Coach Yakovlev’s War with the Zwastika

Valery Yakovlev copied out some of the supportive text messages he received after the media wrote about his case.
Photo courtesy of Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)

Valery Yakovlev, a 64-year-old children’s sports coach in the village of Onokhoy, in the Republic of Buryatia, spoke out against the special operation in Ukraine and twice tore down a “Z” sign from the entrance of the village’s sports school. His explanation for why he did this was recorded by the school’s doorkeeper on a dictaphone, and the recording was later handed over to the police. For publicly discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation, the court fined the Coach Yakovlev 90 thousand rubles [approx. 1,030 euros].

Valery Yakovlev is a USSR master of sports in classical archery. He has been a winner of individual events and an overall champion at republic-wide archery competitions. Having worked as a coach for twenty-two years, he has trained numerous champions, masters of sports, and candidates for master of sports.

For many years he was a successful businessman: he had his own store in the village. Later, he bought twenty hectares of land and became a successful farmer.

In adulthood, he fulfilled a childhood dream by building a glider and flying it. He is fond of sailing, paints pictures, and studies Spanish. He plays the synthesizer. He has four adult children, as well as grandchildren.

On March 23, a flash mob entitled “Za nashikh” [“For our lads”] was held in Onokhoy. In its wake, a Latin letter Z was pasted on the entrance to the children’s sports school. When Coach Yakovlev saw the sign, he tore it down. But the next day the letter appeared on the door again.


So I tore it off again [says Valery Yakovlev]. On the third day, when I came to practice, the doorkeeper didn’t want to give me the keys to my room. She said she’d been forbidden to give them to me. I think that was their way of provoking me. I snapped. I yelled, “Is this because I tore down the letter?! Did anyone ask you, me, or the children whether we wanted this letter on the door? Who gave you the right to hang it up there on my behalf?! Do you want bombs falling on your heads? Or your children’s heads? Why are you acting like sheep? So, now if I’m against the war, I can’t be given the keys?!” I don’t remember it verbatim anymore, but I said something like that. The whole thing was recorded on a dictaphone and turned over to the police.

I was later summoned to the police station. They kept me there until half past eleven. And the next day they interrogated me for another four hours. Some police boss showed up who started scanning me, checking me out. They asked me what ethnicity I was. The next day, a lieutenant colonel arrived and started scanning me too. It was unpleasant, frankly speaking. I had the feeling that they were digging hard for one specific word, figuring out what my associations were with the Z, so that later they could they tie it in with the army. I felt that they wanted to pin me with this fifteen-year article [i.e., the new article in the Russian criminal code that makes “discrediting” the Russian army punishable by a maximum of fifteen years in prison]. But I argued that there was nothing political about what I did. I just didn’t want the children to get mixed up with that sign. It gives off dangerous vibes.

I told the police that I don’t like the armed forces, I don’t like marching, I don’t like military uniforms. There are people who have this point of view. There is no such sign on the art center. There is no such sign on the comprehensive and music school, there is no such sign on the recreation center or the kindergarten. There’s not even one on the village administration building! But there is a sign like that on the children’s sports school! Why? I run the archery section. I teach kids to shoot. It’s shooting! But I don’t want them to apply their knowledge. What’s not clear about that? I don’t like that letter. And yes, it reminds me of something.

What is the total amount of the fine that the Zaigrayevo District Court imposed on you?

I was tried on three charges at once. The first two were for tearing off the sticker [with the letter Z]. The third was for what I said on tape. On April 5, the Zaigrayevo District Court of Buryatia found me guilty of violating Part 1 of Administrative Offenses Code Article 20.3.3, “Public actions aimed at discrediting the deployment of the Russian Federal Armed Forces.” I was ordered to pay 30 thousand rubles for each of the violations. The total amount of the fine was 90 thousand rubles. I was given two months to pay the fines.

After the verdict was announced, I only said, “But at least I won’t be ashamed in front of the children!”

Could you afford, on your salary, to pay off this amount so quickly?

My salary at the school is 18 thousand rubles a month [approx. 205 euros], and I have a pension of 9 thousand rubles a month as a working pensioner. Of course, it was unpleasant. I thought that I would have to sell my outboard motorboat. Or that I would have to give up my entire salary every month and live for the time being on my pension alone. Since I have a lot of potatoes in the basement, I would have survived.

But my children took pictures of the charge sheet and announced a fundraiser on the internet. Apparently, they circulated it on some messenger services. The donations came to me, along with the messages. I can’t read them without crying, I immediately get a lump in my throat. Some of the messages are brief: “For the fine,” “For the fine to the ghouls,” “For justice,” “Hang in there, bro!” Others are longer: “Accept this donation with my respect and gratitude,” “You are not alone, thank you for your courage and honor,” “All the best to you, normal people are on your side!”, “You are right, thank you,” “Valery, you are a hero of our time,” “Conscience is your main thing,” “Thank you, you are a role model,” “Thank you for peace — no war.”

There was not a single negative comment. People sent messages from different cities around the country. That is the most important thing.

As my children tell me, the comments about the doorkeeper were by no means unsparing in all cases. But I haven’t seen them myself, I’m not on social media.

We ended up raising 200 thousand rubles [approx. 2,300 euros] in two days instead of 90 thousand. I gave the surplus to charity and asked people to stop sending money.

The letter Z taped on the Onokhoy sports school’s front door. Photo courtesy of Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)

Has the village’s attitude towards you changed?

Some people say “Hello, Valery Anatolyevich” when they meet me, as usual. But others walk by me like they don’t know me. But, apparently, these people were not close to me before. I see surprise in some people’s eyes, like they didn’t know I was that kind of person.

A lot of soldiers from Buryatia have been dying in this war. Is this discussed in your village?

Do you think that people even know this? They don’t know. There is no such information in the public domain. I once went up to a father of two sons of draft age. They are about to be summoned to the military enlistment office. I said to him, “Listen, your sons may be taken away from you, they may be killed. What do you think of that as a father?” He replied, “Well, that means it was fate.” I almost fell over. Another father had a different reaction. He said, “I’d rather go with [my son] and rob a store so that we could go to prison together. He will always be my son, whether he’s a criminal or anything else.” Those are the opinions people have.

I saw on the internet the [internal] passport of a man whose body had been found on the battlefield. He had the same last name as people I knew from a neighboring village. I wanted to call them and ask whether he was their relative. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Later, I found out that yes, it was their relative.

I don’t know what to think about this… I can’t talk. Everything inside me hurts! (He cries – Siber.Realii.)

Sometimes you start talking to people, and the person responds by talking at you like the TV. Everything is immediately clear. I ask whether they’ve been watching TV. There’s no one to talk to anymore except old acquaintances. I’m irritated by human stupidity and people’s unwillingness to try and understand anything, their inability to be independent in their judgments.

Where do you get your information from?

I used to listen to Echo of Moscow, but now it’s gone. There are twenty channels on the TV in Onokhoy, but there is nothing to watch. I rarely turn it on. I even have my own personal rating of channels in terms of mendaciousness: Zvezda, TV Centre, and so on. I also have my own ratings for TV presenters. I regard them as frontline soldiers. They do tremendous work, trying to condemn millions of people to death.

I’m not involved in politics, and I don’t trust anyone. First I compare and analyze the information. I use the internet and YouTube. I look for the experts, in both politics and economics. By the way, judging by the forecasts of the latter, we are in for rough times. I have land, several hectares, that I’ve been working for many years. I bought more seeds and potatoes just in case. I have to at least cover my costs as a farmer — diesel fuel, tractor repairs, and dog food.

Can we say that the story with the stickers and the audio recording has come to an end?

Now I am being asked to make a statement in the media saying that I made a mistake, and that the western media blew things out of proportion. They even gave me a sample text written in advance. I don’t know what to do yet. After all, I don’t want to lose my job working with children. I love my job.

Onokhoy, Republic of Buryatia. Photo courtesy of Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL)

Why do you think what has happened to Russia happened?

There should be turnover in the country’s leadership. Eight years and two terms should be the maximum in office, no matter how good a president is. This should be the case in any country to prevent dictatorship and corruption.

Now, after some time has passed, do you not regret that you tore down that letter Z and got into so much trouble for it?

When I saw that sign, I thought for only half a second. Later, I pondered why I did it. I thought for a long time and this is what I discovered: when I was in grades four, five and six, I hated Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. At the time, I didn’t know why I hated them. [They were] “enemies of the people” and “traitors.” But many years later, after I had read almost all of Solzhenitsyn’s works, when I found out who Sakharov was… My God, how they hammered that stupidity and rubbish into our heads! I don’t want it to happen again. That’s all.

Source: Sibir.Realii (RFE/RL), 18 April 2022. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader. Earlier today, Reuters published a revealing portrait of another brave Russian teacher who resisted his country’s wartime plunge into fascism and also paid the price.

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