Although I am certain that the Memorial Human Rights Center knows what Hamid Igamberdyev looks like, there is no photograph in his “case file” on their website. Igamberdyev might be one of the men captured in the photo, originally published in Kommersant, that I posted along with my translation of OVD Info‘s report on the original verdict in the case, in February 2019. ||| TRR
Man convicted in Moscow Hizb ut-Tahrir case receives additional sentence for talking to fellow inmates in jail Memorial Human Rights Center
October 4, 2021
On September 28, 2021, a panel of judges with the 2nd Western District Military Court issued a verdict in the case of the 36-year-old stateless person Hamid Igamberdyev, finding him guilty of “condoning terrorism” (punishable under Article 205.2.1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code).
Igamberdyev was detained in Moscow in December 2016. In February 2019, he was found guilty under Article 205.5.1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code of involvement in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned in Russia, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. In 2020, a new criminal investigation was opened into Igamberdyev on suspicion of “condoning terrorism,” based on an interpretation of his conversations with cellmates in Moscow Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 2 (Butyrka) in 2017.
The court sentenced Igamberdyev to three years in prison. Taking into account his earlier sentence, he will serve a total of seventeen and a half years in a high-security penal colony.
On the day the verdict was announced, the defendant delivered a twenty-minute closing statement, the written text of which the court entered into the case file.
Below are some key points of this speech, revealing important elements of the practice of fabricating charges (so-called hyping) against people previously convicted under the Criminal Code’s anti-extremist provisions.
Memorial Human Rights Center has published reports on the previous hearings in the trial (part 1, part 2).
In his closing statement, Igamberdyev noted that the testimony of witnesses during the investigation and in court was confused and contradictory concerning both the events themselves and the circumstances of how their testimony was taken during the preliminary investigation.
Thus, witness L., contrary to the interrogation record, testified in court that he had spoken only about life and everyday matters with the defendant. Religion was not discussed, since “we have different faiths.” He had not read through the entire interrogation record, signing it on the advice of a lawyer, and could not remember how he had testified. Igamberdyev also noted that L.’s testimony during the preliminary investigation was not corroborated by video footage, recorded around the clock in the pre-trial detention center.
Witness K. also gave testimony in court that seriously differed from the official interrogation record. In particular, he spoke only about a single nighttime conversation with the defendant in which the topic of Hizb ut-Tahrir was discussed, but there is no evidence of such a conversation either in the case file or the video footage. Regarding his testimony during the preliminary investigation, K. made contradictory claims in court, saying a) that he had written his statement himself, b) that he had dictated it, and c) that he does not remember under what circumstances he gave the statement.
Witness B. stated in court that he had not given any evidence at all during the preliminary investigation, and that he had neither read nor signed the statement allegedly written by him personally. Despite his own negative attitude towards Hizb ut-Tahrir, B. testified that the defendant had never condoned terrorism in conversations with him.
Igamberdiyev argued that finding him guilty on the basis of such contradictory and confused eyewitness testimony violated the principle of presumption of innocence.
Igamberdyev also noted that the name “Hizb ut-Tahrir Al-Islami” is mentioned in the interrogation records, while the shorter wording “Hizb ut-Tahrir” is used in the organization’s printed materials and by the defendant himself. Igamberdyev argued that, despite what was written in the interrogation records, the witnesses could not have heard him use the first, longer, name, which appears only in official state documents.
Regarding the expert testimony, the defendant noted that the invited experts had admitted that there had been no attempts to recruit or call for terrorism in his statements, but there had been “condoning of terrorism,” consisting in his alleged denial of the terrorist nature of Hizb ut-Tahrir, of which he still considers himself a member. Igamberdiyev drew the court’s attention to his statements in the submitted video footage, such as “there is no terrorism in our actions,” and “my attitude towards terrorist organizations is negative.” In his opinion, the expert witnesses had incorrectly and subjectively assessed his words of support for the methods of the organization, which is banned in Russia.
Igamberdyev said that he “never condoned terrorism,” and in his conversations with cellmates he had only tried to explain his position while answering their questions.
He also noted the inconsistency of the state prosecutor’s claim of “recidivism,” since at the time when he allegedly committed the actions for which he was charged he was in jail as a suspect in the Hizb ut-Tahrir case.
Concluding his speech, Igamberdiyev asked the court to find him not guilty of publicly condoning terrorism.
After the verdict was read, the presiding judge asked a question.
“Defendant, do you understand the verdict?”
“I still didn’t understand why I was convicted,” Igamberdyev replied.
“You were convicted of committing a crime under Part 1 of Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation,” the presiding judge explained.
As long as charges of involvement in certain manifestations of terrorism (or extremism) are based not on specific evidence, as established in court, but on declaratory judgments, conclusions or statements not based on reliable and clear sources of information, such verbal exchanges will be an inevitability in the Russian legal space.
Human rights activist Valentina Chupik has left Russia After ECHR decision prohibits Chupik’s deportation to Uzbekistan, the human rights defender was released from a special detention center and allowed to fly to Yerevan Deutsche Welle
October 2, 2021
The Russian authorities have released human rights activist Valentina Chupik from a special detention center at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. After the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) forbade the Russian authorities from deporting her to Uzbekistan, she was allowed to fly to Armenia, the human rights defender’s assistant Alexander Kim told reporters on Saturday, October 2.
“Uzbekistan has issued Valentina Chupik a new passport. She is currently on board a plane that took off a little over an hour ago for Yerevan. [The Russian authorities] couldn’t hold her anymore,” Kim said.
The human rights defender’s further plans are unknown. Her representatives have submitted an asylum request to the Ukrainian authorities for Chupik and her 84-year-old mother Lyubov Kodentsova, but have not yet received a response. Chupik’s seriously ill mother is still in the Moscow region.
Revenge for human rights work
The 48-year-old Chupik fled to Russia from Uzbekistan after the shooting of demonstrators in Andijan in 2005, fearing torture, and she received political asylum in Russia in 2009. The founder of Tong Jahoni (“Morning of the World”), a migrant rights protection center that provides free legal assistance to migrants facing pressure from the security forces and other problems, Chupik was detained by the FSB at Sheremetyevo Airport last week after arriving from Yerevan.
The Russian authorities had stripped Chupik of her status as a political refugee, banned her from entering Russia for a period of thirty years, and begun the process of deporting her to Uzbekistan. The activist believes that she was punished for criticizing corruption in the Russian Interior Ministry and for her human rights work.
On September 30, the ECHR forbade Chupik’s deportation, invoking Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. This rule is applied as an urgent measure in cases where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm.
Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader
I chatted with an 86-year-old woman while I was changing the power outlet on her kitchen stove. She was from a village near Vologda and still pronounced her unstressed o’s as full o’s. She worked for 58 years on construction sites. She started working in ’54 or ’55. She worked for three years as an unskilled laborer, then for eight years as a painter before making the switch to plastering.
“I really liked this work. But then everything fell apart, and anyone could get the job. If you could hold a brush, you could go to work as a painter.”
If I understood her correctly, she said that, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, without a specialized education, it was impossible to get a job anywhere except as a helper.
She said that they had lived quite poorly, that the foreman earned 15 rubles a month. I didn’t understand how this could be and so I expressly asked her again, and she confirmed what she’d said.
In the seventies, the planning got better, and life became easier. But she had still spent her entire life “in poverty.”
“My legs began to give out, and I was forbidden to work. Otherwise I would have kept working. I was already used to this being how things were, that we were working stiffs and this was how we lived.”
Her husband also worked on construction sites, as a finisher. She has a daughter. She lives in her son-in-law’s two-room apartment, renting out one of the rooms. Despite her obvious and visible poverty, the apartment was very clean. She tried to pay me generously, but I didn’t take any money.
We started talking about migrants. She said they were good, hard-working, polite people. They always helped her, carried her groceries. Migrants had saved her life after she had her first or second stroke, which had happened outside. Russians had walked on by, but “Georgians or migrants, basically two non-Russians” had come to her aid, telephoning an ambulance and waiting with her.
“I don’t want to badmouth migrants. I just wonder where our people are, Russians? Have they really all retired? Or don’t they want to work?”
George Losev is a housing authority electrician, veteran grassroots activist and DIY football enthusiast in Petersburg. Thanks to Jeremy Morris for helpful comments on the translation. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader
Today, September 1, is the Day of Knowledge — the first day of school — in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries. As it happens, it was sometime around the Day of Knowledge thirty-one years ago that I began studying Russian. My first Russian teacher was a Hungarian woman named Zsuzsa, at Portland State University. She was only the first of many wonderful guides to the language over the next five or six years (the time it took me to achieve relative fluency), including Nora, Sergei, Zoya, and an amazing Chinese grad student who explained Russian grammar — in Russian (speaking English in class was forbidden at UDub) — better than anyone I’ve ever met; all the lovely, patient and generous lecturers and instructors at the Herzen Institute, who were selflessly dedicated to their profession at a time when working conditions for teachers in Russia couldn’t have been worse; the incomparable Katya Vidre, who introduced me to the work of Alexei Khvostenko and Sergei Dovlatov and so many other things; and countless other Russians, especially the cast of bohemians who helped me with my thesis project, a translation and line-by-line commentary of Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “Predstavlenie.”
Although you might not always guess it from this blog and its prevailingly grim subject matter, learning (and reading) Russian has been immensely liberating. Becoming a Russian reader and speaker has made me a different person, a person capable of seeing the world, however darkly or brightly, through other eyes.
I was reminded of this tremendous gift and the sheer joy of plunging into a new language by the four “Russian pedagogical moments” below. I hope they inspire some of you to learn Russian. At very least, you can read through this post and learn your first twenty-seven words and phrases in the language.||| TRR
“V or B? Fill in the missing letters.” This is a worksheet made by the RFL teacher extraordinaire Natalia Vvedenskaya for the immigrant children she teaches at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. The words are banan (“banana”), yabloko (“apple”), vaza (“vase”), kolbasa (“sausage”), divan (“couch,” “sofa”), sobaka (“dog”), rebyonok (“child”), and morkovka (“carrot”). This was originally posted on Ms. Vvedenskaya’s Facebook page.
The words and phrases on the second page of the worksheet are velosiped (“bicycle”), avtobus (“bus”), baton (“baguette”), volshebnaya palochka (“magic wand”), gruzovik (“truck, lorry”), banka s vareniem (“jar of jam”), rubashka (“shirt”), and baklazhan (“aubergine, eggplant”).
Some of Bridget Barbara’s favorite Russian words are arkhiologicheskikh (“archaeological”), zharko (“hot”), delala (“[a female subject] was doing/did”), kavychki (“quotation marks”), prikol’no (“cool”), kuda (“to where”), sovremennyi (“modern,” “contemporary”), ping-pong (“ping-pong”), bifshteks (“beef steak”), and dostoprimechatel’nosti (“sights,” “landmarks”).
Vadim F. Lurie, “Russia for the Sad.” Posted on the photographer’s Facebook page on August 13, 2021, and reproduced here with his kind permission. The textbook in the photo is open to pages headed with the word grust‘, “sadness.” As Mr. Lurie informs me, “The boy is examining a special book about emotions and discussing it with his mother.”
Natalia Vvedenskaya playing language bingo with her pupils at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. She writes: “We discussed transport today. Bingo is still the best game for all levels of knowledge of the language and ages. Only it’s very exciting. The screaming is fearsome.”
I want to tell the Lithuanians that it is really quite simple to combat illegal migrants. You just need to put every illegal violator who has crossed the border, not in prison, for God’s sake, just in some place surrounded by a fence, give him a loaf of bread and two liters of water, and put each additional [violator] there as well. When the number of detainees exceeds ten people per square meter, and the amount of food in the form of bread and water remains the same, then everyone who cannot remember where they came from and what their names are – all these wonderful people will immediately voice the desire to return to their homeland. And new ones will mysteriously stop coming.
“I realized that the country was over”: a “terrorist” electrician from Toropets flees to Lithuania Radio Svoboda
June 28, 2021
Vladimir Yegorov, 54, from Toropets, Tver Region, was an ordinary electrician, but he has now become a political refugee in Lithuania. He fled there because in Russia he was threatened with up to ten years in prison on two criminal charges: “condoning terrorism” and “calling for extremism.” “I outfoxed the FSB: I lived under their nose for four months while they were looking for me everywhere,” Yegorov tells Radio Svoboda. “They can only steal, torture and invent criminal cases. They are no match for real terrorists.”
On June 27, Vladimir Yegorov posted these photos on his Facebook page, writing, “[My] final days in Russia. It’s a pity. It could be such a [great] country. But we are the people, and we fucked it all up. And it’s our fault that Putin exists here. Now all I can do is run. I did what I could.”
Yegorov says that he was not very interested in politics until the war in Ukraine began.
“My mother was seriously ill. She was a doctor, the head of the medical clinic, a respected person in the town. And then came the war, the seizure of foreign territory by Russia, the dead, the prisoners of war: my mother read all about it and could not believe that such a thing was even possible. And before that, holding her heart, almost crying, she told me how our entire healthcare system had been ruined,” Yegorov recalls. “Before the war with Ukraine, I still somehow hoped that all was not lost, but then I finally realized that the country was over.”
Yegorov worked at a sawmill and earned money on the side as an electrician. Then he joined the opposition Yabloko party and moderated (first at the party’s request, then on his own behest) Citizens of Toropets, a social media community page that was popular in the area.
“Of course, we have mass media there, but they only write what suits the authorities, while I, though I’m a simple electrician, was like an independent journalist. I wrote on the community page about our ‘crooks and thieves.’ In our wildest fantasies, we expected that three hundred people would read it, but the page was quite popular: we had more than a thousand subscribers, nearly every resident of the district read it! Sand was being stolen from quarries there by the tons and hauled out in KAMAZ trucks, but the local police and administration covered up the whole thing. After I wrote about this in May 2017, windows were broken in my house. A stone was thrown into the room where my little daughter was sleeping, and a canister of gasoline was found lying nearby.”
Yegorov was not intimidated and sent the evidence of theft at the sand quarry to Moscow. But instead of investigating the theft and the attack on his family, the authorities opened a criminal case against Yegorov himself over an old post on the social network VKontakte. In 2016, Yegorov had bluntly commented on a statement made by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who suggested that a teacher who had complained about a low salary “earn some more” and go into business if he wanted a high income. “We need to understand that all these ‘statements’ in public by these morons with zero popularity ratings, who occupy high-ranking posts, are nothing more than part of a special operation by the KGB to whitewash the main culprit of all the troubles and his closest cronies,” Yegorov wrote. His post was accompanied by a photo of President Vladimir Putin.
Police investigators interpreted the expressions used in the post as “extremist.” One of their forensic linguistic experts deemed it a call for the physical destruction of the Russian leadership, and a witness in court said that he read the post as an appeal to overthrow the government. Consequently, Yegorov was sentenced to two years of probation and forbidden from moderating websites. Memorial recognized him as a political prisoner.
Fearing criminal prosecution, Yegorov fled to Ukraine, where he applied for political asylum. The Ukrainian authorities denied him refugee status and took him to a neutral zone near the border with Russia. Yegorov left for Belarus, but he was detained there and sent back to Russia. He spent several months in jail before getting a suspended sentence.
“My wife left me and took my daughter with. No one anywhere would hire me because I was immediately put on Rosfinmonitoring’s list of extremists; my bank accounts were blocked, and the house was also impounded. When I would go to the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) to check in, they mocked me, telling get a job! But no one anywhere would hire me. I went all over town many times, applying for all the vacancies, even the lousiest ones, which no one at the unemployment office would apply for, but I was turned down everywhere,” he says. “I, a healthy man who can do anything with my own hands, whom the whole town used to ask to fix things, was an outcast. I ate only potatoes and noodles for four years, and lived with boarded-up windows, because I had no money to replace the windows broken by those gangster. I didn’t go anywhere much: it was almost like being in prison, only at home. And the court had ruled that I could no longer moderate the community page, either.”
The patriarchal town of Toropets is, as it were, a dead end. Moscow is 400 kilometers away, and Tver is 350 kilometers away. Yegorov’s house stands almost in the center of the town, and is perfectly visible from the highway, where hundreds of cars pass every day. In March 2019, Yegorov hung a Ukrainian flag over his house, which he had ordered for 167 rubles on AliExpress. He posted a photo of it on social networks along with a list of political demands: “Putin, liberate the occupied territory of Ukraine! Release [Oleg] Sentsov, the [imprisoned Ukrainian] sailors and all prisoners of war! Don’t meddle in the affairs of a neighboring country! Take care of your own people! I am a simple Russian man, I don’t want my country to be like this.”
“The Ukrainian flag didn’t make [the local authorities] happy, of course, but according to the law, I can do what I want on my 2,200 square meters, and you can’t touch me. Basically, I made a nuisance of myself,” says Yegorov. “During that time, I figured out computers and learned how to use a VPN. When it comes to modern technology, those [FSB] field officers are just kids compared to me.”
Nor did the law enforcement agencies leave Yegorov alone: several times his home was searched, and in December 2019 and July 2020 his computer was seized. In December 2020, Yegorov was named the defendant in two new criminal cases: he was charged with “publicly condoning terrorism on the internet” (punishable under Article 205.2.2 of the Criminal Code) and “publicly calling for extremism” (punishable under Article 280.2 of the Criminal Code). This happened after the security forces had again searched his home on December 4.
“I supported Katya Muranova from Medvezhegorsk in Karelia on social networks. She is still very young, she has a sick child on her hands, and she was also convicted, fined and put on the Rosfinmonitoring list, allegedly for condoning terrorism [Ekaterina Muranova of Medvezhegorsk was accused of “condoning terrorism” in 2019. For commenting on a social media post about the suicide bombing at the FSB’s Arkhangelsk offices by the 17-year-old anarchist Mikhail Zhlobitsky on November 4, 2018, she was sentenced to pay a fine of 350 thousand rubles. Several dozen people in Russia have also been convicted on the same charge for commenting on the bombing — Radio Svoboda.] I feel very sorry for Katya, who also can’t get a job anywhere because of this stigma. She and I became friends, and I wrote a post about the anarchist Zhlobitsky. According to the FSB, it contains ‘statements condoning terrorist activities and creating a positive image of terrorists,'” says Yegorov.
Actually, it was this post that led to the charge of “condoning terrorism” against Yegorov. Law enforcement agencies detected “publicly calling for extremism” in another post, which Yegorov allegedly made on January 1, 2020, in the VK group Toropets Realities, referring to a news item published on Ura.Ru, “District head blown up near Voronezh.” There was a note under the news story: “All of them should be blown up.” The FSB believes that it was Egorov who posted this comment from someone else’s account, accessing the page from a virtual Ukrainian number.
“At first I denied everything, but then, during the search, they showed me some kind of knife. I had never had such a thing in my life, and they said that they could find something worse. Consequently, I dismissed my lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina and confessed to everything. In exchange, they promised to leave me on my own recognizance until the trial. I didn’t want to go to prison again,” says Egorov. “I was then actively corresponding on social networks with one person who promised to help me. He also had problems with his wife: it was our common ground. So I decided that I would let [the authorities] think that they had broken me, and I would hide and run away from them. On February 10, I left.”
In the evening, Yegorov lit a stove in his house and left his mobile phone there. Under cover of darkness, he got into the car of his new acquaintance, whom he had never seen before, and left with him for Moscow.
“I helped him with electrical work and did a lot of other things around the house, and then he took me to his dacha,” Yegorov recounts. “All those four months they were looking for me. They hassled my wife’s relatives: they thought that she was hiding me, but no one knew anything. And all that time we were reading everything we could about the border and the best places to cross it. We were on different online chat groups, carefully gathering information. Then we went to Belarus by car. My friend took his family along so the authorities would not suspect anything. We even went to a restaurant, like we were ordinary tourists. And then for seven thousand rubles illegal guides took us to the border. At the lake that divides the border in half, I jumped out of the car and immediately dove into the water. I was wearing swim fins, and had a hermetically sealed bag and sat nav with me. I was supposed to swim 400 meters under water, but I surface at the wrong spot: the water had risen, and there was grass and swamp all round. I ended up swimming 1,200 meters, paddling for a very long time along the Lithuanian shore. Nothing was visible, and I didn’t turn on the flashlight to avoid being detected. I got out on the shore: there was no one in sight. I quickly changed my clothes and went to the road to take a minibus to Vilnius. I came to the road and everywhere there were signs, in Russian, advertising houses for sale. I was afraid that I had come ashore in Russia.”
In Vilnius, Yegorov turned himself in to the police.
“I told them: you’d better me shoot here than hand me over to Russia! They would put me away for ten years for nothing, and then they would me kill me prison. They would hang me like Tesak, and then they say I did it myself,” Yegorov argues.
At first, Yegorov was housed in the transit zone at Vilnius Airport.
“I have never seen a Boeing, I have never flown anywhere on airplanes, only by helicopter when I was in the army. Basically, I haven’t been anywhere: I’ve been to Moscow, to Tver for interrogations, and to Velikiye Luki. I fled unsuccessfully to Ukraine, but they sent me back… So my whole life has been lived in Toropets: I have graves of relatives there that are 300 years old. I didn’t think that I would go on the run in my old age, but I didn’t have much choice, ” says Yegorov.
After several days in the transit zone, Yegorov was transferred to a quarantine camp. He now lives in a tent for twenty-two people.
“The food here is quite tasty: they give us cheese and pears. After my long life of semi-starvation in Toropets, I feel like I’m at a health spa now,” Yegorov says, smiling. “Most of the refugees here are Iraqis, Sri Lankans, and Arabs. The staff treat us well. All of them speak Russian, and I communicate with the other refugees using an online translator: somehow we understand each other. They are all in transit to Europe via Belarus, where it is now a well-established business. This, however, has turned out to be in my favor.”
On June 6, 2021, Agnė Bilotaitė, Lithuania’s interior minister, said that the situation with migrants in her country was getting worse.
“We live next door to an unpredictable terrorist regime,” she said. “After Lukashenko’s threats about unleashing an unprecedented flow of migrants, we are seeing an increase in illegal migrants. Four times a week, flights from Istanbul and Baghdad arrive Minsk, whence the migrants head for Lithuania. At least 600 people fly from these destinations every week. The price of transporting people illegally across the border is as much as 15 thousand euros per person, and 30 thousand euros per family.”
This year, over 400 illegal migrants have arrived in Lithuania from Belarus, which is five times more than during the whole of 2020.
“The flow of refugees is huge, and they spend a lot of time vetting everyone. I was given [refugee] status five years ago after waiting a month and a half, but the folks who came after me waited for six months,” says Irina Kalmykova. Criminal charges were filed against Kalmykova in Moscow for her repeated participation in solo pickets and protest rallies, and she was fined 150 thousand rubles. Instead of waiting until she was arrested again and faced a second set of criminal charges, she and her son fled to Belarus in January 2016, and from there they went to Lithuania, where she was granted political asylum.
Kalmykova was one of the co-founders of the Russian European Movement, which was organized to bring together Russian political refugees in Lithuania.
“We have a very friendly Russian diaspora here now,” says Kalmykova. “We help each other out because, until recently, we ourselves were in the same situation: no money, no clothes, no documents, nothing at all. The guys have already found an apartment where Vladimir can stay, and they will help him find a job. Lithuania is considered one of the poorest countries in Europe, but, you know, people here are quite responsive and kind, and everyone knows Russian, so it is much easier to adapt here than in some other countries The main thing is that Vladimir already has support, because it is quite important that a person doesn’t feel unwanted in their new home. I have no doubt that Lithuania will grant him political asylum: criminal charges have been filed against him, and he has been persecuted for his political stance.”
Yegorov says that he really hopes that his life will finally get better in Lithuania.
“Maybe when I can work here, my wife and daughter will move here to join me. I would really like that,” he says.
Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. In my “real life” as a professional translator, I would have earned around 170 euros for translating a text of this length. Instead, I have provided translations of this and thousands of other compelling texts for free over the last fourteen years here and at Chtodelat News. So, please consider donating money via PayPal or Ko-Fi to help support this work and encourage me to continue it. You’ll find “Donate” and “Buy me a coffee” buttons in the sidebar on the left of this page. Click on one of them to make a donation. Thanks! ||| TRR
Students in the middle group of the seventh form at Moscow’s Comprehensive School No. 282, where more than half of the pupils are children of foreign nationals. Photo: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti. Courtesy of Republic
A mishmash instead of an identity. Why do the Kremlin’s attempts to formulate the concept of a “Russian nation” always end in xenophobia? Sergey Abashin Republic
April 3, 2021
On March 30, the Kremlin hosted a meeting of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations. Vladimir Putin opened the discussion with the following statement: “In the practice of a number of countries, civic and ethnic identities are often perceived as competitors. I consider this approach (in our country, at least) absolutely incorrect, to put it mildly, and I want to emphasize in particular that it is absolutely unacceptable for our country. A person may belong to one or another ethnic group, but we all have one country—big Russia.” It is unclear what countries the president was hinting at and what he meant by making such a contrast, but there will probably be political scientists willing explain his critique. But the arguments about “civic and ethnic identity” are a clear continuation of the previous search for an answer to the question “who are we?”, to which the current Kremlin, which likes to speculate about its historical purpose, returns regularly.
The intrigue in this discussion revolves around its affirmation of very different versions of self-determination. The Russian Constitution states: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation is its multinational people.” The phrase “multinational people” was, in the early 1990s, a political compromise between the idea of the unity and equality of all the inhabitants of the new Russia (“the people”) and its ethnic diversity (“multinational”), which formed the basis of its avowed federal structure. The compromise did not last long, however. After the defeat of Ichkeria/Chechnya, which had declared itself self-declared independent, the Kremlin began systematically curtailing the rights of the Russian Federation’s constituent territories and strengthening the central government. In the political reality of the 2000s, the formula “multinational people” had begun to look unsuitable: new terms were needed that would place a greater emphasis on unity and community.
In the language of the ruling elite, two competing and co-existing constructions emerged, which, although they did not figure in the Constitution, attained de facto official status. The first was the idea of “Russian civilization,” which historically united different peoples into a single community with its own “genetic, cultural and moral code,” as Putin had put it earlier. The word “civilization” imparted to Russia a lofty and important status as a discrete world, not merely one among a number of countries. It accorded well with its claims to being a great power and an alternative geopolitical center, equal in weight to the entire “western civilization,” and it also referred to the imperial and Soviet past, which could be inserted in the “civilizational” framework. Russian civilization has its counterparts—”Eurasian civilization,” that is, the community of Russia and neighboring countries, and the “Russian world”, that is, the community of Russia with separate regions and groups loyal to Russian culture. The set of countries and groups that fall into these latter categories, however, has no precise outlines and depends more on the ambitions of Kremlin politicians. The relationship between the “Russian” and “Eurasian” civilizations and the “Russian world” and their hierarchical ranking among themselves are not entirely clear, but such an internal contradiction does not really bother politicians, who easily switch back and forth between these concepts.
The second idea, which also took root in the official rhetoric, was the formula of the “Russian nation,” which in theory refers only to a civic identity that incorporates ethnic diversity. At the end of his speech at the council, Academician Valery Tishkov said, “The metaphor of the country as a civilization is important, even interesting, but it seems to me that the stricter category—the nation of the state [natsiya gosudarstva]—is more important.” It is stricter in the sense of being in compliance with the Constitution, since it is easier to bridge “the people” [narod] to “the nation” [natsiya]. And it is stricter in the sense of the language accepted in the world at large, where “nations” and “nation states” are part of the picture, which in turn emphasizes modernity. The formula “Russian nation” [rossiiskaya natsia] no longer reflects claims to historical unilateralism and uniqueness, in which one can detect undertones of isolationism and anomaly, but rather, on the contrary, to normality and usefulness to the rest of the world. “Russian nation,” however, does trigger other doubts. Ethnic minority activists see it as part of a plan to assimilate them, while ethnic Russian nationalists see it as belittling and underestimating the role of ethnic Russians [russkie].
The imperialists, for their part, find in the formula a rejection of the country’s superpower past, echoes of the “prison of the peoples” critique, and an unwillingness to maintain continuity with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
So far, “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation” have been used as equivalents in official rhetoric. The antagonism between the two concepts does not bother political officials, instrumentality being more important in their eyes than theoretical disputes. Officials are also in no hurry to abandon the constitutional formula of the “multinational people,” apparently finding advantages in its ambiguousness and the possibility of multiple interpretations. However, in 2020, along with other amendments to the Constitution, the expression “state-forming people” was introduced, further confusing the entire ideology of self-identification, in which “the people,” “ethnic groups” (“nationalities”), “civilization,” and “world” are now mixed up in the same heap. The emphasis on the special role of ethnic Russians destroys the idea of civic identity, since it assumes that (Russian) ethnicity constitutes it. This contradiction, however, has been ignored out of political expediency.
Rhetoric versus specifics
This scholasticism has become quite tiresome, but it is repeated from time to time at all sorts of official meetings. However, there are now issues that have given a new impetus to the discussion of civic/ethnic identity—i.e., migration and migrants, more precisely, the children of migrants, to whom a good half of all the speeches at the council meeting were devoted. Foreign migrants pose a problem for the concepts of “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation,” because millions of people who are not citizens of Russia live and work here. At the same, many of these people are not fully documented (they are “illegal,” so to speak). Not all of them speak Russian, nor have they imbibed the images of Russian history and life that local residents get in kindergarten. In other words, they are not inscribed in the implicit chain of command and thus provoke fear and prejudice among populace and politicians alike.
From a legal and institutional point of view, the children of some migrant workers from the CIS countries pose a problem to Russia’s central government because firstly, according to the law, they have a fuzzy legal status in Russia and, accordingly, there are formal and informal restrictions on their access to schools, and secondly, the schools themselves do not have a federally approved program for working with migrant children, who immediately find themselves in classes with regular pupils—as a rule, among the underachievers, thus spoiling test score stats for schools. The officials who spoke at the council promised to quickly solve these problems, which for years have generated resentment and complaints from human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations working with migrant children.
Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov called the education of children who come to Russia with their parents “a mission for our education system [and] an urgent challenge for us.” He mentioned the upcoming comprehensive system for assessing the individual educational needs of migrant children, which will be used to chart the right educational path for each child, supporting it with psychological and pedagogical assistance. This would seem to imply the creation of preparatory classes in schools, in which the children of migrants would have to acquire the necessary language skills in order to switch to the normal mode of study in general classes. In turn, Valentina Kazakova, head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Migration Department of the Russian Interior Ministry, assured council members that the law on foreign citizens would be amended concerning the status of minor children, giving them unhindered access to educational institutions. If you believe these responsible officials, Russia is finally going to establish official mechanisms for working with migrant children.
However, legal measures alone do not explain how the Russian state ideologically integrates migrants into the image of “who we are.” In this instance, legislative and institutional pragmatics do not necessarily match the political rhetoric, which is usually focused on excluding migrants as “dangerous aliens.” The Council on Interethnic Relations has borne out exactly this asymmetry. Commenting on the topic of immigrant children, President Putin declared it an “unpleasant area”; he recalled that in Europe and America, “when the level of migrant children in school reaches a certain percentage, local residents remove their children from these schools,” and “schools are formed that are almost 100 percent immigrant children,” which, according to the president, “in no case should be allowed in Russia.” “The number of migrant children in our schools should be such that it enables [them] to adapt deeply to the Russian language environment. But not only to the language—to the culture in general, so that they can immerse themselves in our Russian values system. It will be good for them, and, accordingly, it will not hurt our families; it will not create problems for educational institutions.”
The words chosen were interpreted in the media as a call to “monitor the proportion of migrant children in schools,” “limit the number of migrant children in schools,” and “regulate the number of such children in Russian schools,” thus only causing a media-induced wave of anti-migrant fears.
It cannot be said that this ritual online discussion in the Kremlin was completely pointless. Specific plans to change the policy on migrant children are a cause for cautious optimism. However, the current political elite’s vocabulary and conceptual apparatus makes the depressing impression of being rooted in the archaic past of the twentieth or even the nineteenth century, but not in the twenty-first century. This elite reconstructs answers to the question “who are we?” from dead and moribund ideologies, condemning Russia not to solve, but to reproduce earlier confrontations and conflicts.
I have always said that many practices that are later transferred to Russian citizens are first tested out on “migrants.” Mechanisms for securing human rights and ordinary social rights and living conditions first stop functioning for migrants. They were the first to get what amounted to criminal punishments for administrative violations. They were the first to be stripped of their rights as workers. They were the first to be subjected to a universal system of total electronic surveillance. It is hard not to notice, for example, the link between the concept of “illegals” and the concept of “foreign agents.” It is symbolic that people illegally detained in Moscow for coming out to protest an anti-constitutional regime are now being transported to Sakharovo, a place where foreign nationals are imprisoned, often illegally. It’s very simple: there can be no human rights and rule of law if even one group is (initially with the public’s general consent) excluded from the protection of these laws and rights. Sooner or later, the exceptions will apply to everyone else.
THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT
While have never been a neat freak, I have never let things get like this. I had collected the posters for the Museum of Political History, and now I am sorting them out. Thank you for your words of support and anger: they help a lot. The children are still with relatives: I want to clean the place up before they come back. In the meantime, I have restored our SIM cards and bought new phones for myself and my daughter.
You ask how you can help? Stop by if you’re going to be near Vladimirskaya subway station today or tomorrow: we’ll drink coffee and rummage through my things. I’ve also been asked whether I need money to buy computers. [The police confiscated all the electronic devices in Apahonchich’s flat.] Of course, they’re obliged to return them, but in practice they often take their time doing it. They might turn them over in six months or give them back broken.
And I want to say a huge thank you to the advocates who were on duty in the help groups. Yesterday I watched how these wonderful, brave people work, and I was filled with admiration for them.
I am very worried about all the victims [of the mass arrests on Sunday, January 31].
I’m writing my [Sberbank] card number down here. If I get more money than I need for new computers, I will transfer the surplus to Mediazona and OVD Info.
4276 5500 7321 7849
Although I look rumpled (I didn’t sleep for almost two days), I’m in good spirits.
More than two years ago, I wrote a column about how the law enforcement system in our country had turned into a system of repression, and the state’s monopoly on violence had been turned against ordinary citizens who had grievances with the regime. As an example, I cited the arrest of Artyom Milushkin, the organizer of an authorized rally against corruption. On his way to the rally, he was thrown face-first into the mud by two men, who didn’t identify themselves. It later transpired that they were police officers.
It seems like such a minor thing today, doesn’t it?
And it is not surprising, given that the official response to my opinion piece was a criminal case against me, not an attempt to explain or discuss anything.
Of course, I was not the first to catch this trend, but it seems that I was the first to get such a clear and abrupt response. It was my text, the ideas I expressed, and my individual judgment that were declared the corpus delicti. My criminal case seems to have marked a watershed: we can no longer have our own opinions. People are tried for their opinions. Don’t ask questions.
What is happening on the streets today shows how cohesively the state repressive machine has crystallized. I don’t know what kind of orders those dashing fellows in helmets receive before going to disperse the guys and gals, but it is clear from the confident swings of their billy clubs that they see the enemy before them. The regime they serve has declared war on those who accuse it of theft and murder, although it seems that they already constitute a majority.
This is the death certificate for public politics in Russia, which was the point of my column “Crackdowns for the State.” For publishing it, I was found guilty of “condoning terrorism” (punishable under Article 205.2 of the Russian criminal code) and fined 500,000 rubles. I have an appeals hearing tomorrow at 10 a.m., but I don’t think we’ll be able to overturn the verdict, especially at a time like now.
I wrote that column in the belief that dialogue was possible, that it was not only necessary, but a real possibility, that it was still possible to prevent and stop what was happening, to force the authorities to think hard. Unfortunately, I no longer have that feeling.
(The photo, above, shows me halfway to the paddy wagon, but I never made it there because “Sorry, we didn’t figure out right away [that you were a journalist].”)
Tomorrow, December 7, a court hearing will be held in the Moscow suburb of Vlasikha on the appeal of the verdict against of Shohista Karimova. The name of this middle-aged woman from Uzbekistan, who worked as a food prep worker in the Moscow Region, surfaced in the media in connection with the criminal case into the 3 April 2017 terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway—and, most likely, it was immediately forgotten. Journalist Natalia Sivohina recalls Karimova’s story.
On 3 April 2017, an explosion occurred in the Petersburg subway on a train traveling between the stations Sennaya Ploshchad and Tekhnologichesky Institut, killing 16 passengers and injuring about a hundred.
The security forces voiced several conflicting explanations of the tragedy, but soon reported that the perpetrators had been found.
In the dock were eleven people, migrant workers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. According to investigators, they were members of an Islamist organization.
On 5 April 2017, relatives of one of the future defendants in the case of the Petersburg Eleven, Muhamadusup Ermatov, reported him missing. As he later told human rights activists and journalists, he had been kidnapped. The kidnappers (presumably FSB officers) put a plastic bag over Ermatov’s head, beat him up, intimidated him verbally, tasered him, and demanded that he give the testimony they wanted to hear.
Other defendants in the subway bombing case also claimed they had been subjected to the same “investigative methods.” The evidence obtained under torture was the basis of the sentences the defendants received on charges of terrorism. Karimova, the only woman among the defendants, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Karimova worked as a food prep worker in a café near Moscow. According to the case file, she “provided the [terrorist group] with means of communication.” As she said later, she lent a phone to her coworker and, later, co-defendant Abror Azimov. That was the extent of her alleged involvement in the bombing.
When FSB officers came to her house, the Uzbek national meekly complied with all their demands: she held the detonator in her hands, leaving her fingerprints on it, and let them take DNA swabs of her mouth and scalp.
Karimova trusted the authorities and hoped to the last that the truth would out. In the end, however, she was found guilty of possessing a bomb on Tovarishchesky Lane in Petersburg, a city to which she had never been before she was arrested.
Karimova had come to Russia to help her daughter. She worked for 25 thousand rubles a month [approx. 400 euros a month in 2017] and sent money home to her family. The verdict sent her into shock: her terrible screaming during the reading of the verdict was included in journalistic accounts of that day. But few journalists wrote anything about Karimova’s own story.
Screenshot of a letter, quoted below, sent by Shohista Karimova from prison, dated 18 May 2020
“When a guard at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 2 asked why I didn’t go out for a walk, my cellmate replied that I was afraid. I was so afraid that a man in the uniform might hurt me—I was scared and cried constantly. My brain was just turned off. After a year, I started to recover from the stress and the extreme emotional state. And I was very afraid for my loved ones: they could have been framed as well,” Karimova wrote in a letter to a friend, adding, “I now believe that any innocent person can be charged [with a crime they did not commit].”
What the Defense Says
I spoke with Karimova’s lawyer, Viktor Drozdov.
How did you end up taking Shohista’s case? How did it all begin?
I received a call from a person who had previously been in prison and knew the law enforcement system firsthand, and then from other human rights defenders. They asked me to work pro bono on the case, whose defendants were initially represented by court-appointed lawyers. We met and talked, and I agreed to serve as Shohista’s defense counsel.
The tragedy in April 2017 and the media coverage that followed it had attracted my attention. I followed the case quite closely, comparing various reports. It raised a lot of questions, and I decided to find answers to them. I found them.
You have appealed the apparently wrongful verdict. Why do you think it is important to go all the way in this trial?
The defense lawyer’s job is to debunk the prosecution (during trial) and the illegality of the sentence (as now, on appeal), and always be ready to defend their client in subsequent phases in the process. What does “going all the way” mean? The real end came long ago: the justice system was completely “bankrupted” by this trial. It has neither been willing nor able to respond to any of the defense’s arguments.
Does Shohista believe in the possibility of getting justice? What does she think about the upcoming appeal?
Until recently, she had great faith in Putin. She wrote him letters to which she received no response. I don’t ask her that question now. Shohista is painfully aware of the circumstances that caused her to end up in prison completely unexpectedly and absurdly. She knows perfectly well and shares my position on her defense, which is that by defending her, I am defending the Russian justice system, first of all, and her future depends on it.
Shohista is a hostage to the political interests of people who are now quite powerful.
I have started naming these people on my little Telegram channel. They all were involved or somehow complicit in the #Metro17 case.
After the verdict, Shokhista wrote a letter to Judge Andrei Morozov, congratulating him on finally pacifying Russian society by “finding the terrorists” and wishing him health and happiness.
How many lawyers are currently defending Karimova?
Two: the lawyer Sergei Shostak, who joined the defense at my request, also pro bono, and fully shares my position, and me.
Despite the obvious inconsistencies in the trial of the Petersburg Eleven and the defendants’ complaints of torture, the case did not fall apart in court, and the defendants received huge sentences. Why do you think this happened?
The answer, perhaps, can be found in the verdict itself and in the way the trial was run. The text of the verdict does not cite any of the arguments the defense made, nor does it analyze the events of 3 April 2017 themselves. The court point-blank refused (sic!) to examine the [bombed] subway car as material evidence or the improvised explosive devices, entered into evidence by the prosecution, nor did it uphold any significant defense motion on the merits of the charge. And it allowed the illegal presence of unidentified and unmarked masked persons armed with firearms in the courtroom.
The court was neither independent nor fair. I personally feel very sorry for the judges. They did something vile.
Can ordinary people help defendants in political cases?
“Ordinary people” cannot do anything. But I believe in the capabilities of my fellow citizens—caring, thoughtful, and ready to tell the truth. The internet, petitions, collective appeals, and publicity can help—especially publicity.
* * *
The obvious inconsistencies in the case and testimony by the defendants that they had been subjected to hours of torture during the investigation did not prevent the trial court from finding them guilty and sentencing them to long terms in prison.
So far, there has been no massive grassroots campaign demanding a normal investigation of the case of the Petersburg Eleven. The medieval division into “friends” and “foes” has been firmly established in Russian society. Actually, this is nothing new: this is what usually happens amidst the wreckage of social institutions that have become obsolete.
First, people are evaluated by skin color, then people from the “wrong” ethnic groups are imprisoned: all this happened relatively recently by the standards of history. The country that conquered fascism interrogates hundred-year-old veterans who sacrificed their health and strength in that long-ago war with fascism. The so-called prosecution throws random people behind bars—disempowered construction workers, maintenance men, and kitchen workers from the former fraternal republics. So-called public opinion equates the concepts of “immigrant” and “terrorist.” The so-called state turns into a madman fleeing from its own shadow.
Zanovo Media will keep you updated about the plight of Shohista Karimova and the other defendants in the trial of the Petersburg Eleven.
Earlier today, Natalia Sivohina posted the following on her Facebook page by way of prefacing her article: “Recently, I posted a link to the website Zanovo, and today I published my first article there. The article is about Shohista Karimova, who worked as kitchen prep in the Moscow Region and was a defendant in the case of the terrorist attack in Petersburg. This ordinary, very nice woman visited our city for the first time after her arrest. No one knows the current whereabouts of the people actually involved in the crime committed in April 2017. But it is now quite clear to me that the defendants in the case of the Petersburg Eleven are random people who incriminated themselves under torture. Alas, this is the case in today’s Russia, which likes to rant about the ‘fight against fascism.’ Knowing about this case makes me uneasy. I felt quite scared when I wrote this article and talked to Shohista’s lawyer. But, you know, there are things that you can’t keep quiet about, because they concern everyone. Please, if you haven’t heard anything about Karimova, read this article about her. The hearing of the appeal against her verdict is scheduled for tomorrow. I really want to hope for the best.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Please read my previous posts on the presumed terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway, the case against its alleged “financers and planners,” its roots in the Islamophobia that has infected Russia under Putin, and the shocking lack of local and international solidarity with the eleven Central Asian migrant workers scapegoated and convicted in the case:
Thanks to my wonderful British “cousin” AC for bringing my attention to this lovely, sweet, humane and profoundly democratic 2019 BBC TV documentary about a now-defunct photo portrait studio in Bradford and its incredible archive of the city’s changing human face. It’s welcome tonic to my soul as the leading liberal lights in my adopted former “homeland” of Russia indulge in yet another orgy of Islamophobia over horrible crimes committed in completely different countries.
I wish they would watch this documentary and take its message to heart. It might surprise them to learn that not all “westerners” are rabid racists, xenophobes, and Islamophobes. People can learn to live together, learn “conviviality” and unlearn “post-imperial melancholia,” as the great Paul Gilroy (a world-famous contemporary scholar whose works are totally absent in Russian translation, unsurprisingly) has called them. |||| TRR
Thirty years ago, thousands of portraits from a small studio in Bradford were saved from a skip. They form a unique collection of photographs that records the changing face of a British industrial city in the middle of the 20th century. Many of the people in the portraits were new arrivals from the Asian subcontinent, eastern Europe and the Caribbean, attracted by the offer of work in wool mills. The names of these people are a mystery – only their faces survive.
A small studio, Belle Vue, in the middle of Bradford, built a business on taking portraits of the newly-arrived migrants. Photographer Tony Walker used a battered Victorian camera to take images of his customers, which were often sent back to relatives in the countries they’d left behind.
Working alongside staff from museums in Bradford, presenter Shanaz Gulzar identifies and tracks down the people in the portraits, and uncovers dramatic social change and the hidden stories behind the portraits.