A History of Violence

autumn colors.jpgSpontaneous car park amidst the rubble on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets, Petersburg, 12 October 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since I had made nearly a dozen trips to and from the Interior Ministry’s Amalgamated Happiness Center this past summer to get my papers in order, I must have passed through the nearby intersection of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets just as many times. So, when I happened on the bizarre autumnal scene, picture above, at the same corner yesterday evening, I was befuddled. What had happened here? I could not recall its having looked like this, as if a bomb had been dropped on it a month or two ago.

Fortunately, my friend AC came to the rescue, sending me the following, all-too-typical journalistic account of what happened on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya this past summer.

This is only a single episode in a much larger history of violence, the story of how Petersburg’s bureaucrats-cum-capitalist sharks-cum-property developers have demolished large parts of its historic center, a Unesco World Heritage Site, to satisfy their greed, and how the city has been turned ugly by their lawless exertions in so many spots that all of us who love Petersburg have long ago lost count of the dead and wounded. {TRR}

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Demolition of Garages near Nevsky Town Hall: As If a Mongol Horde Had Swept Through Petersburg 
Have Officials of the Smolny Trashed a Car Park for War Veterans That Existed 60 Years on Behalf of Oligarch Samvel Karapetyan?
Nikolai Pechernikov
Interessant
August 31, 2018

A conflict over the car park on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets that had lasted for years ended recently in a total victory of officials over ordinary citizens. The garages in the car park, allocated to World War Two veterans in the 1960s by the Smolny District Party Council, were not merely demolished. They were swept from the face of the earth, as if they had been located on enemy territory, in a fortified area that was finally mopped up by friendly forces.

Garage Owners? Get the Hell Out of Here!
In photos taken by an Interessant correspondent from a neighboring block of flats, the pogrom unleashed in the car park by the tough guys from the St. Petersburg Center for More Effective Use of State Property is apparent. A quiet corner in downtown Petersburg has been turned into gigantic rubbish heap. The pavement is chockablock with pieces of wrecked garage roofs, tires, car parts, and broken furniture.

The garage owners, who had not wished to exit their car park meekly, but had filed lawsuits, have been punished with all severity. Their belongings have been tossed out of the garages, broken, and dumped in heaps. The people who carried out this mopping-up operation had probably wanted it to be demonstrative: this is what happens to anyone in Petersburg who gets it in their head to take the moral high ground and try and defend their rights.

The rubbish heap that residents of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets can see from their windows is a distressing sight. It looks as if Mamai and the Golden Horde had swept through Petersburg. Most important, over the last few days, it has occurred to none of the responsible parties to clean up the area they mopped up. Apparently, the rubbish heaps will now lie there for several more months.

This barbaric, shameful rubbish heap, the aftermath of a car park’s demolition, testifies to the fact that Petersburg city officials care not a whit for the city’s reputation or their own reputations. Photo courtesy of Interessant

There had been several previous attempts to squeeze out the war veterans and their heirs from the land plot on which the now-demolished garages had stood. In 2016, for example, a tractor demolished the entrance gate to the car park. When the gate was lying on the ground, the tractor drove back and forth over it, flattening the gate ever more convincingly, as if it were doing a victory lap. But the special op ended in mid-sentence as it were. Now, however, it has finally been completed.

Samvel Karapetyan? Welcome!
On whose behalf have officials of the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] been making such efforts? Who means more to them than the people who built garages on the plot back in the day on completely legal grounds?

Allegedly, the plot will be ceded to companies belonging to Samvel Karapetyan, president and founder of the Tashir Group, one of the largest property developers in Russia. Unlike the mopped-up veterans and their heirs, Mr. Karapetyan is quite wealthy. As of late 2017, according to Forbes, he had an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion. Bloomberg recently included him in its index of the world’s five hundred wealthiest people.

Petersburg officials cannot directly gift the plot on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya to Mr. Karapetyan, of course. According to our information, it will probably be transferred to Dargov Cultural Center LLC or Slovak House LLC, companies linked to a network of commercial organizations directly connected to RIO, a chain of shopping malls owned by Mr. Karapetyan’s business empire.

What Will Be Built on the Lot? A Shopping Center? Or a Huge Block of Flats?
The lot at the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya would be a quite attractive site for yet another shopping center. It is literally a stone’s throw from Nevsky Town Hall [Nevskaya ratusha], where a considerable number of officials from Petersburg city hall will soon be moving. The entire neighborhood now consists of luxury blocks of flats in which only very wealthy people can afford to live. Thus, a RIO Shopping Center on Kirochnaya (if Mr. Karapetyan actually plans to build one) would not only be located close to city officials but would also be a kind of tool for influencing them.

According to other sources, the plot could be redeveloped into a huge block of flats. Officials, businessmen, and lobbyists no doubt would like to move in next door to Nevsky Town Hall. It would be a question of prestige to many of them.

Either project would be highly profitable to the people who implement it, and experienced officials are also probably eagerly poised to pounce on it. They have a nose for such deals.

When so much moolah is at stake, no one has the time of day for the rubbish heap left in the aftermath of the car park’s destruction, a sight that brings shame on Petersburg.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia: Great Cops, Wicked People

police vs youthThe Russian Justice Ministry insists there have been no violations by Russian law enforcers at protest rallies, but that complainants broke the law themselves. Photo by Yevgeny Razumny. Courtesy of Vedomosti 

Russian Authorities See No Laws Broken in Large-Scale Detentions at Protest Rallies: Justice Ministry Explains to Strasbourg That Detainees Broke the Law Themselves
Anastasia Kornya
Vedomosti
October 8, 2018

Last week, the Russian Justice Ministry’s press reported the ministry had sent a legal opinion to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), explaining the position of the Russian authorities on the merits of twenty formal complaints made to the court concerning administrative convictions handed down by Russian courts for alleged violations of the law on protest rallies during public events in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Barnaul in 2016–2017.

The Justice Ministry’s opinion is encapsulated in the following argument: “The termination of public events held by the complainants and their prosecution under the law do not violate international norms and [were] aimed at maintaining public order, security, and the rights of other persons. The corresponding charges of administrative offenses were ajudicated by [Russian] courts in full compliance with the requirements of procedural laws, and in compliance with the adversarial principle and the equality of arms.”

The Russian Justice Ministry insists there have been no violations by Russian law enforcers at protest rallies, but that complainants broke the law themselves.

“Although they had the opportunity to hold their events in compliance with the law, the complainants knowingly neglected their obligation to coordinate them with the proper authorities,” the Justice Ministry argued.

The Justice Ministry reminded the court that, in the past, the ECHR has acknowledged the right of states to establish requirements for the organization and conduct of public events, as well as the right to impose penalties on persons who do not comply with these demands. The Justice Ministry referred to the ECHR’s rulings in Berladir and Others v. Russia (10 July 2012) and Éva Molnár v. Hungary (7 October 2008).

Last year, complaints to the ECHR regarding violations of the freedom of assembly were second in popularity only to complaints about conditions of detention, and they may come in first place this year. Since the beginning of 2018, the ECHR has fast-tracked its consideration of these cases in keeping with established practice.

Alexei Glukhov, head of the legal service Defending Protest (Apologiya protesta), which specializes in helping people detained at public events, says that, despite fast tracking, the Russian authorities respond at length to each complaint. (In the cases that Defending Protest has handled, there have been over fifty official communiqués alone.) The responses are almost always the same, however. There were no violations of constitutional rights, the Russian authorities explain: law enforcement agencies acted according to the letter of the law, while it was the demonstrators themselves who violated it, even if the authorities sent them deep into the woods to hold their protest rally.

Glukhov argues the Justice Ministry’s current legal opinion is intended for internal use. Law enforcers and ordinary Russians alike should understand it is pointless to invoke Article 11 of the European Convention, which protects the right to freedom of assembly and association, including the right to form trade unions.

Actually, the Justice Ministry is in a pickle, argues civil rights attorney Dmitry Agranovsky. It must export the image of a democratic country abroad, but this correlates poorly with de facto feudalism at home, where all efforts have been made to reduce the numbers of protests and protesters, says Agranovsky. According to him, not only administrative but also criminal punishments are clearly out of synch with the violations that occur and are meant to have a chilling effect on the populace.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Autumn 2018 Fundraiser for Russian Political Prisoners

vladimir akimenkov.jpgVladimir Akimenkov. Courtesy of his Facebook page

Vladimir Akimenkov
Facebook
October 4, 2018

AUTUMN FUNDRAISER FOR RUSSIAN POLITICAL PRISONERS

Despite all the problems in our lives, we are free in one way or another, or we live in so-called freedom, as Pyotr Pavlensky observed. Despite increasing state prohibitions and surveillance, we are not trapped between four walls. We can at least partially afford to satisfy our needs, and we are less likely to be beaten or tortured by state security forces.

On the contrary, political prisoners, like all convicts generally, have many few fewer rights than people on the outside, although political prisoners are freer and stronger than many people who are not in prison. These people have been imprisoned for our sake. On the outside, political prisoners were involved in various outstanding causes. Or, at very least, they evinced basic human dignity, which the Russian state punishes as a criminal offense.

We must continue to support political prisoners. One way of doing that is with our wallets. Assistance to such people, support for the victims of political repression, the fight to free these people and, more generally, the fight for society’s freedom have always gone on in Russia, even during the darkest days of the tsarist autocracy and Bolshevik despotism.

Between 2013 and 2018, we have raised over 11 million rubles for a variety of political prisoners. Unfortunately, no matter how much money we raise, it is never enough, especially since many of the political prisoners I have had occasion to work with have been sentenced to long terms in prison, sometimes in the double digits.

With very rare exceptions, however, the Putin regime has no intention of releasing political prisoners. On the contrary, it has only increased its crackdowns. The Kremlin does not even want to exchange hostages from Ukraine.

I am launching a new campaign to raise money for the political prisoners I have chosen help. You should note this group now includes the young men accused as part of the so-called Network case aka the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case.

You can make donations any time by transferring money to the following accounts.

Bank Transfers in Rubles
Bank’s Correspondence Account: 30101810400000000225
Bank’s BIC: 044525225
Recipient’s Account Number: 40817810238050715588
Recipient’s Individual Tax Number: 7707083893
Recipient’s Name: Akimenkov Vladimir Georgievich

Bank Transfers in Foreign Currencies
SWIFT Code: SABRRUMM
Recipient’s Account Number: 40817810238050715588
Recipient’s Name: Akimenkov Vladimir Georgievich

Please make a note on your transfers, identifying them as charitable donations.

In keeping with established practice, after the campaign has been completed and the money donated has been distributed to the political prisoners, I send a financial report to the donors whose identities are known to me.

Thank you.

You are welcome to disseminate information about this fundraising campaign.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Wave Theory, or, Everyone Is Police

FRANCE. Essonne. Near Juvisy-sur-Orge. 1955.Henri Cartier-Bresson, Près de Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, 1955. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Can you imagine reading an “expert” opinion, like the one I have translated and reproduced, below, published by a political commentator in a more or less democratic country?

I won’t bother arguing about the accuracy of the analysis. It may, in fact, be wildly inaccurate. Actually, if you read it two or three times in a row, you would find that is ridden with glaring contradictions.

For example, it is strange to accuse Alexei Navalny, who was jailed nearly the entire time, of being on the sidelines during the anti-pension reform protests when, in fact, his team’s activists organized protests all over Russia, some of them quite large, and this despite the fact that dozens of them were also treated to so-called preventive arrests by the Putin regime’s legally nihilistic law enforcers.

It is even stranger to argue that Navalny matters so little to the Kremlin now that it has decided it is high time to send him to prison and throw away the key.

I am no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s, alas, but I am grateful, nonetheless, that Theresa May and her minions could not even contemplate framing him on trumped-up charges and sending him down for however many years they think would “neutralize” him.

If you do not understand this essential difference between flat-out authoritarian-cum-fascist countries like Putinist Russia and the world’s democracies, most of them in bad shape, like May and Corbyn’s UK, you should probably disqualify yourself from commenting on politics.

Because this is police, not politics, as Jacques Rancière would have put it, even if it is only expressed as a prediction by a think-thankerette-cum-spin doctor who claims to have inside knowledge of what the Kremlin has been contemplating, but for some reason lives in a suburb of Paris. {TRR}

____________________________________________

Tatiana Stanovaya
Facebook
October 2, 2018

The Kremlin is seriously discussing a tangible prison sentence for Alexei Navalny. There are several key arguments that would favor making such a decision.

First, Navalny was sidelined during the anti-pension reform protests. By and large, no one was able to saddle the wave of discontent. The Kremlin thinks it would be better to neutralize Navalny now while it is not too late. It would be harder later.

Second, Navaly’s negative rating [sic] is high. Television has done its job. The expectations are that, if Navalny were sent down, no serious wave [of protest] would rise up. Society would fail to notice it, and liberals hardly worry anyone, while the liberals who are in power would risk losing a lot [if they came to Navalny’s defense].

Third, the Zolotov factor has played its role. The head of the Russian National Guard was so hurt by Navalny’s exposé that he himself has become a source of concern. The Kremlin believes it is better not to rub him the wrong way, since an angry Zolotov is a danger not only to the regime’s alleged enemies but also to the regime itself or, rather, to various spin doctors [sic].

Fourth and finally, while Putin was previously opposed to sending [Navalny] down, fearing it would make Navalny a hero (this, supposedly, was Volodin’s argument), Putin now sees this risk as too trivial compared with other risks, including an abrupt drop in his own rating and the general sense that everything has been set in motion, and he does not have time for Navalny [sic].

If, in the very near future, something does not happen at the grassroots that would interfere with sending [Navalny] down, it is nearly inevitable. And yes, the current domestic policy spin doctors take Navalny much less seriously than their predecessors [sic].

Tatiana Stanovaya is identified on her Facebook page as a “Columnist/Commentator at Moscow Carnegie Center” and “Former [sic] CHEF DU DÉPARTEMENT ANALYTIQUE, CENTRE DES TECHNOLOGIES POLITIQUES” who lives in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. Thanks to The Real Russia. Today mailer, compiled daily by Meduza, for the heads-up. Kudos to its editor for realizing suddenly that Russian social media are an important source of information, gossip, and fairy tales about Russian politics. The emphases, sics, and italics in the text are mine. Translated by the Russian Reader

Out Through the In Door, or, The Victim Is Always the Guilty Party

yevgeny kurakinYevgeny Kurakin. Courtesy of Facebook and Daily Storm

Journalist Yevgeny Kurakin Detained after Release from Special Detention Facility 
Mediazona
September 30, 2018

Journalist Yevgeny Kurakin has been detained in the Moscow Region city of Elektrostal. Kurakin was scheduled to be released from a special detention facility after ten days in jail for an administrative violation, Vera Makarova, who had planned to meet Kurakin when he left the facility, told OVD Info.

According to Makarova, the journalist was scheduled to be released at 5:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., five people in plain clothes entered the facility, soon emerging with Kurakin in their custody. They put him in an unmarked car and drove away.

Kurakin managed to tell Makarov that three of the people in plain clothes were police officers, while the other two were official witnesss. The people detaining Kurakin told him they had an order to take him into custody without giving him any of the details. Makarova thought Kurakin may have been taken to the police station in Balishikha.

On September 21, a court in Reutov sentenced Kurakin to ten days in jail after finding him guilty of failure to pay a fine (Administrative Offenses Code 20.25 Part 1), which he had been ordered to pay in June after he was found guilty of violating Administrative Offense Code 6.1.1 (battery).* In addition to the fine, he was then also sentenced to fifteen days in jail. According to Kurakin, he paid the fine immediately.

*“Kurakin was detained on his way to a public meeting with Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Kurakin said the cause of his arrest was an incident that had taken place at the Territorial Electoral Commission during the March 2018 presidential election. According to Kurakin, who was involved in the commission, he discovered “systematic blockage of telephone and internet connection at polling stations in the city in order to hinder election observers.” When Kurakin attempted to switch off a blocking device, a member of the electoral commission at Polling Station No. 2639 assaulted him. The man subsequently filed charges against Kurakin with the police.” Source: Mediazona

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ivan Davydov: The Russian Protest Federation

614352f5bad27acc282af798084aa5e3Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic

The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
Ivan Davydov
Republic
September 27, 2018

The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.

The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.

But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.

Airbag
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.

Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.

The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.

The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.

It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.

The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.

So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.

Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.

A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.

The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?

Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.

Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Andrey Loshak: What the Krasnodar Police Did to Lawyer Mikhail Benyash

mikhail benyahsMikhail Benyash. Courtesy of Andrey Loshak’s Facebook page

Andrey Loshak
Facebook
September 24, 2018

Achtung! Uwaga! Attention! Yet another outburst of lawlessness is underway in Krasnodar, an experimental region of Russia where the authorities test ever more repressive techniques and see whether they can get away with them or not. When I was making a film about volunteers in Navalny’s presidential campaign, it was Krasnodar where I encountered the gnarliest fucked-up shit. Provocateurs in hoods and masks attacked young people attending an “unauthorized” protest rally, and the cops, who stood nearby, claimed not to see anybody in masks attacking anyone. It was really frightening. The provocateurs assaulted the activists and assisted the cops in loading them into paddy wagons. I was also detained then for the first time in my life, despite my attempts to prove I was a reporter. I was quickly released, however. They were still afraid of causing a stir in the Moscow liberal media.

Afterwards, my cameraman and I stood outside the gates of the police station until one in the morning filming the activists, who were mainly really young men and woman, as they were let go after they were formally charged and written up. The whole time this was happening, the lawyer Mikhail Benyash was trying to get into the police station, but the police kept him out. He stood by the gate, writing down the names and numbers of the released detainees. He sadly reported that, due to the court hearings of the detainees, whom he would be defending, he would not be making it back to his hometown of Gelendzhik anytime soon, although there he was in the midst of civil court cases involving hoodwinked investors in unbuilt cooperative apartment buildings.

I asked him why he bothered with all of it when no one paid him for his work. His answer stunned me. It transpired he and I had the exact same motives. He also liked the young people who had been detained, and he also saw them as a source of hope. He was the first romantic lawyer I had ever met. (Unfortunately, I did not know Stanislav Markelov personally.) It was no wonder I took a shine to him. Later, in our correspondence, he suggested titling the series The Ugly Swans, after the novel by the Strugatskys, and wrote me a detailed explanation of why I should do it.

Here is an excerpt from his letter.

“These were the kind of young people with whom you spoke on October 7: quite сheerful, cool, and kind. Unspoiled. Clever, a little naive, and free of feigned helplessness. They grew up on the internet, in the chats on VK and Telegram.

“Instead of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, they imbibed fantasy novels and movies about superheroes, and they fashioned all of it into a model for doing the right thing.

“Instead of Dostoevsky’s subservience, they absorbed the humor of Marvel Comics and a primitive albeit correct sense of right and wrong from movies about Batman, the Flash, and Iron Man. They fire back at priests of all types with quotations from Sheldon Cooper.

“Now I have been watching all these crazy comics serials, but not for entertainment or by way of procrastinating, but in order to understand the young people who grew up on them and so I can speak their language. I’m holding my own for the time being, but the kids are evolving rapidly.”

On September 9, which the Navalny Team had declared a day of protests nationwide, Benyash arrived in Krasnodar as usual to defend activists detained at the march, which, as usual, had not been authorized by the authorities. On the eve of the protest, nearly all Navalny staffers in Krasnodar had been arrested on a ridiculous pretext: all of them were jailed for, allegedly, disobeying police officers. There was not anything like this preventive crackdown in any other city in Russia.

On the way to Krasnodar, Benyash got a telephone call informing him he was under surveillance by the police. The caller also told him his exact location. Mikhail does not scare easily, so he did not turn around. Once he was in Krasnodar, he headed with a female acquaintance to the police station where the detainees would be taken.

Suddenly, a Mazda stopped next to him. Several brutes in plain clothes jumped out of the car, grabbed Mikhail, and tossed him into their car, where they forcibly confiscated his telephone as he was trying to telephone colleagues. The men beat him, choked him, and pressed his eyes with their fingers.

At the police station, he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged to the fourth floor. In Krasnodar, experienced opposition activists know the fourth floor is the location of the CID and that if you are taken there, it means the police will put on the pressure and try and beat a confession out of you.

All of these events were witnessed by Mikhail’s female companion, whom the cops also brought to the station.

On the fourth floor, they beat the living daylights out of Benyash. Several blows to his face caused him to fall and hit his head on the corner of a safe.

Meanwhile, the news got out that Benyash had been detained. Lawyer Alexei Avanesyan tried to get into the station to see him, but the police would not let him in. At some point, the cops donned helmets and armor before announcing the station was going into lockdown mode, which happens when a police state is threatened by an armed attack from the outside. In fact, the police in Krasnodar go into lockdown mode every time they don’t want to let lawyers into the station to consult with detained opposition activists. When Avanesyan learned Benyash had been beaten, he summoned an ambulance crew to examine Benyash, who recorded and certified his injuries. By ten p.m., i.e., eight hours after Benyash had been detained, the lockdown was called off and Avanesyan was let into the police station.

There Avanesyan encounted Deputy Chief Papanov, who lied, telling Avanesyan Benyash was not at the station. Avanesyan is not the shy and retiring type, either. He took advantage of the confusion to make a break for the fourth floor, where he found the beaten Benyash in a room and three field agents huddled over him. Avanesyan was then allowed to consult with the detained lawyer Benyash. The police were trying to frame him on two charges: organizing an unauthorized protest rally and resisting the police!

Avanesyan alerted their colleagues via social media, asking them to come to Banyash’s court hearing. Seven lawyers showed up. Although the hearing was scheduled for nine in the morning, it didn’t kick off until ten in the evening. Apparently, none of the local judges wanted to get dirt on their hands.

The court clerk, who was drunk, didnot want to let the lawyers into the hearing, but she was forced to back off, but ordinary members of the public were not admitted into the courtroom.

Judge Buryenko denied all the motions made by the defense. He did not ask police officers to testify. He did not admit the video recordings into evidence, and he even refused to view them. He did not call Benyash’s companion to testify, although she was standing in the hallway.

Benyash was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to forty hours of community service and fourteen days in jail. Although the lawyer had nothing to do with organizing or running the protest rally, he was given the harshest punishment for his non-involvement in it, despite the fact that the number of detainees in Krasnodar also broke all records: around one hundred protesters were hauled in by the police on September 9.

I quote Mediazona, who cite the court’s written verdict.

“According to the police officer’s report, Benyash got into the car voluntarily in order to go to the police station and have charges filed against him, but in the police station parking lot the lawyer banged his head against the car window of his own accord and kicked open the door in an attempt to escape. The police officer claims Benyash refused to stop hitting his head against the wall [sic], which was grounds for charging him with violating Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code.”

But there is more. Benyash was supposed to be released from jail yesterday. Avanesyan arrived at the special detention facility, seventy kilometers outside of Krasnodar, where Benyash had been jailed, to pick him up. But instead of picking up his released colleague, he was shown a new indictment against Benyash, this time on criminal charges. Benyash was alleged to have violated Article 318 Part 1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: “engaging in violence against the authorities.” Medical certificates attesting to the finger bites allegedly suffered by police officers and the enormous suffering they endured as a result have been admitted into evidence.

Benyash has again been detained: for forty-eight hours for the time being. Tomorrow, he will go to court.

Dear colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, and other independent media, please cover this case. Otherwise, the experiment in Krasnodar will very quickly  expand nationwide. Even the Brezhnev-era KGB did not stoop to beating up and imprisoning dissident lawyers.

Thanks to George Losev for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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