without a warrant? . . . In a country where schools drift away from the study of science and plan to abolish the teaching of foreign languages . . . [where] children are taught to write denunciations and are taught to hate all other peoples? In a country which every day broadcasts appeals on TV to destroy Paris, London, Warsaw, with a nuclear strike? . . .

We in Russia also do not want to live like this . . .

Of course, when someone tells you that the Putin regime is a threat to the West or to the whole of humanity, this is complete nonsense. The people to whom this regime poses the most terrible threat is (aside from the Ukrainians, who are bombarded daily by shells and missiles) the Russians themselves, their people and culture, their future . . .

We do not need any favor but a very simple one: an understanding of the reality that has developed in Russia today. Stop identifying Putin and his gang with Russia. Realize at last: those who want the good of Russia and the Russians cannot but be irreconcilable enemies of this power.

Kagarlitsky received the Daniel Singer Prisoner of Conscience award earlier this year. In making the award, the committee notes that in his writing, his political organizing, and his life, he displays a casual courage and easy wit that incenses authoritarians. This same grace and courage inspire others to fight on.

Kagarlitsky’s arrest is an attack on the whole of the Russian left. The longer the campaign to free Boris continues and gets louder, especially in the countries of the Global South where Putin seeks favor, the more it undermines Putin’s influence in the world. That is the hope, not only for Kagarlitsky but for the many other political prisoners in Putin’s Russia.

Ilya Budraitskis, on Jacobin Radio, emphasized the importance of the international campaign against political repression in Russia, because the people

protesting against the war, or against social inequality or against the repressive state regime are part of the global movement. The struggle is international and these people are your comrades in struggle. The Russian case should be taken as a warning, as a global warning of what could happen with you. Boris Kagarlitsky’s case is especially important because Kagarlitsky is emblematic for the Russian left and for the international left. His case is decisive not only for him, but also for other left wing socialist political prisoners in Russia.

Kagarlitsky’s current incarceration for his political activity is not his first. He was imprisoned during the Brezhnev era for distributing the samizdat journal Left Turn. He spent nearly two years in the infamous Lefortovo Prison. By 1986 he was in the forefront of the informal groups that proliferated as Mikhail Gorbachev lifted controls.

In the 1990s Kagarlitsky was a founder of the Party of Labor, and was elected to the Moscow City Soviet, the city’s governing body. It was in that capacity that Kagarlitsky commandeered a car to get to the scene of violence when Boris Yeltsin was shelling the elected parliament during the 1993 constitutional crisis. Kagarlitsky was arrested and savagely beaten, before being released thanks to solidarity efforts.

I remember that night vividly. Word got out that Kagarlitsky was arrested, with the phone number of the militia station where he was being held. There were so many international calls pouring in that Yeltsin’s White House intervened to get him released. I called his home for an interview, just as he arrived. His first words were “International solidarity works. Thank you.”

Over the subsequent decades, Kagarlitsky has persisted in his political and intellectual activity, founding the popular media channel Rabkor. His YouTube program was seen by tens of thousands. In 2021 Kagarlitsky was held ten days for insisting that the parliamentary election results were fraudulent. In 2022, he was declared a foreign agent — usually indicating imminent arrest or an invitation to leave the country. Kagarlitsky remained in Russia and continued to write and broadcast.

Boris Kagarlitsky’s many books have appeared in translation all over the world. He isn’t just the most prominent Russian Marxist thinker abroad; he is also the symbol of the Marxist left in Russia, and for that matter, in Ukraine.

Sergei Erekhov, Kagarlitsky’s attorney, is preparing an appeal to the Constitutional Court and the UN Court of Human Rights. The international campaign of solidarity with Boris Kagarlitsky will continue until he is released.

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