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Harriman Magazine
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2024 Issue | Harriman Talks
The Last Word in Court: Russia’s Only Remaining Outlet for Free Speech
Anna Narinskaya and Ann Cooper curate courtroom excerpts

As soon as it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government cracked down on antiwar activity—from opposition activists, journalists, artists, teachers, and anyone else who dared challenge the Kremlin’s brutality. At an April 2023 Harriman Institute event, Russian journalist, filmmaker, and playwright Anna Narinskaya described how the courtrooms where these critics are tried have become the last bastion of free speech in today’s Russia. Defendants use their “last word” in court to make powerful statements about the war, President Putin, and the Russian justice system.

Narinskaya later helped Harriman Magazine editor-in-chief Ann Cooper choose excerpts from several courtroom “last words” that circulated widely on social media and independent news sites. Narinskaya’s comments on the significance of each of the speeches follow the excerpts.

Vladimir Kara-Murza

A democratic activist and longtime Putin critic, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison after speaking out against the war. At the closing session of his trial in April 2023, he said the proceedings had exceeded even the sham trials of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s, sending the country “all the way back to the 1930s.”

In their last statements to the court, defendants usually ask for an acquittal… But I do not ask this court for anything. I know the verdict. I knew it a year ago when I saw people in black uniforms and black masks running after my car in the rearview mirror. Such is the price for speaking up in Russia today …


But I also know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate. When black will be called black and white will be called white; when at the official level it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.


This day will come as inevitably as spring follows even the coldest winter. And then our society will open its eyes and be horrified by what terrible crimes were committed on its behalf. From this realization, from this reflection, the long, difficult but vital path toward the recovery and restoration of Russia, its return to the community of civilized countries, will begin.”

Anna Narinskaya: For people in Russia, the most important thing in the last word of Kara-Murza, who was sent to prison for a completely Stalinist term on fabricated charges, is hope. Kara-Murza has no doubt that “Russia will be free” (today, this slogan itself could be the cause of repression), and he conveys this hope to his audience.


Woman with short haircut and another woman putting on or removing handcuffs from her wrists

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Zhenya Berkovich

In May 2023, authorities accused theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk of “justifying terrorism.” After two months of pretrial detention, a court heard Berkovich’s plea to be released into house arrest; the court denied her request.

Generally speaking, I’ve always assumed that an investigator’s job is to investigate. I don’t understand what is being investigated, I don’t understand what the crime is, and I don’t understand the secrets and mysteries of this crime either. That’s all I have to say about our case, and now I’ll speak quickly so that I don’t cry …


We have been in prison for two months. I have two children on the outside, one is a minor, the other is an adult with fairly serious mental health problems … I keep saying that I want to be released completely because that is the just and merciful and safe thing to do. Now I’m a mother, not a director. I have to be at home—I will stay at home!”

Narinskaya: This completely dispels the notion that patriarchal Russia somehow values motherhood. A mother of two children with special needs was not even released under house arrest so that she could spend time with them. It is this evidence of the total anti-humanity of the regime that made a terrible impression, even on those who remained more or less loyal to it.


Photograph of Mikhail Krieger behind glass.

Mikhail Krieger. Photograph by Daria Kornilova

Mikhail Krieger

The same month that Berkovich and Petriychuk were arrested, a court issued a seven-year sentence to anti-war activist Mikhail Krieger for “justifying terrorism” and “inciting hatred.”

I wanted to somehow wash away the fratricidal shame that stains our country, so I helped Ukrainian refugees and on social networks expressed my sincere hope for a Ukrainian victory in every way …


I am accused of permitting myself to publicly dream about Putin’s hanging. Yes, I do dream of living to see that day of celebration.


I am sure that our dictator deserves the same kind of execution as other war criminals who were hanged, for example by the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal. He is the same kind of lying tyrant who has arrogated to himself unfettered power, and like those before him he is up to his elbows in blood.”

Narinskaya: This is striking in its level of courage and despair. It is here that we see confirmation that the last word of the accused is the last refuge of freedom of speech in Russia. It is impossible to publish anything like this in any media outlet today.

Woman with long hair wearing a bright sweatshirt with the peace sign on it, smiling, being walked by officers with hands behind her back.

AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky

Sasha Skochilenko

In November 2023, artist Sasha Skochilenko was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for spreading “false information” when she put anti-war messages on price tags at a St. Petersburg supermarket in March 2022. Skochilenko has celiac disease and other severe health issues, but during more than a year of pre-trial detention, the court refused her requests to be moved to house arrest.

“You may go down in history as the person who imprisoned me. You may go down in history as the person who acquitted me. You may go down in history as the person who made a neutral decision and handed me a suspended sentence or fined me. It is up to you. But remember, everyone knows you are not judging a terrorist or extremist. You are not even judging a political activist. You are judging a musician, an artist, and a pacifist …


Yes, I am a pacifist. I believe that life is sacred. If we give up the veil of this world such as cars, apartments, wealth, power, success, social connections, social networks—the only real thing left is life. Oh yes, life. It is incredible. It is amazing. It is unique. It is tenacious. It is powerful.”

Narinskaya: Sasha’s words “Yes, life!” have become popular as graffiti (in Russia, authorities have ordered its removal). They are printed on T-shirts and badges, which have become a secret signal. Sasha Skochilenko, unbroken despite the incredible violence with which Putin’s authorities are oppressing her, is a symbol of the Russian resistance—almost strangled, but still undefeated. ◆

Featured photo (at top): SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News