At the same time as he has been getting ready for the anti-corruption protests, Navalny has been opening election campaign headquarters in different cities. These events have also been subject violent attacks. In Barnaul, Navalny was doused with Brilliant Green antiseptic (zelyonka). In Petersburg, the door of his headquarters was set on fire. In Volgograd, Navalny was dragged by his feet and nearly beaten.
Not Only Navalny: Crackdowns on Freedom of Assembly
Long-haul truckers have planned a nationwide strike for March 27. Around twelve people were detained during a meeting of truckers in Vladivostok. Police claimed they had received intelligence on a meeting of mafia leaders. In Krasnodar Territory, an activist got three days of arrest in jail for handing out leaflets about the upcoming strike.
Moscow City Court ruled that meetings of lawmakers with their constituents should be regarded as the equivalent of protest rallies.
The Constitutional Court ruled the police can detain a solo picketer only if it is impossible to ensure security. The very next day, two solo picketers bearing placards on which Vyacheslav Makarov, speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, was depicted as a demon were detained by police.
Criminal Prosecutions and Other Forms of Coercion
Sergei Mokhnatkin, whose spine was broken in prison, was sentenced to two years in a maximum security penal colony for, allegedly, striking a Federal Penitentiary Service officer.
As for talk of a new Thaw, two Ufa residents, accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, had their suspended sentences changed to four years in a penal colony.
In Stavropol, Kirill Bobro, head of the local branch of Youth Yabloko, was jailed for two months, accused of narcotics possession. Bobro himself claims police planted the drugs on him.
A graduate student at Moscow State University was detained and beaten for flying a Ukrainian flag from the window of his dormitory. In addition, he was forced to sign a paper stating he agreed to be an FSB informant. Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk was detained while trying to interview the graduate student.
What to Read
LGBT activist Dmitry Samoilenko describes how he has been persecuted in Kamchatka for a brochure about the history of gender identity in the Far North. Activist Rafis Kashapov, an activist with the Tatar Social Center, who was convicted for posts on the social networks, sent us a letter about life in a prison hospital.
The Week Ahead (March 26—April 1)
Closing arguments are scheduled for March 27 in the trial of Bolotnaya Square defendant Maxim Panfilov, who has been declared mentally incompetent. Prosecutors will apparently ask the judge to sentence him to compulsory hospitalization.
On March 29, an appeals court is expected to hear the appeal against the verdict of Alexander Belov (Potkin), co-chair of the Russians Ethnopolitical Movement.
Thanks for Your Attention
We continue to raise money for our monitoring group, which collects information on political persecution and takes calls about detentions at protest rallies. Thanks to all of you who have already supported us. You can now make monthly donations to OVD Info here.
Anna Karetnikova: “The worse things are in Russia and the less money there is, the worse things are in the system” OVD Info
October 27, 2016
As promised, OVD Info has published the full version of our interview with Anna Karetnikova, civil rights activist and member of the last three Moscow Commissions for Public Monitoring of Detention Facilities. The term in office of the third Moscow Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) is coming to an end, and by law anyone who has sat on the same commission for three consecutive terms cannot apply to serve on it again. Karetnikova had applied to serve on the Moscow Region PMC, but was not included in the new commission’s lineup. Similar things happened to a large number of civil rights activists who tried to get appointments to PMCs in other parts of Russia.
The interview was conducted shortly before the new lineups of the oversight commissions were made public. In conversation with OVD Info, Karetnikova summed up the work of the Moscow PMC and talked about the Russian penitentiary system’s numerous problems.
What is a PMC?
A PMC is a public monitoring commission of detention facilities. On the basis of Federal Law No. 76, its members are admitted into institutions that have such facilities, from police stations to remand prisons, including temporary detention centers, military prisons, and so on. They see the conditions of detention and can make recommendations on enforcing the law, eliminating violations, and otherwise furthering the legal interests of the persons imprisoned there.
How would you assess the work of the current commission? During your term have you been able to effect changes in the system, in the treatment of inmates, and the way the system interacts with civil rights activists?
I would rate it quite highly. I can speak only about the Moscow PMC. We succeeded in implementing serious reforms in meal services, accountability, and expanding the range of products that can be delivered to inmates in remand prisons. We made definite improvements to the Kaluga Federal Unitary State Enterprise, the [online] prison store or shop where inmates’ relatives can order things for them. We definitely improved the conditions in Women’s Remand Prison No. 6. Unfortunately, among the things that have remained beyond our control and are getting worse, in my opinion, is medical care. The more we try and get on top of it, the worse it gets.
Medical care has remained a fallow field despite the huge effort we made to improve it just a bit. It was like running up the down escalator.
Nothing can be done. I understand the situation with healthcare is the same nationwide, but it is particularly horrible in our remand prisons.
What do you mean by accountability?
Registering complaints. If we are not around, say, the only way an incarcerated inmate can get something is by filing a complaint or petition. We expended a great deal of effort making sure these complaints and petitions were registered normally, because basically they save lives. It can happen that someone asks to see a doctor for six months and submits petitions to this effect, but none of them is registered. Then he dies, and we are sent an official reply that he never requested medical treatment. Continue reading “Anna Karetnikova: Monitoring Moscow’s Prisons”→
Alexei Gaskarov: Many People Ask Whether I Am Going to Take up Politics. But What Politics Are There Nowadays?
Olesya Gerasimenko Snob
November 1, 2016
Anti-fascist Alexei Gaskarov has been released from prison after serving three and a half years in prison for alleged involvement in the Bolotyana Square riot in Moscow in 2012. Snob asked Kommersant special correspondent Olesya Gerasimenko to meet with Gaskarov to discuss the Bolotnaya Square case, life and education in the penal colony, and the death of the protest movement.
“Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they knew no one organized it?”
Was your trial fair?
I regret we agreed to be involved in it. Like Soviet political prisoners, we should have stood with our backs turned and kept our mouths shut, and not treated it as an attempt to get at the truth. I had illusions after Khimki. [In 2010, Gaskarov was arrested and charged with attacking the Khimki town hall during a protest in defense of Khimki Forest, but the court acquitted him. — Snob] Several videos showed clearly that the incidents involving me happened before the riot kicked off, according to police investigators themselves. In the end, I ticked off the evidence, the judge nodded her head, but there was no reaction. The entire trial looked as if the decision had already been made, the sentence written out, and let’s get this over as quickly as possible.
So did you push a policeman and pull a soldier out of the police cordon?
I never denied it from the get-go. A year had passed since the rally on Bolotnaya Square. I was working on an important project. I had a week to go, and it was uncool to have to go to jail. I had to go to work on the Sunday the cops came for me. I had gone to the shop to buy food for the cat, and the whole clown show was waiting outside my building: two jeeps and a van. Young dudes half dressed like boneheads stepped out of the van. I decided they were from BORN [a group of radical right-wing nationalists who carried out a series of murders and assaults — Snob]. I was pondering what moves to make, but they produced their IDs.
Did you feel relieved?
No, just the opposite. I could have run from BORN or done something else. So they detained me and kept mum about what the charges were for a long while. They made me lie face down in the van and the whole works. There were lots of things they could have detained me for. We had been defending the tenants of the Moscow Silk (Mosshyolk) dormitories from eviction and the Tsagov Forest in Zhukovsky from logging by developers. And shortly before my arrest, people who are now serving in the Azov Battalion attempted to assault my wife and me. I tussled with them, and it ended up on camera. So there were different possibilities. I was not thinking about Bolotnaya at all. When it finally became clear why I had been detained, I stared at them. It was total rubbish. I told them I agreed to admit what I had done. We had been walking amid the crowd, when a riot cop attacked this dude. A dogpile ensued, and people pulled them apart. I was accused of pulling a policeman’s leg. The evidence was a poor quality video and a forensic report that concluded it was not me. But I knew it was me. So I told them right away, Guys, let’s do this the right way. But they could not have cared less whether I admitted my guilt or not. It would have been a different story if I had confessed to violating Article 212 of the Criminal Code (organizing a riot) or testified against someone else.
Were you asked?
They didn’t even mention it. Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they know no one had organized it, including from their own wiretaps? They kept the charges to the incident with the leg pulling. Then they found a second incident. A stampede started in front of the police line. People were falling on the ground, and I tugged one policeman by the shoulder to make room. The indictment said I had broken the police line so that everyone could get to the riot. But this line had been at the passage in the other direction.
Did you expect such a sentence?
They had already told me at the Investigative Committee they were going send me down. I said, Well, of course. Later, the Center “E” guys showed up and threatened me with ten years in prison, but I know that could not happen. The rules of the game are still followed, and punishment for a particular crime is usually consistent with ordinary practice.
How do you feel about the case of Udaltsov and his associates?
I have very negative feelings about it, of course. I ran into [Leonid] Razvozzhayev in the pre-trial detention facility, but I wasn’t really able to chat with him, because he was always in very bad shape. Udaltsov and his associates operated like real con men. Before May 6, 2012, they had no clue how the march would go, and there is no mention of sitdown strikes and rushing police lines in the wiretaps. But after everything had happened on Bolotnaya, they began acting in their meetings with Targamadze as if everything had gone according to their plans. Their initial excuse, that they had traveled to Georgia to talk about wine and mineral water, was pure idiocy. Naturally, it is not against the law to have meetings and discuss business. But there is a political ethic that does not let you behave this way. You go meet dudes from the government of another country, a country with whom [your country] recently had a conflict. You ask for money, and you take money. If these meetings had not taken place, the Kremlin would have failed to generate the image of the Bolotnaya Square case that it did. We should not have had to answer for things over which we had no control. The benefits to Udaltsov were personal, but everyone shared the risks.
So you received no money from Givi Targamadze?
Are you kidding? What money?
Who was the anonymous anarchist informer who testifed against you?
I didn’t even find out. I have had nothing to do with them for many years. The guys still have their little movement. Like Tolkien fans, they attend meetings and discuss for hours on end how they should make a revolution. They have been doing this for the last twenty years. It was of no interest to anyone. The FSB sent its people in. They went and had a look at it and said, Well okay, you have a cool club. When Center “E” was established, they went after them big time to push up their arrest stats. All anarchist meetings are open, anyone can come. So they are known to the authorities. The teenager from this scene who went to Bolotnaya and was involved in breaking through police lines was identified in this way. They put the squeeze on him: either we send you down or you tell us what we want to hear. I have no idea why this was necessary, because he just said I was a bad dude and the leader of the anti-fascists and anarchists. But nobody charged me with that.
“The rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm”
Tell me about life in prison. Everyone is interested in that. You know, reveille at six, lights out at ten.
Yeah. As you understand, people who are drug addicts, people going through withdrawal, basically live at night. After lights out, they either smoke or brew chifir [a super strong tea brewed in Russian prisons]. You just set that aside. You have your routine, and basically it is good for you. No one limits the amount of exercise you do: there is a horizontal bar, parallel bars, and a few weights. You are either working or busy with your own things. I got into shape there like I never have before. The point is to come up with as many things to do as possible so you have no spare time at all.
What did you read?
The library there was okay, because everyone who does time gets books and then leaves them behind. They see who has been nominated for the Booker Prize and order their books. It’s not hard to find new releases in prison. I also subscribed to several pro-Kremlin publications, and I read lots of your articles, too. And I read The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. I wanted different viewpoints. Plus, there is a legal video link in there. It is limited to fifteen minutes a day, but in fact nobody keeps track of the time.
Who were your cellmates?
I spent half my sentence in a pre-trial detention facility. The dudes in there had been charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code [purchase, storage, production, and sale of narcotics — Snob]. Their stories were horrible. One group of teenagers had gotten hash in the mail from Holland, and they had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Or there were the dudes who decided to cook amphetamine using a recipe they found on the Internet. They got nineteen years in prison. I was even ashamed to explain what my case was about, because I was surrounded by people facing over ten years in prison. When the trial began, we were kept in Butyrka Prison. They were thieves, crazies, teenagers, street kids, and Dagestanis in there. I also met defendants in the Rosoboronexport case, the APEC Summit case, and the Sochi Olympics case, and I went to the gym with Alexander Emelianenko.
The general population at the penal colony consisted of three hundred men. Eighty percent of them were local dudes from Tula Region who had attacked somebody while drunk, stolen things from dachas, and committed petty robberies. But what is the catch about the general population? That a homeless man who broke into someone else’s dacha to spend the winter got sent down to the penal colony, and his life there is better than on the outside, and he is in the same place as a big-shot businessman who has lost a billion rubles and used to go sailing on his yacht on the outside.
Does this lead to lots of conflicts?
There are lots of conflicts, but the instigator always takes the rap for a fight. That doesn’t mean there are no fights. They are criminals, after all, and they tend to take risks. But the rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm. If you watch TV after lights out, turn down the sound. Don’t drag in dirt. It’s all basic.
Was it easy for you to understand them?
Yeah. In 2010, I was in a pre-trial detention facility with repeat offenders and learned the tricks. And during my early days in the penal colony I read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn’s stories about the prison camps.
Like a set of rules?
Yes. The Center “E” officer who led the investigation in my case told me a lot and advised me what books to read. When I was on the inside, people asked my advice on how to behave.
When you got out you said the main thing had been to maintain contact with reality and your health. How did you maintain your health? Was the food there okay?
Due to the fact that support from the outside was good, I almost never ate in the cafeteria.
But what about hot meals?
There is a microwave there. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) now has taken the approach of not keeping you from improving your living conditions. They need to implement their strategy for improving conditions in the penal colonies, but their budget has been trimmed. When you arrive, everything is crappy. Water is dripping from the ceilings, and there is mold. But they don’t mind if you want to invest your own resources. You write everything up as humanitarian aid, and you get electric kettles and microwaves. We had a projector hanging in our cell for watching films.
Now everyone will want to roll back two years to read books and watch films on a projector.
We also purchased a bunch of armchairs from IKEA. So when the head office comes to make an inspection, they show them how cool everything is in their colony.
I think you wanted to get another degree in prison.
Unfortunately, it turned out the university with which the colony collaborates is just a degree mill that sells them for money. I did something else there. At work, I would often teach the basics of entrepreneurship and planning. There were people doing time in the colony with whom it was interesting to talk, bank chairmen and ministry officials. There was a space, an evening school. I brought around fifty people together and asked the wardens permission to run something like seminars. Everyone had to come up with his own project, and over eight months (my sentence was coming to an end) we would try and whip it into shape, with a business plan as the outcome. At first, they turned me down outright, saying I was in for the Bolotnaya Square case and would lead political discussions. But then there was a change in management at the penal colony, and they met us halfway. It was like a little piece of the outside world.
Generally, of course, the colony’s disciplinary and educational function has been tapped out. There are no resources. The majority of guys in there do not have the most basic skills. They cannot write a letter, but there is no one there at all to educate them. There is this option of watching films on the weekends. They show this rubbish, total nonsense. I went to the wardens and said, Let’s make a selection of good films; we can watch ordinary films in our cells. But they could not even decide to do that. They get their action plans from the head office, where the theorists work. They say, Let’s hold a sports day, even though athletic clothing is prohibited in the general population.
“They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns”
While you were away, the Khimki Forest was cut down. The Moscow Silk tenants were evicted. Anti-fascists fell out over Ukraine. Many of the people who rallied on Bolotnaya have emigrated. When you all; were being arrested one by one, everyone said it would be the case of the century, that everyone would close ranks because of you and for your sake, but ultimately you have got out of prison, the Bolotnaya Square case is still underway, and there is no longer any interest in it. Maybe you went to prison for nothing?
What does that mean, “nothing”? I had no choice. It’s good that the anti-fascist thing is no longer on the front burner. Nowadays, there are no more clashes with neo-Nazis, who were killing people in the early 2000s. Back then, they really needed a counterweight. Our job was to point out the problem and make things decent on the streets. We succeeded in doing this. But the anti-fascist movement cannot defeat xenophobia in society.
What do you think about the split among anti-fascists, that one group went to Kiev, while the other went to Donbass? They were at each other’s throats.
I always assumed that very different people joined the anti-fascist movement, and that was fine. There were aspects that just did not make sense to me. For example, why were European leftists strutting their stuff in Donbass? It looks as if they were totally conned.
As for Bolotnaya, choosing to be involved in this movement was fraught with risks. If we draw an analogy with Ukraine (although many people don’t like to do this), I don’t think that if the events on Bolotnaya had gone further those people would have balked at shooting the crowd. A bunch of people were killed in Kiev, while here in Moscow we were supposed to be scared off by prison sentences. They randomly picked a group of people and put them in prison. The rationale is clear. Whoever you are, if you oppose the tsar, you will suffer. How can we respond to this? We have to debunk the myth that such crackdowns are effective.
But that is what happened. Everyone really was afraid of being hit once with a truncheon, to say nothing of prison. Many members of the opposition have said the fight against the regime is not a worth a centimeter of their personal comfort. You are practically the only who does not think this way. Don’t you feel lonely?
Most people haven’t been to prison, and they really imagine it is the end of world. If I go to prison, I can kiss my life goodbye, they think. I just dealt with it more or less normally. But this is how I see it. When the authorities crack down on dissent, people lower their level of activism. They lose the desire to invest themselves in something. Ultimately, the system falls apart, rather than becoming more stable, as the authorities imagine. The country becomes less competitive. In prison, I saw many people who were doing time for economic crimes, and they all said approximately the same thing. People who have satisfied their material needs develop political demands, and that is fine. Everyone wants to be involved in changing things. When this desire for change is blocked, they are blocking the segment of society that generates the most added value. They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns. Especially because the system is not as terrible as it makes itself out to be.
But people need to remain minimally active. It is too bad that many people have chosen the passive way. I have just got out, and it really seems to me that a lot has changed, even in Moscow itself. Although, theoretically, I saw it all ten years ago, only in Europe. We can live this way a long time. Hence the complexity of the political arguments around Bolotnaya. Given the resources we have have, we could live better, but the way things are also suits lots of people. In this case, the system can survive for a long while. We should not get involved in direct confrontations. This was clear to me on Bolotnaya Square as well. We wanted to get the hell out of there, because it was obvious the sitdown strikes and so on were just what the authorities wanted. But there are other ways of doing things. We don’t have to limit ourselves to demonstrations and rallies.
There are the demands made at Bolotnaya—fair elections and the transfer of power—but there is the option of engaging in specific targeted campaigns in order to develop one’s ideas under the existing regime.
You mean the theory of small deeds?
Among other things. For example, I read that many Bolotnaya activists have gone into charity work. In fact, that is not so bad. What matters is maintaining the energy. Or there is the successful fight against corruption, all those publications that impact the system, whatever you say. Or there are people in the leftist milieu who think there should be progressive taxation: they can also advance their arguments. Or form an anti-war movement given all the conflicts underway.
In prison, I realized how strongly the regime affects people’s brains. There are people who show up there who are not inclined to heavy discussions. Real peasants. All the myths that exist are in their heads. But when you are around them, you don’t even have to argue. Even the most impenetrable guys would change their minds just as a result of conversation. So any work aimed at disseminating information and minimal education is vital.
What did you change their minds about?
A variety of things, including their overall attitude to the opposition. In the beginning, it was even convenient for me, like there were only drug addicts at Bolotnaya, that they all had gone there to score heroin, and everybody would leave me alone [after I would say that]. But over time people see what you read, what films you watch on the Culture channel, that you can help draft a court appeal, and they understand you are not an idiot and would not have gone to a protest rally for a dose of heroin. There were lots of conflicts over Ukraine, especially because there were many people doing time who had managed to fight in Donbas, come back to Russia, and get sent to prison.
Disorderly conduct, theft, and armed robbery. They were typical soldiers of fortune. We even managed to talk about this most difficult issue and iron out our differences.
Is Crimea ours?
I have a simple position on this issue. People went out on the Maidan because they did not like the current regime. I think what happened to Crimea was Putin’s attempt to punish them for this. The Ukrainian people made their choice, Putin didn’t like it, and [Russia] acted like the interventionists during the Russian Civil War. It is not a matter of what the inhabitants of Crimea wanted. It was an action directed against all the values we tried to defend on Bolotnaya.
So it’s not ours?
I consider it a real violation of international law. It was unethical and wrong. Clearly they did this to stick an example in everyone’s face: see what protests have done to the country. But I don’t have an opinion about what should happen next.
To return it or not?
Well yes. Because it is clear that most people who live there want to be part of Russia.
You went to prison in one country, but came out of prison in another country. What was it like finding out on the news about the historic events that were happening on the outside? Did you feel sorry you were observing them from afar? Or, on the contrary, was it easier?
To be honest, the latter. It was often difficult to make up my mind. For example, when refugees left Ukraine en masse, they would come work in the penal colony. You communicate with them and realize there is ideology, and then there are people’s stories, and it was hard to make up one’s mind. I actually thought it was cool this was going on in the background.
What is your work situation? What are you planning to do?
Of course, I would like to do the work I was educated to do, as a financial systems analyst, as it says in my diploma. My old job did not survive the crisis. I will have problems, of course. I have even asked acquaintances at several companies, but I was told no way, especially in offices that work on state commissions or state projects. So things are rough. I will have to start everything from scratch. But I am sure that the fourteen percent have some businesses. [Gaskarov has in mind VTsIOM’s polling data, showing that 86% of Russians support Putin — Snob.]
Earning money is my priority now. Many people have asked me whether I am going to take up politics. Everyone has so many expectations, but what politics are there nowadays? It is impossible to be involved in politics without having your own resources. Of course, I say you shouldn’t be afraid of prison, but it is a serious setback all the same: three and a half years. A lot of missed opportunities and a backlog of problems.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up
Bolotnaya Square Defendant Alexei Gaskarov Released from Prison
Ekaterina Fomina Novaya Gazeta
October 27, 2016
Alexei Gaskarov was released from Penal Colony No. 6 in Novomoskovsk today. He had served his entire sentence: three and a half years in a medium-security penal colony. Gaskarov was twice denied parole.
“I don’t think it was possible to change anything under these circumstances. I said at the trial that if our way runs through prison, we have to go. Personally, everyone who went to prison lost a lot. But if you compare that with the public interest, someone had to go through it, someone had to have this piece of ‘good’ luck,” Gaskarov said after his release.
“The risks are clear, but I don’t think there is an alternative. I don’t think that the path, the values that were professed on Bolotnaya Square can be put on the back burner. Yes, these are complicated times, and we have to wait them out somewhere, but I don’t think you can impact this vector by intimidating people. When I was in prison I read about a hundred history books. Everyone had to go through this. We are just at this stage,” he added.
“The point of my attitude is this: don’t be afraid, guys. Our little undertakings will merge into a river that will lead us to the right path. Prison is not the end of life,” Gaskarov concluded.
Gaskarov was accused of involvement in “rioting” and being violent towards police officers. However, Gaskarov claimed he had himself been assaulted on Bolotnaya Square. During the mass arrests, an unidentified policeman pushed him to the ground, beat him with his truncheon, and kicked him.
In October, citing a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the arrest and imprisonment of Bolotnaya Square defendants Ilya Gushchin and Artyom Savyolov had been illegal. Earlier, in June, after a complaint had been filed with the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court declared the arrest of Leonid Kovyazin, a defendant in the same case, illegal.
Anarchist Dmitry Buchenkov awaits trial in a pre-trial detention facility. According to police investigators, he was violient toward lawful authorities and “tried to destroy a portapotty.” Buchenkov himself claims he was not in Moscow during the so-called March of the Millions.
Maxim Panfilov is also awaiting trial. He was charged four years after the opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow—in April 2016. He is the thirty-sixth defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case. In October, Panfilov was declared mentally incompetent.
They Got Out of Their Tractors
Why the so-called common people are increasingly joining the ranks of the so-called fifth column Gazeta.ru
August 29, 2016
The arrest of the people involved in the tractor convoy, as well as new protest rallies in Togliatti after Nikolai Merkushin, governor of Samara Region announced wage arrears would “never” be paid off, are vivid examples of the top brass’s new style of communicating with people. After flirting only four or five years ago with the common people, as opposed to the creacles from the so-called fifth column, the authorities have, in the midst of a crisis, been less and less likely to pretend they care about the needs of rank-and-file Russians. Moreover, any reminders of problems at the bottom provokes irritation and an increasingly repressive reaction at the top.
Previously, top officials, especially in the run-up to elections, preferred to mollify discontent at the local level by promising people something, and from year to year, the president would even personally solve people’s specific problems, both during his televised town hall meetings (during which, for example, he dealt with problems ranging from the water supply in a Stavropol village to the payment of wages to workers at a fish factory on Shikotan) and during personal visits, as was the case in Pikalyovo, where chemical plant workers also blocked a federal highway. Nowadays, on the contrary, the authorities have seemingly stopped pretending that helping the common people is a priority for them.
The people have made no political demands in these cases. Moreover, the main players in these stories almost certainly belong to the hypothetical loyal majority.
The people who took part in the tractor convoy against forcible land seizures even adopted the name Polite Farmers, apparently by analogy with the patriotic meme “polite people,” which gained popularity in Russia after the annexation of Crimea.
In 2011–2012, the authorities used approximately the same people to intimidate street protesters sporting political slogans. That was when the whole country heard of Uralvagonzavod, a tank manufacturer whose workers promised to travel to Moscow to teach the creacles a lesson. Subsequently, the company’s head engineer, Igor Kholmanskih, was unexpectedly appointed presidential envoy to the Urals Federal Distrtict.
Back then, the cultivation of a political standoff between working people from the provinces and slackers, “State Department agents,” and self-indulgent intellectuals from the capitals seemed pivotal, but in the aftermath of Crimea and a protracted crisis, it has almost been nullified.
The people are still important for generating good ratings [via wildly dubious opinion polls — TRR], but it would seem that even rhetorically they have ceased to be an object of unconditional concern on the part of the government.
Nowadays, the authorities regard the requests and especially the demands of the so-called common people nearly as harshly as they once treated the Bolotnaya Square protests.
The government does not have the money to placate the common people, so people have to be forced to love the leadership unselfishly, in the name of stability and the supreme interests of the state. Since politics has finally defeated the economy in Russia, instead of getting down to brass tacks and solving problems with employment and wage arrears, the regime generously feeds people stories about war with the West. During a war, it quite unpatriotic to demand payment of back wages or ask for pension increase. Only internal enemies would behave this way.
“We are not slaves!” Coal Miners on Hunger Strike in Gukovo. Published on August 25, 2016, by Novaya Gazeta. Miners in Gukovo have refused a “handout” from the governor of Rostov Region and continued their hunger strike over unpaid wages. Video by Elena Kostyuchenko. Edited by Gleb Limansky.
So the coal miners in Rostov, who have continued their hunger strike under the slogan “We are not slaves,” have suddenly proven to be enemies, along with the farmers of Krasnodar, who wanted to tell the president about forcible land seizures, and the activists defending Torfyanka Park in Moscow, who were detained in the early hours of Monday morning for, allegedly, attempting to break Orthodox crosses, and the people defending the capital’s Dubki Park, slated for redevelopment despite the opinion of local residents, and the people who protested against the extortionate Plato system for calculating the mileage tolls paid by truckers, and just about anyone who is unhappy with something and plans to make the authorities aware of their dissatisfaction.
Grassroots initiatives, especially if they involve protests against the actions or inaction of the authorities, are not only unwelcome now, but are regarded as downright dangerous, almost as actions against the state. This hypothesis is borne out by the silence of the parliamentary opposition parties. In the midst of an election campaign, they have not even attempted to channel popular discontent in certain regions and make it work to their advantage at the ballot box.
The distinction between the so-called fifth column and the other four has blurred.
Nowadays, the fifth column can be a woman who asks a governor about back wages. Someone who defends a city park. Farmers. Coal miners. Even the workers of Uralvagonzavod, which in recent years has been on the verge of bankruptcy. The contracts the state had been throwing the company’s way have not helped, apparently.
If the authorities, especially local authorities simply afraid to show federal authorities they are incapable of coping with problems, continue to operate only through a policy of intimidation, they might soon be the fifth column themselves, if only because, sooner or later, they will find themselves in the minority.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up
A surprisingly frank and dead-on editorial from Gazeta.ru, who usually have not struck me as wild-eyed radicals, about how the Russian authorities have increasingly come to behave as if nearly the entire Russian population, including the so-called common people, is a gigantic fifth column arrayed against them.
The reason they have sunk into this black pit of reaction is that the current regime is simply incapable of solving the country’s numerous political, social, and economic crises, because it has directly or indirectly generated nearly all of them, including the utter lawlessness in Krasnodar Territory that was finally too much for a group of farmers who climbed into their tractors and set out for Moscow several days ago. But because even allegedly simple farmers can become a fifth column as soon as they draw attention to their sorry plight and the role of the authorities in it, they got only as far the neighboring Rostov Region on their tractors before the police shut them down.
This editorial is also valuable for its catalogue of similar conflicts, most of which you probably have never heard of because they are not well covered or covered at all by the western press and only marginally better by Russian print and online media. Russian mainstream TV outlets mainly avoid them altogether, as do most of the opposition parties currently contending for seats in the Russian State Duma and regional legislatures, as the editorialists point out.
So the hunger-striking miners in Gukov and their wives are left to their own devices when dealing with their creepy regional governor, no doubt a KGB vet, who all but accuses them of acting on behalf of the CIA, although they just want to get paid for their hard, thankless work.
The only grain of salt one should chew while reading this editorial is the fact that these local grassroots campaigns have been going in rather large numbers across Russia throughout Putin’s 17-year reign. And in many cases the altogether uncommon common people who fought these battles were fifth-columnized (through beatings, murders, and jail time) as badly as the current grassroots campaigners mentioned by the editorialists. During the fat years of the noughties, however, times were much better economically in the Russian capitals for a lot of people than they had been just a few years earlier, so they preferred not to notice too hard what was going on in their midst, much less some part of their country they would never dream of visiting even.
The Putinist state has been waging a cold civil war against the people of Russia for seventeen years whether the media has noticed it or not. But a lot of the common people have noticed. TRR
On the one hand, after Bolotnaya Square, it was no surprise. On the other hand, we have never believed what we do is political activity.
Some Ph.D. in philosophy did the forensic examination on us for the Justice Ministry. I won’t repeat the stupid things he wrote. We have gone through four court trials. Recently, the Supreme Court reimbursed one of the fines we had to pay, in the amount of 300,000 rubles.
We were labeled a foreign agent, allegedly, for making recommendations on how to improve the work of magistrates, doing research on the political preferences of trade unions, and advertising a book (which we didn’t publish) on political movements in Russia.
Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.
What has changed in your work since you were declared a foreign agent?
Four times a year, instead of once a year, we write a financial disclosure report. We have to hire a specialist to help us write it. Any violation results in an “irredeemable” fine of 300,000 rubles from the Justice Ministry. But we don’t know we violated.
The Women of the Don Foundation, which deals with gender issues in the North Caucasus, has suffered because of us. It was declared a foreign agent only because we sent them 10,000 rubles out of a sense of professional solidarity, to help them pay a fine. Now we are trying to explain to the authorities the money was Russian in origin.
We cannot work with state universities and officials. We cannot do fieldwork in schools, hospitals, etc. Business is afraid to help us; it is afraid of reprisals. As for the populace, when people find out who we are, they are immediately put on their guard, and the conversation becomes stiff.
I once got a call from a major public radio station. They told me they were putting me on the air in two hours. I warned them that CISR was a foreign agent. They said it was not a problem. Half an hour later, a young woman called me and said her bosses had decided not to trouble me: they needed a cultural studies person, not a sociologist. All electronic media are now closed to us.
Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.
According to one part of the new definition, all sociological research is classified as political activity, while another part claims that scientific and scholarly research is not political activity. So sociology is no longer scientific and scholarly research.
So how do you do your work nowadays?
For example, we have been researching temporary сohabitation among migrant workers. They support each other while having families back home. Such research requires so-called participant observation. First, you help the migrant worker out. You take him or her to the doctor, get their kid into a kindergarten, and invite them over to your place. Only then will they tell you what they really think about the world they live in. It might take years to get to that point. Whose agent you are, in this case, matters not a whit.
As for working with officials and civil servants, now everything is based on off-the-record interviews.
Initially, when you opened in 1991, did you work with the state? Whose agents were you then?
We were the agents of Boris Yeltsin and his folk. We were interested in working on topics relevant to the country: grassroots movements, Russian nationalism, the new gender studies. A social revolution was underway, and values were being revised.
Did you get money from the government?
We would sometimes participate in grant competitions and get a few crumbs. The times allowed for completing the research were paltry, and the financial reporting was complicated. But we were not fundamentally opposed to taking money from the government. That became a hard and fast principle sometime in the early 2000s.
We ran up against corruption, against demands for kickbacks and rigged outcomes. The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] would send us invitations to grant competitions, but we quickly realized they had already picked the winners. Or they would ask us to do research on topics like “The Danger from Muslim Migrant Workers in Petersburg.” But we are researchers and don’t do appraisals. We are interested in how migrant workers integrate, in the issue of xenophobia. We gave up on public financing.
What is the size of the usual private grant, and how much time does a study take?
No less than a year or two, often as many as three years. The budget for a study of this sort comes to about three million rubles or more.
Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?
The foreign foundations set only one: the research has to be academic research, serious scholarship involving participant observation, and not just getting people to fill out surveys and quickly summarizing the results. By the way, I should note that [only] one out of fifty sociology department graduates goes on to become a serious researcher.
Russian foundations require self-censorship. We did work in Tatarstan: the republic’s president must not be disturbed by the research outcomes. We agreed to censor ourselves. We were interested in finding out why young people were leaving Tatarstan.
And why are they leaving?
It’s a nationwide problem: ours is an avuncular society. If you are outside this circle, you won’t get a good education and you will not be able to set up your own business. All this is highly developed in Tatarstan. There are confessional issues within Islam to boot. Given the circumstances, young people leave the republic or join “extremists.” We recommended an amnesty for certain religious groups that do not call for violence.
We had just finished this study when we were declared a foreign agent.
How have the foundations themselves reacted to your foreign agent status?
Some foundations, even ones with whom were on very good terms, have parted ways with us. They are afraid of being put on the list of undesirable organizations that will be cut off from all official contacts with Russia.
On the other hand, we have received offers of assistance from foundations we had never heard of before. That has been nice.
Why do western foundations finance academic research?
The conscience of the capitalists has awoken or they are unhappy with their own offspring.
What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?
It’s a pity people have stopped reading. But this is a socialist value. Under capitalism, in new technological circumstances, it could not have survived.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR
The other day, a friend of mine who works with kids complained to me that kids in Russia had no real heroes. Like kids most everywhere, they are in love with the wretched, hyper-commercialized Spider-Man and Harry Potter, not with homegrown heroes.
It might be a bit of a reach (because how do you explain this stuff to kids?), but from where I sit there are lots of heroes in modern Russia. Prominent among them are all the people convicted as part of the shameful sham known as the Bolotnaya Square case.
One of those heroes is Sergei Krivov, recently released after serving over four years in prison for the nonexistent crimes of being beaten over the head with a truncheon by a policeman and attempting nonviolently to prevent policemen from doing the same to other peaceable demonstrators in Moscow on May 6, 2012.
In the country I would like to live in, I would go outside and see dozens of people wearing t-shirts with Krivov’s totally ordinary but heroic face emblazoned on them. Krivov’s birthday would be a minor holiday, celebrated with a rousing march down every town’s main thoroughfare, followed by hearty little picnics, to celebrate the fact that Krivov undertook two hunger strikes, nearly dying in the attempt, in order to defend the freedom of speech and assembly in Russia.
Needless to say, Krivov’s would be a household name. Kids would read comics about the adventures of Sergei Krivov, where the hard facts would be mixed with a light helping of fantasy to make them more palatable to childish fancy.
If you have never heard of Sergei Krivov or don’t understand why he is a modern-day Russian hero, you need to read this interview with him. TRR
“It Is Not Recommended to Live in This Country”
Natalia Dzhanpoladova and Nikita Tatarsky Radio Svoboda
July 26, 2016
Yet another person convicted in the so-called Bolotnaya Square case, Sergei Krivov, a 54-year-old with a Ph.D. in physics and mathematics, has been released. Krivov was released from a prison colony in Bryansk Region, having served his sentence in full. In 2014, a court found him guilty of involvement in rioting and using force against police officers during a May 6, 2012, opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow.
Krivov received one of the harshest sentences in the case, three years and nine months imprisonment.
His allies explained this was because the authorities avenged Krivov for the uncompromising stand he had taken throughout the trial. Krivov went on two lengthy hunger strikes. The first, to protest his arrest, lasted over forty days. During the second, he did not eat for sixty days in order to secure transcripts of the court proceedings. Krivov suffered two heart attacks during the second hunger strike.
Krivov was arrested as part of the Bolotnaya Square investigation several months after the events, in October 2012. According to police investigators, on May 6, 2012, when the crowd broke through police lines, Krivov seized a rubber truncheon from a policeman and used it to deliver several blows to police officers. Krivov himself repeatedly claimed he had been beaten by police on Bolotnaya Square, but the Investigative Committee refused to investigate his complaint.
Krivov served his sentence in two penal colonies in Bryansk Region, first at a correctional facility in Starodub. He was then transferred to a penal colony in Klintsy. The wardens put him in solitary, because they felt his life was in danger.
In an interview with Radio Svoboda, Kriov admitted his sentence might have been shorter had he “kept [his] mouth shut.” He spoke in detail about the reasons for his uncompromising stance, what happened on Bolotnaya Square, and how much Russia has changed since 2012.
The changes have been quite huge, and for the worse, although I still cannot say I have figured out what is what. I had been gradually following these changes by watching TV and reading Novaya Gazeta newspaper and New Times magazine, so they did not happen all at once for me and were not news. Nevertheless, I am perfectly aware the country as it was in 2012 and the country as it is in 2016 are two fundamentally different countries. There are far fewer freedoms, naturally, and It is nearly impossible to do anything within this framework.
Do you feel you have changed over these years?
In fact, after I got out, changed my clothes, and bathed, I had the feeling everything was as it had been. Although I did have big problems during the middle of my sentence: lots of things happened. But when it is all behind me, when I have come back to the “free” world, I cannot say I have changed. I think I am the same person I was.
Have you managed to meet with friends and relatives since your release? What are your impressions from these meetings and conversations?
Of course I have managed to meet with them. Let me put it is this way: almost no has chewed me out, except my wife, of course. In general, the feelings have been positive, because everyone has been friendly. They all congratulate me and wish me the best.
Naturally, anyone would find this pleasant. I want to say thank you to all the people who wrote me letters, held pickets, and collected money through the Internet, and to the leaders of the PARNAS Party, who paid my lawyers and sent me care packages: Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Ilya Yashin. In addition, Lyudmila Alexeyeva was involved. Despite her age, she attended the court hearings. A big thank-you to everyone for their support.
Last Wednesday, you also met with activists in Sokolniki Park. You mentioned you had no hope of being paroled. [In March, the court turned down Krivov’s parole application — Radio Svoboda.] Did you pin any hopes on the court in this case, that is, the trial court that heard the Bolotnaya Square case?
No. We had no chance from the get-go. What would have been the point of cooking all this up and then releasing us later? Obviously, the authorities conceived a quite definite plan, and they have been carrying it out. From my point of view, there was no reason to change anything, and nothing changed. I had been detained on misdemeanor charges several times., and I knew perfectly well how such matters were decided. There were no doubts in this case.
And yet your tactics in court were quite different from those of the other fellows. You were one of the most active participants in all the court proceedings.
Yes, I was, because I felt it could not make things any worse. That is how it happened, if you look at the sentences handed down. Naturally, my sentence would have been shorter if I had kept my mouth shut. But here, you know, six months more, six months less do not matter. Naturally, we had to defend ourselves to the hilt. After all, we did not take to the streets only to snitch on the protest movement, to put it crudely. We did not do what we did to make the court rule in our favor. It was a continuation of the protest. Pavlensky said it: court is a continuation of my protest action. For me, it was simply a continuation of the opposition’s fight. It can happen anywhere: in court, outside of court, on Bolotnaya, away from Bolotnaya. It is like a way of thinking. It is as Solzhenitsyn put it: “Not living a lie.” Every single moment you do what you think is right. The situation changes, but the individual does not change in the situation.
Were your fairly long, serious hunger strikes also a continuation of this same story?
What prompted you to do it? Do you remember what you felt when you decided there were no other methods left?
During both hunger strikes, I was perfectly aware my demands would not be met. I got carried away with the second hunger strike: let’s put it that way. But retreating? Chapayev never retreated. So the only way was forward. The main objective was to attract attention, to shake up the situation somehow. Because getting results, especially in the first case, when it was a matter of custody measures, was totally unrealistic. All I was charged with (not what I did, but what I was charged with) was causing the bruise on the back of the hand of a policeman who in fact assaulted me. The policeman’s name is Alexander Ivanovich Algunov. He completely flagrantly hit me over the head with a truncheon. I had three lumps on my head, one of which clearly visible on my temple. It was both videotaped and photographed. And there were eyewitnesses who saw everything.
But when it was matter of conducting a judicial review or investigatining this conflict… The bruise I allegedly caused the policeman was investigated by the Investigative Committee of Russia, meaning the country’s top investigative body. But what he did to me (and they believe that these actions took place at the same time) has been investigated by another committee. When I filed a written complaint against the officer, the case was not just dropped down to the municipal level, but to a neighborhood precinct, where an investigator wrote there was nothing to investigate. The bruise on the policeman’s hand was investigated by the Investigative Committee of Russia, while beating a person with a truncheon was investigated by a completely different division, the lowest on the totem pole, and it said there was nothing to investigate. I am simply a victim in the Bolotnaya Square case. But I was really visible in the video footage. I was in a confrontation with a policeman who was assaulting me. I grabbed the truncheon with which he was beating me, because at one point I nearly fainted. He hit me so hard on the head it felt like I had been hit with a sharp nail, not a truncheon.
You were not the only victim on Bolotnaya Square, and yet the authorities investigated these incidents so unfairly. How do you explain this?
In the trial documents, for example, there is this bit of evidence. There were two ambulance crews on duty on Bolotnaya Square. They kept a record of injuries in which they wrote down the names and addresses of everyone whom they examined. As far as I remember, there are forty-eight civilians in this list, who suffered something like seventeen concussions and thirteen head injuries and injuries to the soft part of the skull, meaning they had mainly been beaten on the head. There were three policemen who sought medical attention on the square. Of the forty-eight civilians, only two people were deemed injured parties by the authorities. One was hit in the back with a stone, while the other person’s trousers caught fire, and he suffered burns on his leg from a Molotov cocktail. We do not know who threw the bottle or the stone. The authorities assume it was the protesters, so only two individuals were deemed victims. The rest were not recognized as victims, because these forty-six individuals were victims of the police. Who the heck is going to investigate injuries caused by the police? That is not how things are done.
The public commission who investigated the events on Bolotnaya Square came to the conclusion it was the Moscow authorities and police who provoked the confrontation? Do you share this point of view?
I also came to the same conclusion. Only I think it was not the Moscow authorities, but the federal authorities [who provoked the conflict]. Moscow, in this case, did not have the authority to decide these questions. There were provocateurs there. I saw a man in a mask step forward, chunks of asphalt in both hands. At the time, I wondered what was so black, because I was looking into the light. At first, I thought he was throwing black earth, because the asphalt everywhere was so clean. This guy stepped forward and tossed one stone. Then he shifted a second stone [to his throwing hand] and threw the second stone. A policeman was standing there. I was standing there looking back and forth between the two. Either I should have said, “Why are you tossing stones?” or I should have gone up to the policeman and said, “Why are you just standing and watching?” The policeman saw what he did, and then turned around and walked away. The police were completely uninterested in the people who were actually throwing stones, just as the people throwing the stones knew the police were not going to do anything to them.
Yes, and the most interesting thing is the authorities alleged the protesters shouted things about attacking the Kremlin and Red Square, and overthrowing someone. I was there. I heard no such cries. There are twenty-six hours of video footage in the case file. There are no such appeals in that footage. When the police cordon fell apart, people did not run to the bridge. This is clearly visible in the footage. People who were squeezed out of the crowd ran ten or fifteen meters away, because there was a crowd behind them and the danger of being crushed. Then, at a leisurely place, these people fixed their clothes or tied their shoelaces or something, and headed towards the square. This, too, is visible in the footage. Yet the investigators continue to claim, and the courts have not refuted it, but take it as a proven fact, that people were shouting to run across the bridge somewhere and were, allegedly, trying to escape.
So it transpires the whole thing was a planned provocation. How do you explain it? What goals was the regime pursuing via this case? Has it achieved them?
It was the first [opposition] rally after the elections. All the major protest rallies had taken place between the December [parliamentary] elections and the March [presidential] election. May 6, 2012, was the eve of the presidential inauguration: the regime no longer had anything to fear. If they had used force before the elections, naturally, it could have turned against them. But there was nothing to fear after the elections, so they were going to put the heat on people and arrest them. This was followed by the adoption of a series of repressive laws and amendments to the laws on elections, and pickets and demonstrations, not to mention the fact they introduced Criminal Code Article 212.1, which they used to put away [Ildar] Dadin.
You were not detained immediately after the events of May, but around five months later. Did you follow what was happening to the guys who were arrested first? Were you afraid you might become a defendant in the case?
Of course, I followed what was happening. I went and picketed outside the Investigative Committee building. I had this routine: one evening at home with the family, the next evening I would go picketing, and so on. At first, I did not take it very seriously. Why did they take so long to arrest me? First, they checked out everyone who had been detained on Bolotnaya. Despite the fact I had been detained, there was no arrest sheet on me; I had refused to sign some of the pages. They tossed out my arrest documents, and so it turned out I had not been detained. So, apparently, this was the reason it took so long to track me down. But the problem was that I was all over the footage. Despite the fact I inflicted no blows—I would like to emphasize I inflicted no blows, and I am absolutely certain I caused no physical pain to any policeman—I did try and prevent them from assaulting other people. I used my hands to restrain the police. Afterwards, when I found footage of myself on the Internet, I thought to myself: yeah, that was me in action. My emotional sense was that I had prevented beatings without resorting to violence. But when I watched the videos, I did think I had reasons to be worried. But I decided what was the point of worrying now? I should have thought about it then.
Four years have passed, but the authorities are still prosecuting people [as part of the Bolotnaya Square case], people whose cases have not even gone to trial, for example, Dmitry Buchenkov and Maxim Panfilov. Do you think this will go on for a long time?
No, I don’t think it will go on for long. They are just running on momentum. The case is not so interesting nowadays. There are many new, interesting articles [that have been added to the Criminal Code]. The authorities can charge people to their heart’s content: for slander, for incitement to hatred. The amended laws have now given them such possibilities they can put away any person who says anything the least bit negative or critical.
Basically, the alternatives are this: either just one opposition party will be seated in the parliament or it won’t. There are also the single-mandate districts, which also helps. A party might not get its list into parliament, but someone can get into the Duma by winning a single-mandate district. I have read that [Alexei] Navalny is inclined to boycott the elections. I understand his resentment: his party was not registered, and he himself was not admitted as a candidate. But there are other parties besides his, and they are also opposition parties. I think all fourteen percent [of Russians who, according to the country’s extremely problematic opinion polls, disapprove of President Putin’s performance] definitely have to go and vote. Anyone who can do it should be an election observer, because it is not enough just to go and vote; we also have to monitor the vote. In the current circumstances, the authorities just cannot do without electoral fraud. Maybe we have few opportunities to stop the fraud, but we have to record the incidents and talk about them. Of course, it is very unpleasant the Democratic Coalition was not able to pull it together, but the law is such that for this to happen, people would have had to join another party. Unforunately, the majority was unwilling to do this. I think they should have come to an agreement whatever the conditions, but they didn’t.
As I understand it, this is part of the old conversation about attempts to unite democratic forces, which have been going on since the 1990s.
First, the law is wrong, because it does not allow electoral coalitions. Second, in my opinion, there should be no minimum barrier [for being seated in the Duma] at all. Democracy is a regime in which decisions are taken by the majority, but the problem is the majority is quite often mistaken. For example, on the stock exchange, the majority always lets the big money get away. The minority turns out to be on the money. The majority differs from minorities in the sense that there is one majority, but there can be two, three, four, five minorities, and so on. The minority has to be allowed to speak its mind, and then, perhaps, the majority will reorient itself. So there should be no barriers. The only barrier should be each physical person. The current laws, naturally, are designed to monopolize power, which is convenient to those currently in power. So they have no need of any competitors. Competitors are harassed, persecuted, and forced off the road.
As far as I know, you were educated as a physicist and worked in science for a long time. How did it happen that you switched from science to grassroots activism and began following political events? What prompted you to do this?
A profession is a profession, but one’s own opinion is something else. I first served as an elections observer in 1989. I was still working at MEPhI (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute) then. One thing did not interfere with the other, and it even helped. I left science, because salaries in the field had completely dried up, and I completely lost interest in what I was working on at the time. There was no future in it. In 1989, I was a member of an election commission for the first time. I went and found the election commission myself. It was perestroika. People had serious doubts and asked what perestroika was all about. They said perestroika would rearrange everything, but everything would be the same, [the Soviet Communist Party] would again get 99.9% of the vote, and so on. Those were the first actual elections, when Sakharov was elected [to the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies].
What pleasantly surprised me was that there was no electoral fraud at all. In the evening, MEPhI’s Communist Party organizer came to check out the polling station, to see how we were doing. I tensed up, thinking that now they would come up with something. Nothing of the sort! I kept my eyes peeled. Everything was clean. But in 2011, when I also worked as an observer, everything was dirty, beyond dirty. It so dirty that, for example, there was an old woman, an observer from United Russia, working at our polling station. She did not get up to any tricks herself, but she would come up to us and say, “What is she doing?! Imagine the insolence!” She was referring to the woman who chaired our election commission. The old woman was indignant, her blood was boiling, but it did not go beyond that. She was already quite old, but [the electoral fraud] itself was too much for her. I was very glad a United Russia party member was outraged by our chairwoman’s behavior.
During the four years you spent in custody, how hard was it to get information about what was happening in Russia? How did you find out about events? What events during this time amazed you the most?
I was given subscriptions to Novaya Gazeta and New Times, although they only started to come regularly when I was in the penal colony. I would read these periodicals and try and watch the news. In some places, this was easier; in some places, harder. For example, the last three months, I was basically without TV, because the guys did not want to watch any news. They would turn on MUZ-TV, which would be spinning a popular music video for the hundredth time. I could not stand to listen to it. But the TV, as you know, is a biased source of information. As for events, of course, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Incidentally, there were lots of Ukrainians in the penal colony, because the border is nearby. There was a guy in there who was himself from Russia, but his wife was from over there: he had got married in Ukraine. There was fighting in Kramatorsk. I asked him, “When were you there last?” He said, “Five years ago. Everything there was fine.” “Are Russians harassed there?” I asked. “Are you kidding?” he said, “Everyone lived in perfect peace. There were no problems at all.” Meaning no one discriminated against anyone, neither Russians nor Ukrainians. Where did this all come from? Why does the TV tell us that certain people are in danger there, that there is hostility? Russian TV has been kindling hostility between two sister nations. You cannot just go to war for their “bright future,” if everything in their country is okay. They have to say that everything there is bad.
You served your sentence in two penal colonies. Is it true that there are totally different rules depending on the colony?
The rules are different. That is why they say there are “red” colonies and “black” colonies. But those are the extremes, as it were, because the spectrum is continuous. The penal code is one thing, the laws are another, and if they were all obeyed, then it would make no difference where you did your time, but in reality the differences are fundamental. There is constant trench warfare between the convicts and the wardens over wrestling themselves more rights or forbidding more things. Figuratively speaking, for example, in one colony, the convicts march in formation, while in another they don’t. Even on this primitive level, marching in formation or not, there is constant conflict. The convicts try not to march in formation, while the wardens try to force them to march. It turns out different in every colony. And that applies to everything else.
Considering you were convicted as part of the Bolotnaya Square case, how were you treated in these colonies? Was there any talk about the fact you were basically a political prisoner?
The majority could care less. But some talked about it, especially in the pretrial detention facility, where I would come across sensible people. We would talk about who had been convicted and was doing time for no reason at all. When I was in the pretrial detention facility, it seemed there were many such prisoners. First, this was Moscow. Second, I was told, roughly speaking, that the accountants were on that floor, members of some other profession were on some other floor, and so on. Seemingly around thirty percent of the prisoners were in there for nothing. But when I got to Bryansk Region, this figure was no longer thirty percent, but much lower, somewhere between five and ten percent. A lot of guys were in for petty theft and drugs. Over a third were doing time for drugs. Realistically, a maximum of ten percent were doing time for nothing, or even five percent. As for how I was treated, well, I was repeatedly on the verge of a conflict. There were conflicts.
With the convicts or the wardens?
With both the wardens and the convicts. It is just that the wardens foist their rules on you, and the convicts foist theirs. You are a free man, and you realize you cannot abide by either set of rule.s So you don’t want to carry out either set of orders, and you start weaving and dodging. I was involved in several conflicts of that sort. My age was my salvation. Basically, there are all sorts of kids in there, and they could not bring themselves to hurt old people. Or rather, they could: I saw sixty-year-olds get beaten up in there, but it was still much more complicated. They also look at what you have been sent down for, although I cannot say it is so meaningful. But in this case it was a factor that worked in my favor; it was meaningful. I did not conceal the fact I had not assaulted any policemen, but a conviction is a conviction.
Now you are free and in Moscow. What are your plans? Do you see a future for yourself in Russia? Have you had thoughts of leaving the country?
By and large, I realize it is not recommended to live in this country. If a person has the opportunity and the desire, it is in his or interests to emigrate. But I somehow feel inherently Russian. I am afraid in any other country I would feel like an immigrant, an alien, if not like a guest worker. I cannot imagine living somewhere else. I feel it is okay to emigrate, and some people should emigrate, but I am afraid I am incapable of it.
Sergei Krivov is the twelfth person convicted in the Bolotnaya Square case to have been released from prison. A total of thirty-five people were prosecuted as part of the case. Thirteen of them were amnestied. Eight people remain in prison or under investigation.