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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


This blog post is about the sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza, and about political prisoners in Russia and Belarus. It is also about prisoners of politics. But I want to start with toy soldiers and video games. Bear with me here.

The boundary between reality and fantasy has always been porous. Generations of children have played with toy soldiers or Action Man figures. Many of us enjoy watching thriller films about war, espionage or conspiracies. Hollywood valourises the soldiers or spies; it asks us to fantasise about being in their shoes.

It is glib to dismiss it as mere pop culture. It’s clearly more serious than that. Think how the US political establishment funded Hollywood studio production of propaganda films during the second world war. Or how later, through the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the same political establishment sought to extirpate any communist sympathies from films at the height of the cold war.

The relationship between politicians, the military and Hollywood only grew and grew into what James Der Derian calls the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. It is a world in which computer games and war games, or military strategy and Hollywood films, the real and the virtual, blend into the state’s ‘virtuous war’.

The fact is that as much as reality shapes the entertainment of toys and films and novels, so to a significant extent is the reverse true. That has long been so, even before computer games were used in the training programmes of soldiers. Still, the boundary feels more porous than ever at the moment. The Pentagon leaker, it seems, was a mangenue whose motivation was no more than winning friends in his online gaming community. Is this a case of reality stoking fantasy? Or fantasy fuelling reality? I really can’t decide.

Local games

I also note that Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian opposition figure sentenced to twenty-five years in prison this week, described his term thus: ‘I did everything right – 25 years is the highest score [балл] I could receive.’ If the situation wasn’t so tragic, it would be as if he were playing a computer game where you collect points for opposing Putin.

Kara-Murza’s ‘offence’ last spring was to criticise Russia’s war in Ukraine. The initial charges related to spreading misinformation (the authorities mentioned a speech he gave in the United States where he accused the Russian army of atrocities). Then the authorities added treason and cooperation with an ‘undesirable organisation’ – that is, a foreign NGO.

Kara-Murza is a well-known and long-time critic of Putin’s Russia. He has suffered for it before – ending up in hospital on two occasions after what were widely understood as cases of poisoning. Another oppositional figure, Alexey Navalny, in prison since January 2021, has suffered similar abuses.

Political dissenters are treated by dictators as pawns in a game. For Kara-Murza, it is primarily a domestic game the Kremlin is playing. Neutralise any opposition to the war by arresting critics, and ensure that Russians know the punishment for dissent is severe. Discussion on state television shows serves to put the critic on a stage, and make sure everyone is watching and learning the right lesson.

It is turned into a spectacle. The detained opponents are portrayed as cards in a rival player’s hand; puppets on strings pulled from afar and foreign NGOs are the joining strings. Stoking hysteria. The spy game – spies all round – is Putin’s reality. The Soviet spy series, Seventeen Moments of Spring, supposedly encouraged him to pursue a career in the KGB. So, he makes it every Russian’s reality too, and make’s it as entertaining as it is frightening.

A variant, one that has happened extensively in Belarus over the past few years, is to put opponents on prime-time TV recanting their criticisms or actions. Let them say they were used as pawns by ‘the West’. Let them explain that they were engaged in a fantasy world in thinking there was a better alternative than the status quo; let them explain it like it is (but really isn’t).

Whose rules?

And arrests are part of an international game as well. According to the Russian side, the authorities recently arrested Wall Street Journal writer Evan Gershkovich because he was spying on a military enterprise in the Urals. But the American media and political establishment see the arrest as part of a bartering game. Their opinion is that the Kremlin arrested the journalist to use as a hostage in its diplomatic negotiations. In this way, Gershkovich is seen as a playing piece to be swapped on a bridge one night, a Panini sticker to be swapped on a school playground, or a chip to be traded in a deal over Ukraine. If that is right (and it probably is, since there are precedents), then it is likely further arrests will follow as Russia tries to raise the stakes.

Gershkovich is not a political prisoner, but one most people outside Russia believe is being used for political goals. A prisoner of politics. In Russia they may well not even pretend it is otherwise. Last summer, the state TV presenter Olga Skabeyeva – dubbed ‘Putin’s iron doll’ by some – spoke openly of how an arrested American basketball star was ‘an exchange fund’. Several months later the basketball player was swapped for arms dealer Viktor Bout. A sobering note: given Bout’s high profile, one might conclude that Russia won that round of the game.

Political prisoners could well be used for similar purposes. It has happened in Belarus over the years, where there are, by some counts, about 1,500 political prisoners now. Alyaksandr Lukashenka has often seen political prisoners, as defined by EU or US-based human rights groups, as part of a bargaining game with Brussels. When he released political prisoners in the 2010s, he expected to be rewarded with an easing of sanctions. Sometimes he has got something in return. All the while denying that those released were political prisoners. But those days are gone.

Not all human rights groups agree about whether a given person should be classed as such, and the label is a ‘speech act’ in its way – to be accepted or rejected by the audience. We are all the audience, interpreting and reimagining and so remaking the world. We can reject the designation, carry on with our lives… Let the dictators label the critics ‘insane’ and in need of psychiatric help.

While far away we watch and wonder about other things. Did Putin actually visit Ukraine this week? Did he visit Mariupol earlier this year? People notice the editing of his words, or the faces of actors, other inconsistencies, or a hairline or chin that they say doesn’t look quite right for Putin. It’s a body double not Putin, they confidently assert. Or it was staged and filmed in Russia. It’s all just a show for television, propaganda, boosting morale. Was it all fake? Does it matter? The battlefield-as-game board is already far beyond Ukraine.

Putin may choose to extend the battlefield in his struggle to prevail over Ukraine and its supporters. Both Kara-Murza and Gershkovich have become pawns in this game. Putin and Lukashenka playing with their toys and watching the war on their big television screens. Except this is reality TV, where reality is the midwife of fantasy and she, in turn, of reality.

Image credit: Uberpenguin with the assistance of Matt Gibbs (matt[AT]alwayssleeping{dot}com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

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