“I’ll Go All Out to Ensure Putin Loses”
December 5, 2017
“Citizen Putin! If there is a clampdown on public liberties under the pretext of terrorists attacks, it will be clear to everyone who is behind them!”
“Putin is war. Say no to war!”
“Dimon got what was coming to him. Let’s go after Vovan.”
“We live the way we vote.”
Dmitry Skurikhin, owner of a store in the village of Russko-Vysotskoye, near Petersburg, reacts immediately and visually to every political event in Russia.
Skurikhin immediately hangs each new poster on the front of the store, a small, two-storey building, so it is readily visible from the nearby bus stop. They usually do not stay up for long, however. The record is held by the slogan “Peace to Ukraine,” which stayed up for two weeks.
43-year-old Dmitry Skurikhin is a local businessman, whose family owns three village shops. By local standards, he is well off. His family owns several cars, and they have everything they need. However, Skurikhin says the incomes of villagers have taken a nosedive in the past year: “They buy almost nothing, because they barely have enough for food.” Around six thousand people live in Russko-Vysotskoye. Very few of them are holiday cottage dwellers. The majority commute to work in Petersburg. Skirukhin was the first businessman in the village to open self-service stores, but “then the Pyatyorochka and Magnit chains moved in, and we croaked, of course.” He now sells toys, newspapers, clothings, and sundries.
He has been hanging political posters on his store, situated along a road, for almost four years. Before that, he pasted homemade bumper stickers on his car. Skirukhin recalls that the first bumper sticker read, “No new taxes!” The year was 2005.
Skurikhin: They had decided to raise taxes on us local businessmen then. It was one of those taxes you couldn’t avoid paying. Either you worked and paid the tax or you didn’t work and didn’t pay the tax. We businessmen realized they were clamping down on us. We joined forces and beat back the tax. It made such an impression on me that since then I haven’t been able to stop going. There are at least some improvements in our lives, specifically in our village. I’m a local grassroots activist, not even a region-wide activist, but a village-level activist. I was born here, and I live and work here. My kids go to school and kindergarten here. I think I have helped improve life in our village.
Radio Svoboda: How exactly have you improved life in the village?
Skurikhin: As they call it now, I was a municipal district council member from 2009 to 2014. At the time, our district authorities were running this interesting scam. They were “milking” the villages. They would buy heat from the producer and sell it to residents. They marked up the price one hundred percent. When the situation had reached a deadlock, it transpired they were charging residents, but not paying the producer anything. They were getting heat for free. The chair of the district council was mixed up in the scam. Thanks in part to my efforts, the gentleman was conveyed directly from the district chairman’s office to prison. That was in May 2012. Since then we haven’t had any disasters with our supply of heat and water.
We still have problems sometimes, but we are now longer in that disastrous state when a group of people affiliated with district officials were just robbing people by latching onto the flow of payments for housing and utilities. Then we had problems with the road. I organized a decent protest rally. A lot of folks turned out for it: 165 people, which is a huge number for our village. We demanded the road be repaired. The road was repaired. So, by starting with small changes like that, stirring people up, I have been trying to bring them round to the idea that fair elections, free speech, and democracy mean improving the welfare of society. On May 1, we had a rally that wasn’t about the roads (we’ve had the roads fixed), but was about healthcare, fair elections, and responsible authorities. Those were the topics of our rally. 45 people showed up. The rally was authorized. I always try and authorize events with the authorities, but we rallied at the skating rink on the edge of the forest.
In 2014, my time as district council member ended for a simple reason: our team doesn’t pay for votes. If you don’t buy yourself votes, meaning if you don’t pay off the right people during early voting, then you’re out of the race, because your opponents do pay for votes. United Russia paid 1,500 rubles per vote! All the other candidates lost.
Radio Svoboda: Did you prove in court they paid for votes?
Skurikhin: It’s impossible to prove in court, because the scam is quite competently organized. They don’t buy votes, but pay for the services of fake campaign workers, meaning they contract out their campaign. United Russia has a team of between ten and fifteen people, depending on the number of seats that are up for grabs in a specific municipal district, and they hire canvassers. But the canvassers don’t have to canvass. They just need to show up and vote ahead of time, for which they are paid 1,500 rubles a pop. That’s it. It’s perfectly legal. All the evidence is circumstantial. When I tried to get hired as a canvasser in a neighboring village, I was told I would not do, because I wasn’t registered in that precinct.
“How’s that?!” I said. “I’m a local resident. I have a store here. I know everyone in the village, and they all know me. I’ll canvass for you like nobody’s business.”
“No, no, you don’t fit us.”
“What’s the deal?”
“You’re registered somewhere else.”
It’s all clear, guys! You don’t need canvassers: you need voters, whom you buy off for 1,500 rubles apiece. I dubbed the technique “bribing a voter under the guise of paying a canvasser.” It works like a charm in all the villages, where the populace is not too savvy. The populace in general is not very savvy, but in the countryside it’s just unbelievable. The salary in these places is commonly 1,000 rubles a day [approx. 14 euros a day]. People who get a 1,000 rubles a day don’t suffer. I ran a counter-campaign against this.
When the villagers were going to vote, I would say to them, “Guys, are you really unaware that when they get seats on the council, they’ll shake a hundred times more out of your pockets?”
“I toss manure on a farm with a pitchfork for a 1,000 rubles a day. But here I’m getting 1,500 rubles for five minutes of my time. Maybe you’d like to go and pitch manure for me?” one guy told me.
That’s their whole rationale! There’s nothing more to say.
Radio Svoboda: When did you hang the first political banner on your store? How long did it stay up?
Skurikhin: It was the spring of 2014. My fifth daugther was born then. I decided to give my wife a present by building a politicized bus stop opposite the store. I fashioned the frame and the foundation. We didn’t have a stop there. People would always stand outside there, and the buses would stop to pick them up. I built a bus stop and draped it with posters. This was when the annexation of Crimea was happening. We had a couple of posters about Crimea: I demanded an end to the disgrace. Then there were posters demaning pay rises for ordinary doctors and school teachers. I was still a council member. I gathered information on how much doctors were paid in Russia. President Putin had literally just claimed that there were no doctors in Russia who were paid less than the average monthly salary in their regions. That was an outright lie. I wrote it on my poster, because I knew how much our doctors were paid. I had gathered the information in my capacity as a municipal district council member.
Radio Svoboda: How much did doctors really make then?
Skurikhin: The ophthalmologist in our village was paid 14,000 rubles, while the average monthly wage in Leningrad Region was 35,000 rubles. I think this as an absolutely proven lie. I hung it up on the bus stop. The local authorities were completely shocked by it. The stop had been turned into a shelter and was hung with banners and pasted with posters. They didn’t know what to do, so the posters stayed up for three weeks or so, I think. Then a major from Center “E” [the so-called anti-extremism police] in Petersburg came and had a long chat with me. That was April 1, 2014. I remembered the date, because it was the day the Russian State Duma issued a resolution condemning restrictions on freedom of speech in Ukraine. And I was sitting there chatting with this little vampire who was directly threatening me and my business.
“We will shut you down if you don’t stop it!” he told me.
The bus stop stood for a month, and then it had to be demolished. All that’s left is the concrete slab, where locals still wait to catch the bus.
Radio Svoboda: Who demolished it?
Skurikhin: I did, on orders from the local authorities. They told me either I had to demolish it and haul it away or they would do it themselves. Since then I have been hanging posters on the store.
I hung up the poster “I congratulate you on the 61st anniversary of the Dragon’s death. The Dragon is dead, but his cause lives on. // Russian citizens, stop being slaves. Become citizens. Kill the dragon inside you.” The poster, which showed Stalin in his casket, used to be coupled with the second part, about citizens, which was swiped by the polizei. The poster “Peace to Ukraine” broke all the records: it hung for two weeks.
The local authorities, by the way, didn’t know how to react. The poster was hanging on my building. It’s my property and my land, and the poster belongs to me. It hung there for quite a long time. Other events took place, for example, the 2014 elections. I hung my campaign posters there. As a municipal district council member, I was competing for votes. I would hang up a poster. It would become stale, and I would hang up a new one. And then, when I clearly campaigned against Putin. . . For example, I had posted a banner reading, “Putin should resign.” It was 9.4 meters by 2 meters. The banner caught everyone’s eye: my store stands next to the road. Well, they just came and swiped the banner. I decided to hang up another banner. Since it was forbidden to demand Putin’s resignation, I demanded Putin be freed. Since he considered himself a galley slave, I wrote, “Free Vladimir Putin! Let’s free this galley slave. Otherwise, he and his pals will row [rake in] too much.” This banner was also 9.4 meters by 2 meters.
Radio Svoboda: It was probably removed immediately, no?
Skurikhin: I don’t know why, but it stayed up for nearly two weeks. I saw policemen come and look at it. Maybe they didn’t get it? I can’t say how the authorities make decisions. But then they removed it anyway. I have been doing this on purpose. My goal is to ensure President Putin loses this election. During the last election, in 2012, I printed flyers and ensured that Putin got the least number of votes in our district in our precincts, although he won anyway, of course. Our precinct was among the ten worst precincts in Leningrad Region. Numbers decide everything in a democracy. I worked on the electorate the best I could.
Radio Svoboda: Do the security services often summon your for talks and try to reason with you?
Skurikhin: Earlier they did, but recently they have left me alone for some reason. I think they just realized, probably, that they should be talking to me in handcuffs, whereas talking to me just for the heck of it, what’s the point? Besides my chat with the major from Center “E,” a major from the FSB, a colonel from the FSO (Federal Protective Service), and the Investigative Committee summoned me. Each of my posters has been sent off for a forensic examination. Policemen photograph them, and the photos are sent to Center “E” and Saint Petersburg State University for analysis: they have this forensics examination center there. Their forensics experts study my posters and render their findings. If the findings are neutral, the posters are returned to me, accompanied by an official ruling refusing to file criminal charges against me. I’ve had around a hundred such posters. Each one is also accompanied by a description. The police also try to do everything by the book. In Nazi Germany, they incinerated Jews by the book. Here in Russia, they have been trying to shut me up by the book, to put it crudely.
Radio Svoboda: What grounds do the police have for removing posters from private property? How does it usually happen?
Skurikhin: First, they get a complaint either from the local council or from a resident: someone is unhappy with the poster hanging on my store. The police arrive and write me up for violating the regional law that all posters must be vetted with the local council. This little law was invented in Leningrad Region. I disagree with it, so I simply say it wasn’t so. They write me up, then they bring a slave from the local housing authority, whom they force to climb up and remove my poster. Then they leave. After which the situation proceeds as I’ve described it. Unfortunately, the forensics experts have concluded that two of my posters insulted the honor and dignity of the president and incited social discord. I try not to insult anyone. I think through all my posters and make sure that they are worded as properly as possible, because you don’t help things by insulting people. I want to persuade people to vote against Putin, persuade them we need democratic values, freedom, and liberalism. Yet two of my posters have been deemed insulting to Putin. They were the reason I was summoned to the Investigative Committee to talk with an investigator.
Radio Svoboda: Have criminal charges been filed in connection with the two posters?
Skurikhin: You know, I haven’t asked the police about it. But they did get me summoned to the Investigative Committee, where I was asked for an explanation. I was shown the findings of the forensics experts. The poster in question was “Putin is war. Say no to war.” As you remember, it was Anna Politkovskaya who said, “Putin is war.” The slogan was written with bloody smudges, so there was nothing in particular to interpret. It was clear as clear could be. The poster was deemed to have insulted Putin’s honor and dignity. I don’t think I insulted him, but the Investigative Committee does.
Radio Svoboda: What war did you have in mind when when you wrote the slogan?
Skurikhin: Any war. Because Putin is, in fact, war. We were flattening Ukraine at the time.
Radio Svoboda: Have they threatened to close your business?
Skurikhin: The major from Center “E” threatened me, but no one else has. It’s just I’ve been in business for twenty-one years, and all the agencies they could sick on me, I’ve been working with them for a long time. I have a good relationship with them. Most important, all of them are on my side. As they’re tearing down the posters, the policemen say to me, “Damn, what you write is true.” But they’ve taken an oath, they have their orders, they would immediately get hell from their commander, so they can’t say it that way. I can because I don’t have a commander. Firefighters, the guys at Health Inspection Services, they all understand what is happening in Russia. Most of them are smart people.
Radio Svoboda: Does your family support you?
Skurikhin: Yes, of course. Sure, they worry about me. The situation in Russia is such that the most active dissenters are shot down. My kids are aged nineteen, fourteen, seven, and four. All of them are girls: I live in a flower garden. If I’m arrested, my wife will feed the family: she’ll be like Vassa Zheleznova. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but we’ve talked it all throgh, of course. So that’s why I try and write slogans that are legal. I have studied a ton of material on the subject. What is an insult? It’s when you compare someone with an animal. The rest can be offensive and unpleasant, but it is not insulting in the criminal sense. You can say, “Skurikhin, you’re an idiot.” Yes, it’s possible for you to have this opinion. But I think differently. But if you say, “Skurikhin, you’re a jackass,” that is an insult.
Radio Svoboda: Have other businessmen put up similar posters?
Skurikhin: There were elections to the State Duma in 2016. As a member of Parnas (People’s Freedom Party), I ran in them in my own electoral district, the southwest district of Leningrad Region. Sergey Naryshkin, now our top spy, ran in the same district. I made the rounds of all my businessmen friends and asked them to support me. I made banners that read, “Skurikhin and Parnas are your only worthy choice.” In our part of the world, most of the shops are village shops, and they are on private property, so I was able to hang them up for free. No other candidate got that kind of support. The rest had to pay for billboards. I spent 150,000 rubles on my election campaign. My wife later gave me a piece of her mind about that. I took second place in the elections in my own village. Only Naryshkin got more votes. I got support for my posters and ideas, for saying “Putin should resign.” My fellow villagers gave me the number two spot. In my native Lomonosov District, I took sixth place, and I took eighth place in the entire electoral district, which has a population of 500,000. What does that tell you? I would argue the outcome shows that liberal and democratic ideas are popular in society, but they simply never get conveyed to the voters, since the media are totally blocked. I have no other way of telling people Putin should have been dismissed from the Kremlin long ago. I only have my posters. But, generally speaking, it’s very hard for a Parnas member to get around United Russia on the first try.
Radio Svoboda: Do you attend all protest rallies?
Skurikhin: Yes, I try to go to all of them. At the last pro-Navalny rally, in June, I was wearing a “Sick of Him” t-shirt and carrying a flag. I was taken to a police station, but I escaped. This year there were also primary elections—Naryshkin gave up his seat in the Duma when he was appointed head of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) in October 2016—and this year there were reelections. We also held events that, in my opinion, were meaningful to our district. I couldn’t let my people down, so I had to hightail it from the police station.
Radio Svoboda: Are you following the presidential campaign?
Skurikhin: Yes, of course. I’ll go all out to ensure Mr. Putin loses the election, at least in my precinct. I support Navalny’s registration as a candidate and Ksenia Sobchak’s candidacy, because we need as many candidates as possible in the first round just to take votes away from Putin and get a second round. If there is a second round, that will be a significant victory in itself.
Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader