Music lovers know what a ‘Requiem’ means. Composers like Mozart (1791) and Verdi (1874) used Catholic Church liturgy and Latin texts from the Bible, whereas Brahms composed “Ein deutsches Requiem” (1865-68) with his own selection of texts from the Protestant Luther Bible. Their common goal was to commemorate the deceased and provide some consolation for the survivors.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) didn’t write a Requiem per se, but in numerous works he quotes his own initials (DSCH) and he described his String Quartet No. 8 (1960) as a ”Requiem for himself”. For public consumption under Soviet censorship he called it “Commemoration for the victims of war and fascism”, but by ‘victim’ he really meant himself, the victim of the brutal dictator Stalin who twice, in 1936 and 1948, had pushed him towards desperation and the brink of suicide.
We cannot play Shostakovich’s music here but here’s a link to one performance. Every listener to his music today should think of the almost endless list of victims, who suffered from the real successor of Stalin – Vladimir Putin. The hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine and Russia who have perished in the ongoing conflict since 2014, the victims of the second war in Chechnya (since 1999), those in Georgia (2008) and in Syria (since 2015) cannot be named individually. To give at least some of those victims “a human face”, I want to highlight the fate of a few individuals, mostly members of Russia’s post-Soviet elite, who were deported or killed on the order of the ex-KGB man from St. Petersburg. What happened to them are just a few examples of what has been the tragedy of Russia since 1999.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a former official of the USSR Youth Organization (Komsomol) After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, he took advantage of the “transition of the economy from socialism towards capitalism”, where “the law of the jungle” prevailed and became a “robber baron” (his own words) during the hasty, mostly unregulated privatisations. In 1995 and 1996 he managed to buy some 45% of the shares in Yukos, Russia’s biggest oil company, and by the end of the decade he had probably become the richest man in the country. Together with other prominent oligarchs he strongly supported President Yeltsin, who managed to become re-elected in 1996.
President Yeltsin, ailing and involved in personal and family corruption, needed the support of the Secret Service to preserve his life after his planned retirement. He brought in Putin from St. Petersburg, first as Head of the Secret Service (FSB) and then his Prime Minister. When Yeltsin stepped down on New Year’s Eve 1999, according to the constitution Putin became his successor.
Khodorkovsky created the ‘Open Russia Foundation’ in 2001, aiming at the integration of Russia into the world economy. However he increasingly got into conflict with the new President, who had a completely different vision for his country. Putin would allow the oligarchs to make money only as long as they ceded the control of strategically relevant industries (oil, gas, and other raw materials) to the Kremlin and stayed out of politics. After Khodorkovsky had publicly confronted Putin with corruption charges (19 February 2003), he was taken prisoner (25 October 2003) and accused of massive tax evasion of more than 1 million US dollars. Two years later he was sent to prison camps in Siberia and Karelia, where he had to stay for ten years, until he was pardoned in late 2013. He was then allowed to emigrate to Switzerland.
Khodorkovky’s fate was meant to be a clear message to all other oligarchs and Russia’s post-Soviet society. He was lucky to survive and find refuge in the West.
Alexander Litvinenko did not have such a lucky escape. He died on 23 November 2006 in London after having been poisoned with radioactive polonium by two Russian agents. A former member of the KGB and then the FSB, Litvinenko in 1998 had publicly accused the FSB leadership of having instigated the killing of Boris Berezovsky, another highly influential oligarch. On 1 November 2000 Litvinenko had managed to escape from Russia and asked for political asylum in the UK, which in May 2001 was granted to him and his family. He publicly accused the FSB and his former leader Putin of several crimes, particularly of the bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities in September 1999, which had killed more than 300 Russian citizens. At the time, Prime Minister Putin had accused “Chechen terrorists” for these acts and justified his “revenge” – brutal attacks against the rebellious republic and the virtual obliteration of its capital Grozny. Indeed, it was this second “Chechen war” which made Putin a known man in Russia.
The murder of Litvinenko on foreign soil was meant to make it clear to all Russian “traitors” that they nowhere could feel secure. Putin’s henchmen would execute the killings everywhere.
Boris Berezovsky a Russian oligarch who had also gained exile in the UK was found dead on 23 March 2013. Beforehand he had accused the FSB of having repeatedly tried to assassinate him. While the Thames Valley Police classified his death as “unexplained”, his daughter Elizaveta, together with a German pathologist disagreed with the statement that her father had hanged himself.
The British public probably well remembers the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4 March 2018 with the Novichok nerve agent. Luckily they survived. However, the UK citizen, Dawn Sturgess, died after having sprayed herself with a perfume bottle which the Russian killers had used in the Novichok attack. One wonders why the British government did not respond more strongly against this unprecedented killing of its citizen! Wasn’t this an unprovoked attack against the UK?
Anna Politkovskaya was killed on 7 October 2006 in her apartment block in Moscow by contract killers. More than seven years later, in June 2014, five men were sentenced to prison for the murder. However, it was never revealed who had ordered the killing. The investigative journalist and human rights activist, Politkovskaya, had researched several atrocities committed by the Russian army during the second Chechen War and had published articles on her findings.
Her Wikipedia entry quotes from her writings, which says it all:
“We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it’s total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial – whatever our special services, Putin’s guard dogs, see fit.”The Guardian, 9 September 2004.
Anna Politkovskaya’s killing happened exactly on President Putin’s 54th birthday – what a coincidence! We should remember her as an honest Russian journalist, always searching and defending the truth.
Boris Nemtsov was a trained physicist, who, during the 1990s had been the Governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast and later a first Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. A liberal politician, in January 2004 he co-authored an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper), warning against a “Putin dictatorship” and continued to be an outspoken critic of the President. He was repeatedly arrested because of “unauthorized protests” between 2007 and 2011. In March 2010 he was a co-signatory of the online petition “Putin must go”. Nemtsov also became a strong supporter of “Ukraine’s course towards European integration. (…) By supporting Ukraine, we also support ourself”. (December 2013, Radio Free Europe). This quote exactly tells the reason why Putin started his war against Ukraine in 2014: a free, Western-oriented neighbour would become an existential threat to his dictatorship!
In the night of 27 February 2015 Boris Nemtsov was shot dead from behind several times in Moscow not far away from the Kremlin, after having repeatedly and strongly criticized Russia’s war against Ukraine. We should remember him as a martyr for Russia’s freedom!
Alexei Navalny is a trained lawyer, a prominent opposition leader of the Russian United Democratic Party, Yabloko, and a determined anti-corruption activist. In 2013 he ran in the Moscow mayoral election and won 27% of votes against Putin’s favourite and winner Sergey Sobyanin. Navalny campaigned in various other elections and continued to attack leading officials for corruption, like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin himself.
Having already survived various previous attacks, Navalny fell ill during a flight from Moscow to Tomsk on 20 August 2020. He only survived his poisoning with Novichok because he was airlifted to Germany and treated at the Berlin Charité Hospital. He returned to Moscow of his own free will in January 2021 and was taken prisoner on arrival. He was later sentenced to many years in prison camps. By returning to Russia, Navalny was obviously aware that he continued to risk his life if he further opposed the corrupt and in many other aspects criminal Putin dictatorship. Navalny is another (at the time of this writing still living) brave martyr for Russia’s freedom.
No Coda (end) of this Requiem
As long as the Putin dictatorship lasts, we cannot find solace for all the victims mentioned above. The only thing we can do is to help all those who have survived and carry on battling this disgusting man and his cruel regime. In particular, Ukraine needs continued – careful but determined – Western support.
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