Freedom for Boris Kagarlitsky

Boris Kagarlitsky, the Russian Marxist and antiwar critic of Vladimir Putin, is again being held in a brutal detention center on baseless charges. He deserves our solidarity.

Boris Kagarlitsky speaks at a rally in Moscow, Russia, March 2, 2013. (Wikimedia Commons)

Boris Kagarlitsky, the renowned Russian Marxist, had an unexpected appeal trial on February 13, 2024. The prosecutors were seeking to overturn the results of his two-day trial in December 2023, when Kagarlitsky was released with a fine after serving four and a half months in pretrial detention in the Komi Republic, more than one thousand kilometers north of Moscow.

Kagarlitsky was facing up to seven years imprisonment on a charge of “justifying terrorism,” but instead was released with a fine of 609,000 rubles, about $6,500. The charge was absurd on its face, but was part of a generalized attack on the Russian left as a whole and Kagarlitsky’s Rabkor media outlet in particular, serving as a warning that breaking silence on the war would have dire consequences. Indeed, there are fifteen thousand people who have been arrested for opposing the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

In Kagarlitsky’s case, the charge of justifying terrorism was for ironic remarks he made in a social media video entitled “Explosive Greetings from Mostik the Cat.” The authorities did not get Boris’s joke and argued that Kagarlitsky was justifying the Crimean Bridge explosion. In the video Boris noted that on the eve of the attack congratulatory wishes from Mostik the cat to President Vladimir Putin circulated on Russian social networks. Since the cat was the mascot of the sabotaged bridge, Kagarlitsky joked that he had acted as a provocateur with his congratulations. Boris later remarked that it was probably a poor joke, but hardly sufficient grounds for arrest. He continued, “Moreover, it is assumed that two words are taken, not even the full text, two words. Naturally, there was no approval of the explosion, I insist on this. But there was a phrase, well, you could say, really, it wasn’t a very good joke, to be honest. Unfortunately, not all of my jokes are successful.”

In response to Boris’s detention in Syktyvkar, a huge “Free Boris” movement arose internationally, and more importantly, all across Russian cities and towns. There were spontaneous demonstrations held, online protests, Free Boris graffiti painted on walls, and coordinated international actions on Kagarlitsky’s birthday in August. Thousands of signatures were collected from prominent intellectuals, activists, and politicians. Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva criticized Kagarlitsky’s detention, as did leaders in other BRICS countries whom Putin counts as allies. When Boris was released December 13, 2023, it was a demonstration that international pressure and solidarity works.

The appeal trial, which Kagarlitsky expected to affirm the verdict from December, ended with the December decision being overturned, and a sentence of five years in a general regime penal colony imposed. He was taken into custody from the courtroom.

The prosecution argued that Kagarlitsky was going through bankruptcy proceedings and could not pay the fine imposed in December — so he had to serve the original sentence. Both are untrue: Rabkor held a crowdfunding the day following Kagarlitsky’s release, and 700,000 rubles were collected within an hour. Subsequent legal costs and fines imposed another 710,000 rubles to the amount Kagarlitsky was to pay. Again, Rabkor’s crowdfunding raised the required amount, totaling 1,410,000 rubles ($15,270). In an almost comic move, the bank tried to refuse the money when Boris paid the fine. He was required to pay in person, but his name was on the list of “extremists and terrorists” prohibited from conducting any financial transactions. In the end he paid the fine, undercutting the prosecutors arguments. As Russian socialist Ilya Budraitskis said, “It is hopeless to discuss legalistic arguments, there is no legality in Kagarlitsky’s case, Navalny’s case or that of the many others in custody for their views. There is no legality, just political decisions coming from the top to courts which have no independence.”

The appeal trial result was unexpected, brutal, and significant. Three days later, on February 16, Alexei Navalny died in the harsh Arctic Circle penal colony where he was being held. These events occur in the context of the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine and the approaching rubber-stamp presidential election, when the Kremlin looks to portray Russians as united behind Putin and his bid for a fifth term.

Kagarlitsky, for his part, was allowed to make a statement after the decision, and showed his characteristic optimism and his resolve. He thanked Rabkor, asked for more solidarity, but was not discouraged. He said,

I am as always, in high spirits. I continue to collect data and materials for new books, including descriptions of prison life — now in Moscow institutions. Anyway, see you soon! I am sure that everything will be fine eventually. We will see each other again both on the channel and in person. We just need to live a little longer and survive this dark period for our country.

Kagarlitsky will serve his sentence in a penal colony as yet unknown. First, he will be in quarantine for thirty days. As of this writing, he is in pretrial detention center 7 Kapotnya, Moscow, known as one of Russia’s harshest lockups. The only news we have from him is that he is being held in a cell with fifteen other men.

Kagarlitsky’s daughter, responding to the death of Navalny, made this statement: “And for all of us, this is a special sign, especially for those who have relatives, friends, associates, in the hands of Putin’s regime, we are all not safe. Now, when Boris is behind bars, it is especially important to understand how dangerous his hands are, and to show even more solidarity around Boris, around his case and around other political prisoners.”

Indeed, Boris Kagarlitsky, the Marxist critic and thorn in the side of Putin’s administration, is now in their hands, and international solidarity is required.